EARLIER this year, in need of distraction and a new hobby (preferably one that got me outdoors and got those endorphins pumping), I started cycling. I’d already caught the spinning bug and was the proud owner of a beloved vintage bike, but the most action that ever saw was the odd amble around the park, and while spin classes work up a good sweat, they’re not the same as the real thing.
So double-figure gears, saddle sores and all that cycling jazz were an alien world to me, but one I’m loving getting acquainted with.
I was lucky enough to land a place in Prudential RideLondon (100 miles in eight-and-a-half hours... yikes!) and Skoda – who, it turns out, started making bikes long before cars – kitted me out with a road bike for the event, which takes place tomorrow and will see around 25,000 participants cycle from Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, through Surrey, before finishing along The Mall. It’s a big challenge for a newbie, but I’m determined to give it my best shot, and as well as being great fun, training for this popular sportive means I’ve soaked up lots of tips from “proper” cyclists.
Here are some, plus a couple of my own trial-and-error insights...
• Build confidence somewhere safe If the thought of cycling on the road makes you anxious, find traffic-free or low traffic routes where you can get used to handling the bike and build your confidence without the worry of vehicles whizzing past. Buddying up with other cyclists – who are clued up on safety and familiar with suitable routes – really helps, too. Google cycling groups in your area and chances are you’ll find like-minded people to join.
• Quiz people who know their stuff It can feel slightly intimidating when you’re new to something, but even the pros were beginners once, so don’t be embarrassed about not knowing everything right away. I’ve asked hundreds of questions over the past few months, tapping up my brother-in-law, cycling colleagues and physios for tips and advice.
• Set your own pace. Similarly, work to your own pace and limits as a beginner. I did a training ride with some of the members of Matrix Pro Cycling team recently, which was awesome, but what was a gentle leisurely ride for them, was pretty darn challenging for me. But that’s OK – they’re pros, I’m not, and I’m not mega-fit either. I’d like to improve over time, but I also want to avoid injury and enjoy it along the way.
• Build strength off the bike too Of course, there’s nothing wrong with just cycling for the joy of it. But if you’d like to get better at it, or you’re training for a challenge, like all sports, it pays to incorporate other forms of exercise that’ll help you improve. “A strong core and glutes are really important for cycling,” says Team Matrix’s Helen Wyman, “so include workouts that help build those. Swimming is great for your core.”
• Ditch the underwear On longer rides, if you’re wearing padded shorts, you’re not meant to wear pants underneath, so those soft, chafe-preventing padded areas can properly do their job. This is something I’d stumbled across on the web, but wasn’t sure whether it was actually true. Thankfully, the Matrix ladies put me straight, and it really does make for a more comfortable ride without those underwear seams digging in.
• Make sure your bike “fits” you I had my saddle adjusted recently – moving it forwards so it’s closer to the handlebars – and it’s made a massive difference. The longer gap meant I was having to lean and reach too much, previously, resulting in strained shoulders and discomfort on the saddle. The importance of having your bike set up so that it’s just right for you shouldn’t be underestimated.
• Don’t get too bogged down by technical stuff Fixing punctures, all those gears, all that talk of cadence and heart rate monitoring – I must admit, the technical side of cycling has been frying my brain. Some people are naturally drawn to that side of things. I’m not one of them. But again – that’s fine, I’m a beginner. So for now, I’m just focusing on enjoying the ride and learning along the way.