new to biking
June 2, 2007 8:29 PM   Subscribe

I got a bike. Now what do I do?

I bought a hybrid and a lock for it; it seem like a good bike and I feel comfortable on it. However, I did not really have a childhood filled with biking and only really had a bike that I rode briefly five years ago or so. Thus, I do not really know how to get into using the bike for fun and transportation.

How do I get to feel more comfortable riding the bike? Is there anything that I need to know that seems obvious? Do I actually need a helmet? (if so, how do I fix helmet hair? also, any tips for riding in a skirt?) What else do I need to know?

I don't have a car so aside from walking, this would be my only real mode of transportation other than bumming rides from friends.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Where do you live? Urban or suburban/rural area?

I grew up with a bike in urban Chicago, and also have lived in more suburbanish areas. I think you should add more detail to your question. This makes a big difference.

Yes, wear a helmet. It's pretty much common nowadays especially if you're even a little uncomfortable riding. Good for your health.

Have fun.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 8:49 PM on June 2, 2007

I ride to work everyday. My commute is about 15 minutes each way. I'm able to dress up nice and stay non-sweaty if that's a concern.

Get a helmet, I never understand why people don't wear one if they do any real riding. You can find some really cool looking ones.

Get a "bike buddy", if you can, who knows the area and who'd bike with you and help you feel comfortable.

Don't ride on the sidewalk, it may seem weird, but its actually more dangerous. Car's are not expected you to pop out from the sidewalk.

Treat drivers like they don't see you. Ride predictably, don't weave in and out.

If you wear pants get a leg strap at the bike shop, it will keep your pant leg from getting greasy.

Pannier bags are great for buying groceries, though I wear a backpack to and from work.

There may be a "bicycle coalition" in town, it will be FULL of people who will love to help you get comfortable biking.

Have fun!
posted by bottlebrushtree at 8:50 PM on June 2, 2007

wear a helmet. you'll look a lot less stupid with helmet-hair than you will with brain damage.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:52 PM on June 2, 2007

Yes, you need a helmet. I was gently knocked off my stationary bike by a slow moving car a year ago and while it only scratched my helmet, my head would have been bruised and bleeding without it. Even if you're never in a bad accident, it makes a difference in the little ones (between oh god my head hurts! and damnit, i fell off my bike, i look like an idiot).

I use my bike as my primary transportation, mostly to uni. My uni provides showers that I could use, but as it's only uni and only a 15-minute ride, I don't bother. If it's hot, I take a spare shirt so I don't have to wear the sweaty one, if it's raining hard I take spare pants too. If you're going to work, or riding much further, I would look for showers available at your destination, and a place you can store a whole change of clothes.

Don't ride in a skirt.

When planning routes, you might want to think about any big hills in the area.

And finally, assume that any driver is either an idiot who didn't see you, or an idiot who is actively trying to hit you.
posted by jacalata at 9:04 PM on June 2, 2007

I keep a small towel and a jar of product at work for a sink rinse followed by styling to get rid of helmet hair in the summer. It also comes in handy for winter hat hair.

I also learned to ride late in life, and I'm convinced there's nothing that gets you more comfortable riding than riding more.
posted by advicepig at 9:07 PM on June 2, 2007

Yes yes yes you need a helmet. If you don't wear one you are taking a huge and pointless risk. Though I went looking for statistics to back me up and found a surprisingly large amount of pages arguing against the need for helmets, and the scientist in me wants to examine the evidence a bit more. Anyway, I wear a helmet, and so does almost every other cyclist in my city, and there are a lot of us.

You got a bike. Now what do you do? You ride it of course! Ride it everywhere! To school or work, to concerts, to friend's houses, to the beach, or just around town. Call up your friends who also have bikes and go on leisurely ridse together. Ride out to a farmer's market and buy some fresh produce. Ride to a distant neighborhood and have a beer at a pub you've never been to. Just ride it!

Dealing with cars is something you get the hang of. It will depend a lot on the bike climate where you live. Here in BC, the Bike Sense manual is a great introduction. Your local laws will vary but the essential tips - e.g. how to make a left turn safely (and unsafely), when to pass cars on the right, etc - are universal.

Have fun!
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:12 PM on June 2, 2007

A helmet preserves your hair - if you don't wear one the wind blows it into a mess. Just take some care when you put the helmet on and take it off and it should help, rather than hinder. Especially if you tie it in a ponytail first, then let it down afterwards.

You might want to find a park with a cycle way and just take the bike for a spin to get the hang of it and more confidence in riding it, without traffic to worry about. Do it a few times. There are plenty of recreational cyclists, so maybe you can enjoy it too :)

Take advantage of your ability to become a pedestrian at will (ie getting off and walking your bike)
When I moved to a big city, with intersections larger and more complex than what I was used to, I just hopped off and used the ped-crossing lights until I got used to the intersections. I suggest you do this too, not because you're not used to the intersections, but because you're not used to being a cyclist in traffic - drivers are generally looking for cars and sometimes will not see cyclists until things are scary late, so it's best to cycle through an intersection as if any car not currently in the process of braking, is not going to brake. (They almost always do brake, but you only need one moron to ruin your week, so just assume the traffic cannot and will not see you. When there is a lot of it around, just hop off the bike and use the ped lights then resume down the street, where there is less chaos than an intersection)

Don't ever cycle at night (or even dusk) without good lights.

Visibility is safety. Like other binocular animals, the human eye is keyed to movement. I often ride wearing an unbuttened shirt, which constantly rapidly flaps around. Likewise (though you don't need to worry about this yet, it's just a little tip), when approaching a car of uncertain intention - possibly about to dart out of a driveway without seeing me, I slow down but don't stop pedalling. I do stop imparting force in the pedals, but when you're not pedalling and heading directly towards a driver, you're a static object and easier for the eye to not notice. So I keep the pedal going around (or spin them backwards) just to catch the eye.

Don't buy a bike computer unless you want to get extra exercise, as you'll just end up racing yourself. (Or maybe that's is just me? :)

Carry a spare tube rather than a puncture repair kit. (It's quicker than a puncture repair, and if you want to repair the puncture, you can do it at home at your leisure).

If you don't already know, learn how to change the tube when you get a flat. It really is simple, it's just that it always happens at the worst possible time :)

If your tire tubes do not have car-valves on them, carry a car-valve adaptor (they're about $1.50), as this means you can fill your tube with air at the nearest gas station. If it's not inconvenient, carry a pump, as that way you don't need to find the nearest gas station.

Lastly, to avoid all that, I've been told that kevlar-reinforced bike tires reduce the amount of punctures you get. They cost a little more, but I hate punctures. Oh, on similar lines, if your tire air pressure is getting low, it will increase your chances of getting a puncture, surprisingly dramatically, actually, once "snake-bite" punctures start coming into the picture. (This is where the air pressure is low enough that if you hit a pothole or other hard object or edge, it can squash the tire into the rim, and the rim cuts through the tube).
posted by -harlequin- at 9:23 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lawrence biking advice: drivers here absolutely do not use their turn-signals. You cannot trust a car, ever. You will almost be hit by someone talking on a cellphone every single day.

There are good bike trails on the North Lawrence side of the river. Yes, you need a helmet.
posted by interrobang at 9:33 PM on June 2, 2007

Absolutely get a helmet! My spouse would have been a vegetable 12 years ago if a helmet hadn't saved his brainpan in a bike accident that fractured his pelvis in three places. Helmet cracked, brainpan didn't. Pelvis fractured, head didn't. End of helmet lecture. (Oh, I lied. ... Helmet hair can be CURED! Brain damage generally can't. Now it's end of lecture.)
posted by Smalltown Girl at 10:14 PM on June 2, 2007

The frame on a "ladies" bike is the shape it is to make it possible to ride a bike in a skirt (or something else similarly modest such as baggy bloomers), and when I was a kid such bikes came with chain and rear wheel guards to keep long skirts out of trouble. Think Miss Gulch from the Wizard of Oz on her bicycle. I think ladies bike frames still exist mostly out of habit, and I haven't seen skirt guards on a rear wheel in decades.

If you own such a bike, wearing a long skirt is safe; on a modern bike you would be in great danger of catching the skirt fabric in the wheel -- a very bad idea. If you wear a short skirt, your problem is one of modesty not safety, and I leave that to you.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:25 PM on June 2, 2007

Wear a helmet.

I wore one everyday when I went biking. Except for one day when I was only going 2 blocks away. (I remember thinking, hey it's only 2 blocks! What could go wrong?)

That day I got hit by a van (driven by an 80+ year old man talking on a cellphone!). I got tossed a few feet and hit the ground pretty hard. Including my head.

I have had memory problems ever since, and I stutter badly enough to be barely understandable when I'm feeling extreme emotions. My ability to multi-task has become pretty much non-existant.

Not wearing a helmet is not worth the risk.
posted by Zarya at 10:51 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

You cannot trust a car, ever.

I trusted a car once, was sure that the driver made eye contact with me two seconds before she ran a stop sign and I was thrown into the road.

You cannot trust a car, ever.
Wear a helmet.
posted by rhapsodie at 11:50 PM on June 2, 2007

There's a lot of good advice here. Let me add some more.

1. Ride predictably. Usually, this means following the same rules that cars do. Ride in a straight line.
2. Ride as if you're invisible. Cars are blind automatons. Never, never, never rely on them to slow down, stop or swerve to avoid you. Don't assume they will follow traffic controls or rules.
3. Be very, very visible. Sometimes you make a mistake and the automaton misses you anyway. Maximize this chance by being seen.

This article is a really important safety primer:

Don't let this scare you, though. Per miles travelled, bikes have comparable safety to automobles. Factor in the health benefits from cycling and bicyclists are lightyears ahead of average in longevity.

Since your bike is your primary form of transportation, you need good lights. A AA powered Cateye or Bike Planet front light is fine coupled with a really powerful red back blinker. Basically, someday you're going to find yourself out a little longer than you expected and you'll have to ride home after dark. Lights are really easy to install, needing only a screwdriver if at all and once you have it on, it releases with a clip. Take the lights with you when you park. Petty thieves abound.

A left hand side mirror is a much underrated safety tool. It might be an added distraction at first, but with practice it will help you fulfill safe riding rules 1 and 2. Basically, you need a side mirror for all the reasons a car does, in addition to wanting to be able to see anybody trying to pass from behind.

Don't be afraid to take the lane when the shoulder is dangerous or nonexistant. If the car behind you is pissed off, at least they see you. Tmid riding is often quite dangerous. Shifting in and out of the parking lane violates the rule of predicability.

When I see some TooCoolForAHelmet guy or gal, I pretty much get the same feeling that I get when I see Mr. or Ms. WannabeLanceArmstrong. In my mind, your bike is a primarily a tool (a really fun one!), not a toy. You wouldn't operate a drill press without safety goggles. There are some sweet helmets out there. I used to get more complements for my old helmet than any other piece of my wardrobe. Bike helmets are made to be replaced after a fall because damage can be unseen. They say that you should replace your helmet once a year, avoid storing it in extreme temps and avoid dropping it.
posted by Skwirl at 12:28 AM on June 3, 2007

Ensure your bike is properly equipped to meet local laws and regulations, and wear a helmet. This includes seemingly pointless items like reflectors.

This isn't just a safety issue. If you're knocked off, and seriously injured (God forbid), then your subsequent insurance claim might be less if your bike is lacking some essentials. The driver can simply claim that he didn't see you, and that it was your fault for not having a rear reflector. If you're left with a serious injury that means you can't work for a period then you might need that money.

I read recently that here in the UK the average insurance payout after a serious car-->bike accident is 15% less if a helmet isn't worn.

I bought a bike from Halfords in the UK and it came without the legally-required front and rear reflectors. So don't rely on bike shops to take care of this kind of thing for you.
posted by humblepigeon at 1:46 AM on June 3, 2007

Pretty good question coverage here, let me just add a few little things.

I recommend finding a safe place near your home to bike a little bit in your off time and just get comfortable with biking on the road. Practice taking one hand off to make signals, etc.

Don't hug the curb in all situations... this can be dangerous. For instance, if you have roadside parking, you will need to get out to get around cars. It's probably safer to just stay in the same position on the road. Obviously, take the lane when turning left. This pisses some cars off, bizarrely, but I can't see how I'm supposed to turn without dying otherwise.

Wear a helmet. Get one with a visor and it'll help with glare/sunburn. That's how I think of mine: comfort aid.
posted by selfnoise at 7:54 AM on June 3, 2007

Wearing a bit of reflective tape makes you MUCH more visible after dark. Even a little reflective trim on sneakers shows up in headlights ages before the rest of the bod and bike, and usually shows even before seeing the light and/or reflector attached to the bike.

Bike are great for exploring nooks and crannies you'd otherwise miss. Enjoy!
posted by anadem at 8:49 AM on June 3, 2007

Yes, wear a helmet. The best reason to wear a helmet is to silence the dozens of people who will otherwise continually criticize you or consider you some kind of suicidal maniac for not wearing one. The worst reason for wearing one is any belief that it will protect you from any more than cuts and scrapes should the worst happen.

Infinitely more important than a helmet is the ability to ride confidently, predictably and with good understanding of the way any traffic around you is likely to behave. Practically all safety advice to bicyclists begins with helmet wearing, as if a thin barrier of expanded polystyrene were a magic talisman. If helmets were uninvented and every cyclist instead equipped with a good book, we'd see far fewer cycling casualties.
posted by normy at 10:10 AM on June 3, 2007

Look up your municipal laws and read them before doing anything else. There may even be equipment requirements. In Toronto we are required to have a certain number of reflectors and a bell.

Obey the rules of the road, because when cyclists are unpredictable, it makes drivers respond to us unpredictably. Stop at lights, stay on your side of the road, and signal your turns.

Watch out for car doors.

Some links:
posted by loiseau at 11:02 AM on June 3, 2007

Carry a spare tube rather than a puncture repair kit.

Carry both unless you can guarantee only one flat per trip. Also, obviously, an inflator with a couple spare cartridges or a pump.

A couple of tips for riding in the street: If you can't ride far enough to the left to not get doored then look through the cars' rear windshields. If you see a head, assume they're going to open the door or pull out. Brake lights or a flick of the reverse light -- assume they're pulling out.

But try to be out enough to the left most of the time so that even an open door won't ruin your day. Always be aware regardless.
posted by Opposite George at 1:18 PM on June 3, 2007

Oh yeah, get a bell!
I should have put that in my first message. I consider my bell to be one of my most important pieces of safety equipment. It helps prevent doorings (when some idiot opens their door right in front of you as you go by since they weren't watching) Take a look for people's heads as you go by in car. First of all you should be riding out far enough that you shouldn't get doored even if they open up in front of you. That's not always possible though, hence the bell.

Bells also help at intersections when you are going through. There will always be "Yaking Guy on Cell phone trying to turn a right on red" He won't be looking for you, only cars. The bell helps pull their attention back to reality.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:24 PM on June 3, 2007

Get lights. Signaling is good, but especially on roads with lots of cyclists (cars very often don't understand hand signals). Make sure your tires are inflated - feeling sluggish one day, probably air pressure. Use your gears and spin-spin-spin (peddle fast).
posted by Chuckles at 2:44 PM on June 3, 2007

Hell yeah bells rule. But don't be scared to yell if you can't reach it in time or you think bozo won't hear it. Better to get a funny look than a body cast.

Look up John Forester for more street-riding tips. Like most opinionated people, he's a bit controversial, and after you have more road time in you might disagree with some of what he says (I do,) but Effective Cycling is by far a net positive and great place to start.
posted by Opposite George at 3:24 PM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Obviously, take the lane when turning left. This pisses some cars off, bizarrely, but I can't see how I'm supposed to turn without dying otherwise.

Abslutely take the lane if you're doing a normal let turn, yes. But on busy intersections you may feel unsafe doing so, in which case you can do a 'perimiter style' left turn. (see here). Stay in the right lane, ride through the intersection and stop at the far corner. Then, either get off and walk your bike across the crosswalk, or turn around and join the oncoming traffic waiting at the red light. (watch our for cars turning right on the red.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:08 PM on June 3, 2007

Here's a previous related thread.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 4:40 PM on June 3, 2007

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