New To Cycling?

If you are new to cycling and do not know where to start, this series may help you. In the coming weeks, WomensCycling.net will provide basic information and facts to give you an insight into the world of cycling and more importantly, how to become an active cyclist.

1 :  Cycling - the basics - cycling position


Well, if you've got this far, you've obviously got an interest in cycling.... But what is it that you want to do? Is it the healthy, outdoor activity that appeals, or is it the chance to participate in large social or tourist rides? Are you a budding racer - on the road, on the track? Are you keen to ride with others to a coffee stop on a Sunday morning? 

Whatever your reasons, this series will attempt to answer some of the commonly asked questions about cycling and to provide insight into various aspects of cycling which are specific to women's experiences. 

Cycling is a terrific sport - the health benefits speak for themselves - its good for your heart and because you sit on the bike, there is no weight-bearing damage to your joints (as you may get walking, or running) - that is, its a 'low impact' sport. Cycling boosts your cardiovascular system (that's another way of saying its good for your heart, plus your lungs) and also improves muscle tone and general fitness levels. Cycling is a great sport in itself and can also be used to develop base fitness for other sports. If you are unfortunate enough to be injured and want to maintain fitness for another sport, cycling can help there too. (In fact, there are many cases of people taking up cycling because they are recovering from injury or no longer able to run and falling under the sport's spell to the extent that they become cycling converts and cycling champions themselves). 

Cycling is one of those few sports where you can compete for yourself and yet at the same time, you can compete for your club/ team and even help team-mates to victory. In its purest individually competitive form, where the individual rides against the clock, fitness and technique are important aspects of any victory. Whenever more than rider competes at the same time - be it two riders on the track in a sprint, or a huge bunch in a road race, tactics can become as important as fitness and technique. Where there are more than two people from the same team or club riding in an event, team tactics take a priority.

You don't have to compete to enjoy cycling. Many people take their enjoyment from simply putting the road under their wheels and seeing their locality from a perspective which is very different to that from a car, train or bus. Cycling is almost silent, so it is possible to get nearer to wildlife. Cycling is obviously slower than other forms of motorised transport and so there is more time to take in the views. Cycling can pit you against the elements and even the wettest, coldest ride can be enjoyable for the sense of enjoyment, achievement or camaraderie which is gained from a day in the saddle.

Cycling can become a lifelong activity, even lifestyle. Many, many people who took up cycling in their younger years still cycle today. It is not uncommon to meet people in their 60's, 70's, even 80's who still cycle most days and some even compete. How many other sports can boast such a long career for its participants?!

Cycling does not necessarily need to be an expensive sport. Okay, you will need to acquire a bike and it is so much more comfortable to cycle in specially-designed clothing. But these items do not need to 'break the bank' and can last for many years when treated with care and maintained correctly. 

Although the following information will be dealt with in greater depth in later weeks, it is worth touching on it here too, in order to get you going. Probably the key things to get right to make cycling as enjoyable as possible are the bike set up and the clothing you wear. At first, you will probably have a limited amount of clothing and only one bike. In time, your wardrobe and your bicycle collection is likely to expand as you become more involved. 


Position on the Bike - basics

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Saddle Height     Saddle Tilt     Handlebar Height     Saddle-Handlebar distance

Assuming that you have a bike to ride, the most important thing for comfort is to ensure that it is set up properly for you. The most important thing for safety is to ensure that the bike is mechanically sound and well maintained. A well-fitting bike will also assist safety, since a bike which is too big or too small requires you to 'make best', which can be dangerous if you are struggling to reach the brakes or perform steering manoeuvres. 

So, to be safe and to be comfortable, you need to make sure that the saddle height, handlebar height and distance between bars and saddle are correct. There are many different systems which are used to get these dimensions correct. In fact, as you progress, you may wish to spend some money in getting your position professionally analysed by a bike shop which uses computer-aided equipment, or by a coach or advisor with their own system which is proven to work. For now, the idea is to get you on the bike and get you riding, so here, it will be kept simple..........

There are three points of contact on a bike - hands, posterior and feet, which meet the handlebars, saddle and pedals. Get the relative dimensions in this 'triangle' correct and you can ride many kilometres comfortably. Get it wrong and you could suffer on a leisurely ride to the local store........

One of the comfort factors for riding a bike is the proportion of your body weight which is in contact with the bike via each of the contact point. Too much through your handlebars and you will probably suffer with discomfort in your wrists, arms and upper body. Too much through your saddle and you will be sore and may even bruise your posterior. A balanced position which has equal weight distribution between saddle and handlebars is most comfortable, especially when starting out. A balanced position is also safer - putting a lot of your body weight through your handlebars can push your centre of gravity forwards and upwards - making you unstable and unable to react quickly to steering hazards.


Saddle Height  - Pedal to Saddle distance

As a rule of thumb, you should be able to sit on your saddle and put your heel (socks only) over the pedal axle when the pedal is almost at the bottom of its revolution, but the crank is parallel to the seat tube (See Diagram 1 below). Your knee should be just about, or, almost straight. See Diagram 2 below : 

Click on the diagrams to enlarge >

ParallelCrank.jpg (28504 bytes) SaddleHeightHeel.jpg (27839 bytes) SaddleHeight-BallOfFoot.jpg (28850 bytes)
Diagram 1 Diagram 2 Diagram 3 

Alternatively, with your usual cycling shoes, sit on the saddle and put the pedal to almost its lowest position, where the crank is parallel to the seat tube and with your hands on the handlebars, your knee should be slightly bent when the ball of your foot is over the pedal axle. See Diagram 3 - above

These two guides to height are rules of thumb - general guidelines, they will give you an idea. Try either and if you want, adjust the height slightly. If you do decide to adjust things, make sure that you take time to try the new height - don't change it every time you ride but do a few rides to make sure that you are making a decision based on being used to the new position, not based on the fact that it feels alien because it is a different position. Also, if you do decide to experiment, make changes incrementally / gradually - in small stages. Rather than, say a centimetre at a time, which is too much, you should  move the saddle height by no more than 3mm or 4mm at a time.


Saddle Tilt

Conventional wisdom is moving away from the mantra that the saddle must only be horizontal. A good place to start is with the saddle horizontal, from there, you can tweak the position to suit yourself. Cyclists experiencing back pain sometimes tilt the saddle slightly downwards at the nose, as do those participating in 'time trials' where they have an extreme position and very low handlebar height. As is the advice with respect to saddle height, you should make adjustments incrementally - gradually. Take time to get used to the adjusted position before you decide whether it requires further adjustment.


Handlebar Height

Handlebar height is a bit more complex to define. The handlebar position depends on several factors, including what type of riding you are undertaking, how flexible you are and what type of bike you are riding. For example, you would experience all kinds of discomfort  to try to ride a drop handlebar (racing) bike with the handlebars set 20cm above the saddle, but it would probably not be too uncomfortable to do this on a roadster / straight bar bike.  

When starting out, you will probably not need to have the most aerodynamic position possible - that is, you are unlikely to be undertaking a championship time trial in your first rides. So, get comfortable. Again, a rule of thumb / general guideline is that your handlebars should be at the same height as your saddle. If you have a drop handlebar (racing) bike, you may wish to set the handlebars a little below the saddle height. If you are riding a mountain bike, or a roadster / straight bar bike, you might set the handlebars a little higher than the saddle position. If your flexibility in your back is limited, or if you intend to ride socially rather than race, you may decide that even on a drop handlebar (racing) bike that you wish to set the handlebars above the saddle height. 

The important thing here is to experiment and to get comfortable. As mentioned above, maintain a balance of weight distribution between saddle ad handlebars. 

An important component found on the handlebars are the brakes. Wherever you decide to position the 'bars, you should always ensure that you can easily reach the brake levers. You should be able to apply the brakes without drastic repositioning of your hands and without stretching to reach them. If your hands are too small to grasp the brake levers safely, either change them or adjust (on some models this is possible) them so that you are not overstretching in order to slow / stop your bike. 

Handlebar width is important too - if the 'bars are too narrow, you will impede your breathing by closing your chest due to the inwards slope of your arms. If the bars are too wide, you may struggle to control the bike, you will put more weight through the saddle than is comfortable and although possibly not an issue for you now, you will also be less aerodynamic than you could be. Whilst you might dismiss that as an issue for competitive riders, why be a martyr to the wind if you don't need to be? An optimum position does not mean you have to take a competitive position, just that your energy expenditure is at its minimum for whatever your chosen riding interest.  Generally, choose a handlebar width which is the same as the width of your shoulders, this way you avoid causing problems with breathing and you don't over extend either.


Saddle - Handlebar Distance

Saddle - handlebar distance is a crucial factor in the distribution of you body weight between the contact points. Too close and you will be scrunched up and you will be uncomfortable, your airways may be constricted and you may bang your knees on the handlebars. If you feel that your back is curving, or that you are squeezing yourself into the gap, the distance is probably too short. If your elbows are bent to 90' or more, then you need a greater saddle-handlebar distance.

If the distance is too great, you will be too stretched out and you will be uncomfortable and unsafe. Your ability to steer can become compromised and your weight distribution will be poor. If your arms are stretched out straight, the distance is probably too great - straight arms quickly get tired and because there is no bend, there is no opportunity to use them as built-in shock absorbers when travelling over uneven surfaces.

The range of what is "correct" is wide for the saddle to handlebar distance. Broadly speaking, bike manufacturers aim to suit the 'average' rider. So, unless you have a very long body and short legs (in which case, the distance will be too short for you), or you have long legs and a short body (when the distance will be too long), an average bike is likely to fit you. BUT, women are morphologically different to men, so an average men's bike is different to an average women's bike..........  If you are considering buying a bike, it might be worth looking at women's specific models. However, many women successfully and comfortably ride men's bikes without negative effects. The length of a bike is not fixed anyway. A shorter or longer handlebar stem can change the saddle - handlebar distance by up to 8cm, so do not panic if you think your bike might be a little too long or too short - simply talk to your local bike shop about changing the stem length. 


If you are choosing a bike (and this topic will be covered later in the series), then frame size is important. You must feel comfortable on the bike, if you don't immediately feel that it is "for you" then it probably never will be. Err on the side of caution with respect to frame size and (you should never buy a bike which is obviously far too small for you) if you need to choose, go for the smaller rather than larger bike - far more can be done to accommodate changes and make the bike really fit you by extending parts and raising the saddle / handlebars. There's not too much you can do to make a too large bike small enough - cutting length out of the frame is just not possible..........

Brad McGee - the Australian Tour de France and ex-World Champion cyclist has commented in the past that "if it feels right then it probably is" (or words to that effect). So, as you are getting started, remember, if you feel comfortable, then your position is probably okay. If it doesn't then you may need to tinker with it. Bear in mind, though that if you are a real novice cyclist, even if you are fit for other sports, your body will take time to adapt to the stresses of cycling. You should allow yourself some time to get acclimatised to the activity before making any major changes if your position seems to be generally okay. 

Parts of your body which are likely to hurt until you become used to cycling are obvious as well as not so obvious. You will probably feel discomfort in the saddle area. Your wrists may be sore too. It is possible that your hands will be sore and you might feel pain in your knees too. Some people experience sore feet, whilst others get pain in the lower back or neck. The key here is to persevere. If any pains are ongoing, or do not diminish over time, then you should start to analyse your position more carefully.

Next time - What to wear


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1. The basics - cycling position
Saddle Height    
Saddle Tilt    
Handlebar Height  
Saddle-Handlebar distance

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