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A Beginners Guide to Road Cycling

Cycling has never been more popular. Encouraged by British success in the sport, people across the country are giving road cycling a go.

Cycling on the road can be daunting at first but with proper preparation and a little practice it can be an extremely rewarding way to see the world!

Once you get to the point where you’d like to start riding further and going faster, it begins to make sense to join a cycling club, finding like-minded people who share your passion. In fact, this has been the case since the formation of ‘The Pickwick Bicycle Club’ in June 1870, when a group of six riders met in east London and formed the very first cycling club. A lot has changed in 145 years, but one thing has remained the same, the resilience, grit and determination it takes to ride year-round in the UK.

If you’re getting to the point where you want to start riding further and in a group, it’s important to go prepared and to know how to ride safely. This guide will help you prepare and get through those first few rides, taking you to the next level on your cycling journey.

Safety First

Make no mistake, cycling is a dangerous sport. Whilst we cannot control what other road users do, we can learn how to behave appropriately on a bike in order to maximise our own safety.

Here are some key safety points to keep in mind:

Ride at a level you are comfortable with

Before going out on a ride, make sure the route you have planned is a distance you are comfortable riding. If you are going out with other cyclists, make sure you are of a similar fitness level Fatigue and loss of concentration can be very dangerous even the most experienced riders can suffer the dreaded bonk and nobody wants to run out of energy with 25 miles to go.

Listen to the other riders

There are usually experienced riders out, take on board what they tell you. If you are told to do something by them, check it is safe to do so and act immediately. It will be for your own safety.

Wear your helmet 

A study in 2017 found that helmets can reduce the risk of serious head injury by 70%. But it’s not just your well-being your looking after as other road users and your friends and family will have to deal with the aftermath of a head injury!

Ride two abreast

Ride two abreast and never more. Line out and ride single file where appropriate.

Look before you move

Check behind and around you before you change your road position.

Am I ready to ride with a cycling club?

Every cycling club is different and many are very welcoming to beginners. Before you think about going out on an organised cycling club ride contact the club and discuss your experience and fitness level they will advise you of the right ride for you.

If your fitness isn’t quite there yet, don’t give up, keep training and try the following if you feel you can’t improve much more on your own:


What Should I Bring With Me?

So you’re feeling fit and ready to go? Now it’s time to make sure you have the correct gear to equip you for long-distance rides! You should have the following when you go out on a ‘club run’:

  • Bike Pump – Most cyclists use a small CO2 tyre inflator when out on the road. These are lightweight and will get your tyre to the right pressure quickly. The cartridges of CO2 only last for a single use and cost around 70 pence each. You should always take a couple of spare cartridges with you in case you are unlucky and puncture more than once. When tyres are inflated with a CO2 inflator, they tend to lose their pressure the following day as the molecules are smaller than normal air and escape through the tyre wall, so although convenient they won’t replace your track pump at home!
  • Spare Inner Tube (or Tub) – It takes time to fix a puncture, especially when you are by the roadside. Take a spare inner tube so you can quickly swap with the punctured one, you can then repair this after your ride.
  • Puncture Repair Kit – Sometimes you can be unlucky and puncture twice (or more!).
  • Mobile Phone – Your phone should have a full battery when you leave the house. Taking your phone can save lives! Don’t use your phone for Strava or any other cycling tracking unless you are on a very short ride and are absolutely sure the battery will not go flat if your phone is needed for an emergency. If your phone has a pin lock on it, write it down and leave it with your phone, so someone else can contact home if you become unable to. 
  • ID Card – A physical ID card or wrist band, containing your name, date of birth, emergency contact number(s), any known allergies and your blood type (if you know it). There is a selection of reasonably priced options from Onelife ID.
  • Helmet – Simply put, don’t leave the house without it.
  • Money – Take some cash, put it in a sandwich bag if it’s going in your back pocket, no cafe likes sweat-soaked money! Take enough money to buy food on longer rides. It may also be worth taking a debit card with you, but don’t rely on it as some cafes may be cash only.
  • Your Bike! – Make sure your bike is roadworthy before you set off on a ride. Check it the day before in case you need to repair something – there’s nothing worse than eating a big breakfast, getting your cycling gear on and then realising you have a mechanical! Make sure your brakes are working, your gears are changing properly, your tyres are inflated and everything that shouldn’t move, doesn’t move.

Winter Essentials

As well as everything above, when it comes to autumn and winter, the following are essential.

  • Good Lights – You need both a good front and backlight. Make sure they are bright! Ask another cyclist for advice on the best ones to buy. Don’t chance coming out without them if it may get dark, you will be a danger to yourself and others.
  • Mud Guards – Fitting mudguards to your bike will prevent you and the rider behind you getting soaked. It’s seen as bad form to go out in wet conditions without them.

What Should I Wear?

Depending on the season, what you wear on a bike will be different. Check the weather before you go out to make sure you will be wearing the right kit. Often new cyclists who have made great progress in the summer, find themselves leaving the sport because they have been underprepared for winter and have had some very miserable rides. Don’t get caught in that trap.

Warm Weather Kit

  • Bib Shorts – Most cyclists will wear bib shorts, which are held up by built-in braces that go over your shoulders. This stops them sliding down as you ride and keeps your lower back covered. If you opt for normal cycling shorts, ensure your lower back is kept covered as the cold air from riding with it exposed can cause back pain.
  • Jersey/Cycling Top – A lycra cycling top reduces drag, maximising your effort.
  • Base Layer – Not an essential, but some riders will wear a light summer base layer under their top to absorb sweat and stop their jersey sticking to their body. Lots of cyclists just use a T-shirt for this.
  • Gloves – often referred to as ‘track mits’ by cyclists. A good pair of fingerless cycling gloves serve two purposes in the summer. Firstly, the padding reduces discomfort on long rides, especially on our bumpy roads! And secondly, they offer protection to the palms of you hands should you fall off.
  • Footwear – It can be costly coming into cycling, so you may not want to invest in a pair of cycling shoes straight away. However they will make a vast difference to your cycling, because you are able to pull up the pedals, as well as push down. If you are going on longer rides it’s important you can both push and pull when pedalling. You can still achieve this by using ‘toe clips’ on your pedals; you can use ordinary trainers but still strap your feet into the pedals. If you aren’t comfortable having your feet locked into pedals and want to ride without either cycling shoes or toe clips, you will most likely struggle to keep up with the pace of club cyclists.
  • Socks – Again special cycling socks are not essential (they make a good stocking filler if someone asks what you’d like for Christmas!) You can use sports socks or trainer socks.
  • Helmet – This was mentioned in the equipment section, but just to reinforce the point – don’t leave the house without it!
  • Glasses – Another non-essential, but very handy. Glasses with interchangeable lenses (clear and sun protection) are best, but single lenses are fine. If you’ve ever had a fly hit you at 15 miles and hour in the eye, you’ll understand why these are recommended!

Colder Weather & Wet Weather Kit

  • Gilet – Often referred to as a body warmer, this is essentially a sleeveless jacket. Cycling gilets are usually small so you can pack them in your back pocket. They provide you with some warmth when the temperature drops on a warmer day. Useful for longer rides in the summer, when it may be a bit chillier in the mornings or evenings.
  • Waterproof Jacket – Often worth having in your back pocket year round in the UK! A lightweight water proof jacket will keep the worst of the rain off you. Even in the hotter months, when it starts to rain, the wind chill makes you feel freezing riding a bike.
  • Base Layers – Layers are key in winter cycling. If you get too hot you can take a layer off. But start with a good quality base layer.
  • Bib Tights – It’s not brave to ride in shorts year round. Not only will it cool the rest of your body down, but the damage done to your knees will ruin all the hard word you put it over the summer. Invest in a good pair of Bib tights.
  • Winter Cycling Jacket – If you are planning on riding through the winter, you’ve probably decided you want to carry on cycling as a hobby. So it’s worth investing in a good winter cycling jacket. Wind proofing is really important here, ask some of the club members for a recommendation. You may need a couple of jackets for different conditions, but focus on buying one for the conditions you will most likely ride in, not the ‘worst case scenario’ jacket that may be too hot to wear when you usually ride.
  • Overshoes – Your feet remain static riding a bike. Without any movement your feet will suffer from the cold more than anywhere else. Buying a good pair of overshoes will overcome the agony of freezing feet and chilblains.
  • Gloves –  You will need thicker gloves for winter days.

Food & Drink

If you get this right, you will improve quickly.

Your body uses fats and carbohydrates to fuel itself. Depending on the intensity of the exercise, it uses different ratios of each to keep you moving. As a general rule, the lower the intensity of the exercise, the more the body will use fats as fuel instead of carbohydrates. The harder you ride, the more your body will call on its carbohydrate stores to give you energy, as it can be delivered to your muscles faster than fats.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that on longer slower rides you won’t need to take on food because your ‘spare tyre’ will keep you going! You still use carbohydrates – just at a lower ratio!

One of the big mistakes new riders often make is to take on less food than they need, in the hope they can lose weight quickly and improve their cycling. This is counterproductive.

If you are 13 stone (82 Kg), cycling at 14-16 mph (22 – 25 kph) you will burn around 825 calories an hour. On a 60 mile ride, that is 3,300 calories. The NHS recommends an average daily intake of 2,500 calories for the average man and 2,000 calories for the average woman, to maintain a healthy weight. This would leave a man in an 800 calorie deficit and a woman in a 1300 calorie deficit, even before we take into account all the other things you will do in the day that burn calories. Just lying on the sofa for the rest of the day, your body will still burn calories!

If you don’t consume enough calories, you will bonk (this isn’t a good thing in cycling!). ‘Bonking’ is the term cyclists use to describe hyperglycaemia, this is when your blood sugars become low. It is a horrible feeling, probably best described as ‘hitting a wall’. You will feel weak, dizzy and sick, all you will want to do is get off your bike.

Replacing your salts will stop you getting cramp

As well as burning calories, you will lose salts through sweat. If you don’t replace these with an electrolyte drink be prepared to experience agonising cramp!

Eat and Drink Properly to Prevent Bonking and Cramping!

You don’t have to get to this point. If you consume the right food and drink, not only will you avoid this, you’ll notice a vast improvement in your ability.

As everyone is different it’s impossible to tell you exactly what you need to consume. The more you ride the more you will find what suits you best. If your looking for a snack used by pro cyclists, try this Team Sky (now Team Ineos) rice cake recipe.

To give you an idea, here are the types of things an experienced club rider would consume on a typical longer ride. Again everyone is different so it’s important to find out what works for you.

Before you Ride

Don’t leave the house without eating something! 

It can be really hard if you are not used to having breakfast in the morning, but eating before a ride is crucial. Missing breakfast is the quickest road to suffering. Eat as soon as you wake up if you can, it will give your body a chance to start digesting your food before you set off.

Slow releasing complex carbohydrates are important in the morning. So a breakfast that consists of the following would be good:

  • Porridge – A big bowl of porridge will give you lots loads of slow releasing energy.
  • Toast – Make it brown bread, instead of white. Brown bread’s energy is released much more gradually.
  • Drink – You may want to slowly sip a sports drink with electrolytes and sugars in as you eat and get ready. But it’s not necessary if you have eaten well, a cup of tea or coffee is fine.

What food and drink should I take on a ride?

On most weekend rides, there is a stop at a cafe so you can have a break and grab something to eat and drink. However, you still need to take food and drink with you. The sports nutrition industry is fast growing and offers plenty of options, but it isn’t always necessary to buy specialist sports products to stay fuelled. Here are a few more common options:

  • Sports Drink – There are plenty of powdered sports drinks available, you can usually pick up a reasonable one from a supermarket. Make sure your drink has electrolytes as well as carbohydrates for energy. Depending on the length of ride and weather, you may take one or two bottles.
  • Energy Gel Sachets – An easy to carry, quick to eat way of getting fast energy. Available online and from most cycling shops.
  • Bananas – An easy to carry, cheap source of energy on the bike.

Generally, anything that is easy to carry (and eat) with fast releasing carbohydrates is good for riding with. Team Sky have specially made rice cakes whilst they ride. You will find some things you digest better than others, take the time to find out what works best for you.

On the Ride

Once you’ve prepared your bike, clothing and food, you’re ready to get out onto the road and get going. The first thing you’ll find is that other cyclists are usually friendly and will usually wave or say hello on their way past!
If you’re going out with a cycling club for the first time, get there 5 minutes early, to give you a chance to introduce yourself and familiarise yourself with everyone. Let them know that it’s your first ride with a big group, it’ll allow the more experienced riders to keep an eye on you and check-in with you throughout the ride.

Riding so close together with other riders can be a bit daunting at first, but you’ll soon notice the benefits of keeping close with other riders. Riding in a group can save 33% of your energy, so you’ll find yourself able to go a little faster and a little further than you normally would alone.

There’s no need to prove yourself on a ride, just focus on keeping with the group, listening and watching what is going on around you and learning from the experience.

If you have prepared properly beforehand and have a good level of fitness, you will find your first ride to be a fun experience. You’ll learn more on those initial rides about what to do and how to behave than on any internet guide. With cycling – experience counts. Every mile you put in on the road will make you a stronger and more competent cyclist.

Good Luck and Happy Cycling! 

Got any other tips for new cyclists? Let us know in the comments below!

1 Comment

  1. Old-Cyclist

    Sometimes the best way to learn is from your own mistakes! Really useful points in this article though, perhaps ot would have saved me from some cycling mishaps in the early days.


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