Teach me how to bicycle!
June 7, 2014 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I have just become the lucky recipient of two beautiful bicycles. One is a Gary Fisher Sugar 3+ mountain bike; one is a Greg LeMonde Alpe D'Huez road bike. My knowledge of bicycles is limited to pushing the pedals with my feet, thereby making the bicycle go. Help?

I would like to learn the 101-level stuff I need to learn to properly ride and care for these bikes. What are the best resources for this? What are the super basic things I need to cover first? For example: neither of these bikes has a kickstand. How do I store them? Where do I keep them?

Also, they have been in a (climate controlled) garage for several years. They have been taken to a bike shop to have pedals changed, but I'm not sure if a tune-up happened, or really, even what a bike tune-up entails. They need to be cleaned. How? Soap and water? Fairy magic? I don't want to ruin them.

The LeMonde feels tall - I am on my tiptoes when I sit on the seat. I presume I need to fit myself to this bike (actually, both of them) somehow. (1) Adjust (?) seat; (2) Position myself . . . on the bike? (3) ???????? (4) Profit?

Are you laughing at me yet? Yes, I am fully aware that I do not deserve the bounty of bicycle I have just inherited. Please help this total bike newbie achieve minimum competence. I would like to begin riding one of these as my primary method of transportation to and from work, but I feel like I probably ought to know basic things first.

Tips, detailed guides, books to purchase, all sources of information are welcomed.
posted by sevensnowflakes to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
posted by sevensnowflakes at 10:18 AM on June 7, 2014

Tune up: you don't need to know what's necessary, that's what mechanics are there to determine. Bring in the bikes, mention they were in climate controlled storage, go from there. Might be as little as a cable adjust, chain cleaning and new tubes.

Cleaning: pick up a bike wash and chain lube when you bring them in, see biketutor.com or YouTube for tons of tutorials on how to clean and do basic maintenance

Riding: you need to have a professional or saavy friend fit you, then worry about form. But ride 50 miles or so just for fun and don't worry about form until then
posted by slow graffiti at 10:23 AM on June 7, 2014

Take a look through the Articles for Beginning Cyclists by the late, great Sheldon Brown; there are answers to a lot of your specific questions there. And just in general, don't be afraid to take them in to a local bike shop and just have a quick chat about fitting and cleaning and adjustment and so on, asking all the questions you asked here. If you chance on a bike shop that isn't friendly and accessible for a chat like that, walk out immediately and move on until you find one that is!
posted by RogerB at 10:23 AM on June 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

Riding tip: your legs should be spinning at the same cadence all the time, or as much as possible. Pumping like crazy up the hills and coasting down them will wear your legs out faster than gearing up or down as needed to maintain a steady tempo.

Bike shops do tuneups, and some offer bike maintenance classes, as does REI. Find a shop you like and make some friends there (this should not be hard, the ones around here are filled with people who love to talk bikes - if not, try another store). They will not make fun of your ignorance, getting newbies out on the road is what they want to do.
posted by Flannery Culp at 10:25 AM on June 7, 2014

Two things: first, I checked with the person who gifted the bikes to me and they have, in fact, been tuned up, so no worries there. Second, at the moment I live in a place with zero bike shops in the area, so my go-to-a-bike-shop options are, unfortunately, nil.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 10:30 AM on June 7, 2014

You should not normally be able to have both feet on the ground while in the saddle. Rough-fit-wise, you want your knee to be slightly bent when a foot is at the bottom of a pedal stroke.

Practice in a low-stakes environment stopping, getting off the seat, starting, getting back onto the seat.

The Sheldon Brown stuff linked above is gold, especially "Starting and Stopping".
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 11:22 AM on June 7, 2014

This piece has some useful photos for seat height.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 11:26 AM on June 7, 2014

I just want to weigh in that while Sheldon Brown was very knowledgeable about bikes, I personally hate his site. It seems to suggest that there are extremely rigid and complex rules that apply to every aspect of biking.

Personally, I think you should get the shop to adjust your seat and/or handlebars, or point out any egregious problems, and other wise just hop on one of the bikes and start riding, even for 10 minutes a day. The more you bike ,the more you'll like it. Meaningful questions will start to arise (why do my wrists hurt? I can't change gears gracefully, how do people do it?" and that's when you can start getting more advice.

But the real truth about bikes is, there are almost no wrong way to bike. Get on there and have fun!!
posted by latkes at 11:57 AM on June 7, 2014

Regarding saddle height, you should not be able to touch the ground flat-footed when you're seated. When you come to a stop, you should have to come down off the saddle.

Ideally, your leg will be juuuust shy of fully extended at the bottom of the pedal rotation (you don't want to lock out your knee). An awful lot of your power comes from that last bit of extension, so a low saddle will make the bike feel heavy and sluggish. So you want it to be as high as possible without being too high. You know it is too high when your hips start to rock from side to side as you pedal.

On a mountain bike, I'm okay with the saddle being slightly too low to give me some foot-down leeway on rough terrain. I am not a particularly good off-road cyclist, though.

A common riding mistake that newbies make is to pedal too slowly in too difficult of a gear. Optimum pedaling cadence varies from person to person, but it's probably 70-90 rpm. It's much easier on your joints and muscles to pedal quickly in an easy gear vs. pedaling slowly in a difficult gear to go the same speed. As you get stronger, you will be able to maintain a rapid cadence in more difficult gears on the same terrain, thereby going faster.

Get a good floor pump. You'll want to special order one from a bike retailer, because big box store pumps are junk. Check your tire pressure at least once a week. Riding with too little pressure is inefficient and a good way to encourage flats.

Always carry a set of tire levers, a portable pump (also a special order piece), and a spare tube or two. Practice changing tubes at home before you need to do it on the side of the road. You can find step by step videos on Youtube.

The most important maintenance you need to perform is cleaning and lubrication of the chain. You should do it every 2 weeks if you ride a lot, once a month at least, and always after riding in the rain. This helps prevent expensive wear and tear on drivetrain components.

My chain cleaning method involves a $10 chain cleaner gadget from Walmart (I'm assuming you have access to a Walmart, even if you don't have access to a bike shop) full of Simple Green. You clamp the thing onto the chain and work the pedals backwards by hand to move the chain through the brushes. If there's extra gunk on the chain or the drivetrain cogs, I clean that off with a nylon brush. Once everything is gunk-free, relubricate the chain with bike chain lubricant. The White Lightning stuff they sell at Walmart is not the best, but it's fine. Apply generously, holding the nozzle over the chain at the rear cogs while pedaling backwards, and then gently wipe off excess with a paper towel.

General cleaning of the bike can be done with Simple Green and a damp rag. You can gently rinse with a hose if necessary and bounce the bike to shake off excess water before letting it air dry. I like to go over corrosion-prone parts (any exposed shiny metal) with a dry rag after rinsing. If you're going to clean the bike, do it before you clean and lube the chain. A mountain bike will need extra attention after a proper off-road filthstravaganza.

Avoid storing your bike outside, especially if you live in a humid area. If you have to put it outside, make sure it's covered, and make sure you stick to a lubrication schedule. Kickstands are nice to have but not really necessary. I store my bikes leaned up against a wall in my living room. A lot of people install wall hooks.

If you need to perform more complicated tune-up work, don't despair. Bikes are pretty simple machines. Park Tool has some very, very good tutorials. Sheldon Brown's site is a huge repository of information - a very good place to look up a term you aren't familiar with. Youtube is also a useful resource.

Welcome to the fold (one of us! one of us!) and have fun!
posted by zjacreman at 12:07 PM on June 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

See if there's a Bike Kitchen or Bike Cooperative in your area. Community Cycles is a good starting place, but you might also check if a local college has a bike kitchen, too, or knows of one in your area.

They'll teach you everything from how to buckle your helmet to how to build a bike from scrap (not that you'll need that lesson!). A lot of them also do community rides or classes that can help you gain comfort on your bike and learn how to follow traffic laws as a cyclist.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:26 PM on June 7, 2014

Hang on - do you know how to ride a bike in general?

If you do, then....that's kind of all you really need to know right now. Just go out and have fun. Only worry about proper form or what-not if you get heavily into racing them or stuff like that.

If there's a biking club near you (I mean, like, a Meetup), maybe call them to ask if they have any "bike maintenance 101" seminars they give the public - they can also help you ascertain whether your bike seat is the proper height and all that. If not, see if there's anyone on your block that seems to be actively into biking and strike up a conversation with them.

There are two things you absolutely should do, though - check what the traffic rules are concerning bikes in your area, and follow them. 99.9% of the ill-will between biking commuters, pedestrian commuters and auto commuters comes from people (in all three categories) either not knowing what the traffic rules are, or not caring. Here in New York bikes are supposed to obey all the auto traffic rules - stopping at red lights, not riding on sidewalks, obeying one-way-street rules - and I do, and I get INCREDIBLY pissed off at the bikers who blow through red lights and go the wrong way on one-way streets because they make ME look bad on MY bike. If your town says that bikes are supposed to stop at red lights, do that, please for the love of God.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:46 PM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have to disagree with latkes: the late Sheldon Brown's site isn't a collection of rigid rules; it's a distillation of decades of practical experience. He was always willing to listen to people who disagreed with him, and indeed posted some of their stuff on his site (e.g. articles by Jobst Brandt).

If your main concern is how to cycle confidently and safely, the best thing you can read is John S. Allen's "Bicycling Street Smarts," which he has kindly made available for free online.

For maintenance, I recommend Leonard Zinn's maintenance books; they contain some information you'll probably never need (such as how to rebuild a Campagnolo shifter!), but the basic maintenance schedule is very useful. Park Took's Big Blue Book is also useful for specific procedures, as is the Park Tool website.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:58 PM on June 7, 2014

Fellow Alpe D'Huez owner here. It's a great bike that will last forever if taken care of. Best wishes to you.
posted by Wild_Eep at 4:28 PM on June 7, 2014

Fellow new bike owner here! Don't just read articles about how to do things like change a tire, look up a tutorial on YouTube. It makes things so much easier.

Re: the kickstand. They're not expensive, buy one and put it on, or have a bike shop do it. One tip: I have a double kickstand (it unfolds into an upside-down V to hold up the bike) and I don't care for it. Maybe I'm not using it right but the only way I can get it to work is to lift up the front wheel to put it up and down. So, ask about anything you're unsure of! (Note to self, call bike shop about kickstand.)

Where should you keep it? Do you have a garage? If not I'd cover it or keep it inside. If it's going to be outside (and maybe even if it's in the garage) you want to lock it. Here's a video by Hal Ruzal on how to do it properly. And here is The Sweethome's pick for best bike lock. Even if you don't agree with their pick, the article is an eye-opening read, and also talks about insurance included with locks.

Learn how to shift gears and why. When I was a kid I had a 20+ speed bike and didn't have a clue how to use the gears. My new bike is a single speed beach cruiser but I do reach a point where my wheels are going too fast for me and wish I had another gear.

Wear a helmet. I've read, perhaps on Sheldon's site, that if you are simply standing up, not moving, and you fall over, you have sufficient velocity to crack your skull.

If you have a smartphone and are interested, check out Cyclemeter, MapMyRide, or Strava. (I just got Cyclemeter and love it.) Also there's an app for iOS called Bike Repair that's normally $3.99 but is now free, at least for the moment.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:30 PM on June 7, 2014

I would like to add at this late juncture that bikes are very sturdy contraptions and that it is very difficult to break one, short of dropping it from your roof.

The best way to learn is by getting out and riding and trying out stuff. You will spend a lot of time not shifting properly and not braking efficiently. These things you will learn over time. If there are no shops nearby, find a bike-riding friend and ask him or her to show you stuff. Learn are how to remove the wheels and put them back on, change a flat, oil your chain. Get proper chain lube. Do not use 3-in-1 oil or WD-40. Get a set of Allen keys; with those you can do many adjustments. A floor pump is essential.

IMHO, kickstands are not the best way to have a bike stand up. They are good only on flat ground, and will not work if you have anything weighted on the bike. Learn to stand your bike against other things.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:14 PM on June 8, 2014

Need to get used to your personal space, when on the bike. That is the most important thing. Either being fully aware on the road bike, and reading the track on the mountain bike.
posted by edtut at 10:06 PM on June 8, 2014

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