Everything You Need to Know to (Re)Start Cycling
In 2012, I rode a bike for the first time since I was 16. I didn’t have anything against cycling – I loved it when I was younger – but as you enter your latter teens (in the UK at least), it’s just not deemed ‘cool’ to have a bicycle as your primary mode of transport as you become an adult. The race to pass your driving test starts when you’re 17, and then the car just seem to dominates how you get around – a bike isn’t even in the equation.
As you get older, you also seem to start accepting some of the supposed ‘facts’ about cycling. You know the type of stuff… “it’s dangerous”, “you can’t cycle to work because you’ll get all sweaty”, “if you don’t wear a helmet you’ll die”, “it’s a children’s toy”. Maybe you’ll even start to resent cyclists for taking up space on the road in their stupid little lycra outfits. Grr, bloody cyclists. They don’t pay road tax, you know.
For me, while I think the car is a great tool for mobility, I started resenting driving after I left Uni and got my first ‘proper’ job. Actually, it wasn’t the driving that I resented – it was commuting to work by car. My workplace was only a 20-or-so minute drive from where I was living at the time, but it used to take over half an hour to get there during rush hour – which, I appreciate, still isn’t particularly bad. What I hated about driving to work, though, was how I’d feel after each commute, every day. If you don’t get through a certain traffic light, that will add five minutes to your journey. There’s always a big, long barely moving queue at that junction. I felt tired and groggy. In the winter, I’d go out in the dark, scrape the ice of the windshield, drive to work, work until 5.30, leave work (it’s already dark again) and drive back home in the rush hour traffic. It was dull. I got no fresh air all day. I got no exercise most of the day, aside from the odd football training in the evenings. And no daylight apart from about 30 minutes at lunch (in which I’d have to drive to a retail part to get some food). I wasn’t enjoying life much to be honest. It seemed as though once I’d left University, I’d stepped into this world of monotony.
In the office I worked at, there was another guy who always seemed to be in a considerably better mood. His name was Ste. He was first in every morning, but seemed much more relaxed and chatty than most other people. He was also up every other minute making tea for anyone who would take one.
Ste was the office’s token cyclist. He also lived further away from the office than anybody else. When he told me he cycled in from the outskirts of Liverpool every day to south Wirral (about a 12-mile trip with the River Mersey in the middle), I couldn’t believe it. I still think he was a bit mental doing that. But it reintroduced the idea of cycling as a mode of transport to me.
I started to quiz Ste more and more about his cycling commute, and also on cycling fashion – or the lack of it. Ste was always a snazzily dressed chap in the office, but he tended to wear ‘cycling clothes’ on his commute and then grab a shower upon arrival. While not a complete lycra-lout on the bike, there was no kidding that he clearly looked like a cyclist when he got changed to cycle home after work. I asked him whether there were any shops or websites that sold stylish cycling clothing. I didn’t mean stylish in terms of high-fashion, just everyday clothes that boasted cycling functionality – you know, normal-looking clothes. He knew of a few, such as Rapha, but said they were few and far between and tended to be very expensive.
This conversation grew into a bit of an obsession for us, and that is pretty much how Discerning Cyclist came into being in 2012.
This idea nudged me into cycling action. I dusted off my old bicycle in the garage, pumped up the tyres, and took a five-minute ride up to my local shops. My bike wasn’t in great shape, but I thoroughly enjoyed the brief ride.
Not long after, I left the UK for a new job in Gibraltar. Here I bought the best bicycle that money can buy (if all the money you have is €150), and began bicycle commuting to work every day. That said, it was by no means a ‘typical’ commute as it did involve cycling alongside the Mediterranean Sea, crossing an international border (I’m now a pro at showing a passport while riding) and then over an airplane runway – deemed one of the most dangerous runways in the world – before cycling towards that giant monolithic limestone Rock that is, Gibraltar. However, when I entered the office on these occasions, I felt considerably more awake and refreshed. Simply put, I found cycling to be easy and make me feel good.
And that, is pretty much how I re-started commuting by bike.
The Benefits of Cycling
It’s not exactly breaking news that cycling is good for your health. It’s one of the best ways to naturally incorporate exercise into your day-to-day life, without it feeling too much like “oof, I’m doing exercise.” It certainly beats the hell out of riding a static bike in a gym.
Health experts recommend that adults should do a minimum of two-and-a-half hours (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity exercise each week. So, if your workplace is a 15-minute bike ride away, you could be reaching the minimum target just by cycling to and from work each day. If you do a bit of other sport or other exercise around that, you’ll be looking at being in great shape. Children too, are recommended to do at least an hour of moderate to vigorous intensity activity, and so riding a bike to school, or just around with friends, is a quick and easy way to stay healthy. The risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and strokes can all be reduced by regularly cycling.
One of the not-so well-known health impacts of cycling, though, is the mental health benefits it delivers.
If you go to the doctor’s suffering from anxiety or depression, one of the first things you’ll be prescribed is more exercise. This is because when you exercise, your body produces a range of feel-good chemicals such serotonin and dopamine, followed by endorphins and cannabinoids.
What’s more, cycling also makes you smarter. Seriously. Not only does your body create rich capillary beds in your quads and glutes when you cycle, but also in your brain. When you cycle, you cause nerve cells to burst into action which causes the creation on proteins, including BDNF and noggin, that go on to promote the formation of new brain cells. As the cliché goes, “the brain is a muscle too”, and you can help increase memory skills, concentration levels and problem solving abilities simply by exercising daily.
Another not quite breaking news benefit is that cycling is cheap. Fuel costs are £0. Insurance is not compulsory. Oh, and just like everybody else in the UK, you don’t have to pay road tax. Your only cost is your initial outlay on your bicycle (or monthly instalments with the cycle to work scheme) and the odd bit of maintenance, which is generally very minimal. The last bike I owned in Gibraltar, for example, cost €150 to buy, and then I spent another €110 over a two-year period on maintenance, which included three new wheels (one stolen, two buckled), a bike pump, six inner tubes, chain oil and two new pedals. For me, the total outlay for riding a bike over two years (with me riding on average 10 miles every day) was €260 – averaging out to €0.37 per day, or €0.04 per mile. Not bad, eh?
And, to address another misconception about cycling: that it is because you “can’t afford a car” or are “poor”, as Top Gear once infamously said. Well, that’s again tosh. Indeed, a study conducted by Transport for London showed that 28% of non-cyclists earn under £20,000 per year in the capital, while only 25% of cyclists earn less than that – so, in truth, quite the opposite is true.
It Makes You Cool
What’s more, the image of cycling is also slowly but surely improving. Certainly, there are quite a few lazy clichés and stereotypes that get thrown around about it, but with the rise of trendy Fixies, the supreme cycling performances of Messrs Wiggins and Froome and (say it quietly) even to some degree, Hipsters, cycling has become kind of cool. Heck, there are all sorts of stylish bicycles, attire and accessories to enhance your coolness – I know, how shallow.
Take a look at the continent though, and in particular at cycling utopias such as the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, and you’ll see that cycling is simply a part of daily life for a huge proportion of the population, regardless of age, gender or wealth.
For more great reasons to cycle, check out what Discerning Cyclist’s community came up with in 10 Reasons Why People Cycle to Work.
What You Need to Start Cycling
Required: You, Bicycle.
That’s it. Nothing else is needed to start cycling, just you and a bike.
[Well, I say that’s it… but if you’re going to ride at night, you MUST (it’s the law) get some front and rear lights (dirt cheap basic ones on Amazon from £1.43 – there’s no excuse), while a bell is easily the best way to keep wandering pedestrians and other cyclists aware of your existence. A solid bike lock (Sold Secure Bronze rated or better) – or ideally two – are also required if you’d like to ride your bike more than once.]
So, first off, you already have you (if you don’t, I really don’t know what’s happened), so now you need a bicycle.
What Bicycle Should I Buy?
There are two big questions you need to answer ahead of buying a bike. The first is: what sort of model do I want? And the second is: how much should I spend?
When it comes to cost there really are no right and wrong answers. Some people swear that you need to buy to spend a minimum of a few hundred pounds in order to get a bike worth riding and, while it is generally true that the more you spend the better quality of the bike you’ll buy, that’s not to say cheap bikes aren’t worth buying.
As I mentioned earlier, my €150 bike from Decathlon sorted me out for two years in Gibraltar and is still going strong with a friend now, and that’s with a healthy daily commute.
In an even more extreme example, my Grandparents bought my Dad a bicycle for £70 from Aldi in the late 1990’s as a birthday present, and while he’s not a day-to-day cyclist – that’s the bike he still uses today. I wouldn’t say it’s in great nick, but hey – seventy quid.
If it’s been a few years since you’ve ridden a bike, too, it’s probably worth getting a cheap bike at first to see if you stick to it. There’s no point splashing out on a high-end model only to see it rusting away in your shed a few months later. Some people go the opposite route though and opt to buy an expensive model in the hope that it will almost force them to stick to it. More often than not, this costly tactic doesn’t work.
So on the cost front, I’d recommend buying a cheap new model, or even a second-hand model at first. Then, if you do enjoy your return to the saddle, you can invest in a better model further down the line.
In terms of what bike to get though, it can seem like a minefield of options.
The key is to find what you actually need the bike for and where you’ll be riding. You don’t need incredible suspension and every gear imaginable if you’re just going to be cycling around town. But, on the other hand, if you’re more of a rural adventurist type, you want to make sure your bike is sturdy enough to survive.
Below, I’ll run through some of the most common bike models and breakdown what they’re best for.
Road Bike: Great for going fast, but only on smooth surfaces. If you stick to the city streets, this might be all you need. Road bikes are lightweight, speedy and look pretty cool, but they’re not at all suited for going off-road and can even struggle with curbs and such. Road bikes are also puncture prone due to their slim wheels and aren’t built for carrying gear.
Recommended Model: Verenti Insight 0.4 Sora 2015 – £722.50
Hybrid: Similar to a road bike, except they are flat-bar bikes and usually offer a more upright riding position. On the plus side these bikes are pretty quick, and are capable of carry more cargo than a road bike, but they are still almost as fragile.
Recommended Model: Jamis Commuter 2 2015 Hybrid Bike – £320
City Bike: Bikes built for short, moderately paced rides through urban areas, these are typical the kind of bicycles you’ll find in cycling Meccas such as the Netherlands and Denmark. They are very capable of taking the burden of any cargo via panniers or baskets, and offer an upright seating position. They are not, however, the fastest of bikes.
Recommended Model: Bobbin Brownie Blueberry – £297.50
Mountain Bike: If you like to go off the beaten track, then a mountain bike is the way to go. While notably heavier and slower, they are built to be tough and resistant. They also offer very good brakes and an upright seating position, but are pretty hard work and slow on the road.
Recommended Model: Jamis Komodo Comp 2015 27.5 Mountain Bike – £600
Folding Bike: The perfect tool for multi-modal travel, these bikes can be packed up and carried onto a train or put in the back of a car in just a minute or two. You can also pop them under your desk at work. The big drawback for folding bikes though is the considerably slower speed with which they can travel. While you can get away with buying cheaper ranges of other bike models, when it comes to folding bikes, I’d really recommend going for a high-end model (such as a Brompton or a Moulton) as the quality and longevity of cheaper ones tend to be poor.
Recommended Model: Brompton M3L – £890
Electric Bike: Quite divisive among the cycling community, but great vehicles for those who want to make cycling easier. Electric bikes take the strain out of hills and help you cruise along at a good speed with minimum effort – ideal if you don’t want to arrive sweaty at your destination. These bikes are also fantastic for older cyclists or people with limited mobility.
Recommended Model: EBCO UCL30 Electric Bike – £1000
What Are the Best Bicycle Accessories?
Of course, there are tonnes of accessories and what not that can make your bike ride even more enjoyable, but they’re by no means a pre-requisite. If you haven’t been on a bike in a few years, you’re probably best sticking to the basics at first and then adding bits and bobs to your bike or outfit as and when you feel a need for them.
That said, when you do reach a time you’d like to pimp your ride, then I’d recommend checking out the following cheap accessories…
For a more comfortable ride:
For the maintenance/worst case scenario:
For added safety:
For wet weather:
Do Cyclists Need to Wear a Helmet?
Helmet use polarises opinion amongst the cycling community like nothing else.
It is not a legal requirement to wear a helmet (apart from in Australia, New Zealand and a few American states), but some people believe that not wearing a helmet is reckless and stupid. On the other hand, other people don’t consider cycling to be inherently dangerous.
For me, I firmly believe you need to consider how and where you will be cycling before deciding whether to wear a helmet or not.
For example, if you are mountain biking and gunning it – for pity’s sake, wear a helmet. If you’re behaving like a vehicular cyclist, immersed in traffic – wear a helmet. However, if are cycling along a bike path, with no traffic around you, and you have some experience cycling, I really don’t see the need for a helmet. Would you wear a helmet if you went for a run?
It really comes down to opinion. Consider the cycling facilities available. Consider the quantity and speed of motorised vehicles around you. Consider your visibility. Consider your terrain. Consider your experience. If you feel uncomfortable at the idea of not wearing a helmet, wear one.
I personally don’t wear a helmet, but that’s not to say I’m doing the right thing. The main reason I don’t wear one currently is because I luckily spend most of my time cycling in Germany, which has excellent, spacious cycling facilities and, in all honesty, I find helmets uncomfortable, agitating and sweaty.
What Clothing to Wear When Cycling
This is obviously a big topic on Discerning Cyclist as our ethos is “we don’t want cycling clothes, we want stylish clothes we can cycle in.”
Now that’s not to say there isn’t a time and place for sporty cycling clothes such as lycra, but we believe those occasions only really arise when you’re racing or going to get pretty darn sweaty.
On the whole, we believe in cycling in ‘normal clothes’ for the most part, although we’re huge fans of normal/stylish clothing that boasts discrete cycling functionality such as lower backs on t-shirts, high waistlines on trousers and the use of stretchier breathable materials such as merino wool.
For a comprehensive guide as to what you should look for in great stylish cycling clothes, check out our Style Guide infographic here.
Basically, wear what feels comfortable on your bike ride. There’s no reason you can’t arrive at your destination in style.
How to Lock Your Bike Securely
Locking your bike properly is also pivotal if you want to see it again.
Did you know… an astonishing 376,000 bicycles were reported stolen between April 2013 and March 2014?
Bicycle theft is a real problem, and you need to ensure you lock your bike properly with the proper locks. Getting a cheap bike lock is false economy.
If you want to know how lock your bicycle properly, watch this cracking video from LCC below:
- Use two solid locks (Sold Secure Bronze rated minimum)
- Secure both wheels and the frame
- Secure to an immovable object
- Consider how you would steal the bike if you needed to
You can also read Discerning Cyclist’s post on how to protect your bike from thieves for more tips.
Commuter Cycling Tips
When it comes to looking for advice and tips for commuter cycling, there aren’t many better places than the Bike Commuting community on Reddit. So, naturally, ahead of writing this post, I decided to ask them for their best pieces of advice to anyone looking to start commuting by bike. Below are some of the best responses:
If someone can anticipate what you’re going to do, they can prepare/position themselves for it. Being predictable takes many forms.
- Ride with traffic, on the road, in the center of the lane*.
- Use hand signals.
- Have/use a bell.
- Stop at red lights.
- Yield right of way when you don’t have it.” – iamfriedsushi
*My note: take centre of the lane when there is no safe space for cars to pass, not necessarily at all times.
“Spelling it out: Don’t weave in and out of areas behind parked cars or other openings in the road that don’t last. Stay the course.” – palthainon
“I’m just curious, the point about riding in the middle of the lane…
Where I live (rural area), it’s mostly single lane roads with wide shoulders. Is there any harm in me riding on/around the white line? It doesn’t inconvenience me, and that way cars don’t have to pass me over the double yellow line. Plus, there are a lot of fast drivers who “wouldn’t take kindly” to me slowing down the lane.” – bnielsen96
Response: “try not to delay drivers unless it is unsafe for me as a cyclist. In your case, I would definitely ride on the shoulder. If there are bridges or other areas where the road gets thinner and you can’t share the lane, then ride right in the middle (or the right tire track). Taking the lane is a way of clearly communicating to drivers that the lane is not wide enough to share and that they need to wait or completely cross into the other lane to pass safely.” – hoodyhoomofo
“raise your saddle… I see too many people biking around with their knees knocking their faces as they pedal… saddle height makes a difference in effort and comfort!” – ineedtopoopnow
And, for me, this was my favourite response in terms of practicality:
“Think ahead. Assume that the car you’re alongside or approaching will turn without signaling. Assume that the oncoming car looking to turn won’t see you. The car you’re behind could stop on a dime…how will you react? How do you know that some car isn’t going to plow through the intersection while you’re going through a red? Always think ahead.
Check your shoulder often. You don’t want to hit a passing cyclist or swerve in front of a car behind you. Consistently check your surroundings. It practically becomes second nature. Doesn’t matter who’s in the right or the wrong. You check your blind spots in a car, do so on a bike.
Wear a fucking helmet if your ride has hazards. This isn’t a debate about “helmet” laws or the tired line that “helmets actually increase rotational injuries!” It’s simply something you’ll wish you had when you need it most. I lost a tooth instead of mental capacity thanks to my helmet which I had only bought 3 weeks prior. I’d rather not pay for health insurance every month, but if shit gets fucked I’ll be glad I do.
Don’t be a self-righteous dick. I know some cyclists who practically seek out confrontation. You’ve seen the helmet cam videos for some. Drivers make mistakes. Cyclists make mistakes. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Not every misstep of a driver warrants a rant/tirade/lecture. Sometimes you just gotta adapt and keep riding.” – Mr_Diggums
While these responses were also bang on the money:
“Don’t stress. If someone is a jerk or whatever, they’re missing out because cycling is so much fun. Feel the sun on your back, the wind on your face, and just have a good time.” – hiyaninja
And of course, this:
“Just relax, it’s going to be alright.” – Nerdlinger
Summary – Cycling Commuting Tips
- Be confident
- If there’s inadequate space for a car to overtake, take the centre of the lane
- Ensure your saddle is at a comfortable height
- Follow the Highway Code (included stopping at red lights!)
- Plan your journey ahead
- Use hand signals (left and right – not flicking the finger)
- Have and use a bell
- Stay calm
- Enjoy your ride
There are plenty of other great useful resources across the web, too, for working out your commuting routes. Some of the best ones include Sustrans, Cycle Streets and Transport Direct’s Cycle Journey Planner.
This post is still very much a work-in-progress and I’m looking to add more valuable advice to it. So… if you have any advice or guidance for people looking to start (or restart) cycling, I’d be delighted to hear from you in the comment section below!
p.s. If there’s anybody you know that you think should consider start cycling, please feel free to send them this post by Facebook, Twitter, Email, pidgeon carrier, or whatever.