Who’s Afraid of Riding a Bicycle? Not You Because We Have 5 Tips for Beginners

The first few weeks of the year ring in one of the grandest, most well-choreographed manifestations of the self-help industrial complex: resolutions. Happy 2014! May the odds be ever in your favour, and remember to run away from the Cornucopia.

Gonna get fit SO FAST this year via PeetaToast / Tumblr

Gonna get fit SO FAST this year

So 2014 is the year you want to get into cycling to work/school/your genderfriend’s pants place. Good call! This is an excellent choice, I’d say, as far as new year resolutions go.

But you and I have both been doing this dance long enough to know that while nothing feels quite as uplifting as that burst of energy at the start of the (arbitrary) year, few things are as demoralising as losing all of it within a couple of months. We’re not gonna have that happen this time round, though, because you got this. Here are a few tips to get you going on your bike and hopefully for a long, long time beyond that.

Dykes on BiCycles at NYC Pride '11 – this could be you! via PoleRiders

Dykes on BiCycles at NYC Pride ’11 – this could be you!
via PoleRiders

5. Start Slow

This sounds like a no-brainer but it can be tempting to do otherwise. Unlike running, you can go from the couch to 5K in a day – but you’ll also burn out pretty quickly if you expect to change a habit so radically when you’re just getting started. I believe in you, moonshine, but you gotta give yourself time.

Start with cycling on low-stress journeys, like to the store or your favourite café. Familiarise yourself with various routes, your bike, and what it’s like to be sharing the roads with motorists who can’t see you (or pretend not to) out of their large metal boxes. Learn hand signals, safe cycling practices and road regulations – we’ll go into these next week! Get to know your body’s limits, too. A bit of breathlessness and aching isn’t going to hurt you, but slow down or stop if your body’s telling you it’s all a bit too much.

Try combining cycling with public transport. If you’ve got a folding bike you’re set, though sometimes you can bring on full-sized bikes during off-peak hours and some buses are outfitted with bike racks at the front. Learn how to work all these before your first commute, lest find yourself frazzled, 15 minutes late to work and subject to death glares from other cranky not-morning persons.

Pick a couple of days to bike into school/work to start with. Don’t go with Mondays. Don’t sweat it if the weather or a punctured tire or an attractive human lying in your bed cancels your plans. Again not revolutionary advice here, but with Big Plans like resolutions we too often throw everything out if we don’t get it exactly right, starting exactly how we want to exactly at the start of the week/month/whenever. Let go of these expectations and instead focus on introducing cycling bit by bit into your daily routine.

4. Bike Share Schemes

If you live in a city with a bike share or cycle hire scheme, I cannot recommend these enough. I started out on the bulky monsters that are Barclays bikes myself, and they’re a great way of testing the waters without committing yourself to full-time bike ownership.

Bike hire schemes are relatively affordable and do away with the hassle of locking and maintaining your own bike while still giving you (almost) all the freedom that bike commuting affords. Frankly, these are not the best bikes that you’ll find. They’re built to withstand plenty of use by lots of people who won’t always take the best care of them. They’re also only available in limited areas, which can be frustrating, but these reasons are all exactly why I recommend them for beginners. Once you’re ready for more, you’re already familiar enough with the roads to know what you’re looking for in a bike.

Remember to get yourself a helmet even if you don’t own a bike yet! If it does turn out that cycling isn’t for you, you could always throw a plant in it.

3. Keep Track

Watching the miles add up on your seemingly short rides can make you feel really good about how much you’re travelling and working out. You could get a cycle computer, but if you’re just starting out you probably don’t want to spend more than you would on a smartphone app.

I use Cyclemeter (Paid) on my iPhone. It keeps track of all the information you could possibly need (speed, distance, elevation, time, etc.) – and about ten times as much that you likely never won’t – all within a single app. It’s also useful in comparing routes to see which get me from point A to B faster and with minimum uphill climbs. My only gripe is that it only uses Apple maps.

Endomondo Sports Tracker (Free/Paid) comes highly recommended for Android. RunKeeper (iOS/Android) has fewer features than Cyclemeter but does the job for 0% of the price. If you’d like to turn cycling into a competitive game (but not in the Tour de France sense), Fitocracy (iOS/Android) is for you.

2a. Plan, Plan and Then Keep Planning…

Plan one route and then another. Try them all out and compare notes and feelings and wind speeds. Ask more experienced cyclists about dangerous routes and junctions or hidden cycle paths.

Google Maps provides bicycling directions for some cities, though be warned that it doesn’t take into account inclines. Given how differently cities are set up for cyclists, it’s best to look for local information. Some transport authorities, like Transport for London, provide maps and lots of other resources specific to your area. Citymapper (iOS/Android) is a comprehensive journey planner for London and New York.

If you’re going to be checking your phone while on the road, don’t brake suddenly and try to get on the pavement. Consider getting a phone mount.

Plan for the weather, too! You’re far more likely to get out of the door if you know you’re not going to show up at your destination a drenched puppy. Or maybe plan to look cute, that works too. Looking cute while staying warm and dry? Is that a thing? I don’t know, you tell me. Check out our accessories gift/gear guide for all your compulsive planning and/or consumerist needs.

Okay, you magical queermos could probably pull off this adorable "drenched puppy" look. via Black Bum 3D

Okay, you magical queermos could probably pull off this adorable “drenched puppy” look.
via Black Bum 3D

2b. …or Just Don’t

Follow your heart and windy one-way roads! I find that no amount of planning really prepares me for how confusing roads can be when I’m actually on them, so I just go in the vague direction of where I know I should be and eventually I’ll have a route down. Sometimes you’ll even find it’s easier to get off your bike and walk through pedestrian bits, which you can’t really get from a map.

1. Have Fun!

Like any other form of commuting, cycling down the same route every day can get mundane quick. Unlike most other forms of commuting, it can also make you feel paralysed with fear, what with the risk of being mowed down by a HGV and all. So it helps to remember that cycling is really, really fun.

Before I got into cycling to school, I went on a couple of night rides along the Thames that covered lots of ground without wearing me out and yet allowed me to stop and take in the sights, which neither walking nor driving would have done as well. It helped that I had a more experienced friend to get lost with. At some points I’d get stranded a long way behind her on busy roads because she was more daring in traffic than I was, but having someone show me how to y’know, not die really boosted my confidence on the roads.

We probably did not look this cool but I can pretend. via Metro

We probably did not look this cool but I can pretend.
via Metro

I’ve also been lucky enough to travel to cities that are much safer for and friendlier to cyclists than my own, like Amsterdam and Malmö. Cycling on holiday is one of my favourite things. For something with less planning (and travelling), join large group events like Critical Mass or just head to the park with a picnic basket and your choice of human/s. Anything! There is nothing you need to get from this except to relax.

Casual everyday cycling, nbd. via PoleRiders

Casual everyday cycling, nbd.
via PoleRiders

Finally, remember that this here column is gonna be with you in 2014! I’m super excited to be starting to write this proper and looking forward to hearing all your bike stories as I share with you my own.


This has been the fourth installment of Autostraddle’s yet-to-be-named bike column, where we discuss the joys and perils of getting in (okay, on) the saddle. Here we talk how-tos, gear guides, history, travelling and anything else that comes to mind – all while making terrible jokes about putting our legs round things. Now taking column name suggestions!  

Feature image via Shutterstock

Avatar of Fikri

Politiqueer, student and future cubicle drone-person fond of trees, bicycles, and strawberry sponge cake. Abuses en-dashes. Undecided about the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter or her occasionally updated blog.

Fikri has written 46 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

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    This is totally a post series I needed right now! I got a bike for my 18th birthday, but I never learnt how to ride as a kid (I was supposed to get my sister’s bike when she grew out of it, but it was vandalised by some locals, so I never got it), so the idea of cycling around is terrifying. My current status is being able to pedal for about two seconds, then getting scared of falling and pre-emptively flinging myself off.

    I don’t -need- my bike for commuting currently, but next academic year I will be living off-campus from university, and having that skill will be absolutely necessary, given that I can’t drive, either xD

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    Any advice for someone who stopped biking after being hit by a car? I know how to bike, but ever since I was hit while riding (luckily with no serious injury, which is why everyone should wear their helmets) I’m super nervous about riding, especially alone.

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      I stopped riding for 7 months or so after an accident (not involving a car though, fortunately), and now have been back at it for over a year, with much more gusto than before.

      For me, at least, it came down to not rushing myself, and when I was ready to jump in the saddle, taking it like I was starting from square one. I went on short rides to the coffee shop (as the article suggests), I took small, calm, streets, and I became more confident in my skills. The biggest thing that helped me was group rides and feeling safe in numbers, which then made me feel safer on my own. Maintenance matters too… knowing good mechanics who could help me out, and learning more skills myself, and making sure everything on my bike made me comfortable. And community! Having like-minded friends who always want to be out on their bikes makes me want to be on my bike, too, you know?

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        some cities have cute little bike roads that are closed to cars and other motorized traffic. Maybe start by biking on those, or around parks or other areas closed to traffic, like campuses, to ease back into it. glad you’re mended up.

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      Agh I’m really sorry to hear about your accident, and I’m glad you weren’t badly injured. As Laura says, just take things as slow as you need them to be.

      This is kinda counter-intuitive but when I’m recovering from an accident/close call or am feeling especially nervous about cycling, I read more about cyclist accidents – partly because I clearly make terrible self-care decisions, but mainly because knowing how they happen means knowing how to avoid them happening. It helps me to know which junctions along my commute are the most dangerous and why, and that fatal accidents are disproportionately caused by left-turning HGVs so it’s totally worth that extra half a minute staying as far behind them at traffic lights as possible. I don’t know if this would help you, but it might be worth a try?

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      a hill with grass at the end — that way she can learn to balance on two wheels by coasting downhill, and there’s grass at the end for soft landings. once she’s figured out how to balance with feet out to stop from falling sideways, then she can try coasting w/ feet on petals, and finally pedaling. have fuuuunnnn.

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      I have a small human I have been attempting to get on a small bike for a year now but have thus far failed miserably at it, but if I ever succeed, there’ll def be a post on learning to ride a bike.

      I expect it’s a lot easier with adults who aren’t terrified of everything though. I don’t think there’s really a best type of bike, just find a comfortable one! Slanted/lower horizontal bars (commonly found on women’s bikes) might be helpful because they’re easier to get over and less intimidating when you’re new to balancing on a thin metal frame/are definitely going to be crashing a lot.

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    I was a year-round biker who rode to get anywhere and everywhere in Portland, OR, weather be damned. Now that I’m in Boston I’m terrified of biking on these roads, especially with the drivers here (and forget the weather, no amount of gear will get me out in a snowstorm). It’s nice to see that there are more bike lanes and bike racks around town than when I left 8 years ago, but I’m pretty sure automobile bike awareness is still a work in progress. The fact that I just got healthcare coverage (thank you mass health) is making me feel a lot braver, which in and of itself reflects a slightly fatalist attitude, but we’ll see how it goes… after the snow melts.

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      You can, though, probably! I just wrote an article the other day about how surprisingly easy it is! : ) http://gr.pn/19GsjvC (This talks a little about actually nice gear but honestly I pretty much slap together layers of anything and ride my same old ultra-minimal track bite all the time and it’s fine. I don’t go out in blizzards or when it drops into the single digits, generally, but for everything else you can get away with surprisingly little special preparation.)

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    For more practical tips on how to actually bike safely in urban areas, many cities have bike coalitions of some sort that offer “bicycle safety” classes.

    Transportation Alternatives in NYC and the SF Bike Coalition in San Francisco, for example.

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    Re apps: I’ve recently started using STRAVA and have found it very easy to use. The basic features are free for iPhone, but you can trade up to Premium if number crunching is your thing.
    The best but is you can use it for cycles rides AND also runs, so great for multisports training

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    I’m SO excited about this column! I just got into riding my bike this past summer and loved it, but now that I live in Boston I’m pretty intimidated (and cold..). However, I discovered a beginner bike maintenance class for women and transgendered people at Broadway Bicycle School that I think will at least help get me comfortable taking care of my bike. Thanks for all the helpful info and encouragement!

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    I wish there were bikes paths where I live, uuugghhhhh then I could so ride to work…..if I go early in the morning when there are less cars it should be fine, but how will I get back in the busy afternoon :(
    But yes with this post I’m more inspired to try it out this year!

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    I live south of San Francisco in a very touristy area. Idk what is scarier; riding alongside tourists & their maps, dodging the road raged elitists, or trying to pass wildlife unnoticed.

    Basically…Frogger 3: Queer Adventures
    lol!

    But hey, I’m determined to be an experienced rider.
    So safety, confidence, & no earbuds for me! =^•^=

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      As someone whose commute used to take her past Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace daily (and through Oxford Street on nights when Hyde Park was closed), I am both resentful and terrified of tourists. I’ve never been hit by a car, but I have crashed into a lamp post trying to dodge a tourist who stepped into the middle of a bike path to take a selfie.

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    Just FYI – Fitocracy doesn’t track rides/runs/whatever with GPS or the like, but you can set it to sync with RunKeeper, which makes tracking for points super easy.

    Also, sidebar, there’s an Autostraddle Fitocracy group that you all should join. I’d link it but I’m on my phone. But I’m sure you can find the search button ;)

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    When I decided that horseback riding had become too dangerous for me (and expensive), I started cycling on an old junky bike from the garage. Then I got a new mountain bike. I prefer the wilderness to busy streets with bad drivers. But I’ve gotten more confident and I’m just getting into cyclocross, which is a badass hybrid mix between road and mountain- and it’s super fun. I’m obsessed. I tell all my friends to get bikes and come bike with me. Just get out there, go at your own pace, and have fun!!

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