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Cycling survival — 13 beginner mistakes to avoid

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

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

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

Tour de France 2019 Geraint Thomas Pinarello Bolide TT - 9.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

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)

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

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

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

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

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)

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

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

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.

John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.

He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.

Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.

John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.

He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

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68 comments

Avatar
Spokesperson | 4 years ago
1 like

If you are new to cycle commuting/riding, but have watched the pros drafting off each other, please don't try it with perfect strangers in these coronavirus days. Particularly not if you don't ask permission first. I had to put up with this on my first day out on the bike after ten weeks' complete lock-down. I hadn't a clue whether this guy trailing me was competent or whether he might bring me crashing down. So I shouted to him to back off. Hospital is the last place we want to be right now, so keep your distance and save the wheel sucking techniques for "afterwards" when you've learned to practise with a club.

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froze | 4 years ago
0 likes

New riders also should consult various bicycling forums and read answers written on various subjects, and ask questions and get answers from the more experience people to learn from.

A new rider can get frustrated when they go to a bike store and need something only to find out the stuff is expensive, by asking questions about buying something they can then search the internet to buy the item for usually a lot less money than the store and therefore become less frustrated at the expenses.

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Secret_squirrel | 3 years ago
3 likes

Best rookie advice I ever had was change down gears BEFORE the hill.  If your making your first change on it it's usually too late and your cadence is already dropping. 
 

The other very basic one that some rookies don't know is look ahead not down and your body will unconsciously take care of most of the steering for you.   Especially important on off roads or fast flowing downhills. 

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don simon fbpe | 7 years ago
2 likes

Most of that advice seems quite appropriate to experienced riders too.

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ChrisB200SX | 7 years ago
0 likes

assuming you need clipless pedals and specific shoes to ride a bike

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hawkinspeter | 7 years ago
9 likes

Reading a cycling article and thinking that it's new.

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Looper35uk | 7 years ago
2 likes

Resist the temptation to buy a Garmin. Bug ridden piece of crap.

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Nick Gough replied to Looper35uk | 3 years ago
0 likes

Just bad luck, I guess. I've had no problems.

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meursault | 7 years ago
2 likes

Getting hung up on Strava segment times.

Sure, track your improvements, but it's about the ride, not times or computers.

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seven | 7 years ago
1 like
Quote:

The tell-tale feature to avoid is a chainset with 53 and 39-tooth chainrings.

Twaddle. In the days before granny rings and compact chainsets, beginners managed just fine. I'm not saying compact chainsets are no good, just that a standard road chainset is not a thing for beginners "to avoid", nor is it a "common mistake" to start with one. I grew up on 53/39 in the hills and mountains around Scotland, and never suffered for lack of a compact inner chainring.

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rix | 7 years ago
4 likes

Sadly, in most cases it takes years of experience to realise how useless your average LBS is...

I have seen guys counting sprockets on my cassette because they didn't believe that 11sp groupsets existed when I asked for 11sp chain... 

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fenix | 7 years ago
0 likes

I passed someone at the weekend. He seemed to be wearing brightly coloured swimming trunks underneath his unpadded lycra. No idea why. 

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tritecommentbot replied to fenix | 7 years ago
1 like

fenix wrote:

I passed someone at the weekend. He seemed to be wearing brightly coloured swimming trunks underneath his unpadded lycra. No idea why. 

 

Kinda hot, admit it heart

Avatar
nniff | 7 years ago
6 likes

If you're a youngster joining a club ride for the first time, don't tear off the front up the hills and drop all those of a certain age.  40 miles later, it will come back and haunt you as you suddenly find yourself going backwards and realise that stamina is an important ingredient.

When someone pulls you over and fills you with water and jelly babies, remember the lesson and do the same for someone else in future years.

 

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Edgeley | 7 years ago
1 like

When overtaken by club riders, cheerily ask if you can tag on to the back for a bit of a draft, and lose 100m to them over the next 200m.  Pretend you haven't seen them before when you puff into the next town where they are eating cake.

Unless you are a budding Froome, other people will be faster than you, and that is just fine.

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srchar | 7 years ago
11 likes

18. Before overtaking another rider, have a short rest to make sure that your breathing is calm as you glide past, not forgetting to tense everything in your core as you breeze past.

Then grimace as you go full gas to build a gap.

N.B. Make sure there is a left turn a few hundred yards ahead before attempting the above.

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fignon | 7 years ago
4 likes

Riding out on a subtle tailwind feeling very pleased at how fit you have become,  then you turn into the wind to come home.

My first proper bike had 52*42 and something like14-26 five speed. That was ok then, I now have a triple.

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J90 | 7 years ago
1 like

Get a bike fit, preferably not from a shop but somebody who also knows about body mechanics and doesn't try to fit you into predefined measurements, everybody is different.

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matthewn5 | 7 years ago
5 likes

I'd estimate at least a fifth of commuters I see on my ride to work are permanently stuck in the smallest cog at the front and the smallest at the rear. Clearly they clicked the levers when they got the bike, with the spring taking it easily to the smaller sprockets, and then they never pushed the lever the 'hard' way to move it back up the block. So they're typically riding in 34 x 12, chain fully crossed. I see them straining as we set off a the lights, straining up hills, both men and women, all ages. Usually riding cheapish bikes.

It makes me wonder whether anyone in the bike shop ever actually explained the gears to them. or why they sold them a bike with gears rather than a single speed. Not the best argument for their LBS.

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tritecommentbot replied to matthewn5 | 7 years ago
3 likes

matthewn5 wrote:

I'd estimate at least a fifth of commuters I see on my ride to work are permanently stuck in the smallest cog at the front and the smallest at the rear. Clearly they clicked the levers when they got the bike, with the spring taking it easily to the smaller sprockets, and then they never pushed the lever the 'hard' way to move it back up the block. So they're typically riding in 34 x 12, chain fully crossed. I see them straining as we set off a the lights, straining up hills, both men and women, all ages. Usually riding cheapish bikes.

It makes me wonder whether anyone in the bike shop ever actually explained the gears to them. or why they sold them a bike with gears rather than a single speed. Not the best argument for their LBS.

 

The cheaper groupsets that most commuters are on don't help. It can be pretty tough to get it on the big ring. Some may even think it's broken.

 

Missus had this problem with her Sora. Had to show her to really force the lever in, hold it at the sweet spot, to get it to shift.

Then I had to moan at her for months to make her actually shift up and down on the front.

 

Now she does it naturally and even chooses which ring to use depending on how she feels - like if she wants a big of a workout etc.

 

New riders do need a bit of help. Learning curve is shorter with a riding partner.

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Carton replied to tritecommentbot | 7 years ago
3 likes

unconstituted wrote:

matthewn5 wrote:

I'd estimate at least a fifth of commuters I see on my ride to work are permanently stuck in the smallest cog at the front and the smallest at the rear. Clearly they clicked the levers when they got the bike, with the spring taking it easily to the smaller sprockets, and then they never pushed the lever the 'hard' way to move it back up the block. So they're typically riding in 34 x 12, chain fully crossed. I see them straining as we set off a the lights, straining up hills, both men and women, all ages. Usually riding cheapish bikes.

It makes me wonder whether anyone in the bike shop ever actually explained the gears to them. or why they sold them a bike with gears rather than a single speed. Not the best argument for their LBS.

New riders do need a bit of help. Learning curve is shorter with a riding partner.

Not to derrail (no pun intended) the thread, but part of this has to do with the huge big rings on many bikes. A 50 is a huge gear for sedentary novice, never mind a 52.

In any case, I agree with Unconstituted. Help out newbies, and remember that some things you take for granted aren't quite as simple. I lent a mountain biking friend my road bike, coming of a longish ride (metric century with a little dirt), just so he could test it out, and  assumed he knew what's what. Maybe 10 miles later we crossed a short but punchy step-up into an overpass and he was wincing his way up. As we went down, he didn't keep up either, which was even stranger. I then realized he hadn't shifted out of the 13t sprocket I'd left the bike in. We switched bikes at the end of a downhill, and he had figured out how to shift down to the small ring but 71" was still to steep for him on the way up and a little small on the way down, as he didn't know how to use the STIs. I assume he didn't ask because he didn't want to be embarrassed, and it had been alright so far as we were going at a cafe pace. So be mindful of rookies, even fairly fit rookies how might be new to road cycling.

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bikebot replied to matthewn5 | 7 years ago
4 likes

matthewn5 wrote:

I'd estimate at least a fifth of commuters I see on my ride to work are permanently stuck in the smallest cog at the front and the smallest at the rear. Clearly they clicked the levers when they got the bike, with the spring taking it easily to the smaller sprockets, and then they never pushed the lever the 'hard' way to move it back up the block. So they're typically riding in 34 x 12, chain fully crossed. I see them straining as we set off a the lights, straining up hills, both men and women, all ages. Usually riding cheapish bikes.

It makes me wonder whether anyone in the bike shop ever actually explained the gears to them. or why they sold them a bike with gears rather than a single speed. Not the best argument for their LBS.

Doubtful, most (chain) bike shops are too busy selling commuters the wrong type of bike.

I don't think we'll see hub gears become common in the UK for average Joe, but I think 1x gearing could become the norm for most bikes within a few years.

Avatar
Geraldaut | 7 years ago
4 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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mingmong | 7 years ago
12 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.  

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Looper35uk | 8 years ago
5 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.

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burtthebike | 8 years ago
4 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.

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huntswheelers replied to burtthebike | 7 years ago
0 likes

burtthebike wrote:

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.

 

Yep..... had the same..... plus the usual "my gears seem not to be working properly"....then you as if they have fiddled with them....they usually say "My Dad took a look"....  grrr... I usually and politely say "you tube"...the answer is usually "yes"........  I then advise to call me instead if there are any more troubles..... they always do and another customer is added.

 

Avatar
bigmel | 8 years ago
3 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
nniff replied to bigmel | 7 years ago
2 likes

bigmel 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."

 

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

There's a matching response:

"You should have said.  The front's up that end - off you go and get warm.  I'll let you know when I'm getting chilly".  :oP

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Kapelmuur | 8 years ago
9 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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