Riding the right bicycle safely can let you fully enjoy this invigorating activity.
by Beverly Burmeier
Got a two-wheeler in the garage gathering cobwebs? Even if it’s been years since you last rode, bicycling is a great way to stay in shape and enjoy the outdoors.
“I ride for exercise and stress relief,” says Denver mom Jeannette Moninger, 46. “I’d rather be outside biking than in a gym class any day. It’s awesome to be out in the sunshine.”
Sebastian Moll, 50, a New York City journalist, agrees. “Riding is like a little vacation from the city. I think it’s the best way to stay in shape.”
Experts agree. “Cycling strengthens supporting muscles of the knee joint,” says David Scharff, MD, internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and avid bicycle racer. It has been found to help lower blood pressure and keep weight under control, and it’s a good cardiovascular workout. Scharff says biking also provides a bonus for commuters: Physical activity in fresh air can make you more efficient at work.
However, you won’t enjoy any of biking’s advantages if you don’t ride safely—especially if you’re a city rider.
The first step to safe riding starts with the bicycle. “Find a reputable bike shop that can help you select the right bike for your body size and the type of riding you plan to do,” says Scharff. Hybrid bikes combine the speed of a road bike with the toughness of a mountain bike. Their upright frames mean less strain on the rider’s neck and back, and lower tire pressure absorbs shocks better.
Be sure you’re clear about where the front and rear shifter and handbrake controls are located on the handlebars. The saddle should be at the right height; aim for a slight knee angle of between 25 and 35 degrees at the bottom of a pedal stroke.
Use the shifters correctly. The front one provides large gear jumps; the rear one fine-tunes. Instead of peddling slowly in a higher gear, you can ride longer if you pedal more quickly. Most beginners only use the rear brake, but you can reduce stopping distance by almost 50% by also using the front brake. (Practice shifting and braking in a protected area first before hitting the road.) “Don’t forget to keep your eyes forward rather than looking at the handlebars or road,” says Ken Podziba, president of Bike New York (bike.nyc).
If you have balance issues you may want a recumbent bicycle, on which the rider sits low and back in a slightly reclined position. “Comfort is the main reason people switch from a traditional bicycle to a recumbent,” says Peter Stull, owner of a bicycle shop in Alfred Station, New York. “Recumbent bikes allow people to ride longer distances comfortably, but they’re not recommended for city riding because of the low design.”
If you’re not your usual self because of illness or injury, consider an electric bike with a battery-powered motor that provides an extra boost—especially when you’re tired or traveling uphill. “You’ll probably still need to pedal some in order to conserve battery power,” Stull notes.
“Everybody should ride with a helmet,” Scharff advises. Sport or multi-use helmets are economical for recreational and road riders; look for a tag indicating the helmet meets standards set by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Good fit is vital, so adjust until the helmet is snug but not tight. It should sit level on your head, not tilted back, with the front edge no more than one inch above your eyebrows to protect your forehead.
Scharff and Podziba recommend wearing brightly colored clothing for visibility. Other safety accessories include lights and rearview mirror, gloves to prevent scrapes and padded cycling shorts to prevent chafing. If you put your foot down often when riding, a platform peddle is best; experienced riders might choose toe clips or power straps.
Dedicated bike paths in many cities make riding safer, but Podziba reminds cyclists to follow the rules of the road by riding with traffic in a straight line and stopping at red lights. In addition, try to make eye contact with motorists, skip the earphones and stay at least three feet away from parked cars.
Podziba finds biking to be “a carbon-free, healthy, fun activity that’s energizing and allows me to feel connected to the neighborhoods where I ride.” Learning how to ride properly lets you enjoy cycling while preserving your safety.