Advice for a first-time road biker?
September 4, 2005 2:08 PM   Subscribe

What is your advice for a first-time road biker?

I just recently moved to the SF Bay Area/Silicon Valley from Colorado, where I was used to being able to basically walk out my door and go hiking. Since that particular fitness activity is not as convenient here, and due to other factors like rising gas prices and traffic, I decided to pick up a road bike (a Specialized Allez 24).

I was fitted by the clerk at the store, so it's a pretty good fit and it's adjusted well. I've biked before, but never regularly and never strictly on a road bike. What advice would you, the experienced road biker with the streamlined helmet and the funny-looking sunglasses (or not :), offer to a first-timer? Since the plan is to bike to and from work, advice on negotiating traffic, being a courteous member of the road, and other bits like just how to ride comfortably is especially appreciated, but all advice is welcome.
posted by symphonik to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Never trust cars--especially turn-signals--and expect to be treated like you're in the way. People talking on cell phones never notice you at all.
posted by interrobang at 5:38 PM on September 4, 2005

Assume that no one can see you, position yourself amongst traffic as if you thought they were trying to hit you. There are different schools of thought in regards to cycling in traffic after these basics. One school of thought is to stay as far right as possible. This is, in my opinion, a really bad idea, as people will try to blow right past you. Riding in the middle of the lane, and otherwise acting like a car (while still keeping the above in mind) is generally my strategy. Really, avoid riding in traffic if possible. If you can, ride with a group, as it's an order of magnitude safer.
posted by phrontist at 5:46 PM on September 4, 2005

As you'll soon discover the bike handles much differently from its thicker-tired cousins. Potholes and such are far less tolerable and you really feel the road. Leaning over at a steeper angles means you can pedal harder but your back will go through it a bit for the first few weeks. Don't kill yourself.

City biking in general takes some getting used to. I started biking regularly in NYC several months ago and there's definitely a learning curve / confidence curve. Then you can get overconfident and start taking stupid risks and get hurt. ahem.

Don't let cars run you off the road--if they honk at you, stand your ground. They'll get over it. You have just as much of a right to the road. Be aware of getting doored! give yourself some space between parked cars if at all possible. You might consider getting a whistle. All the usual stuff--dress in bright/visible colors, get a blinking back light (still workin on that one)...and yes, wear your helmet.

re: negotiating traffic for realists: be careful of the buses. they can pull out or pull over with little indication. Also a long length to squeeze through given that if they pull over, you are fucked. Avoid cabs and doors. Enjoy speeding through traffic jams and try to pick "lanes" that will minimize door openings and you getting caught trying to race traffic as the light turns and the rest of the traffic starts moving again. On a sidestreet, if the space is too small to squeeze through on one side, cut off a (non-moving) car and try the other side -- just watch out for other biciclysts that beat you to it. Find your city's streets with bike lanes and try to incorporate them into your route--experimetn w/ different routes until you find the one that compromises low-stress re: cars and distance. Try to time things so you never have to put your foot down; slow down before lights, go in little circles as you wait for a light, etc. I'm not going to lie, I run lights all the time, but don't be an idiot about it.

Pack yourself some snackfoods--you'll be more hungry--and depending on availability at work, some towels or things to clean yourself with once at the office.

Check out the commuting and road bike forums at, and dont' forget to take a ride for pleasure every now and then.

I don't wear funny looking sunglasses.
posted by pinto at 5:53 PM on September 4, 2005

Read Art of Urban Cycling, it covers the different biking philosphies in an easy to read way without fiercely siding with one. Another suggestion I would have would be join Bikeforums they can answer any bike question you have far quicker than askmefi. Please don't get overly frustrated when someone yells at you or honks at you, it happens to everyone and most of the time the other people are just being erks. Finally, don't be an ass. Too many bikers seem to think that a bike is a passport to a secret world that exists where laws don't apply to them and that the laws of physics are also void.
posted by drezdn at 5:59 PM on September 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

I do wear funny looking sunglasses.

Otherwise I squint when it's bright out.
posted by drezdn at 6:00 PM on September 4, 2005

I however don't own a road bike (I have a funky hybrid), my track bike is coming next week!

One thing you're going to find with cyclists is that there are some arguments that are very similar to Mac vs. PC. There are some cyclists that refuse to use bike lanes and others that are fiercely anti-helmet. This, of course, only comes up if you really get into the philosophy of cycling.

One tip that I can give you for commuting is to always take a mental note of different things that can fuck up your ride. If there are big potholes on the trip, jot down a reminder in your head. If there are waves in the concrete (weird grooves) remember where they are and avoid them. Watch out for construction sites, where the nearby road will usually be littered with little pebbles.
posted by drezdn at 6:08 PM on September 4, 2005

Response by poster: All of this is great advice, thank you all. And the more the merrier.
posted by symphonik at 6:15 PM on September 4, 2005

Some of these may not apply to where you live: Seek out back alleys that parallel a route you need to take. They can be much safer and also more interesting than the street. Where I live there are numerous underpasses below street level for train tracks or canals: I never take them on the road, because drivers are often nervous, can't see well in the sudden darkness, and I'd rather be out of their way on the sidewalk. Investigate bike paths in your area. Some are built with better sense than others, but many will give you something of a break from road nerves. The advice from drezdn about noting the location of hazards like potholes and grooves is very good. Also: beware streetcar tracks - getting a tire wedged in one is bad news. If you've been riding on fatter tires, remember you're now riding something that's going to be a little more skittish in rain and over gravel, so be a little cautious until it becomes second nature.
posted by zadcat at 6:31 PM on September 4, 2005

It's very long, gets exceptionally ranty in places, and goes way off into weird tangents, but John Forester's Effective Cycling is where you start learning about vehicular cycling.

I wish there were a left-hand-drive edition of Cyclecraft, the British semi-official guide to how to ride. If you can translate the lefts to rights, and mirror-image the diagrams, it's a way better book than Effective Cycling for most readers.

Under no circumstances follow the moronic advice in Urban Bikers' Tricks & Tips. They'll get you killed.

But basically, it all boils down to: look, listen, be seen, be sure of your bike, make eye contact with drivers when negotiating lane changes and junctions, and above all, if in doubt, don't.
posted by scruss at 6:46 PM on September 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

Here is a link to some folks in your new neck of the woods who do not subscribe to the spandex techno sunglasses look they publish a monthly newsletter that is often amusing in it's contrariness
posted by flummox at 7:07 PM on September 4, 2005

I bike commute regularly in New York City. Some thing's I've picked up:

Don't have an ego about cars. Yes, you have the right to be there. However, you're out-weighed, out-powered and outclassed, even by a VW Rabbit. Let the car have the right-of-way where possible and never trust the cagers.

If you don't already, learn how to change, patch and replace your innertube. Carry an extra tube, patch kit and pump with you whenever you're doing more than going to the corner store.

Be extremely careful in the rain or the dark. Drivers expect you to be there less than they do normally. Wear light-coloured clothing, reflective tape and flashing lights at night.

Maintain your bike. Whether you learn to do so yourself or take it in regularly, it's a must. Can't remember how many times in my early riding poor maintenance foiled my ride.

Secure your seat or take it with you when you lock up your bike. Take water bottles, pumps, blinkers and anything else that can be stolen with you. They will get stolen eventually if you don't. Secure both tires.

I don't know how much icebiking you'll be doing in the Bay Area, so I won't cover it, but if you get the chance, it's a lot of fun. I commute all winter here.
posted by Captaintripps at 7:07 PM on September 4, 2005

Always wear your helmet and bring some kind of ID with you. A friend of mine got doored a month ago and these things are essential. Get a front and back light for your bike and use them after dark. Also, panniers or a back rack are great for taking work and clothes to/from home, and the weight distribution is better than if you use a backpack.
posted by lorrer at 7:35 PM on September 4, 2005

Definitely wear sunglasses - funny looking or not. And a helmet (if you like using your brain).

Know your state's cyling and motor vehicle laws. (I'm just waiting for some knucklehead to call me out on my right to the road. Muwah ha ha!!!)

A couple links for vehicular cycling. And some good advice I've heard; "ride as if you were invisible". Oh, another good link here.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:35 PM on September 4, 2005

In addition to the good stuff already here:

Lots of flashing lights, front and back. You can never be TOO visible at night.

Get a good pair of cycling gloves (I like gel ones, but YMMV) and wear them. I was shocked at how hard cycling is on your hands when I started, and my first pair of regularly-padded gloves didn't cut it.

Get a good road map and carry it with you so you can figure out where's good to ride and where's not. If you can find a map which shows bike lanes, so much the better (but even in a bike-friendly city, always assume that a car is going to cut you off, swerve into your lane and generally try to kill you).

What Captaintripps said about learning to change/fix a tube can't be stressed enough. Lots of good bike shops give inexpensive courses in basic bike maintenance, they can be hit or miss, but if you find a shop with knowledgeable staff, it's well worth your while to learn the basics.
posted by biscotti at 7:43 PM on September 4, 2005

Everyones probably gonna hate me for this, but i've found the best way for me to get around SF is w/ a fixed gear. Theoretically you can ride w/o breaks but I recommend at least a front one for safeties sake. The pros for me are simplicity. I don't have to worry about derailers, my chain slipping, and if my breaks mess up I can still stop quickly. Also, I can repair and replace parts cheaply and easily. Also, a fixed gear works more muscles and I feel I have much closer control over my bike. You really don't need more that 1 gear to get over (or at least around) the biggest hills in SF.

they take some getting used to, but it's deffinately been worth it for me.

For more info check here:
posted by atom128 at 7:48 PM on September 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

ack i just realized my post is a little off topic, i missed the [more inside], my apologies. I stand buy who ever said get good lights, for what its worth.
posted by atom128 at 7:51 PM on September 4, 2005

also: everything is now further away than it was before; you must remember to shift your time-paradigm.

and: cars will eat you. the best way to think about your relationship with the automobiles on the road is to think about them as predators... and yourself as prey.

finally: ride in whatever's comfortable but always be prepared for the weather to change.
posted by RockyChrysler at 7:52 PM on September 4, 2005

Assume that pedestrians in your path will severely misjudge your direction and speed - because they'll start to wobble around like a marionette. Of course they shouldn't be in your way if you're following traffic laws, but they might not be.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 8:25 PM on September 4, 2005

Hey, that was all good advice, BUT spend about a hundred bucks and take a safety course. E-mail me and I'll get you info.

I've been riding for decades, but a few years ago I started working on a naval base where this course was required to get on base. It was incredibly comprehensive. My riding improved dramatically. Also, this usually exempts you from taking the riding course/test at your DMV.
posted by snsranch at 8:52 PM on September 4, 2005

The urban cycling guides above are great. I'll add this one tidbit:
When making a left turn, first move to the center of the leftmost lane. Cars will often miss or ignore your hand signals, and will run right into you if you try to make a quick left turn.

Oh, and grab a pair of those spandex padded shorts. Yes I know they look terribly gooky (I wear mine under regular shorts), but they make a long ride bearable.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:25 PM on September 4, 2005

People have written big thick books to answer your question and a couple of the best have already been mentioned. If I were to try and sum up the best approach to city cycling in a nutshell, I think I'd end up with something like, "relax, be alert, be assertive, not aggressive, and know how to look after your bike (it's easy). " Pretty much everything else follows.

Behave like you're part of the traffic, not in competition with it. Some dofus causes you grief? Let it go - an argument you can't win will only spoil your day. Be visible day and night. Get a good lock ($$$) - it'll pay for itself in no time.

Don't skimp on good cycling clothes and shoes. They make a huge difference to your comfort. Being comfortable makes you more relaxed and more alert.

Don't assume everyone want's to kill you. i) They don't, ii) Living in fear isn't much fun, and iii) It's not actually a very useful way to think. If it were true, you'd be dead by now and in the meantime it doesn't tell you anything about how traffic really behaves. The best way to learn that is practice and observation.
posted by normy at 10:31 PM on September 4, 2005

first move to the center of the leftmost lane
Actually I'm not satisfied with my explanation for this, so let me elaborate:

Lane changes are easier to make at full speed because the slower relative speed between you and other vehicles gives you more time to execute. So make the lane change before the intersection. That way you can stop when you reach it and wait for oncoming traffic to clear, without worrying about traffic from behind as well.

Sorry if this is obvious, but many new cyclists get paralysed with insecurity in this situation.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:45 PM on September 4, 2005

The commentary above is great. I'll add that I attempt to acquire eye-contact with any traffic I might cross (such as at a four-way stop) before making any move.

Seattle has a bicycle map which marks the nice bike-friendly streets, the high-traffic dangerous streets, steep hills, etc. I see San Francisco [1.3 MB .eps] has a nice one too.

Signal with your voice/bell when passing cyclists and meandering pedestrians on bike trails. Don't take it too personally when the occasional pick-up truck passenger smacks your helmet.
posted by fatllama at 11:37 PM on September 4, 2005

i bike to school/work in boston, and drivers here are, shall we say, notorious, for turning us into human crash test dummies. worth saying, repeating:
1) helmet. helmet. helmet! i'm 23, and don't care if it hurts my indie street cred. the motto i like the most is: wear it, just never use it.

2) don't be afraid to ride "into" the lane if you're passing parked cars on your right. that is to say, if Joe Bozo swings his door open without looking, you have enough space to (hopefully) avoid a collision.

3) if you haven't learned/heard already, if you're running on high pressure (road) tires you should check and reinflate them every other day.

4) watch drivers faces who are going to make a turn across your lane. you'll see lots of people not paying attention (maps, cell phones, etc.) and this will give you a good indication if they see you or not. also, making eye contact stops most from cutting you off.

5) if you're approaching a red light, weaving through "parked" cars can give you a special feeling of superiority, just have a plan in mind if it turns green and you're in no man's land lane 2 of 4

6) have fun! it may be more dangerous than taking the bus, but let's face it, weaving through those parked cars at the red light is a good time

(and oh yeah, fixed gear owns)
posted by whatitis at 9:10 AM on September 5, 2005

In addition to the other good advice here:

1. Find a mechanic you like/trust for the repairs you can't do yourself.

2. Look into whether you can fit fatter tires on your rims. City roads suck these days. Be aware of the obstacles, learn to shift your weight or even "hop" a little when going over unavoidable hard edges and objects in the road. Even so, a fatter tire can absorb more abuse, protecting both you and the rest of your bike from ware and damage.
posted by Good Brain at 10:52 AM on September 5, 2005

All great advice, so I have little to add. Recently a friend bought me a rear-view mirror to help deal with traffic. In the end I took it back off. While it did help me see the traffic behind me (this sounds weird,) the traffic couldn't see me seeing them. When taking a lane to make a left I look behind me and give a hand signal. The sudden movement and the sudden eye-contact generally backs the drivers off and lets me make my turn. If I watched from mirror and signaled, cars either didn't respond (or even better) would speed up to cut me off. There is something about eye-contact.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:25 PM on September 5, 2005

I agree with most of what's been said here. A few additions:

1. Although I've always taken it for granted that establishing eye-contact with motorists is a good idea, I recently took an MSF course in which they stressed that we should not rely on eye-contact. And I have to admit--I've made eye-contact with motorists who proceeded to illegally cut me off. FWIW.

2. I hear there are hills in San Francisco. When riding on hills, do not relent. Maintain your focus and energy output until you hit the top.

3. It is better to piss off motorists by getting in their way than to shrink over to the far right and let them ignore you. Very few motorists are psychopathic enough to hit you on purpose; many are inobservant enough to hit you accidentally. Play the odds. The law requires you to ride as far-right "as practicable," but you get to decide what is "practicable." Anything in the debris-and-door zone is not.
posted by adamrice at 1:59 PM on September 5, 2005

Don't skimp on good cycling clothes and shoes. They make a huge difference to your comfort. Being comfortable makes you more relaxed and more alert.

This is good advice. Just try to avoid looking like Flash Gordon. Seriously, if you look like a total bike dweeb then some people are going to feel the need to throw beer bottles at you, or worse.
posted by recurve at 2:13 PM on September 5, 2005

i plugged this software in another thread, but you should download klimb. also if you are in silicon valley, there are a LOT of great roads to ride on in the santa cruz mountains west of interstate 280.

i moved out of the area this summer, but most of my knowledge is pretty fresh. email me if you want tips on good rides, etc.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 1:36 PM on September 6, 2005

I'm 35 and bike to work in DC -- decent path across the Potomac River, then in with the automobiles. I wish I knew more than I do, but:

* You say you got a good fit for your bike. How about your helmet. It should be almost uncomfortably tight since if the strap is loose when you go ass over teakettle, the helmet can ride up your head and expose your forhead for cracking.

* One reason to keep your road tires fully inflated is that if you don't and you take a pothole hard, the tire pinches the innertube against the rim of the bike and you have a flat--with a typical "snakebite" double hole in the tube.

* I really like having pedals that I can clip in to. That said, I think there's a minimum number of really stupid falls you have to do once you get them. First, in your basement standing still next to a wall. Then in front of a stopped van at a light. And finally in some kind of dangerous situation. I've heard that the pros always clip in and then out and then in again when they start a ride, to make sure they've got the feel of un-clipping.

* A bike shop guy looked at the scraped up sides of my pedals and said, "Lance Armstrong doesn't pedal through his turns, neither should you."

Finally, I really like my Cannondale Bad Boy Ultra for commuting, although the name could be different.
posted by 3rings at 3:03 PM on September 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

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