Guide: Getting (Back) On The Bike

I took my first outdoor bike ride of the season today. The weather was sunny and not too cold, so I enjoyed myself, though I know I'm rusty. Still the opportunity gave me a chance to think about the little things that go into having a successful ride, especially when 1.) cycling is not your strength and 2.) you're pressed for time. I have a few blogger friends who are transitioning into triathlon this year and I thought of the things I could tell them to help them have less hiccups. Alternatively, if you're not a total novice, but (like me) you lack confidence on the bike, this may help you.

Getting a Route

I used a route that I've been using for a couple of years now. I was hard up to find a route I could train on without having to drive to a rural area; otherwise most of my training time would have been eaten up by traffic lights and traffic fights and be a lot less safe. I wanted to know what other cyclists were doing, so I looked at the online website for the Garmin app. All (publicly published) rides in my area were visible on a map; apps like Endomondo, DailyMile etc. could offer similar functionality.

Essentially, it's a 4km route that I can do multiple times to get rides of 20-40km. It's in an industrial area, so there's little to no traffic on weekends (especially earlier in the morning), it's nearby, so I'm not far from home should I be needed, or, should I need help myself (I could walk home if something catastrophic happened to the bike while leaving me OK), and it's more or less flat. While I didn't do it this way last time, the better direction seems to be clockwise; this makes most of the turns right hand turns which is safer (assuming traffic drives on the right side of the road - sorry U.K. and Australia etc.!). If your route (like this one), comprises both lefts and rights, remember the order of preference when putting the route together.
  1. Right turns are preferred to lefts.
  2. A left at an all-way stop is better than a traffic light.
While driving to a rural area is a preferred way to have long uninterrupted rides, the time cost for the drive and for putting the bike onto/into the car etc. makes it less appealing.

Handling the Ride

Since this isn't a commute in heavily (or even moderate to lightly) driven roads, some of the safety guidelines might be a little... flexible.  I'm not going to tell anyone to break the laws of the road, but if you approach a four-way stop and can see for hundreds of meters in all directions, you might not come to a full stop and say... roll through the intersection.  Let's face it, on our training/racing rides we don't have a full complement of lights, mirrors and such, because they cause drag and extra weight.  So we've already made some compromises on safety choices.  If you pick a route that spares you from most of the dangers of traffic, you should be able to safely reap the benefits and keep moving at a more useful speed.

Having said that, you still need a few guidelines and tips to stay safe:
  1. Stay alert.  Scan the big picture for what's going on, and yet don't ignore what's about to come up under your wheel.  A pothole, or skid-worthy gravel could ruin your day almost as much as a collision with a car (but not quite).
  2. If you find yourself having to stop (or slow down to a great degree), GEAR DOWN.  You want a lighter gear that you can start in again easily (more on this in point #4).  Your bike doesn't stop on a dime and you should have enough time to descend down the gears assuming you followed rule #1.
  3. Here's some help if you are new to "clipless" pedals (that attach to your shoes) or toe-clip pedals (with the little baskets to hold your feet).  A lot of people panic a little at the notion of not being able to get their feet out in time.  Figure out what your 'lead'/favourite foot is (which would you kick a soccer ball with? Which foot would catch your balance if you were pushed suddenly from behind?  Or maybe you're just better at releasing that foot).  Now, pull that foot out before stopping, and when the bike is about to stop, lean to that side - usually leading a little with your head is enough.  Your lead foot should be able to touch the ground when the bike is on a lean, and you won't even need to remove the other foot under most circumstances.
  4. If your other foot is still clipped in, get the pedal to the 10 o'clock position (or somewhere between 9 and 12 o'clock).  When it's time to start again, you'll be able to simply push down on that pedal; let's face it, though you should use all 360 degrees of the pedal's cycle, the easiest is the push down.  Since you're in a low gear, you'll get a nice push for little effort.
  5. Keep turning the pedals without clipping in your foot (or feet) that were removed.  Once you're up to a decent speed, your balance will be better, and you won't be steering all over the road when you have to concentrate on clipping your feet in.

Other Tips

Have you picked up any tips or strategies that can help those of us on the road who are less than Tour De France worthy (no, doping doesn't count)? What do you wish you had known when you were first getting started on the bike?

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