A Wheelie Handy Guide to Cycling

A couple of months ago, in a moment of what I can only assume was temporary insanity, I signed up to ‘RideLondon’—a 100-mile cycling event being held this Sunday in our nation’s capital.

Starting in the Olympic Park, riders will spin out west, past the Tower of London, through Chiswick and Richmond Park, and then out towards the Surrey Hills. Leith Hill and Box Hill are both on the agenda, before we head back north, through the rolling countryside of Oxshott and Esher towards the big smoke. A quick swerve around Wimbledon Common, over Putney Bridge, and then onwards to an iconic finish along The Mall. 25,000 eager men and women will take on the 100-mile challenge of closed-road madness, with waves of competitors starting at the not-so-social time of 5:45am. One recently retired swimmer with wobbly legs and an excessive number of energy gels will join them. What could possibly go wrong?

After hanging up my goggles for good in April, I found myself descending into this lycra-clad world, under the guise of preparing for the ‘race’. Technically I’m trying not to think of it as a race, probably because it’s been quite a long time since I did a race in which I wasn’t ranked in at least the top 10% of competitors. Therefore, to ease my troubled ego, I am calling it an ‘extended personal challenge’, though I imagine the reality is that a serious amount of natural competitiveness will have me chomping at the bit before I even make it to the start line.

Training for a long bike ride is very, very different to training for a 200m backstroke, not least because a helmet would be a serious hindrance in swimming pool. I got the cycling basics right a while ago—I know how to ride a bike without stabilisers (which I think is a pre-requisite to entering RideLondon) and I’ve done a few steady rides over the years—but I didn’t know what all the parts of a bike were called, and I definitely didn’t know how to train for an event that will last for around six hours, as opposed to two minutes.

Cycling is a funny sport, especially at an amateur level, where there are definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to do things. So far, I’ve managed to get most of these things wrong and, with that in mind, I’ve compiled a guide from the things I’ve learnt over the last few months, useful for anyone who’s on a quest to become a slightly-better-than-average cyclist:

  1. Fitness trumps all.

Cycling is an odd pursuit because it’s not particularly technical (I’m sure I’ll get into trouble from some cycling nerds for saying that…) Sure, there are good and bad techniques, and right and wrong body positions to adopt, but these are relatively easy to fix and, with a decent bike and a lot of self-motivation, it’s relatively simple to improve at cycling. This isn’t to say, by any means, that it’s easy to be an exceptional cyclist, and I can’t imagine the training that the distance pros have to put in the bank in order to excel over the 21 stages of the Tour de France, or the effort the sprint champs must apply to develop thighs the size of houses. But, coming from a sport where technique makes such a fundamental difference, it’s been strange to do an activity where the main quantifiers for success are pure fitness and a masochistic desire to be in pain.

  1. Cleats are magic.

Cleats seem like a Jedi mind trick, until you get used to them, and then you can’t imagine life on a bike without them. Being clipped in and essentially ‘stuck’ to your bike is a terrifying prospect for an amateur cyclist who’s only ever used flats, and when someone first suggested them to me I thought they were having a laugh. I’d only just got over the fact that humans somehow manage to balance on mere inches of rubber whilst travelling at 30mph, so I couldn’t quite get my head around the thought of not being able to get off whenever I wanted. The first few rides will be precarious, and you’ll panic at every set of traffic lights, cursing at what feels like superglue on the bottom of your shoes. But soon, just as the Spice Girls predicted, two become one, and you’ll realise the benefit of being conjoined. For me, having never been ‘taught’ the correct foot alignment on a pedal, wearing cleats solved a technical deficit and alleviated a lot of unnecessary pressure that was shooting through my knees and hips, caused by incorrect foot angles.

  1. You need to eat. All the time.

Fuelling for a training session in the pool is relatively easy, and fairly regular meals and snacks throughout the day will usually suffice. During hard swim sessions I’d occasionally grab an energy gel, but rarely anything more substantial mid-set. On a long ride, however, glycogen stores deplete alarmingly quickly, and I’ve found myself needing to munch almost constantly to avoid expiring completely. Apparently backpacks aren’t cool, so a selection of gels and bars in your jersey pockets are a must, but can be difficult for novices to eat on the go without wobbling more than a DIY bookshelf. I’ve found that pita breads with peanut butter and jam inside are ideal for shoving down the back of a jersey and shoving into a mouth, whilst maintaining speed. A couple of weeks ago I’d saved a nice apple energy gel until the last 10km of an 80km ride, when I had a little mishap—I ripped the top off with my teeth, whilst still cycling (what a pro), before immediately dropping it on the tarmac and riding over it with my back wheel. I backtracked to salvage the gel and was faced with a sad, sticky mess in the middle of the road but, in the interest of fuelling, duly gobbled up what remained, and splashed the spillage away with my drinks bottle. If diabetes becomes a problem for squirrels, it’s the fault of rubbish cyclists…

NB: This rule also applies to drinking fluids. I have very rarely felt thirsty in a swimming session (because pools are temperature controlled), however halfway through a bike ride, I start fantasising about falling down a well, just so I can quench my thirst…

  1. Tan lines are important and must be well maintained.

We’ve been blessed with a glorious summer so far in the UK, with long sunny days to spend out on the bike. Before long, riding in the sun will leave a rider with a mid-thigh and mid-bicep tan line. You can somewhat diminish this outcome by reducing your riding to dawn and dusk, like a vampire in padded shorts. When I started midday cycling I tried to mix up where my jersey sleeves and shorts ended, in order to blur the lines and make it less obvious to anyone who later saw me in a dress. I was quickly to learn that this is not the correct thing to do. Tan lines on cyclists are a source of pride and, if you want to be taken seriously in the velo world, you must line up your shorts and jersey with a surgeon’s precision each time you ride. This way your tan lines will remain razor-sharp and everyone will know that you are a pro. The sun also shouldn’t have a chance to touch the back of your hands, and if you’re very committed you’ll have tan lines along your jaw from your helmet straps.

NB: If you are male, the correct thing to do is to shave your legs, preferably at the same time as sipping an espresso. The leg shaving is ostensibly something to do with aerodynamics and treating future road rash, but the reality is that it’s just so that everyone in Sainsbury’s knows you’re a cyclist. Like a chainset, legs should be oiled and gleaming at all available opportunities, and as with your tan lines, you should treat your glistening pins as a badge of honour.

  1. Padded shorts are essential.

Relatively self-explanatory if you want to be able to sit down at any point during the week following a 100km bike ride. Even with padding you won’t be able to feel your private parts for a few hours post-dismount.

  1. Drafting is cheating but not cheating.

Drafting when you’re in a swimming pool doesn’t really happen (open water swimming is another story), but drafting whilst in a group is of paramount importance in cycling. My heart rate is about 10% lower when I sit behind someone else, compared to riding solo at the same speed. Drafting someone for an entire ride won’t get you many friends, but an unwritten rule of cycling is that everyone has a go at the front (where it hurts more) and therefore everyone reaps the benefit of spending some time in a slipstream too. If you really know your stuff then when riding at the front you do a little elbow flick to politely indicate that you’d like someone behind you to hurry up and take your place, although when I tried this I forgot to let go of the handlebars first and I nearly crashed into the curb. I’ve settled on just shouting, “Oi! My legs hurt, someone else have a go!”

  1. You are at the mercy of the elements.

Yes, I’ve swum outside in all weather—rain, sun, hail, thunder etc. But a pool is a controlled environment and, unless there’s a typhoon/tsunami/volcanic eruption, the temperature of the pool is unlikely to change significantly over the course of a training session. Wind can be a factor but, seeing as swimmers basically go ‘there and back’ repeatedly, a prevailing wind usually equals out over the course of a race. Outdoor swim meets are often marginally slower than indoor ones, but it’s not significant enough to warrant much stress to swimmers. On a bike, it a whole different ball game. I have discovered that I am very much a fair-weather rider and, despite doing a very damp sport for a lot of years, I dislike being rained on. This penchant for clear skies was evidenced during a ride I did a few weeks ago where a bit of drizzle sent me home, three and a half minutes after leaving the front door. I am also relatively lightweight by regular standards (not by pro road cycling standards, where riders tend to be weighed in milligrams rather than kilograms), and therefore find myself susceptible to being blown off course when the wind picks up. Luckily my boyfriend Tom (who is a keen cyclist and has taught me most of these rules) is 6ft6 and acts as a good windbreaker to sit behind. Unfortunately for me he’s also very fast, and the aforementioned ‘slipstream’ effect doesn’t work so well when the person is 4km ahead of you…

  1. There are lots of idiots on the roads.

Some of them are on bikes, most of them are in cars. You should be wary or anyone driving beside you with England flags sticking out of their roof once the World Cup is over. These are the people most likely to run you over.

  1. It’s important to know what the bits of a bike are called if you don’t want to be ridiculed.

For ease of reference I’ve compiled a glossary for the main bits:

 Handlebars: the bit you put your hands on. During tedious rides it is also acceptable to rest on these whilst taking a nap.

Brakes: the handy mechanism that will (hopefully) bring your bike to a halt when you realise that lying over your top tube like a TdF racer whilst going down a mountain wasn’t a good plan.

Wheels: the round bits. Important to note that when you get a puncture the correct terminology isn’t, “I need to change my wheel”. Unless you’ve cycled into a brick wall. Or one of Chris Hoy’s thighs.

Main frame: the bit that holds all the other bits together. Designed by someone with a big protractor.

Drive chain: the links of metal that transfers power from your pedals to the wheels. If the chain falls off you’re in trouble. Chains should be kept clean but lubricated. If you don’t have any lube handy you can ask a bike mechanic or use olive oil. However, if someone wearing Lycra approaches and offers to help you lube up, you should run away.

Chainset: the spikey concentric rings of gears at the back. A few years ago I ended up with a chainset firmly embedded in my calf. There’s a good chance I was doing cycling wrong at this point.

Derailleurs: some French sorcery that nobody truly understands. Allows you to change gears when you feel like you’re having an aneurysm going up a hill.

Saddle: the bit your bum goes on. Saddles are measured by the Mohs Scale of Hardness. If you’re out on a jolly, you’re allowed a thin cushion. If you’re a pro, then you must endure sitting on the equivalent of a paving slab, but at least the pain in your backside will distract you from the diminishing control you have over your quads.

Garmin (other brands are available): a small on-board computer that will continuously remind you how average you are at cycling. For more of an ego boost you can upload information onto an app called ‘Strava’ when you get home—Strava will ‘rank’ segments of your rides against all other app users and you can compete against your friends and colleagues. If you want to be ‘King/Queen of the Mountains’ and top the Strava leaderboard segments, it’s relatively straightforward: simply take your Garmin for a ride. In a car.

All in all, it’s been an enlightening few months, but I’ve really enjoyed challenging myself in a sport that has me lured me out into the open and given me the chance to enjoy the British countryside (potholes and the smell of manure). The cycling community is a wonderful, and slightly ridiculous, place to hang out, but it’s a very social sport and I’ve had an immense amount of fun trying my luck on two wheels.

I’m excited (and slightly terrified) for RideLondon this weekend but, despite having to drag myself up and down the Surrey Alps, I’m sure I will have a lot of fun too.

I chose to sign up to the ride partially for a challenge, partially in the hope that having a new fitness goal would ward off obesity, but mainly to raise money for an awesome charity called SportsAid, who support young athletes at the very beginning of their sporting careers. If you feel like my handy guide has helped with your own aspirations to become a Lycra-clad velophile, then please support in any way you can by following the link to my fundraising page below. Thank you!


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