Since the coronavirus pandemic started, cycling has surged with all the stats pointing to an increasing number of people getting on their bikes, and with even more expected to cycle to work when offices reopen.
But getting on a saddle as a newbie or breaking back into cycling after a break can be daunting. I started cycling to work in London about a decade ago and found it made a huge difference to my mental well-being as well as my pocket, but it took a while to feel really comfortable navigating my way around the capital’s many busy roads. Though I mostly work from home now, I still try to cycle if I have to go somewhere, either on my own bike or a hire one.
These days, new commuters or leisure cyclists are benefitting from massively improved cycling infrastructure, although there’s still a long way to go before the UK has the type of space for bikes that some other countries offer.
The first step to cycling is obviously getting your hands on a bike. If you’re going to commute, look into the Cycle to Work scheme most employers offer. There’s no limit to the amount of money you can spend through this initiative, which allows you to spread the cost of a bike tax-free through salary sacrifice.
Getting advice from your local bike shop is enormously helpful for picking the right bike at the right price and size. Making sure your bike fits is crucial. You don’t want to be stretching for the handlebars, and when you’re sitting on the saddle pressing down on the pedal – your leg should be almost, but not quite, straight. On my bike I can just touch the floor with my toes when I’m stopped.
If budget is a concern then a second-hand bike is a great alternative. But try and buy from a shop where it will have been refurbished and properly checked over. If you purchase from somewhere like Gumtree do a bit of research first; online marketplaces are where bike thieves sell their stolen goods and you can’t guarantee what state the bike will be in, how much it’s been used and when it was last serviced. A genuine seller will be able to tell you about that.
There is no right or wrong answer to what sort of bike you choose, although for commuting a fat-tired mountain bike is probably not the answer! Hybrid bikes with flat handlebars are good for commuting and leisure cycling; road bikes with dropped handlebars are also great for both. ‘Gravel’ or touring bikes are also popular these days and often come with pannier racks or fittings to help you carry your stuff.
A folding bike is a great option if you don’t have much space at home, and an e-bike is a good compromise between fitness and efficiency. I use a single-speed bike for commuting and pootling about town as London is fairly flat and I don’t have to worry about maintaining the gears.
Once you have your bike, it’s time to accessorise. The only essential piece of kit is a lock. Get a decent and ideally ‘gold’ standard one that can go through a wheel and the bike frame. Lock your back wheel and frame to bike racks and consider a secondary lock for the front wheel. I once had my frame and front wheel stolen from the garage at work – the thieves left my back wheel locked to the rack, which wasn’t terribly helpful for getting home.
A mount for your phone, or a cycle computer, is a good idea for route-finding, and a bottle cage for a water bottle is also useful. A helmet is extremely sensible but interestingly not required in the UK. So, do your own risk assessment on whether or not to use one.
If you haven’t cycled for a while, it’s worth testing your skills on quiet back streets near your home if possible. Look well ahead, especially for pedestrians on their phones stepping out into the road or vehicles turning without indicating. Stay well clear of parked cars and ride assertively. You are safer taking primary position away from the kerb than hugging the edge of the road.
For route-finding, apps like Strava, Komoot, or Cyclestreets can help you pick the way to go, and having the route displayed on a phone or computer in front of you saves endless faff. Use the popularity and cycling layers to find the best routes.
If you’re going to cycle to work, test out the route on a weekend or at a quiet time of day first so you know how long it’s likely to take. Maybe, think about taking a more experienced buddy with you – several cycling campaign groups are now setting up buddy schemes to build new cyclists’ confidence.
Finally, it’s worth joining a membership association. British Cycling ‘ride’ membership is around £40 a year, and if you do happen to be involved in an accident, they offer a reasonable no-win no-fees claim scheme. Bike accidents are genuinely relatively uncommon – I’ve had three minor incidents in 10 years and around 10,000 miles of cycling – but it’s nice to know there’s someone who can help if something does happen.
The main point is to just out yourself out there and get on your bike. Feel the wind on your face, look at the world going by and explore where you live in a new way. Enjoy!
Joanne Harris, freelance journalist