"Doggles On". Photo by Chris Kochanski.
Cycling tips for beginning enthusiasts
Every discipline of cycling has its own style and substance, so coming up with a blanket knock list of must-haves and nice-to-haves is pretty much an impossible task. But there are a few common necessities that will benefit everyone looking to push their own limits of speed, time, and distance.
Kit is a catchall term for all the various wearables involved in performance cycling. It’s shorts and jerseys, helmets and shoes, gloves and glasses, and anything else you might wear to keep you comfortable and sharp on the bike while putting in a hard effort.
Of course it always starts with a helmet, but maybe not just for the reasons you think. Yes, a helmet is an important piece of safety gear, but did you also know that high performance helmets flow air more efficiently over your head and can actually keep you cooler than no helmet at all? And for the roadies and triathletes, aero helmets can make you more slippery in the wind. So a good helmet isn’t just insurance against a knock to the head. The right helmet is a key piece of equipment to help make your rides faster, longer, and farther.
Jersey and Shorts
Tech fabrics used in today’s cycling apparel are meant to help keep your body temperature regulated by wicking sweat away from the skin where it can evaporate more quickly. Whether you go for the sleek look of a race jersey and cycling shorts or a more casual fitting combo of trail jersey and lined baggy shorts, the benefit of wicking fabric is always appreciated.
Jerseys come in a range of cuts to complement every riding style. From close fitting for ideal aero performance and minimal bulk to loose and casual that looks as good on the trail as it does on the patio afterward -- and about everything in between.
Shorts offer even more diversity. The basic black cycling short we’re all familiar with is the natural starting point and can give you miles and miles of comfort thanks to unrestricted range of motion and the subtle padding that also wicks perspiration and prevents chafing. The performance upgrade is the bib short. Bibs give a lot of people pause the first time they look at a pair, but no serious roadie ever wears anything else. The point of the bib form is to eliminate the need for a waistband completely, letting you achieve an even more aggressive riding position without feeling cut off in the middle. Bibs also tend to have a greater number of panels in their construction. More panels equals a more natural fit so there’s less bunching in some places and less stretching in others.
If all this talk of skintight performance wear just isn’t ticking the right boxes for you, not to worry. You can get a lot of the same performance features under a casual fitting pair of shorts that let you ride hard and still maintain your modesty. You can even get a cycling-specific undershort to give you the sweat management and extra padding under any pair of shorts you already own.
There’s probably no upgrade that will increase your efficiency on a bike more than a proper pair of cycling shoes. On the road and for a lot of mountain bikers, this means shoes that work with clipless pedals. The stiff sole lets you put more of your power directly into the drivetrain on the downstroke while the secure connection with the pedal allows you to keep applying power more fully through the entire circular motion. For mountain bikers who want to maintain the flexibility of flat pedals, mountain bike specific shoes offer grippy soles for pedal traction and stiffer midsoles for improved efficiency over a regular pair of sneakers. Some styles offer additional ankle protection, too, and shielding to keep laces out of the chain -- or ratcheting closures to eliminate the need for laces altogether.
See farther, go harder. Quality optics with the right tint for the sun condition will help you see farther down the road or trail more clearly, unlocking the potential to really open it up and roast. Wrap around lenses may seem a little odd or even alien looking, but the function does a better job of keeping wind, dust, and spray out of your eyes. Tint in the right shade will not only protect you from glare in the bright sun, but also enhance contrast so you can tell exactly what the terrain is doing over every foot and mile of your ride.
Gloves, jackets, vests, warmers. Cycling takes place year round and in New England that means a wide variety of conditions. Gloves can be lightweight and padded to offer a little more dry comfort and grip on the handlebar for those long summer rides or well insulated to keep the chill out of your fingers as the mercury drops. Even fairweather riders should have a lightweight wind shell or vest, and a rain shell for those days when the forecast isn’t quite spot on. Warmers for arms and knees are the perfect solution for those early mornings when the ride starts off cool and quickly heats up. Then if you find you just can’t get enough, you can bulk up your cycling closet with gear that can carry you through the fall and deep into the winter comfortably.
Tools, bags, storage, electronics. This is all the stuff to personalize your bike and to make it work just the way you want it to.
Home Tools -- The Basics
Not everyone wants or needs to create a full service bike repair shop in their basement, but every cyclist needs a few basic items.
Proper tire pressure is critical to performance. Tires roll fastest, corner hardest, wear longest, and resist punctures best when kept at the appropriate inflation. Better quality floor pumps have more accurate gauges and some are available in specific inflation ranges for even finer precision.
A little proper lubrication goes a long way, but not enough won’t take you very far at all. There are so many options for performance lubricants that it could make your head spin. We’ve spent years cutting through a lot of the hype and only offer a small selection of chain lubes that we use, ourselves, so we can quickly point you to the right one for your specific needs.
To do it right, apply a small amount of a drip lube (stay away from sprays -- they just make a mess) to your chain about every 50 to 100 miles on the road. Cut those distances in half for off road riding and always dry your chain and apply immediately after any wet ride. Drip it on the chain only, then wipe it clean with a shop rag. The chain only needs lubricant to soak in between the plates and rollers, and to have a very light film on the outside to fight off corrosion. The key is lightly and frequently -- a drippy chain will collect dirt and grit and makes a big mess, without offering any more protection from wear.
Your bike is a piece of outdoor equipment and we’re not telling you that you should be able to eat off it at all times, but spending a few minutes to quickly wipe down your bike will keep things running smoothly and gives you a chance to look it over closely on a regular basis. It’s possible to wash a bike safely with a garden hose, but there are also things that can go wrong that way. So we recommend using a simple, bottled bike washing spray and a rag for periodic cleaning. Been on a muddy mountain bike ride lately? Let your bike air dry and knock most of the dried mud off with a dry paintbrush. Then you can give it a quick spritz and wipe before finally re-lubricating the chain.
Fixing flats on a ride is no fun. So definitely don’t make it less fun by trying to patch your tube on the side of the road or trail. Always carry a spare tube (better yet, carry two) on your ride for a quick change, then patch the punctured one when you’re back in the comfort of your garage.
You will need:
Your floor pump
Three tire levers
A vulcanizing patch kit
And a little bit of patience until a little practice has made you an old pro.
Tools for Road and Trail
Flats happen. Most of the other stuff is 90% avoidable. This is about being ready for that last 10%.
More Flat Repair
Make this as easy on yourself as you possibly can. Get a seat bag, put this stuff in it. Keep it there all the time. It will be that one time you forget one critical item that you’ll get a flat farther from home than you’ve ever been, in a cellular dead zone, when rain is starting to move in.
A mini pump (Okay. We know this attaches to the frame and doesn’t actually go in the seat bag.)
A spare inner tube (Better yet. TWO spare inner tubes. Because one of your friends might be that guy.)
Three tire levers
Patches, just in case
A dollar bill or candy wrapper (we’ll explain if you ask nicely… and no, the dollar isn’t to tip someone else for fixing your flat for you)
Optionally you can also tuck a CO2 inflator into the bag. It’s much quicker than pumping by hand with a mini, but always do have that mini pump as a backup. It’s no fun riding home on a soft tire just because you ran out of CO2.
Sometimes hardware loosens. Sometimes a minor tumble knocks your stem off-line or bends your derailleur hanger. Multi-tools exist in all shapes and sizes -- from the very basics like common hex key (Allen wrench) sizes and screwdriver tips to a palm-sized bike shop service department. Avoid the temptation to overbuy the tool and cross your fingers that someone else will come along and know how to use it, but don’t be shy about purchasing one that you want your skill to grow into. Most road- and trailside repairs are basic, quick fixes to let you finish your ride and address more thoroughly later. You can -and should- learn to do this. Every bike ride is more enjoyable when you know you’re ready to be self sufficient when minor inconveniences happen.
We just mentioned bent derailleur hangers, so this is a perfect spot to talk about the best way to fix one on a ride. DON’T. Yes, it’s possible to get a bent hanger “straight enough to work” without the proper alignment gauge, but it’s not worth the frustration. Carry a spare hanger in your bag. Most hangers cost less than $20, and it’s way easier to remove a bent one and replace it with a spare than you’re worrying right now. Bring your bike by the store and we can show you exactly how it’s done on your bike.
More Carrying Capacity
Maybe your idea of a good ride goes for a bit more time and distance than the usual club ride. The load you haul is only limited by the number of bags you have to haul it.
Simple. Effective. Out of the way. Seat bags are a great way to carry a handful of necessities like spare tube and multi-tool. Larger seat bags can give you a little more space for personal items like phone, wallet, keys, etc. that you don’t want jostling around in a jersey pocket.
Rack and Trunk Bag
A cargo rack mounted to the back of your bike can be useful on its own, but add a trunk bag on top and it becomes an indispensable convenience. Trunk bags are roomy enough to fit a camera, a more complete tool kit, a light jacket, and a picnic lunch.
Pannier is just a French word for saddle bag. Panniers are available in varying sizes and mount to the same rack that can hold a trunk bag or onto a similar low mounted rack (sometimes called “lowriders”) on the fork. Whether touring or commuting or picking up a few essentials from the farm stand, the low mounting position keeps your bike steady and stable while carrying a heavier load.
Keep your stuff in easy reach. Handlebar bags give you a convenient option for all the things you would want quick access to often. While some handlebars can’t have handlebar bags fitted because of space constraints (cable routing, lever position), if your bike is a good fit for a handlebar bag, there’s no more convenient way to carry a light load.
Lowrider racks are good for mounting front panniers, but another type of fork rack is mounted high, with a platform for carrying larger items. Whether it’s a six pack or a pizza -- or maybe two of each -- fork racks can be the best way to carry bulky items that you want to be able to keep an eye on.
Everything we’ve mentioned so far has been an option to let the bike do the work and to avoid carrying more on your person. The one reasonable exception we can think of is a hydration pack like a CamelBak. Hydration packs make it possible to carry more water and keep it more accessible all the time. Most of these packs have plenty of extra storage for your personal items, tools, spare tubes, and nutrition for a long day on the bike.