For nearly all of us, learning how to ride a bike was part of childhood. For many, it was the ticket to freedom. For most, however, the car eventually took its place, and our once beloved bikes were forgotten in the garage, collecting dust, their tires slowly going flat.
Today in Austin though, and in cities across the country, people are rekindling that childhood love for two wheels. With avid commuters, weekend warrior racers, and mountain bikers looking to get away from it, bikes now seem to match the number of cars in our city. As a result, lawmakers, business owners, and city planners are taking notice. New bike lanes seem to sprout up on a nearly daily basis, racks are packed in front of Whole Foods, and there’s a bike shop on every corner. Austin was ranked the 13th most bike-friendly city in the nation in 2012. This movement is not new to European countries, where bikes have played an instrumental role in their constant rank above the United States in categories like health and environmental impact. The swell continues to build here in Austin and around the country, and there was never a better time to get involved.
Still, with all the different genres of cycling, gear, and social etiquette, getting started can be just as intimidating as that first time you tried riding without training wheels. Here are a few pointers that will hopefully get you pedaling down the road or trail with ease.
If you have a bike that you want to get rolling on again, take it to a local bike shop to have them give it a once over. At the very least, it will probably need fresh tires, chain, and a general tune-up. From there, make sure you have a well-fitting helmet and some light, comfortable clothing to ride in. Eventually you’ll want to make the leap and buy some cycling-specific shorts, but this isn’t necessary right from the get-go.
With all the carbon fiber race bikes rolling around town, it’s fair to assume that cycling is a white-collar pastime. Although it is easy to spend lots of money on bikes and equipment (and you likely will, down the line), you can certainly get started for less than $1,000. First you’ll want to decide what kind of bike you want. Are you interested in hitting the trails and escaping the traffic? Do you want to join your buddy’s group ride on Saturday mornings? Or maybe you’re looking for a solid cyclocross bike that will get you to and from work, no matter the time of year.
A quick search on Craigslist will bring up a plethora of quality used, road, mountain, and cyclocross bikes for less than $1,000. My recommendation is to make a list of a handful you think might be suitable, and then have an experienced friend give them a look. They’ll be able to explain some of the nuances of componentry, geometry, and build, so you can make a more informed decision.
If you have a larger budget to work with, visiting your local bike shop and having them point you in the right direction is a good first step. They’ll be able to listen to your needs and make recommendations so you can make an informed decision.
Clipless pedals (the ones that attach to cycling specific shoes), are a must. Being locked in by the feet to your bike may sound terrifying, but you’ll soon come to find that it can give you more confidence, control, and above all, pedaling power. If you don’t know a friend who will help you get them set up and teach you the basics, a quick search on YouTube will turn up some adequate tutorials. From there, take your new shoes and pedals to a flat, grassy field, and practice. You may tip over a few times, but within half an hour you should be “click-clicking” like a pro.
Along with health, freedom, and unbridled fun, one of the most valuable things a bike can give you is friends. There are few things more fun than ripping along a trail in a group, going for a town line sprint on the Saturday group ride, or just cruising to a coffee shop with your significant other. In terms of improving as a rider, nothing will boost your fitness, bike-handling, or repertoire of routes as fast as riding with more experienced cyclists. There are lots of local group rides that happen on almost every day of the week, ranging from competitive hammerfests, to easy sight-seeing excursions. Drop in to your local bike shop to get a list of the ones they recommend.
All cyclists should try racing at least once. It’s not for everyone, but the joy and accomplishment that can come from friendly, grass-roots level competition is an experience not to be passed up. Each discipline of cycling has its own racing vibe.
Road racing is often seen as the most serious, but also most steeped in tradition. Getting your foot in the door at one of the Thursday night Driveway Series events is a great start, and they have first-time racer clinics available as well.
Mountain bike racing is often more approachable and a bit more laid back… there is usually a complimentary keg or two awaiting the racers at the finish. The Texas Mountain Bike Racing Association puts on a state wide series that also hosts first-time racer clinics.
Cyclocross is the party of the bike racing world. Held in the cold, wet winter months, cyclocross includes getting muddy as one of the central goals. Beer, bacon, and dollar bill hand-ups are also integral to this most fun-loving discipline of bike racing.
Pick one, or try them all. It’s hard to go wrong when pedaling a bike.