Multisport 101: The Bike

by JL Fields on June 27, 2011

Last month, as I was out on a solo bike ride, I passed a corner where I had experienced my first flat tire a couple of years ago.  The memory of that flat inspired me to ask my husband to write a post about bike safety.  As we discussed this it evolved into a three-part series, Multisport 101, which began last week with the swim.

Back to that corner.  A few years ago I flatted out (glass in the tire) and, though I had a saddle bag with tubes and CO2 cartridges, I had no clue where to begin.  I did have my iPhone on me, so first I phoned my husband (who was also out riding, just longer) to say I had a flat and that I would just sit on the curb until he made his way home.  And then I googled for videos on how to change a tire and found one on I gave it a shot. I got the front tire off the bike.  Got the old tube out.  Placed a dollar bill inside the tire where the cut was, but wasn’t having the best of luck of inflating the tire.  At that point, Dave rolled up and saved the day.

Of all three sports in triathlon, it’s the bike the scares me the most.  There are too many variables. Bad drivers, cyclists who can’t hold a line. And sand. Yep, I hit a patch of sand a few years ago, at mile 25 of a 50 mile ride, and spent the rest of my day in the E.R where, ultimately, a plastic surgeon arrived to stitch up the gash near my eye.  If you want to take up the sport of triathlon, or road or mountain biking, you need to be prepared.

Dave’s back this week with a primer on the bike. It’s a long post — because there’s a lot of important information here — so if you don’t have time to read it all now, bookmark it and come back to it when you need it.  You’re going to learn so much!


Cycling: The Basics

Just as swimming was about efficiency and technique, cycling has it’s own share of technique and form requirements.   However, you can get out on the road – if you own a bike now – and ride.  It’s easy.  And you can get some cardiovascular and physical benefit from riding.  But, if you want to up the mileage, become a little more competitive (if you’re thinking of doing a triathlon, for instance) or just want to be able to hang with that Saturday morning group ride, there are some things that you can do to help move things along.

Oh, and let’s get this out of the way:  Before you begin any exercise regime – either for fitness or for competition – you need to consult your doctor.  Get a physical, and make sure that there are no issues that you’re not aware of that could cause injury or worse as you move down your road to better health and competitiveness

First, if you don’t have a bike, what kind of bike do you need?  Well, that depends on what you want to do. If you just want to ride for fitness there are lots of entry-level options out there.  Hybrid bikes – bikes that have flat handlebars, wider tires, and allow you to be in a more relaxed position on the bike – are a great option.  If you think you might want to be a little more speed focused, or are thinking about getting involved with that Saturday morning group ride or even triathlons, there are some great entry-level road bikes – which have drop handlebars and provide a more aggressive body position.  Ask around amongst your friends and find a bike shop that comes highly recommended.  You want to ensure that you work with a shop that will sell you the bike that you need, not the bike that they want to sell.  They should listen to you, ask questions about what you’re looking to do, and show you a number of options.  They should also allow you to test ride their bikes so you can determine if the bike you think you want fits you properly.  The bike shop should be very active in this exercise.

Different bikes will have different ways to shift gears.  And they’ll have different numbers of gears.  It’s a longer conversation than we have time for here.  But again – your helpful bike shop will assist in understanding the ins and outs of how gear shifters work on your bike (if you’re not familiar with it already).

Be warned – bikes can get very expensive very quickly.  But, either way (entry-level or upgrading to a better rig) it’s an investment in your health and fitness.

Interested in mountain biking?  Awesome!  It’s a blast.  But we’re not going to get into that here.  Sorry!

Once you have your bike (or if you already have a bike) it’s time to think about a few things on the bike itself (if you haven’t already)

  • The saddle.  Your bike is going to come with a stock saddle.  That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be comfortable.  There are all sorts of issues that can occur from having a saddle that isn’t the right size, shape, or doesn’t provide enough (or too much) cushioning.  Give it a test ride and see what you think.  Too much pressure in your ‘nether regions’?  Nose is too long / too short.  Too wide or too narrow in the back?  All these things will impact your comfort, pedal stroke, and overall happiness level on the bike.  I won’t go into the details of how the wrong saddle will impact your pedal stroke and power output (you can contact me directly if you want to get into that) but your comfort on the bike will dictate how much you want to ride.  Ensure, in your conversations with your bike shop, that should you need to swap saddles that they are prepared to work with you on this.
  • Pedals.  You have options here.  Flat pedals.  Clips and straps.  Clip-less.
  • To cleat, or not to cleat.  This is a very personal choice.  Just out for fitness?  Flats or clips will be good.  The clips will help you ‘pull’ on the pedal stroke (more on that later) and will help make you more efficient while just wearing your running shoes or whatever shoes you want to ride in.  Clip-less pedals are taking things to the next level.  They’ll take some getting used to, but will certainly help provide a more efficient and powerful pedal stroke.  You’ll have cycling shoes, with cleats mounted on the bottom, that click into the pedals themselves.  You’re essentially locked into the pedal.  This is another discussion that you’ll need to have with your new best friend at the bike shop.  If you’re still unsure, start with the flat pedals or pedals with clips and straps and progress to something more advanced down the road.

Being comfortable and in a good riding position is critical.  Short of being professionally fit, you can eyeball it:

  • Saddle height / knee bend.  You don’t want the seat-post to be too high or too low.  The simple method: while on your bike, with your hands on the handlebars, when your leg is at the bottom of the pedal stroke (six o’clock) you should have a soft bend to your knee.  If your saddle is too high, you’ll have to stretch to complete a pedal stroke.  Too low and you’ll lose power and efficiency on your stroke.
  • Handlebars / reach.  When you have your hands on the handlebars, or on the brake hoods, you should have a slight bend to your elbows, your shoulders should be relaxed, and you shouldn’t be ‘reaching’.  A general bike fit should be done at the bike shop before you leave, but you need to ensure that you’re comfortable here.
  • Women’s specific bikes / frames.  Yes, there is such a thing.  In general, they have a shorter reach (top tube from saddle to handlebars) and a narrower handlebar.  Both accommodate the general physical differences that a woman has compared to the XY chromosome heavy male.  My wife  has a women’s specific bike frame by Giant and loves it.  And, being a shorter guy, it’s actually pretty comfy.

Oh, did I mention the saddle?

I had a heck of a time finding a saddle that ‘fit’ me well.  You can read about my trials and tribulations here if you want to know all the details.  Suffice it to say, I had what is generically called “soft tissue issues”.  I’m using a saddle on all my bikes now that is the most comfortable thing I’ve ridden on.  The point? If you’re not comfortable on the bike you won’t want to ride the bike.

So, now you’re ready to ride.  Do you need fancy shorts and jerseys?  Well, padded cycling shorts can help with your comfort.  Is it 100% necessary if you’re just out for fitness?  No, not really.  If you’re going to be doing a lot of mileage, however, you might want to consider some cycling specific gear.  Again, your friendly neighborhood bike shop should be able to help you out here.

Okay, you’re out on your bike.  Do you just pedal away?  Well, sort of.

Your pedal stroke actually has multiple components to it.  I’ll keep it simple here.  There’s a push / pull aspect to your  pedal stroke.  You want this to be a smooth and even distribution of force.  The benefit of having clips and straps, or clip-less pedals, is that you can “pull” up on the pedals while also pushing down.  If you’re out for fitness this isn’t too big a deal.  But if you’re looking to join that Saturday group ride, or looking to get into triathlons, this is something to keep in mind.  You’ll be amazed at how much easier hills are when you’re clipped in and you can pull on the pedals.

Pedaling cadence is something to think about as well.  A higher cadence (RPM’s per minute) is better than lower.  Ever been to a spin class where they talk about cadence?  Same thing.  Too low a cadence and you’re grinding.  A higher cadence will absolutely make things easier.  But you don’t want to be bouncing in the saddle.  If you feel that you’re “bouncing” on the saddle as you pedal, then the cadence is too high.  Shift up a gear or two.  As a rough rule of thumb, a cadence of 90 rpms is pretty much considered a good target.

Hills – you obviously can’t keep 90 rpm (or maybe you can!) but the key here is to keep pedaling smooth and to really focus on your pedal stroke.  Push and pull equally, nice smooth, round strokes.  Relax your hands!  Don’t grip the handlebars like you’re trying to choke someone.  Keep your upper body as relaxed as possible.  Try not to rock in the saddle.  Yes, the hills hurt.  But be smooth and think ‘light’ thoughts.

Whether you are on flats, or hills, your upper body should be quiet – again, no bouncing.  Your legs are doing the work.  Shoulders are relaxed, no white knuckles on the handlebars.

What can you do to work on things, you may ask?  Well, just as in swimming, there are drills that you can do to help improve your cycling ability.

Drills and skills

  1. Drinking from a water bottle.  Yes, really.  If you’re not already out riding currently (and if you are you can skip down a bit) you may not realize that drinking on the bike, while necessary, isn’t always easy at first.  Why?  Because you don’t want to take your eyes off the road while you get your water bottle out of the bottle cage mounted on the bike frame.  You’ll need to practice.
  2. Riding in a pack.  If you’re going to be riding with other people – for fitness or not – you need to be able to ride in a straight line.  Yes…really!  It sounds silly, but riding next to someone has its own risks.  If you can’t “hold your line” you run the risk of bumping into people.  That’s generally considered bad form.  While out by yourself, practice riding on the white line on the side of the road.  It’s not as easy as you think.  But don’t look down too much!  You’ll need to do this on a quiet stretch of road or early in the morning.  You always need to be aware of traffic and other potential obstacles.
  3. Being traffic aware.  You need to adhere to your local and state traffic laws.  Here in New York state, bikes are considered, by law, to have the same rights as that of a motorized vehicle.  So, stop lights, stop signs, they’re all in play.  Be aware of cars and pedestrians.  We all know there’s a lot of contention between cyclists and motorists.  Keep your mouth in check!  You’re on an 18 lb bike and they’re in a 2,000 lb truck.  Even if you’re right, and they’re wrong, bite your tongue.  If it’s that bad, call the police.

So, you have your bike.  You’re riding regularly.  There are some easy maintenance items that you should know how to do to care for your bike.

  • Fix a flat / change a flat.  Yes.  You.  You need to know how to do this.  Unless of course you don’t mind being a long way from home and getting a flat and having to call your best friend, husband, wife, neighbor, cabbie, for a ride home.  You do it a couple of times and you’ll never forget.  So, in all seriousness, take the front wheel off your bike, sit in your living room, and take the tire and tube on and off a handful of times.  It’s time well spent.  Or, even better, check with your local bike shop and see if they hold any clinics on general bike maintenance.  Or just ask them to show you.  They’ll most likely be happy to do so.
  • Check / put air in tires.  C’mon.  This is easy.  Ask your friendly neighborhood bike shop how to do it once and you’re in business.  There’s a min / max PSI (the amount of air pressure) that your tires will allow.  You don’t have to have it at the maximum, but don’t let it get too low.  Get a bike pump with a pressure gauge built in to simplify things.
  • Replace handlebar tape.  Sounds silly, but it wears down, feels nice when it’s new, and makes your bike look good – which makes you feel good!
  • Wash and lube your rig.  Just like your car – a clean bike looks better.  And more importantly the components and life of the bike will be extended.  Dirt and grime getting into cable housings and gearing can cause unnecessary wear and tear.  Again, it’s broken record time, but ask what to do at your bike shop.  In a nutshell:
  1. No high pressure water.  Just a gentle stream
  2. Mild bike cleaner and a soft brush
  3. Rinse and dry.
  4. Lube your chain and cables.

A clean bike is a happy bike.  Yes, corny.  But, you don’t want to be that person who shows up for the weekend group ride with a gummed up chain, a rear cassette that looks like a solid black mass of dirty chain lube and grease, and road gunk on the underside of your downtube.  You should hear the insults that fly in my triathlon club when someone’s bike looks like they haven’t given it some TLC in about 6 months.  It’s shameful, I know.  My regime?  Every Friday or Saturday bikes get washed and the drivetrain gets lubed.  This usually involves my wife’s bike as well.

Give your bike a general once over before every ride.  Check that the brakes aren’t rubbing on the wheel rims.  Make sure there’s good stopping power in the brakes and that they’re not worn.  (There are grooves in the brake pads – if you can’t see any grooves, you need new ones.)  Gears shift easily?  Handlebars and front wheel turn easily?  Great.  You’re ready to go.

Oh, and don’t forget.  You need some gear with you when you ride.  I’m not talking about your helmet, sunglasses, or water bottle.  I’m talking about the saddle bag that’s going to hold the stuff you need to change a tire (when you get the eventual flat).  What should you carry?

  • Spare tube
  • Tire levers
  • CO2 kit or Frame mounted air pump
  • Money
  • ID
  • Phone

The phone and ID can go in a plastic baggie in your jersey pocket.  The rest can go in your saddlebag.  Don’t get caught far from home without any of this gear.

Get a Road ID.  I wear one whenever I run, ride, or swim.  It really is must-have gear.

Is there much, much more to cycling?  Yep.  Too much to cover in one article.  I’m happy to answer any specific questions that you may have, or offer advice or suggestions should you already be riding and want to take things to the next level.  Just drop me a line and I, or someone from my team, will be happy to contact you.

Next up, running.  Chat with you next week.

While he does have a full-time day job, Dave Burgess is a competitive 40-44 age-group triathlete and USAT certified triathlon coach.  His group, Podium Training Systems, works with all levels of triathletes to help improve performance and attain individual goals through customized training plans and one on one interaction.  He blogs at Stalking the Podium.


Thanks, Dave! What’s amazing is that though this is incredibly comprehensive, it’s just the tip of the iceberg!  I cannot stress enough the importance of pedals and bike set up. In 2009, the year I tackled my first Olympic distance triathlon, my strategy was to train hardest on the bike. Sadly, due to my choice of pedals and pour seat alignment, I screwed my knee up. Bad.  I made it through the triathlon but was limping the next day.  That was in August. I wasn’t able to run again until January.  Heed Dave’s advice. Find a reputable bike shop and ask them everything!

Do you have questions for Dave?  Ask!  Are you a cyclist and have some advice? Give it!


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  • Elizabeth @ RunWithSneakers

    Wow, that’s a ton of great advice!  Thanks.  When I got my first road bike my hubby gave me a lesson on how to change a flat.  Then he stocked my bike bag with all the necessary ingredients.  However, I find it easier to just take Hubby with me on the ride.  He also does all my maintenance for me.  I am so spoiled.  The trade-off is that I have to keep up with him and that’s not always easy.

    I use the toe clips and I like them.  Even though I own bike shoes and clip-less pedals, I have a mental block about the clip-less pedals (I have fallen more than once.)  My hubby’s cycling buddy (we sometimes ride together) keeps encouraging me to use the clip-less.  He says I’ll be more efficient.  I like the idea of being more efficient, but I have this mental thing about those clip-less pedals.  I would love to get Dave’s opinion on this.

    Great post!  Thanks again JL and Dave!

    • Elizabeth, I’ll make sure to ask Dave to pop in and give his opinion. Let me tell you mine. Do it. And just fall a few times (it’s going to happen, so what?!) I’m had some horrible embarrassing moments, falling over at a stop light for instance. But once I fall, I know why I did and it doesn’t happen again. I find that unclipping on the same side keeps me consistent. As I approach stop signs, or slow when I think something might happen (a car pop out) I always unclip my left foot and bring my weight toward the left side to step down if necessary. Once I was over the learning curve (a couple of weeks) I could IMMEDIATELY see the difference in efficiency (and confidence on hills) I encourage you to do it, and to allow yourself to laugh at yourself when you fall. Let’s see what Dave has to say…

    • Elizabeth – Hmmm, the bike maintenance and flat tire changing sounds very similar to what happens in my house!

      Anyway…your pedals.  I would agree with JL and go with getting some clipless pedals.  Look makes some very nice, relatively inexpensive, entry level road pedals.  More to the point however, you do have to get used to them.  My suggestion would be to have them mounted and put your bike on an indoor bike trainer and spend 30 minutes getting into them, pedaling for a while so you can feel the difference, and getting out of them.  Then you can go to an empty parking lot on a weekend and practice outdoors.  It really won’t take long for you to get used to them and you will see a dramatic difference in your power and efficiency on hills (and flat roads as well). 

      Yes, you very likely will fall.  Most everyone does when they first switch to clipless.  But the learning curve is very short. 

      Good luck!

      • Elizabeth @ RunWithSneakers

        OK, I think I’m up for it.  I actually already have the pedals and shoes (bought them with the bike and the bike store “trained” me on how to use them.)  My hubby even put my bike on his trainer so I could practice at home.  I can do it great while the bike in on the trainer. 🙂  Also, the motion is not that different from getting out of clips, so I know it’s mental. 

        Your advice, that I hadn’t thought of,  is to practice in an empty parking lot.  My street is very hilly so that perhaps has not been the best place to practice.  So now I’m motivated to try again.  THANKS!

        • That’s great.  Go get em’!  Let me know how it goes.


  • Beth

    I had to laugh a few times during this post, since I blew a ton of money on a women-specific road bike (Specialized) with clipless pedals. Two bike rides and one nasty fall later, my bike is collecting dust in my parents’ basement. I should have brought it with me to Queens, but I value my life and see how people drive round these parts to reconsider.

    Great post and thank you for your comment! I’ll be back on Thursday and we will have to catch up.  🙂

  • This ia awesome – such a timely post after my first ride. 🙂

    I definitely think the saddle I was on was wayyyy too big.  Must go make BFFs with the dude at my neighborhood shop.

  • Tons of wonderful information in this post, thanks! I’ve been considering getting into road biking when I can afford it. But I know safety is a huge concern, so this was wonderful.

  • Tons of wonderful information in this post, thanks! I’ve been considering getting into road biking when I can afford it. But I know safety is a huge concern, so this was wonderful.

  • Urban Vegan

    Great post! Incidentally, I got my first flat the same day I got my first bike since high school. And at that point, I didn’t know how to change a flat. I wound up walking the bike 6 miles home!

  • Kita

    Thanks so much for this post! We just recently purchased a new bike and fixed up my old one and have been hitting the trails with little to no real knowledge to what we are doing. I was so happy when I saw you posted this and sat down to read!

    • Hi Kita! So glad you found Dave’s post helpful! Stay in touch and let us know how riding goes for you!

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