Essential cycling tips for beginners

The pro cyclists you saw swooping around France in July didn’t always have those wiry calves and ninja-like reflexes. At some point, they all had to learn how to train smart, to clip into their pedals, even how to shift gears.

While only a select few of us will ever take in the view from atop a podium, we can all rejoice in the fact that no cycling skill is impossible to master. To that end, we asked coaches, mechanics, top racers, and other experts to help you improve your ride, whether you’re trying to set a century PR or just figuring out how and when to push that little lever on your handlebar. Here are the best bike-riding tips and advice they offered us.

Stay Fresh
Ride new roads once in a while, says Tom Zirbel: “Bust out a map and explore. The variety will help you stay engaged and may lead to some exciting new discoveries.”

With descending intervals done at maximum intensity, it’s easy to remember what to do, says renowned coach Chris Carmichael. Beginners: Do this set twice. More advanced riders can work up to six sets per session.
2 minutes hard » 2 min. easy »
1 min. hard » 1 min. easy »
30 seconds hard » 30 seconds easy »
15-second sprint »
5 min. easy</p>

Conquer a Steep Climb
It’s all about pacing, says Chris Carmichael. “Unless it’s an important climb in a race, don’t charge into it with everything you have. Start at a steady pace and shift through your gears until you reach a balance between maintaining a decent cadence, about 75 to 80 rpm, and a sustainable intensity.” If you go hard too early, you’re likely to stay in too big a gear, which will tire you out and slow you down.

Fly for Cheap
Ditch the telltale case and stuff your bike into a hockey-goalie bag, says multi-time mountain bike world champion Brian Lopes. “I haven’t paid more than $50 to fly with my bike in about three years.” To get his bike to fit, Lopes removes the fork and puts it inside his suitcase. He jams everything else, wheels included, into the duffel. “After you unpack, you just have a big bag, not some giant bike case. That’s a big help if you’re staying in a tiny hotel room.”

Finish Your First Century
“Add an extra 10 miles to your longest ride once a week until you reach 80 miles,” says cycling coach Frank Overton. “Use this time to dial in your food and fluid intake. If you finish a ride feeling overly depleted, you probably didn’t eat or drink enough.” On the big day, pace yourself, says physiologist and coach Neal Henderson. “Many first-time century riders get caught up in the excitement and start too fast. Also, be prepared for some mental highs and lows. Being ready for a psychological roller coaster will help you enjoy the journey.”

Stop Stressing Over Flats
Don’t wait until you’re on the road to hone your flat-changing skills, says Lennard Zinn, author of Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance. “Practice changing a tire in the comfort of your garage using the same pump and tools you carry on your ride, and you’ll be less worried about getting a flat far from home.”

Ride a Fast 100
Take a cue from the pro peloton and ride with a group of friends, says 1984 Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter. “Cycling is always more fun—and faster—in a group. And don’t stop for long at the aid stations, if at all.”

Find the Right Saddle Height
“Lean against a wall, sit on the saddle, then hang both feet straight down,” says Todd Carver of the bike-fitting company Retül. “If yoursaddle height is correct, your heel should just graze the pedal at the bottom of the pedal stroke.” If you have pain in the front of your knees after the first few rides, your saddle is probably too low. If you feel pain in the back of the knee, drop the saddle a little.

Drink Responsibly
It’s okay to glance down at your bottle before grabbing or replacing it, says former Tour de France rider Frankie Andreu, “but keep your eyes on the road as you reach. Don’t tilt your head to get the water into your mouth—tilt the bottle.” “If something comes up while you’re drinking,” adds mountain bike pro Todd Wells, “bite the bottle until you’re through the tricky part.”Shift Like Butter
Anticipation is the key to proper shifting, says Frankie Andreu. “To make the transition smoother, try to change gears just before you really need to.” Tom Zirbel recommends shifting at the dead spot of your pedal stroke, when your feet are at 12 and 6 o’clock. “The less pressure you put on the pedals,” he says, “the more reliable your derailleurs will be.”</p>

Remove Arm Warmers on the Fly
First, peel them down to your wrists, says Todd Wells. “then take them off one at a time and put them in your jersey pocket. If you’re not comfortable taking both hands off the bar, use your teeth to pull thewarmers off your wrists.”

Descend with Confidence
Stay loose when plunging down a hill, says Chris Carmichael. “If you’re stiff, you’ll be rigid and skittish. Get your hands into the drops to lower your center of gravity and put weight on the front wheel. On downhill turns, focus your weight on your outside foot and inside hand. This will help you maintain an inside line.”

Eat Predictably
“Never eat anything new on race day,” says cross-country pro Heather Irmiger. “If you eat a bowl of cereal every morning, stick with it. experiment on training days.”

Your Preride Checklist
“Do this quick exam before every ride,” says former ProTour mechanic Daimeon Shanks, founder of The Service Course, in Boulder, Colorado.