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Getting into cycling? Have more fun by avoiding these rookie errors

We were all beginners once and we all made mistakes. In the hope of helping new riders avoid the biggest errors, here's a baker's dozen blunders that you should steer clear of.

Wrong saddle height

Guiseppe measures saddle height

Guiseppe measures saddle height

If your saddle’s too low you’ll be uncomfortable and less efficient. If it’s too high, you risk tendon and joint injury, and rocking from side to side to pedal will chafe. There are a number of ways to determine saddle height, but the most useful rule of thumb is that your knee should be 25-35° from straight when the pedal is at the bottom of the stroke.

>>Read more: How to set your saddle height

Not using the gears

Touring bike gears.jpg

Touring bike gears.jpg

We often see newbies grinding along in their bike’s highest gear, and walking up the gentlest slopes. More rarely, a rider will have legs spinning furiously as they potter along at 5mph because the bike’s in low gear and, apparently, staying there.

You’d think people would be used to gears, but with sometimes four levers to operate, a bike’s gears are that much more complicated than a car’s, and it’s far from obvious what all those levers do.

Beginners flummoxed by gears should do two things: ask, and play.

Ask your bike shop how to use the gears. Get them to show you which are the easiest gears that will get you up hills, which are the fast gears for speed on the flat and downhill, and how to shift into them.

Play with the gears. Go somewhere quiet, like back streets or a car park when the supermarket’s closed and ride around, changing gear. Change between the chainrings, using the shift levers on the left hand side of the bar and feel how it’s harder to pedal in the big ring, easier in the small. Click between the rear gears, using the right hand levers. You’ll notice that the differences are smaller than with the front, which allows you to fine-tune the gear you’re using.

>> Read more: Beginner's guide to understanding gears

Buying a bike with too-high gears

Storck Aerfast Platinum - transmission.jpg

Storck Aerfast Platinum - transmission.jpg

The popularity of ‘compact’ chainsets, with smaller gears than those used by racers, means this is less of a problem than it used to be, but it bears mentioning anyway. Some road bikes come with high gear ranges because they are specifically intended for racing. Unless you live in the Fens, or are intending to race, you want a bike with lower gears so you can more easily ride up hills.

The tell-tale feature to avoid is a chainset with 53 and 39-tooth chainrings. Instead, go for a compact, with 50- and 34-tooth chainrings.

Take a look at the rear sprockets too. A sprocket set with a range from 11 to 23 teeth is for racing or flat country. Look for a largest sprocket with 28, 30 or 32 teeth which will give you a low bottom gear so you can spin more easily up hills.

Not using the 30-day service/check

Lego bike mechanic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 clement127:Flickr) .jpg

Lego bike mechanic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 clement127:Flickr) .jpg

Most shops offer a free service 30 days after you buy the bike. This gives the shop a chance to make sure the gears and brakes are working properly after the cables have had a chance to bed in, and to check the wheels are true.

A surprising number of people don’t take their bikes in for this free check, though. That’s a shame because as well as the useful mechanical check, it’s a great chance to chat with your bike shop folks and get answers to any cycling questions that might be bugging you.

Neglecting your bike shop

Local Bike Shop in London (copyright Simon MacMichael)

Local Bike Shop in London (copyright Simon MacMichael)

Yes, you can get amazing prices for bike stuff on line, but for a beginner it’s really worth cultivating a relationship your a good bike shop. As well as offering knowledgeable technical advice, a bike shop is often the centre of a cycling community, whether it’s dedicated to club riding, triathlon, racing or mountain biking. Finding the right bike shop for you, and spending money there, is a great way to tap into the local scene and advance your riding.

Wearing the wrong clothes

Club Ride Wheel Cute Womens Jersey - riding

Club Ride Wheel Cute Womens Jersey - riding

You don’t have to dress like a member of Team Sky to ride a bike (even to deliver lunch) but certain clothes really don’t work well for more than popping to the shops.

Jeans, for example, have seams in all the wrong places, and being cotton will get very cold, heavy and clingy if it rains.

Similarly that classic wardrobe staple the cotton t-shirt is fine for gently pootling around on a summer’s day, but a very bad idea if the weather’s cold. I once had to treat a cycling companion for mild exposure because she had got very cold thanks to a cotton T under a waterproof jacket absorbing sweat and keeping it there.

Read more: Beginner's guide to cycling clothing — do you really need all that Lycra?

Wearing undies under shorts

Ekoi Gel Nation Evo2 Bib shorts Britain - pad.jpg

Ekoi Gel Nation Evo2 Bib shorts Britain - pad.jpg

Underwear with cycling shorts is a bad combination, and not just because you’ll have a terrible VPL. The point of cycling shorts is that the Lycra shell moves with your body as you pedal and the pad sits against your skin to protect you from chafing. Underwear of any sort interferes with that, adding seams and bunching in places where you really don’t want them.

Just go commando under your Lycra and if you’re too modest for that, take a look at mountain bike shorts that have a loose-fitting outer shell over a snug inner with a pad.

Attacking hills

Trek Madone 2016 action  - 44

Trek Madone 2016 action - 44

It’s a classic rookie error: the road goes upward and you attack it with gusto, only to turn the second corner and find a) there’s a lot more hill than you expected and b) your legs and lungs are already screaming. You’ve depleted your reserves, put yourself into oxygen debt and your body’s saying “Basta! Enough!” If you’re lucky, you’ll have a gear low enough to let you recover; if not, may find yourself roadside, having a little rest.

The trick to hills is pacing. Sure, once you’re supremely fit you can go flying up them, but even Chris Froome has to meter out his effort so that his supreme physiological engine gets him to the summit without faltering.

For beginners, the first step in learning to pace yourself is to start in a low gear, perhaps even your lowest. Spin easily, breathing steadily and find a rhythm you feel you could sustain all day. When you’re sure you’re completely comfortable, then it’s time to click up a gear and pick up the pace. A heart rate monitor can be a very useful tool for measuring your level of effort.

Read more: Buyer’s guide to heart rate monitors

Eating wrongly

Serving Good Food.jpg

Serving Good Food.jpg

Cycling needs fuel and your body doesn’t have a limitless store of it. After riding for a couple of hours or so you will have used up the glycogen in your muscles and liver. That can lead to the dreaded ‘bonk’, where you get light-headed and wobbly and have to stop for food.

Best not let things get to that stage, by eating little and often while you ride. How you take on fuel is up to you. There’s a whole sport nutrition industry ready to sell you energy gels, drinks and bars, or you can eat Actual FoodTM, as provided by cafes on the way, or dried fruit, sandwiches and like that.

But it’s just as important not to overdo it. A big meal straight before a ride can leave you feeling nauseous when you put in any effort, or just make you sluggish. The combination of cooling down and a full belly after a mid-ride meal can produce ‘post lunch syndrome’, where you just feel you can’t get going again. If you like a big lunch, don’t stop for it immediately before a big hill.

Over-reaching

Exhausted cyclist (CC BY-SA Dennis van Zuijlekom|Flickr).jpg

Exhausted cyclist (CC BY-SA Dennis van Zuijlekom|Flickr).jpg

Exhausted cyclist (CC BY-SA Dennis van Zuijlekom|Flickr)

If you’re fit from another sport it’s tempting to throw yourself in at the cycling deep end, bashing out mega miles. But fitness is activity-specific and even if your heart and lungs are in good shape from, say, running, your pedalling muscles won’t be.

Getting straight into pounding out big distances means you risk over-use injuries and fatigue, so build up gradually. With a little patience you’ll soon be knocking out centuries.

Forgetting spares

Timbuk2 Seat Pack XT with tools - open

Timbuk2 Seat Pack XT with tools - open

You don’t need much to get yourself out of mechanical trouble on the road, but without the bare minimum you’re walking if some things go wrong. The absolute essentials are a couple of spare tubes, a pump and tyre levers, all of which will get you out of the most common problem, a flat tyre. Add a multi-tool and you’ll be able to tighten most things that might come loose as you ride.

Not using sun cream

Lifesystems Mountain Formula SPF50 Sun Cream.jpg

Lifesystems Mountain Formula SPF50 Sun Cream.jpg

Even if it’s cloudy there can be plenty of ultra-violet getting through to damage your skin. With the breeze on your skin you won’t feel yourself burning until it’s far too late, and it’s easy to be out on the bike for long enough to get very badly burned.

The answer is sun cream with a Sun Protection Factor of at least 30, and preferably 50. Apply it liberally 20 minutes before a ride to give it time to key to your skin and top it up ever couple of hours as sweat can wash it off. Make sure you get plenty on areas that are more exposed than usual, like the back of your neck, the tops of your knees and so on.

>>Read more: Cycling survival — how to avoid sunburn & stay comfortable

Thinking it’ll be easy on the front because it’s easy in the bunch

Ultegra Di2 test ride leading the bunch up the hill.jpg

If you’ve just joined a club or started riding with a group you have a lot to learn about positioning and moving in a line of riders. One of the most common mistakes is thinking that taking a turn on the front will be easy because you’re not having to work very hard.

Thing is, the draft from the riders in front gives you a big advantage. You do up to 40% less work than the rider out front, depending on the conditions. You can be cheerfully pootling along while the rider up front is going flat out.

Nobody is going to think ill of a newbie who doesn’t take long, hard turns on the front, so don’t bury yourself trying to do your ‘share’ before you’re fit enough to comfortably finish a 100km club run.

Another common bunch-riding error is to hang around at the back of the group trying to stay out of the way of more experienced riders. The problem with this is that anything that stretches the group out has a far greater effect on the riders at the back than those near the front; you can waste a lot of energy getting back in contact every time. Far better to ride near the front, in second or third wheel, where you can more easily respond if the pace picks up — and ask for mercy if it picks up too much!

Made or encountered any other rookie errors? Tell us about them in the comments.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

54 comments

Avatar
guyrwood [824 posts] 11 months ago
5 likes

14: If you're new to a bike with drop bars, resist the temptation to lock your elbows with your arms straight. Make a deliberate effort to keep your elbows out slightly, they'll thank you for it eventually.

Avatar
1961BikiE [320 posts] 11 months ago
3 likes

Eating wrongly. I remember 30 years ago when I started riding as an adult. I'd been slowly increasing mileage week by week. I knew about drinking and took bottles. Then the longest ride to date into an area I didn't know quite as well as I thought. My first bonk, before Id even heard the term. I just wanted to get off and cry. Eventually found a little store. A couple Cokes and a couple of Mars bars saved the day.

My advise to any newbies. As you build up towards rides of 2 hours plus either head where you'll be able to buy grub but in reality stick a couple of muselli bars/bananas in your pockets.

That first bonk was very unsettling.

Avatar
bike_food [174 posts] 11 months ago
10 likes
Quote:

Yes, you can get amazing prices for bike stuff on line, but for a beginner it’s really worth cultivating a relationship your a good bike shop

This makes no sense.

The bike shop in my town is run by a bunch of nice people but they're pretty unprofessional when it comes to booking stuff in & giving you any sort of estimate as to when something will be fixed.

Because of this I learned how to do all maintenance myself from books/videos and have benefited knowledge wise and financially. 

I don't buy into the support your local business thing when they have a limited range of stuff often from a single manufacturer at ridiculously high prices.

 

Avatar
Yorkshire wallet [1070 posts] 11 months ago
1 like

Made the mistake of eating too near a big climb earlier on the year. Total brain fade that saw me literally thinking I was going to throw up after I hit the bottom (20% at first) hard and then just couldn't get the heart rate in check for the shallower part. Had to get off and calm down for 5 minutes. Won't make that mistake again.

I did think it was an urban myth but I actually saw someone in Leeds riding with helmet on backwards the other day.

Avatar
Yorkshire wallet [1070 posts] 11 months ago
1 like
bike_food wrote:
Quote:

Yes, you can get amazing prices for bike stuff on line, but for a beginner it’s really worth cultivating a relationship your a good bike shop

This makes no sense.

The bike shop in my town is run by a bunch of nice people but they're pretty unprofessional when it comes to booking stuff in & giving you any sort of estimate as to when something will be fixed.

Because of this I learned how to do all maintenance myself from books/videos and have benefited knowledge wise and financially. 

I don't buy into the support your local business thing when they have a limited range of stuff often from a single manufacturer at ridiculously high prices.

 

Tell me about it. My LBS is usually 30% more expensive than online and I can't shop local at such differences.

Avatar
Disfunctional_T... [173 posts] 11 months ago
11 likes

This biggest mistake is thinking that buying an expensive bike will make them significantly faster.

Avatar
Bob Wheeler CX [100 posts] 11 months ago
5 likes

The clothing thing probably puts people off the most - it's a huge leap to go skintight, with no underwear.

Avatar
guyrwood [824 posts] 11 months ago
1 like

I'll never get the clothes thing. I've been riding in just bib shorts and a t-shirt for the last couple of months and I still see people cycling dressed like it's the middle of winter.

Avatar
Altimis [46 posts] 11 months ago
2 likes

Biggest mistake thinking that buying "Aero Bike" will make you significantly faster

 

Comfort = Speed

Avatar
Bobbinogs [249 posts] 11 months ago
16 likes

15: Buying the full SKY kit as an essential part of cycling.

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unconstituted [2355 posts] 11 months ago
4 likes

16: changing tube too fast after a puncture and getting a blowout shortly after. 

 

 

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monkeytrousers [124 posts] 11 months ago
4 likes

17: Ignoring people who have been there, done that.

Avatar
Simon E [3015 posts] 11 months ago
2 likes
Yorkshire wallet wrote:

The bike shop in my town is run by a bunch of nice people but they're pretty unprofessional when it comes to booking stuff in & giving you any sort of estimate as to when something will be fixed.

That's your experience but this is still good advice for beginners. Many bike shops will be better organised, hold a good choice of products and be proactive and supportive.

My LBS staff treat regular and casual customers equally well. They get LEJOG riders who turn up just before closing in need of an urgent repair, someone will stay late to get it done. It's an attitude that has made it very popular (and busy). I do buy some stuff online such as chains & cassettes that I fit myself but try to support the shop as often as a can.

Avatar
King_Louis [24 posts] 11 months ago
11 likes
Bob Wheeler CX wrote:

The clothing thing probably puts people off the most - it's a huge leap to go skintight, with no underwear.

 

Thats what brought me to it!

Avatar
hawkinspeter [671 posts] 11 months ago
3 likes
1961BikiE wrote:

Eating wrongly. I remember 30 years ago when I started riding as an adult. I'd been slowly increasing mileage week by week. I knew about drinking and took bottles. Then the longest ride to date into an area I didn't know quite as well as I thought. My first bonk, before Id even heard the term. I just wanted to get off and cry. Eventually found a little store. A couple Cokes and a couple of Mars bars saved the day. My advise to any newbies. As you build up towards rides of 2 hours plus either head where you'll be able to buy grub but in reality stick a couple of muselli bars/bananas in your pockets. That first bonk was very unsettling.

My advice is to always carry one of those small packs of dextrose/glucose tablets. They don't weigh much and last for ages unless they get damp. If you run out of steam, crunching a few of those will usually get you home.

Avatar
gazza_d [469 posts] 11 months ago
6 likes

Need to add

14. Underinflated tyres

Keeping tyres inflated to the correct pressure makes cycling easier due to less road drag. It also helps guard against punctures, both from sharp stuff and "snakebites" where the tube is pinched against the rim & tyre.

15. Unlubed chains and mechs

Keeping chains and mechs lubricated helps protect against wear and makes pedalling and gear changing easier than when they become a red rusty squeaking mess

 

 

Avatar
mingmong [276 posts] 11 months ago
0 likes

Not letting your loved ones know where you're going before you head out.  Doh!

Avatar
Duncann [970 posts] 11 months ago
12 likes
1961BikiE wrote:

That first bonk was very unsettling.

Everyone remembers their first bonk.

Avatar
Kapelmuur [375 posts] 11 months ago
6 likes

My biggest rookie mistake was not learning to unclip automatically in anticipation of coming to a stop.   This resulted in several embarrassing and painful tumbles.

I used to get a brain freeze and just topple over in, what seemed like, slow motion.

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guyrwood [824 posts] 11 months ago
11 likes
mingmong wrote:

Not letting your loved ones know where you're going before you head out.  Doh!

 

I tell my cat, Floyd, but I don't really think he's that arsed.

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Duncann [970 posts] 11 months ago
13 likes
mingmong wrote:

Not letting your loved ones know where you're going before you head out.  Doh!

I don't always know!

Avatar
bigmel [116 posts] 11 months ago
2 likes

" I'll never get the clothes thing. I've been riding in just bib shorts and a t-shirt for the last couple of months and I still see people cycling dressed like it's the middle of winter."

 

There's an old club saying : You're not going fast enough for me to be warm  

Avatar
Hipshot [61 posts] 11 months ago
4 likes
guyrwood wrote:

14: If you're new to a bike with drop bars, resist the temptation to lock your elbows with your arms straight. Make a deliberate effort to keep your elbows out slightly, they'll thank you for it eventually.

 

Good advice, although  I would put it more like this - Elbows, shoulders and wrists relaxed with a relaxed but firm grip on the bars. If anything, elbows down, not out.

Avatar
burtthebike [805 posts] 11 months ago
2 likes

Buying your own spares; don't.  I'm a bike mechanic and I've lost count of the number of times I've been called in to fit something that the owner has bought, and it is the wrong part.  Latest is someone who bought a new rear wheel, but couldn't get it to fit because they had bought a screw on freewheel type, not the cassette type.

And when you have a problem, don't diagnose it yourself and tell the mechanic what needs replacing, because you'll probably be wrong.

Avatar
jollygoodvelo [1614 posts] 11 months ago
3 likes
Duncann wrote:
1961BikiE wrote:

That first bonk was very unsettling.

Everyone remembers their first bonk.

Until the next year, by which time I've forgotten until it happens again  4

 

You're right though... being borderline unable to pedal along on the flat in my 34x32 bottom gear, unable to stop groaning and seeing stars... it's a right of passage.

 

Talking of which: 18.  Get clip-in pedals.  You will fall over like a div at some point.  We've all done it.

Avatar
Looper35uk [19 posts] 11 months ago
3 likes

Dont forget to take your phone the main two reasons are,  firstly you can take nice pictures of your bike in various posers angainst stunning scenary. Secondly use your phone to contact your support vehicle (the mrs) to pick you up when anytning drastic happends.

Avatar
don simon [849 posts] 11 months ago
2 likes
guyrwood wrote:

I'll never get the clothes thing. I've been riding in just bib shorts and a t-shirt for the last couple of months and I still see people cycling dressed like it's the middle of winter.

That's becaus bar a couple of days it's been bloody cold. Hottest day of the year and I left the arm warmers off, kept the Gabba on mind...  1

16. Smiling and nodding and waving at every cylist they pass. How much energy are they wasting.

 

17. Not looking at the bike manufacturer or groupset before deeming their fellow cyclist good enough to talk to.

Avatar
spacedyemeerkat [17 posts] 11 months ago
4 likes
don simon wrote:

16. Smiling and nodding and waving at every cylist they pass. How much energy are they wasting.

 

Oooh, you grumpy git yes I don't wave, smile and nod at every cyclist. Sometimes I only wave and nod. After wiping the snot from nose and attempting to look as fresh as a daisy, of course.

 

Avatar
mingmong [276 posts] 11 months ago
7 likes

17. Upon seeing another roadie coming up the road towards you, immediately change up a gear, sit up and then slow your breathing momentarily until they've passed.  

Avatar
Geraldaut [24 posts] 11 months ago
5 likes

This: "Not using sun cream"

I completely forgot the cream on my 1st Big Ride (155km) last weekend and now I look like the Austrian flag...

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