Starting Cycling as an Adult

(Written May 20th, 2013, just two years after I got my first road bike [25 years after exclusively riding a MTB)…

Find a local bike shop you can trust — this isn’t a time to shop online looking for that deep discount, rather it’s a time to find someone who knows what they are doing, has years of experience riding, building, customizing, and upgrading bike components. Find a recommended local bike shop (LBS) that is nearby so you can get advice, service, tuneups, etc. right when you need it.

Ask biking friends who live near you, what LBS they would recommend, and cross-reference with online reviews of the various shops.

It should be pretty clear based on the questions the local bike shop folks ask, whether they are looking to find the bike that is right for you, vs. the one that they stand to make the most profit on — that’s why you seek LBS recommendations from bikers you already know in your area…to establish the trust factor, so you don’t end up on the receiving end of used car salesman tactics.

Sleazy sales tactics can happen in a LBS, but it is much less likely than online — online, they have no way to gauge your needs or your abilities or what will fit you best, even if they have the best intentions. Also, you really don’t want to be faced with the prospect of shipping your bike back to get some little warranty problem resolved.  You WANT the relationship with a trustworthy LBS, so you can just stop by and get an adjustment, etc. to reduce your “downtime” when something needs attention.

If you are lucky you will find a LBS / dealer with a certified fitting specialist — proper bike fit is very important to avoid joint and muscle injuries, and for comfort and handling of the bike. Even if your highest recommended and most convenient shop doesn’t have a certified fitter, usually they can recommend another LBS, just for the fitting, then you can still buy from your preferred shop — a fitting is a onetime thing, but the support and regular maintenance and advice is an ongoing thing, so that should come from the highly recommended + convenient LBS.

Don’t skimp on the comfort and I don’t mean a big cushy seat with 10″ foam pad suspended by 6″ springs. 😉 I mean things like quality derailleurs that shift easily so that you don’t have to worry about the chain coming off every time you shift down to come to a stop and shift up while getting going again. You are not going to enjoy riding your grandpa’s 75 year old one speed all-steel-construction “cruiser” nearly as much as you would a lighter-weight bike with modern shifting and braking systems.

If you settle for a heavy bike with shoddy brakes and derrailleurs, you aren’t going to have much fun — and if it is a chore to ride, you’ll lose interest.

Beyond that, whether you want to ride on the road — and the condition of the roads around you vs. total off-road, in between (e.g. multi-use paths) would require more information from you w.r.t. what you might prefer, and what the riding conditions are, where you live.

Here is how that played out for me. YMMV.

I started out with a mountain bike because the roads in Michigan are horrible and because I really enjoy the upper body workout and the “excitement” factor of riding off-road through twisty-turny “single-tracks” in the various state recreation areas around here. That same mountain bike can tolerate anything the Michigan roads can throw at it.

Ultimately, mountain biking can be a FANTASTIC workout…just be prepared to do some strength training on the upper body — the climbs will build strength in your legs, but strength training off-bike will REALLY make a HUGE difference in your ability to handle the bike on switch-back climbs over roots, and also on stair-step and rocky descents. You’ll get stronger and stronger in the upper body, just riding the bike in those conditions, but you can “kick start” your MTB prowess by augmenting your rides with strength training (e.g. gym, bowflex, etc. or just push-ups and pull-ups, and rowing, even).

For over 20 years, mountain biking was been my mainstay, but I also rode the MTB quite a bit ON the road, usually to/from the mountain biking tails. I started to enjoy riding even just for the cardio value, and so I spent more and more hours on the road. I started to wear out the smallest cog on my MTB’s rear cassette because I was racking up many hundreds of miles almost entirely in the fastest gear (smallest rear cog). Also, I was having to hyper-pedal to make any speed — it’s no wonder, because MTB’s are geared with climbing power in mind, not speed, and so while functional, it was certainly not optimal. Wearing out that smallest cog got to be expensive because at the time the rear-cassette I had wasn’t modular, and the whole thing had to be replaced (several times every year), even though only the smallest gear was spent. I recently upgraded my MTB system, so now the smallest cog is replaceable, but unless you ride a lot more miles than you indicated, probably a super high-end setup would be overkill. :-/

Fast forward to the last two years…

All those road miles under suboptimal conditions (e.g. on an MTB) ultimately led me to buy a road bike. At first I considered a cross-trainer, somewhat like a MTB, but not as solid, allowing it to be lighter, and wheels + tires a little beefier than a traditional road bike, but not really very great for anything more exciting than a dirt road in fairly good condition, and not really as speed-optimized as a true road bike. Michigan’s bad roads had me leery of a pure road bike, thinking I wild pop tubes and damage rims on every third mile. :-/

Ultimately w.r.t. road-riding I decided I wasn’t going to “woos” my way into it; rather, I wanted to go cold turkey and get a full-fledged road bike. I figured I would learn to compensate for the poor road conditions and be conservative about uneven pavement, potholes, and especially curbs.

I decided to get the lightest, fastest road bike I could afford, so that I would have the best road riding experience possible. The road bike fulfills my “need for speed” and the mountain bike fulfills my “need for excitement” — the best of both, instead of one bike that isn’t really great at either. I did in fact get an excellent road bike, but despite my best efforts I was plagued with flats almost every ride and sometimes twice. The lesson there was there is such a thing as a training tire and a “race day only” tire. You see, in my quest for speed = quest for featherweight components, I had naively ended up with race-day-only tires, which are absolutely inappropriate for typical Michigan conditions. I switched to GatorSkin Ultra’s, which are only slightly heavier than the racing tires, and I now have a flat maybe once every 500-1000 miles (e.g. once every one to two months) — if you do get a road bike, I highly recommend those GatorSkins, but for weight reasons, get the folding kind (because they lack the heavy steel bead).

But that’s just what worked out for me over the course of the last 22 years. 🙂

You may find that you prefer the fast gazelle experience of a true road-bike, or perhaps your roads really don’t allow that, in which case maybe a cross-over is right for you. Or you may find more enjoyment and excitement in the total-body workout that mountain biking offers.

In the end, your decision will depend on what you prefer, what your body will allow, and the conditions of the roads vs. the accessibility of trails and/or multi-use paths.

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