The sun is shining and the birds are chirping, which means that the unnecessary heat that permeates overcrowded subway cars and packed buses is about to make your daily commute into a three-month stretch of sweaty misery. If you’re interested in avoiding this ordeal altogether—or simply picking up a two-wheeled method of burning hundreds of calories per hours—now is a great time to become the bicycle person you’ve always wanted to be.
This task is not as simple as buying a bike, adjusting the seat to a height that looks like the right one, and pedaling off into the sunset. There are a lot of variables, from using the right equipment to wearing the right gear, that will determine whether this experience will be a productive one, or just one that makes your butt ache. For those hoping to channel their inner pre-doping scandal Lance Armstrong this summer, a few experts gave us the rundown on everything you need to know first.
There are major differences between “the right bike” for the guy who, for example, rides to the office in chinos, and the guy who aspires to win an Ironman Triathlon.
“What are your goals for riding?” asks Seth Rand of Specialized. “Bikes are versatile machines, but they’re purpose-built to be best suited for a specific type of riding experience. Maybe it’s casual riding. Or maybe it’s riding on gravel and mixed terrain, or bikepacking. [Ed. note: Bikepacking sounds legit.] You can do a lot with a bike, but choose one that excels at what you want to do most.”
Even after you settle on the high-level why, you’ll still have a few more decisions to make before heading to the bike shop. Road bikes, for instance, come with additional cool-sounding designations—racing, endurance, adventure, gravel, cyclocross, and touring, to name just a few. “The nuances can be tricky for new players,” says Nathan Barry, a Cannondale design engineer. “Generally, the biggest differences are geometry—how you sit on the bike—and tire size. For example, gravel, adventure, and cyclocross bikes are all designed to work on unpaved surfaces with big knobby tires.”
From there, it’s about how much you’re willing to spend. Cost can vary dramatically, from as little as $150 to somewhere in the low five figures. (Yes, just like your last car, payment plans are a legitimate option.)
Before you walk out the door with your new bike, put aside the proud, dumb part of you that believes you can figure things out as you go along, and ask for help. “You don’t buy a $3,000 suit without having it tailored, so don’t buy a bike without getting a bike fit,” says Taylor Phinney, a Cannondale pro cyclist. “There are a lot of small adjustments that can make a big difference in regard to comfort and injury prevention.” A properly-adjusted ride for your height, weight, age, gender, and personal preferences will enable you to ride with a minimal out-of-the-box break-in period.
Also: Don’t buy your wheels based only on aesthetics. The model in the color you like won’t be of much use to you if your feet can’t reach the pedals.
If you’re planning on being on the road for more than 20 minutes—we highly recommend this, at least outside the commuting context—you may start to heat up. Factoring in the weather, be prepared to strip down or layer up as events warrant.
“My dad always taught me that you want to be over-dressed, not under-dressed,” says Phinney. “If it’s summertime and you’re not going up high into the mountains, you don’t need to worry about having too much extra clothing. But if you live near the mountains and you end up going into the mountains, always bring a jacket, or at least a vest. Just in case.”
Whether you’re on a beer run or mid-century ride, getting a flat tire can ruin your day—unless you are equipped to fix it.
“Having tubes and knowing how to change a flat are essential,” says Phinney. “That’s probably the most important bike tip that I could give. If you can teach yourself how to do that, it’s probably going to save you once a month.”
If you’re a runner, you’re going to need great sneakers. If you’re a cyclist using the bike for anything more than a commute, you need padded shorts. “Buy a good pair,” says Rand. “You’ll never regret it.”
Rand cautions that novice bikers can still expect to feel some soreness as they get used to the motion. “Any sport comes with an adaptation phase,” he points out. “If you sat on the subway for 2 hours, your butt would be a little sore too.” Worry not: The padding is located on an area of the shorts where it isn’t particularly noticeable, which means that even when you're off the bike, attractive strangers are unlikely to mistake your cool new shorts for adult diapers.
When something goes wrong, walking into a bike repair shop can be intimidating as hell. And just like hitting up a car mechanic, the guys there may try to take advantage of your debit card if you’re not careful.
“Ask questions. Ask a lot of questions,” Phinney advises. “And pay attention to the answers that you’re getting. Learn a little bit about your bike. Be a part of the conversation instead of just dropping the thing off and asking when you can pick it up.”
Also: Consider bringing beer. Phinney is only sort of joking. “Cycling is traditional. Your local bike mechanic will appreciate it. We’re old-school. Obviously, you’re going to have to pay. But you might get a smile—and be able to pick it up a little sooner—if you include a six-pack, too.”