Maybe it’s been a good long while since you got on a bicycle. Maybe you see people zipping past on sleek machines in skin-tight cycling gear and think, Not for me. Or maybe someone talked you into a bike ride and all you can remember is that it was hot and it hurt and you really couldn’t wait to get back home.
But bicycling doesn’t have to be painful. It doesn’t have to be expensive. What it’s supposed to be is fun. And you don’t have to be in shape to start – you just need to remember to start small. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was when I was trying to get fit after an injury: Five minutes of exercise is better than zero minutes of exercise. So if I thought I didn’t have time or was too tired, I’d tell myself, Just five minutes. Anyone can do five minutes.
You may have a bike in your garage, or if you don’t want to commit yourself or if you want to get more fit before spending much cash, you can pick one up at a garage sale. So locate a bike, and pay attention to these things:
Seat height. The saddle should be adjusted to a height that allows a very slight bend in your leg when fully extended, with the widest part of your foot on the pedal (not your instep; you’ll get a lot more power and control this way). If you pull the seat post all the way out of the bike, you’ll find a mark showing the highest possible extension. Don’t set the seat post higher than that – think about it. You don’t want it snapping off while you’re cycling.
Tire pressure. Riding on tires with the pressure too low makes for hard work; pressure too high can cause blowouts. A pressure range is almost always embossed on the side of the tires. Go for the higher number if you’re on smooth, paved roads; the lower number if you’re riding off road or on rocky, unforgiving ground. You can pump your tires using a small hand pump – the ones that attach to your frame – but it’s not easy. Your best bet is a sturdy floor pump. Just make sure its nozzle fits your tire valve type or is adaptable.
Handlebars. There are many different types and shapes of handlebars, but the most important thing is if you can reach them comfortably – if you can brake and shift gears without straining. If not, you’ll need to adjust them or change out the stem, which is easy these days.
Clothing. You can bike in pretty much anything except long flowing pants legs that might get caught in the gears, but you’ll be most comfortable in shorts without bulky seams. Bike gloves come in handy for providing extra padding while gripping the bars, or if your hands happen to contact the pavement, but aren’t essential for rides around the block. You’ll want shoes with a firm sole that either slide in and out of toe cages easily or grip the pedals firmly. (Later you can advance to bike shoes and cleats that attach to the pedals if you want.)
Helmets. Yes, it can be a drag to wear a helmet, although the pricier models have plenty of ventilation. Landing on your head isn’t fun either – I turned 21 in a hospital bed with a fractured skull because I’d decided I liked the wind blowing through my hair. Just realize that whenever a helmet is banged or dropped it can lose some of their integrity, so it’s smart to buy new, and to take care of it.
So wipe off the bike and oil the chain – don’t use WD-40; find something like sewing machine oil or Tri-Flow – and wipe off the excess. If there’s visible crud on the pulley wheels in the gear-changing mechanism (the derailleur), wipe or scrape it off. Pump up the tires; test the brakes and gears, and if you’re unsure about the bike, ask a bike shop to do a safety check. Then put on your helmet, and off you go.
Just remember to have fun.