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Road cycling for beginners: Everything you need to know

Joseph Delves
2 Jun 2020

From choosing the right bike and kit to staying safe and upright - we’ve got the tips you need to get started

Want to try road cycling but not sure where to start? We’ve got you covered. Distinct from just riding around on a bike, road cycling opens up the possibility of covering greater distances and has more of an emphasis on fitness. For most people, road cycling represents a personal challenge, although it can also be competitive.

Interest in both forms has exploded in recent years, transforming it from a niche activity to one that millions of people in the UK partake in every week. If you’re looking to make your first pedal revolutions, below are some key tips to make sure you get the most out of your early miles.

How to get started with road cycling

1. Get the bike...

Road cycling differs a bit from general pootling about. To help you cover longer distances road bikes include features like skinny tyres and drop handlebars. Aiming to be as light as possible, they’re a specialist type of bike, and so come with a slightly increased price tag. Not that you need to spend a fortune, but we think £550 is where the market tends to start.

Any cheaper and you might be better considering a hybrid or commuter bike. Of course, secondhand could be an option. But unless you know what you’re looking for, you might find yourself hit with a first servicing bill that wipes out any saving.

Once you’ve decided how much to spend, think about the riding you might want to do. Will it be all on-road, or might you head off-road too? How flexible is your back? Will you want something racy or more upright? Once you’ve decided, read some reviews and maybe pop down to your local shop and try out some bikes.

Read our guide to the best cheap road bikes

2. ...and accessories

The staff at the bike shop sure love selling you these. But which do you really need?

First, a helmet is sensible. Weirdly, paying more for this won’t buy you better protection. However, it’s still worth going mid-range rather than getting a cheaper uni-size design, as it’ll be lighter, cooler and better fitting.

Lights are a legal requirement after dark. Plus you’ll need a lock if you want to leave your bike on the street. Aim to spend 10% of the value of your bike on a lock - if you can’t find a lock that matches the cost of your bike, it means your bike is too expensive to leave unattended!

It pays to be self-sufficient, so a multitool for adjustments, plus a pump, tyre levers and spare inner tubes should travel with you at all times. A bottle and cage cost not much and you’ll need them on longer rides unless you’re a camel. So ends what we consider the bare essentials.

However, for sporty cycling, going without pants and investing in some padded shorts will keep you comfy. Also, consider getting some gloves if you’re prone to sore hands or expect to fall off. A jersey with back pockets will help, but any breathable top will do to get you going.

Until you’re familiar with them, we’d save specialist shoes and clip-in pedals for a later date - but once you start using them you'll never go back.

Read our guides to the best bike helmetsbest bike lightsbest bike locks, and best pumps

3. Stay safe

Is it safer to wear a helmet?

If you’re going to ride on the road, you should know the rules. You can find the Government’s Highway Code - Rules for Cyclists here. Note the difference between ‘should’ (it’s advised) and ‘must’ (normally a legal requirement).

Even if you’re sure of what you’re doing, it’s a good idea to practise somewhere safe and quiet too. Parks are perfect for this. You could even sign up for a Bikeabilty course.

Once you’re ready to hit the roads, try to always ride as predictably and decisively as possible. Be clear in your mind about what movements you want to make, communicate your intentions clearly to other road users, and then move confidently when you’ve checked it’s safe to do so.

Give yourself and other road users space, and be aware the faster you’re going the more distance you’ll need to leave.

At junctions, aim to occupy the middle of the lane so drivers are aware of your position. Be particularly careful of traffic that might turn left across you, and never enter the space on the left side of large vehicles.

Look for quieter routes and you'll have a safer and more enjoyable time. 

Read our article is it safer to wear a helmet?

4. Push the distance

As you start riding more your body will adapt to the stresses of cycling. As this happens it should get easier. At the same time, this will allow you to go faster and ride for longer.

This means now might be a good time to invest in some more kit; decent shorts to keep your bum happy, a cycle computer to help you log your progress or navigate new routes and specialist shoes and pedals that will make you more efficient and keep your feet comfier.

But more important than splashing the cash is getting into good habits. Make sure you know how to fix common mechanicals like punctures. Ensure you always have a stash of snacks on you. Find the quiet routes near where you live.

Try and make time for regular rides and maybe rope in some friends (within the limits of social distancing). Start to get a sense of what you enjoy and what you might be good at.

Read our interview with Russ Mantle, the first man to ride one million miles

5. Find some friends

Some riders are happy to go it alone, others thrive on cycling’s social aspect. However, riding with other people doesn’t just provide motivation, it also lets you slipstream each other, sharing the workload and increasing your average speed.

But what if you can’t round up a whole squad from your contacts list? Then consider joining a club. Not only will you get faster, but doing so is a great way to meet people, find fresh routes, and make the most of your new hobby.

Depending on where you live, you’ll find as many types of club as there are different tribes of cyclist. Some have more of a sporty focus, others are slower and more social. Some are dedicated to particular disciplines, while some have an unhealthy interest in craft brewing.

Either way, most will run multiple rides catering to different abilities and will often have a dedicated ride for would-be members. Find out which ones are nearby and pop down to say hi.

Of course, if you’re already quick it’s tempting to jump straight in with the A group. Just remember, riding in a bunch is a distinct skill, so unless you’ve prior experience start with the beginners’ ride and move your way up.

All this, of course, depends on the social distancing restrictions where you live. Group riding might be something to look forward to in a few months but isn't appropriate right now.

Read our article in praise of the club run

6. Plan something

Cycling presents millions of challenges, big and small. The first is to maintain balance and not to fall off. Once you’ve mastered that, you could set the goal of riding for 50 miles in one go, then 100 miles.

Taking your bike away and going touring is also a good way to find new challenges. You could plan a ride that goes through three counties, or across the country, or across three countries. No cyclist can see a hill without wanting to climb it, and every cyclist should ride an HC climb once in their life.

For those that like their fun a little more structured, each year 100,000s of people take part in events across the UK. Entering a big sportive like RideLondon or the Dragon Ride in Wales is also a great way to motivate yourself to train and ride more.

If you’ve got a competitive streak, racing can be the perfect outlet for it. There are many different disciplines, from time-trials to circuit racing, grass track to cyclocross.

Whatever it is that inspires you, pick a challenge and pop it on your to-do list. It’ll help you make the most out of your time on the bike.

Read our guides to the best UK cycling challenges and our pick of the top European Sportives 

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