A Beginner’s Guide to Cycling, Part 5: Actually Going on Your First Ride
Okay, you have been bearing with me for days, and now you are actually going out on the road. You know how to get the bike ready, and you practiced some skills off road. Today, let's look at where to go, how to try to track what you accomplish, and how to put it to good effect.
Start with a good route
Your first ride will go better if you pick a good route to start off on, avoiding crazy traffic and seeking good pavement. I would recommend that you try a park or bike path out first. These will generally have safe, quiet, and well paved roads. More importantly, they are often a loop, and the loop will give you two major benefits. One, it allows you to stop close to where your car is if you tire or have a mechanical issue, and two, it gives you a repeatable lap that you can use to track your mileage and completion speed.
Delaware Park and South Park in Buffalo are good places to start off, and each has a minor hill that allows you to practice shifting and effective use of your gearing. The Rails to Trails and Amherst Bike Paths are two other ideas that seem to be good for beginners as well. All four will keep you out of heavy traffic and give you some nice pavement to roll on.
Be careful of pedestrians, joggers, skateboarders, and dog walkers. Be mindful of those that are wearing headphones or earbuds. They have no idea you are there. Call out, "On your left" as you pass (or whatever side you're on). Get a bell if you hate doing that. I tend to say less, as I find it often causes folks to get startled and jump out in front of me.
The pedestrians have a right to be on the paths. I implore you to always try to be civil. You are going to run into lots of great people on the road and a few who are just jerks. Maintain a nice facade and tone as you pass folks. Even if they're rude and wrong, you will always come off as the jerk on the bike, and we don't need any more problems in a world that often despises cyclists already. Okay, stepping down from the soapbox....
There are several ways to keep track of your rides, and you should. One is to buy a bike computer (or use a sport tracking watch), and the other is to use your handy smartphone. Either way you can track basic "metrics" like distance, time, cadence, and heart rate.
I prefer to use a dedicated bike computer for two reasons. One, I like the advanced metrics it offers, and two, I hate my phone exposed on the handlebars. It is great to be able to look at the numbers while you ride, and it can help keep you motivated to see you are flying at 14 mph on your first ride. Which bike computer you buy really depends on your budget, needs, and what's available. I will do a post on these soon, but I really like the Wahoo Bolt and Garmin 520
That said, I often use my phone in a pinch for rides to the store or commutes where I am charging the Wahoo Bolt or whatever. A smartphone is a powerful GPS enabled device that can work in exactly the same way as the bike computer or activity tracker. I would recommend any of the following apps for your iPhone or Android device:
Strava- this free app (with premium options) allows you to track rides and other activities while also allowing a social component to your fitness. This is a popular and great choice. I use it on the phone for a lot of runs and hikes, and I send data from my bike computer to its website to track my rides daily. If it's not on Strava, it didn't happen.
Ride with GPS- this app gives you the opportunity to log rides and create routes as well. It has several levels and paid plans, but if you get serious about routes, it is a good option. It will record data in real time as you ride to review later.
Wahoo Fitness App- this free app and accompanying suite allow you to record rides, runs, and hikes in real time for upload to your favorite site (like Strava, Garmin Connect, Training Peaks, etc....). It will even control your music, but I recommend no ear buds outside.
Okay, so with the phone, either buy a safe case that you can mount on the bars, or stick it in your back jersey pocket. If you get a bar mount, I recommend the Quad Lock cases and mounts. I use them indoors all winter and they are awesome. If you are throwing your smartphone into a jersey pocket, it is a good idea to get a waterproof case or use a plastic ziplock. I have both, and both work great for rainy days and sweaty days.
What to look at while riding?
So you have your computer or phone on, and now you are moving. What should you pay attention to at the most basic starting point? Here are some thoughts on a few metrics for beginners:
Distance- this is a pretty good measure of a ride. Unless you are going up lots of hills and shooting for intensity, it is pretty useful to track how far you are riding. Make sure to start off easy and try not to add on too much distance every ride or week. Maybe your first ride will be 5-10 miles, and then build up slowly 5-10% longer each week. If you can get your normal ride up to 15-20 miles, you are doing just great. Beginner tip: add distance slowly.
Time- time spent actively on the bike is a great measure for you to track. Again, like distance, slowly build up and add on duration as you improve. Try to ride 4-5 hours a week, and you will be really getting somewhere soon. Beginner tip- ride when you can get extra time in and don't fret when your life gets busy.
Speed- speed allows you to see how much you are improving when you measure the speed that it takes to cover a known distance, but speed is not the be all end all. On flat roads, your average miles per hour will be higher than when you are out in the hills, so don't get too caught up on speed and confuse it with progress and intensity. Wind speed also affects average speed quite a bit. Is speed fun? Hell ya, but some of the fastest rides I have been on were not the hardest. And some of my hardest hill climbs were slow as molasses. If you ride in the city, your stops and starts will kill your average speed stop sign after stop sign. Don't worry about speed too much. Beginner tip- time yourself on a known loop to check your progress. Try to knock off a few seconds.
Cadence- the revolutions per minute that your cranks spin is important, and most cyclists track how fast they pedal. You can buy a small cadence sensor that attaches to your crank to tell you how many rpms you are spinning at in real time. I like to recommend cadence to a beginner because it reinforces good a pedal stroke and gear choice. If you can spin at say 80-95 rpm, you are in the right ballpark. Everyone has a self selected cadence more or less, so I am hesitant to say, "You must ride at over 95 rpms!" Cadence is important when learning to shift. If you are grinding and turning over the pedals at 60 rpm, you need to get into an easier gear, and if you are spinning out at 120 rpm your gear is too easy. Monitoring cadence is helpful when on hills. Beginners can try to find the gear that allows them to climb and maintain 85 rpm or so. Spin to win is a good mantra to remember. You should get that tattooed on you somewhere. Beginner tip- ride at a good pace and try to maintain 90 rpms using your shifting/gearing.
Heart Rate- People try to discredit heart rate, as there are many factors that affect it. However, I believe that using heart rate is still a good metric for all riders, especially a beginner. Track how hard you are working using a heart rate strap (or activity tracker with a built in HRM) and your phone or bike computer. You should see your heart rate fluctuate over different types of easy and hard efforts. As your fitness improves, your heart rate will stay lower. Straps are cheap, and they are still used at the highest levels of cycling, power meters or not. Beginner tip- using heart rate with your RPE (rated perceived exertion) is a cheap way to track your fitness goals.
Out on your first couple of rides, be safe and try to have fun while pushing yourself. Get comfortable shifting and braking in real traffic and keep your head up looking for problems ahead. Try to keep a high cadence if you have a way to measure it (cadence sensor), and if not just try to consciously pedal fast and light. Review the data after the ride and look for patterns and accomplishments. It's going to be fun, and it's only just begun.
Next time we will discuss training and pushing yourself towards better fitness on the bike. Don't hesitate to send me a message or question.