Family Cycling Tips and Tricks

It doesn't matter how long it's been since your last bike ride -- just jump back on and see how fun and easy it can be.


As Ann Barnes casually pedals next to her 7-year-old daughter, Jacquelyn, on the bike trail at White Rock Lake Park in Dallas, birds float above the lake, buoyed on a steady breeze, much like Ann's mood every time she rides. After being off the bike for years, she rediscovered cycling as a way to spend time with her daughter and start exercising again. Their 20-minute rides, which often include a picnic or playground break, rejuvenate the 48-year-old computer software analyst.

"Getting out, being active, and breathing the fresh air makes us both feel happy," Ann says. "Riding again has given rise to my spirits, so I'm also working out at the gym at lunch. The bike's more fun, though."

Like Ann, you probably have a bike stowed in your garage or basement. Brush off the cobwebs, start riding regularly, and you'll feel an energy boost and shed some pounds. Even if you haven't broken a sweat in years, cycling is an excellent way to ease back into workouts, says Nikki Kimbrough, a New York-based personal trainer and spokesperson for Bally's Total Fitness.

"When you ride, you build base fitness and stamina," says Kimbrough, who also recently started riding again to train for a triathlon. Although cycling is low-impact, the calorie burn can be as high as running. Riding a bike at about 12 mph burns just as many calories as running 5 mph -- without the wear and tear on your knees.

To make returning to the saddle as easy as, well, riding a bike, here's your guide to equipment, bike safety, pacing yourself, and even how to recycle old unused bicycles.

Must-Have Gear

When you start to ride again, begin at the bottom -- your bottom, that is.

Bike Shorts

"Buy yourself some good bike shorts," advises Keith Gifford, a 40-year-old Indianapolis attorney who began riding again three years ago after more than 20 years off a bike. "Shorts made my riding much more comfortable."

Instead of the skin-tight models, Keith opted for baggy shorts with protective chamois inside. Expect to pay from $40 to $80 for a good pair of shorts. With shorts in hand (so to speak), Keith felt comfortable enough to pedal 20-milers almost as soon as he began riding again. And after 10 weeks of regular cycling, he lost 25 pounds and was fit enough to tackle a daunting 100-mile ride that winds around Bloomington, Indiana, called the Hilly Hundred.

Helmet

Another cycling essential is a helmet. In addition to protecting your own noggin, you'll set a safety-conscious example for your children. Check the inside of the helmet for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) sticker that indicates the helmet meets safety standards. Such safe helmets cost as little as $20. If you opt for fancier colors and styles, you can spend $35 to $150.

Your helmet should fit snugly and level on your head (not angled up or to the side) and the strap should be tight enough so you can slip only two fingers between your chin and the buckle. The V straps on the sides should meet just below your ear and, if you look up, you should just barely be able to see the brim.

Bike Safety

Three years ago, when D'Lynda Fischer moved to Venice, California, she was ready for a change. She quit smoking and pulled her bike out of storage. Her first step: taking the bike to a shop for a tune-up. That checkup has kept her on a roll. Since then, 46-year-old D'Lynda rides three days a week, has lost about 30 pounds, and has dropped from a 10 to a 4 dress size.

Your road to riding as confidently as D'Lynda begins when your bike is in top shape and when you feel comfortable enough to ride for longer distances.

Bike Safety Tests

A shop tune-up costs $40 to $60. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, here are five quick safety tests recommended by Calvin Jones, a bike mechanic for more than 30 years and author of The Big Blue Book of Bike Repair (Park Tool Co.).

  • Grab Each Wheel. Pull back and forth to test whether they're loose in the frame. Spin the wheels to check that they're not touching brake pads.
  • Ensure a Secure Seat. Hold the frame with one hand and the saddle with the other, then try to twist the saddle. Tighten, if needed.
  • Look for Rust. A little surface rust is okay, but if the frame has rusted through or if the chain has rusted so much that it's stiff, it may be unsafe. While you're eyeballing the chain, lubricate it with one drop of bicycle-specific chain lube per roller.
  • Check for Tire Cracks. If the tire sidewalls look like fishnet, they're too old and worn to be ridden.
  • Dig Your Thumbnail into the Brake Pads. If the pads are too hard to allow you to press your thumbnail into them, they may not help you stop as well as they should.

Along with safety, proper fit will keep you rolling for years. The most crucial adjustment is the seat. The saddle should be high enough so your leg is slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal stroke. On your first few rides, it's fine to have the saddle slightly lower, however. Look at the seat from the side. It should be level, not tilted down or (ouch!) up.

Incorporating Riding into Your Life

Ann, Keith, and D'Lynda are hooked. For them, cycling has become a way to stay fit and enjoy the company of friends and family. Planning routes and using workout strategies can ease you into what can become a lifelong way to help you stay healthy.

"Set realistic goals as you begin to ride," says Bally's Kimbrough. "Your first few times out, try to ride for 20 minutes at a moderate and steady pace -- about 12 mph. Then add 5 minutes about every other ride afterward."

Keith prepared himself for riding again by working out on exercise bicycles at the gym. "Even though you can crank up the hill level on a stationary bike, it's always harder when you're really out on the road," he says.

Riding & Road Recommendations

Kimbrough recommends that you use bike trails instead of making your first few rides on the road. This allows you to concentrate on getting familiar with your bike again before you have to worry about contending with traffic.

When you begin to ride after a few years off the bike, you'll likely feel a little pain in your butt, quads, and lower back, she says. But that soreness is just telling you that your muscles are working. It should go away within a week or two.

To keep riding fun, Kimbrough also suggests teaming up with a friend or beginner bike club and planning routes with midpoint breaks, such as at a coffee shop. "When you ride with others, it's a social experience and you're more likely to ride more often," she says. "The coffee shop stop will give you a goal to keep going and feel like you're accomplishing something, even when the ride isn't over yet."

And if you take all these suggestions to heart, the ride won't be over yet for many, many years.

Cannondale Daytripper Seven

One-size frame fits all with minor adjustments. Seven speeds help you up hills and the low height makes it easy to put feet on the ground to get on and off. A front shock smoothes bumps, $600; cannondale.com.

Electra Townie I

A snappy combo of old-school style and new-school design. Just like your childhood bike, the Townie has a rear coaster brake, but also includes a hand brake on the front wheel for additional stopping power. With only one gear, and no shifting, this is the ultimate get-on-and-just-ride bike, $300; electrabike.com.

Breezer Villager U Frame

Decked out with everything to make small shopping runs or short commutes, this bike has lights, rack, lock, fenders, and mud flaps. Loaded with safety and comfort features, it includes a suspension seat post and reflective tire sidewalls. All gears are inside the rear hub so there is little maintenance, $769; breezerbikes.com.


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