New to cycling?

This is something I wrote for another website, which has a community for people who live in Portland. I wrote this after one of the first lovely days of warm weather we’ve had this year. Shawn said it was so good that I should share it somewhere else, so here it is!

Two things to be aware of: It’s definitely aimed at Portland people, and there’s some bad language. Just warning you.


So the weather is improving and lots of people are out on their bicycles, many of whom are not year-round cyclists, or may be riding for the first time in years, or perhaps are still just thinking about it. And, as usual, I am full of opinions and/or advice.

Where do I get one of these “bicycle” objects? One way is via craigslist, but if you don’t know much about bicycles you can really get ripped off. My advice (which has worked for me in the past) is to comb through the ads regularly, and when you see a bike you like, send the link to friends of yours who know more about bicycles than you do, to ask their opinions. If they’re a really good friend, you can even ask them to come with you to look at it. And always google the name/model of whatever bike you’re checking out–if that kind of bike sucks/rocks, it’s usually not hard to find out.

Another method is, of course, to go to a bike shop. A good bike shop will ask you what kind of riding you plan to do and help you find the perfect bike. I generally believe that you can get a better used bike for the same price you’d pay new. My favorite used bike shops are the Community Cycling Center (on NE Alberta), CityBikes (on SE Ankeny) and especially A Better Cycle on SE Division. They guarantee their work, and many of them will install extras (like fenders or racks) without charging for the labor for a certain number of months after you buy the bike. Don’t be intimidated! Even if the person working there is covered in tattoos and shit. Most bike shop employees are awesome people who want to help other people love bicycles like they do.

If you’ve got the cash for a brand-new bike (lucky you!) there are lots of places in town to buy a bicycle, but my personal favorite is Clever Cycles on SE Hawthorne. They sell fancy-ass Dutch-style bikes, as well as cargo bikes. They also have all kinds of ways of carrying kids on bikes, if you plan to transport your offspring.

Don’t let anyone talk you into getting an Electra Townie though. Seriously, those bikes are so effing stupid for…almost anyone. If you’re looking for a comfy relaxed bike, get a Dutch-style bike or an older British roadster. Any kind of “cruiser” is a bitch to get uphill, and Portland is not flat.

Also, if at all possible, don’t buy a bike from a department store. Not only are they so badly made that most shops won’t fix them, often they’re put together by someone who has no clue what they’re doing, and on occasion they’re actually dangerous. They’re also frequently pieces of shit. Buy a used bike instead if money is an issue.

I’ve had this bike in my garage forever/Jesus why is this bike so hard to ride?! Riding a bike on flat pavement with no headwind should be easier than walking. If it’s not, barring any major handicaps on your part, there’s a problem.

Are the tires properly inflated? There’s a little number on the side of the tire somewhere that says how much air it wants. Riding with your tires low on air can be hard work and lead to flats. And your tires leak air all the time, even if there’s nothing wrong with them, so check’em every now and then.

Is your saddle high enough? Oh my god, there are so many times I want to stop someone and tell them to raise their saddle. With the pedal at the bottom and your ass in the saddle, your leg should be almost straight. Another way of figuring it out: with the pedal at the bottom and your heel on the pedal (and your ass in the saddle), your leg should be totally straight but not reaching. So many people ride with their saddle too low, and not only does it make riding really hard work, it’s terrible for your poor knees!

What gear are you in? Lower gears make it easier to pedal.

If you’ve inflated the tires, raised the saddle, put it in a lower gear, and it still feels like a bitch to get it moving, take it to a bike shop. Either there’s something wrong with the bike or it doesn’t fit you.

Matter of fact, if you haven’t ridden that bike in ages, or it’s making funny noises you can’t identify, take it to a shop to be checked out. Most shops will do a “safety check” for cheap or free and let you know if the brakes are unusable or whatever.

OMG. I’m going to DIE. I will get hit by a car. And DIE. Riding a bicycle isn’t as dangerous as most people think it is. You’re probably more likely to get hurt on the stairs in your house/apartment. And your chances of head trauma are supposedly higher in a car or as a pedestrian. But whatever. If you’re smart, you’re much less likely to get hit. (Matter of fact, many injuries–including one I had last October–are caused by road conditions, not cars.)

First of all: get a good bike map. Metro’s Bike There! map is $9, but oh lord, is it good. It shows you which roads are bike routes (usually calm residential streets, often roughly parallel to busy thoroughfares), which streets have bike lanes, and which streets are a little iffy. It has the hills marked. And! The map is made of waterproof plastic-y stuff. It won’t tear and you can look at it in the rain: WIN. The city also makes bike maps, and they’re free, but they’re not as colorful or detailed and they’re made of paper, which sucks if you’re trying to figure out the best route when it’s raining. In any case, riding on official bike routes means avoiding a lot of potential problems with cars.

How Not to Get Hit by Cars. I wish I could make every cyclist read this website. It lists the most common car vs. bike accidents and how to avoid them.

Buy the brightest headlight and taillight you can afford, and some rechargeable batteries, and use them whenever it’s dark or raining hard. I’m a big fan of the PDW (Portland Design Works) taillight, and the Planet Bike Blaze one-watt headlight. Keep in mind that the headlight serves two purposes: to tell cars and other cyclists that you’re there, and to help you see where you’re going. If you’re on a busy lit street with cars, you’ll probably want it to be blinking like mad. If you’re on a residential road where you need to see, you’ll want it on solid. I do sometimes wear two lights: one blinking like mad on my handlebars and a solid one on my helmet so I can light up what I’m looking at. (My accident in October was caused by not seeing something before I hit it, so that’s a concern of mine.) If you can afford generator lights (they’re connected to your front hub and powered by your pedaling), you lucky, lucky bastard. If you use battery-operated lights, keep the batteries fresh/charged. Your taillight can look SO BRIGHT when you turn it on only to fade like crazy while you ride ’cause the batteries are close to dead.

Non-car things to be careful of: Max/streetcar tracks: whenever humanly possible, ride over them perpendicularly. And don’t turn on them. You can get your wheels caught in the tracks and get thrown off the bike, and if the tracks are wet and your handlebar twitches your bike will slide right out from under you. (I have done both, sad to say.) I have been known to get off my bike and walk it if I feel iffy.

Don’t ride on the sidewalk unless it’s unavoidable. Believe it or not, it’s actually more dangerous than the road unless you’re on, like, SE Powell. If you’re on the sidewalk, assume you’re invisible. Because you are.

On that note: Ride with traffic, not against it.

But…what if it rains? Or it gets cold? Well, you could always take tri-met. I do sometimes.

Lots of people I know have Showers Pass stuff. It’s pricey but people like it. You can sometimes get cheaper stuff that works about as well at REI or Next Adventure. Be aware that anything really waterproof will make you sweat like crazy even if you’re not working hard, which makes it wet inside the jacket too. Most fancier jackets claim to be “breathable” but as far as I know, only the fucking insanely expensive ones really breathe much. But the waterproof jackets meant for cycling–even the cheaper ones–have zippers in the armpits and various other ways of venting, are longer in the back to keep your ass drier, and are painfully bright and/or have reflective stripes. That stuff can come in handy.

I’ll point out that I’ve never owned rain pants (I plan to buy some, but mostly for touring). There’s a handful of days every winter where I wish I did, but most of the time you’ll just end up with sweaty legs. Jeans take forever to dry though, just to warn you. Synthetic-fabric pants generally dry fairly quickly, I’ve been wearing the same pair of polyester pants almost every day this winter.

Another way of dealing is to buy wool. Wool is somewhat magical. It keeps you warm even if it’s wet, for instance. I have a cheapo wool coat I got from Forever 21 a couple years ago, and it’s enough to keep me warm for anything less than six miles in anything less than a downpour. Wool coats and sweaters can often be had cheaply secondhand. There’s also all kinds of fancy wool that is made soft enough to be worn next to your skin, and/or designed for cyclists. If you’ve never felt it you’ll have trouble believing me, but it’s seriously soft and comfy. It’s also really expensive and can get holes fast (the softer stuff, alas, tends to wear out faster), but it’s sometimes worth it, especially since wool is stink-resistant and you can wear the same item for days. I bought a pair of merino wool tights from Sock Dreams and wore them under my pants or a skirt every damn day during the winter and only washed them (by hand) every other week or so. They didn’t smell bad and they kept my legs nice and toasty.

I don’t want my precious ride to get stolen. Get a U-lock. Cable locks border on useless, especially the thin ones. A pair of wire cutters/bolt cutters/pruning shears and your bike is gone. Also, I’ve been told that making your bike easily identifiable–via stickers or other decorations–means people are less likely to steal it. If you have quick-release wheels, lock them as well. And make sure that there are photos of you and your bike, and write down the serial number somewhere–that makes it easier to get the bike back if it’s found.

How do I carry my stuff? If you have a rear rack, you can attach panniers or bike buckets (you can make them yourself, there’s lots of online tutorials and Metro sells the hardware, or you can buy them from CityBikes). There are baskets that attach to rear racks or handlebars, and many of them either come off the bike with handles or collapse out of the way. Try not to carry heavy stuff in a backpack/messenger bag, it’s hard on your back.

There are also a number of kinds of bikes meant for carrying lots of stuff: Extracycles are a favorite in Portland, and you can buy kits to turn “normal” bikes into Extracycles.

Aaaaand now time for random advice that doesn’t fit anywhere else:
*If your chain is squeaking, put some lube on it. Chain lube is fairly cheap. And that sound is so irritating.
*Please stop at red lights unless you’re part of a big group ride that’s corking. I sometimes go if there’s no cars as far as the eye can see, but I still at least stop first. Blowing red lights makes us all look like assholes.
*On a related note, if you’re going to run stop signs (and let’s face it, most cyclists do), at least slow down and look first. The general purpose of a stop sign is to force vehicles to take a second to look both ways. If you can’t see far enough, just slow down or stop.
*Yield to pedestrians. They’re the more vulnerable road user. Plus it seems to amuse pedestrians for some reason when a cyclist stops for them. All intersections are crosswalks whether they’re marked or not, and you legally have to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
*Only pass other cyclists on the left, and ringing a bell or saying “on your left” is the polite thing to do. I generally thank people who do so, or say “Yup,” partially so they know I heard them.
*Learning how to ride no-handed is a fun trick, even if (like me) you only do it on totally straight flat roads with low traffic.
*Get a good relationship with a bike shop, preferably whichever shop is closest to your house (unless they’re jerks). I’ve had bike shops loan me locks, sell me things at a discount, or let me ride home an expensive tire with the promise to pay for it after my payday. Be nice to mechanics, they do it because they love bikes and they don’t make a lot of money. Reward good service with your repeat business.
*A good way to meet awesome people is to go on group bike rides. Shift is a loose organization (sort of) that puts on rides and events throughout the year, and puts on the several weeks of awesomeness in June known as Pedalpalooza. I have seriously met some of the kindest, funnest, awesomest folks (including my boyfriend) through various fun bike events.
*If you like longer rides and yearn to get out of town, try bicycle touring! It’s one of my favoritist things to do, ever, but that’s a whole ‘nother post or ten.
*Helmets are not the be-all end-all of safety, and people who aren’t wearing one aren’t necessarily idiots. This website has tons of information on helmets, and seems the least biased of all the websites I’ve seen on the topic.
*Stop occasionally to pet kitties, sniff flowers, and enjoy the view.

21 Responses to New to cycling?

  1. Pingback: New to cycling? | April likes bikes!

  2. MelissaTheRagamuffin says:

    I got a pair of Coleman rain pants at Walmart for $20. They’re ugly as sin and don’t breathe hardly at all, but they do what they’re meant to do – at least for short rides. I also have a windbreaker from Old Navy that only advertised being water resistant, but it keeps me dry even in down pours. The downside to it is that it’s solid black.

  3. Bridget says:

    Thanks for a lot of great info! This was fantastic and immensely helpful.

  4. jefeevans says:

    The best way to dry and sweat free is to wear a poncho, basically a tent with a hood. it goes over your handlebars and keeps your arms and legs dry too. The bottom is open so there is lots of ventilation. My friend brought me a cheap one from China and says everyone wears them there. Recently I upgraded to a british version made from oiled cotton. The rest of the world had this problem solved cheaply long before Gore-Tex or even vinyl were invented. Plastic ones are easy to find at the army/navy store or and cheap camping/hunting/fishing store. They fit in a pocket when folded.

    • I’ve thought about the poncho thing…I think the main issue for me is that with the poncho over the handlebars, it can block your lights, since most people (like myself) have them mounted on the handlebars. When Shawn got a generator hub and headlight on his Raleigh, the light was mounted just above the fork, so he bought one of the inexpensive Chinese ponchos. He seems to like it okay.

    • Dave O'Dell says:

      I bought a poncho from Citybikes and the guy retrofitted my handlebar light to the fork with some old parts he had for cheap. I like the poncho except when I’m going fast down a steep hill or it’s quite windy (it acts like a big sail).

  5. Dave O'Dell says:

    Great post! I especially like the last bit of advice. It’s so much easier to stop when you’re on a bike compared to in a car.

    • Oh, I know! I think it’s one of the best things about bicycling for transportation–getting a chance to stop to enjoy something. It’s also part of why I love bike touring, it’s so easy to just pull off and check something out, or just pause to enjoy the view.

  6. Sean Kelley says:

    Very useful tips!

    Sean

  7. Chris Shaffer says:

    I love my Electra Townie, which I bought at Clever Cycles!

  8. Pingback: Valencia trial nears conclusion, CA 3-foot law moves forward, NY Post absurdly fans the bikelash flames « BikingInLA

  9. Scott says:

    For keeping my legs dry, I’m a big fan of Rainmates, which I got at Clever Cycles in Portland. Sadly, they’re no longer listed on the Clever Cycles website, but if you google Rainmates, the US distributor is the first hit. I’ve worn them in a hard rain and only got a smidge wet around my knees, where a crease apparently channeled some rain onto my pants.

    When you cover only the front of your legs, excess heat and sweat can escape through the back of your pants. If you wear rainpants for any distance in mild (50s?) or warmer temperatures, you get almost as wet as if you didn’t wear rainpants, but the moisture is your sweat. Not attractive. ;-)

  10. Esther says:

    Hey April, glad your post is getting so many links.
    I’m going to help Janis lead the Women on Bikes clinic “Let’s Get Rollin’” on May 7. Women who are interested in talking to people in an open setting about their questions around this topic, should come to this. Here’s the info: http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?event_id=53256&mode=calendar&cal=DisplayEvent&a=0&c=44336

    Similar class on May 17 by Jeff Smith, for EVERYONE (not just women) :)
    Tuesday, May 17 2011
    Portland By Cycle Class – May 17 Cycling Essentials
    Location Peninsula Park Community Center – 700 N Rosa Parks Way
    Starts Tuesday, May 17 2011 @ 6:30 PM Ends 8:00 PM
    Length 1.5 Host Jeffrey S Smith
    Have you considered bicycling more frequently but you just aren’t confident on how to prepare, stay comfortable & safe, and find the best routes? Come join this interactive session as veteran cyclists share their experiences.

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