Basic Guide: Road Cycling
Whether you’re hoping to start getting a little more active and stay in shape, cross training for your marathon, or out to dominate the local racing scene, road riding is an excellent way to stay healthy and have some fun. Road cycling can be done at any speed, at any experience level, solo or with a group. You can stick to routes you know, or go on multi-day excursions to explore somewhere new. You can race or you can go for a gentle spin. You can ride solo, with friends, or make some new friends. You can even ride with your kids. It’s low impact, easy on the back and joints, and a ton of fun.
Road bikes are, as the name implies, meant to be ridden on paved roads—but can also be taken on bike paths, and some gravel roads. Generally they have roughly the same design, such as large 700C wheels, skinny tires, and a double triangle frame design. Beyond that, there’s a lot of variation, such as drop bar vs. flat bar, the number of speeds, rigid vs. suspension forks, and differing frame materials. Don’t worry about having “the right bike” though, because the right bike is the one that feels right for you and that makes you feel safe and comfortable getting out to ride.
If you’re shopping around for a road bicycle, check out our article about choosing the right bike for you ( you can find it here). If you already have one, but would like some tips to get started, then keep on reading.
It’s not difficult to get started road cycling, but every ride is more enjoyable if you have the right equipment before you even roll out. This is especially important for a group ride, since most rides expect riders to have the essentials before leaving. For more information on riding in a group, check out this handy article.
- Your Bike: Before going for a ride check your tire pressure and brake function. You can do this by pushing down on your handlebars with your body weight. If the tire gives, inflate it to the correct pressure. If you haven’t ridden in more than 3 days, just go ahead and inflate it anyway. To check your brakes, squeeze both brake levers and try to push the bike forward. If the wheels turn, tighten your brakes using the barrel adjusters until they firmly grip the rim when the lever is squeezed (but not so tight that they rub when the wheels spins) or take the bike to your local Performance shop for a Spin Doctor tune-up. For more tips on maintaining your bike, click here.
- Helmet: Never ride without a helmet. There are many styles to choose from, but remember the most expensive may not always be the best for your needs. All helmets sold in the U.S.A. meet government safety guidelines, so shop according to your taste, needs and budget. For more information about choosing a helmet, click here.
- Clothing: Cycling-specific clothing, such as shorts or bib shorts and jerseys are made with technical fabrics that wick away sweat, help you stay cool, and include pockets for storage. The shorts also include chamois pads to reduce friction and increase comfort.
- Essential Equipment:
- Water bottles: No matter how far you’re planning on riding, always bring at least one water bottle with you. Bring two if you plan to be gone longer than an hour, if it’s very hot, or if you’re going on a group ride. You should drink about one bottle of fluid per hour. For more information about staying hydrated, click here.
- Food: If you’ll be gone longer than an hour or riding with a group, always bring something to eat. Sugar-knock can come at unexpected times, especially for cyclists who are just getting started. Having a bar, gel or some chews ensure you’ll have some extra energy in case you need it. For more information about cycling nutrition, click here.
- Flat repair kit: Changing a flat can seem pretty intimidating, but it’s actually one of the easiest repairs you can do on a bicycle. Not knowing how to change a flat or failing to bring the necessary tools will mean you’ll either be stranded on the side of the road, or relying on your riding group to change your flat—a fact that they will probably not appreciate. To change a flat, you’ll need a spare tube or patch kit, tire levers and a pump or CO2 cartridge. To learn more about changing a flat, click here.
- Lights: If you’re going on a ride later in the afternoon, always bring lights with you, even if you think you’ll be back before dark. This is essential for staying safe, especially in high traffic areas. Most riders usually bring small flashing LED lights that can be stored in a jersey pocket or attached to the seatpost and handlebars. If you plan on riding at night, you’ll need brighter lights.
Remembering a few simple rules of the road can help keep you safe while riding.
- Traffic: Different states have different laws, but generally it’s legal for cyclists to use the road way. When you’re first starting off, it might be best to ride in areas you know are not heavily trafficked or during low traffic times of the day. To ensure you stay safe, always ride WITH the flow of traffic, and stay as far to the right of the road as you feel comfortable. Obey all traffic signals and lights and always signal your intention to turn or change lanes by pointing in the direction you intend to go (forget those old hand signals they taught you in school). Generally most drivers are very polite and accommodating, however if you do encounter any aggressive drivers, don’t engage them in a debate or make any rude gestures as this could escalate the situation. If you feel you must respond in some way, a friendly wave—even if undeserved—goes a long way. If you do feel threatened by a driver, simply pull over and wait for them to pass, and then continue on your way.
- Bike Lanes/Shoulders: Your best bet for staying safe on the road is to utilize the shoulder or bike lanes (if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with them). Again, ride with the flow of traffic, obey all traffic signals, and be courteous to other cyclists. Don’t play leap frog by repeatedly passing, and then getting passed by, the same groups of cyclists. Not only is this annoying, but it can interrupt the flow of two-wheeled traffic. Maintain your speed, and remember it’s not a race. And remember, even in these safer areas you should be on the lookout for cars, pedestrians and opening car doors.
- Night Time Riding: Most cyclists prefer to do their riding during day light hours, but if you’re more of a night owl, more power to you. When riding at night, always wear brightly colored, reflective clothing, and use plenty of lights. Generally, in more urban areas you can use a bright LED flashing light in the front and rear. In more rural areas you’ll probably want to add an additional high-powered headlight to increase visibility.
- Have Fun: Remember, this is supposed to be fun. Get out for a ride and enjoy yourself. Stay fit, stay healthy and just enjoy the journey. If you’re riding with a group, you may feel like there are tons of rules out there, and probably occasionally feel like you’ve committed a faux pas but don’t worry about it. Even the smoothest, most Euro-looking road racers were beginners at some point, and they’re more understanding than they let on.
And don’t forget…smile and wave at your fellow riders. We’re all in this together.