A beginner’s guide to cycling

As spring and summer approach, many of us are looking forward to spending more time outside – particularly now life is set to slowly return to normal. If you’re looking for an outdoor activity that’s as fun as it is beneficial, then getting on a bike could be a great option.

Cycling is a low impact form of exercise that will give you an excellent muscle workout because it uses all of the major muscle groups. It’s great for strength and stamina, can reduce anxiety and depression, improves joint mobility, and can be made as gentle or as intense as you like. Whether you’d prefer to enjoy leisurely cycles with a friend around your local park or want to challenge yourself to cycle steep mountain roads, cycling has something to offer everyone.

With this in mind, we’ve pulled together a few helpful tips to get you started.

1. What kind of bike should I buy?

Ask any cycling expert for advice and it’s likely that the first question they’ll ask you is “what kind of cycling would you like to do?”

That might seem like a strange question at first, however different bike models are designed for specific kinds of cycling. You’ll want to think about where you plan to cycle most often before deciding what kind of bike to buy.

For instance, if you’re planning go off-road to ride over rocks and boulders, a road bike won’t be the best choice. Likewise, if you’re planning on long rides through roads, country lanes or city streets, you’ll find a mountain bike less comfortable and slower.

That’s not to say that buying a bike means you have to completely rule out different kinds of cycling – many people want flexibility and there are models designed for exactly that. But identifying what you plan to use it for most of the time is a good way to narrow down your search.

Here are the main kinds of bike model and a quick introduction to what they are best for:

Road bikes

road bike

If you’re only planning on cycling on roads then a road bike is the obvious choice – the clue is in the name. Road bikes are built for going long distances on smooth surfaces, so are usually lightweight, have minimum suspension and smoother, more aerodynamic tyres. You can pick up an unexpected amount of speed on them, however they won’t adapt so well to rough terrain.

Mountain bikes

mountain bike

These heavy, robust bikes are built for going off-road. They have sturdy tyres with strong grip and typically suspension to handle bumpy ground. The more expensive the bike, the better and more suspension you’re likely to get. At the lower end of the price scale, you’ll likely get front-wheel suspension (known as a “hard-tail” bike). As you get into more expensive models, the quality of suspension increases and rear-wheel suspension comes in.

With suspension, you get what you pay for. If you’re looking at lower budget options, you may want to look at recreational bikes without suspension or at least hard-tail mountain bikes with better quality front-suspension only.

If you’re planning to cycle off-road regularly, you’ll want to consider a mountain bike or at least a hybrid (see below). Whilst you can take a mountain bike on the road, they are much heavier and harder work to pedal than a road bike on a smooth surface – so if you’re looking for comfort and speed over long distances, a mountain bike might not be the best option.

Hybrid bikes

hybrid bike

As the name suggests, a hybrid bike is a combination of a road bike and a mountain bike. It tries to combine the best of both, so perfect if you want the flexibility of being able to take your bike on smooth roads and rougher country paths. These will often come as hard-tail models, so you have some suspension for off-road cycling but you’re not carrying round additional weight of rear suspension to slow you down.

A hybrid could be a great choice if you’re not looking to commit to a particular kind of cycling, don’t want to cycle across extreme terrain, or simply want flexibility.

A cruiser/town bike

cruiser bike

If you’re planning on using your bike mainly for cycling short distances around the city, and you’re not looking to cycle for sport, a cruiser is a sensible choice. They’re not as fast as road bikes and aren’t good for hills – so if you live somewhere hilly you may still want to get a road or hybrid bike.


Also called power-assisted bikes, e-bikes are becoming increasingly popular – and for good reason. If you want a bit of a helping hand while you cycle, the small electric motor on an e-bike will give you that extra boost. Perfect if you’re not able to cycle up hills, or you just don’t want to break a sweat!

2. Find your local bike shop

There are thousands of specialist bike shops across the UK and these hubs are the lifeblood of the cycling community. They are used to advising beginners and enthusiasts alike, so once you’ve done some initial research online, they are a great place to validate what you’re thinking about and they might ask a few questions that you haven’t thought about yet.

Many bike shops are still open during this time, but they may not be operating as normal. But if you’re not able to look at the bikes in store and ‘try them on’, you’ll usually still be able to get advice from a social distance. If you don’t know where your nearest specialist bike shop is, you can find your nearest one online using this handy tool and give them a call.

Bikes will often arrive with some parts not assembled (for instance, wheels, pedals, the seat). If you assemble yourself, remember that the warranty on a bike may be invalidated if you haven’t had it assembled by a qualified bike mechanic (check the documentation when your bike arrives). Even if you do assemble it yourself, it’s worth getting an expert to check that you’ve done it correctly – you might not have a torque wrench or a tyre pump that registers pressure. If you want to take away the guess-work and avoid doing something wrong, make an appointment at your local shop and get a qualified bike mechanic to assemble it for you.

3. Get involved in the cycling community

Bike shops are more than just shops – they’re places where you can meet other cyclists, join your local club, find out the best cycle routes near you, and get expert help from the staff. You’ll be able to ask for advice on how to select the right type of bike for you, and hopefully try it out, to make sure that it fits and is perfectly adjusted to your height. Cycling on a bike that is too small or too big can be both dangerous, but also cause unnecessary exertion or joint stress. Once you’ve got to know the shop and staff, you can also go back now and again to ask for adjustments to be made to your bike, or pick up more cycling gear.

If you can’t get to a local shop, there are still lots of fantastic resources online. For example, sites like Cycling Weekly, Bike Radar, Cyclist and many others have lots of resources to help you quickly advance your knowledge. If you’ve decided the kind of bike you’re interested in and what your budget is, these sites help you to narrow down to a list of product recommendations. For instance:

Remember that if you’re just beginning your cycling journey, then it can be better to opt for a cheaper bike while you learn the ropes and decide whether it’s something you want to take up more seriously. You can always upgrade your bike with better components later – most enthusiasts spend more money upgrading their bikes than buying new ones!

If you’re not ready to buy your own bike yet, or don’t want to splash out before you know whether cycling is for you, why not consider a bike hire, or a bike sharing scheme? While current conditions mean that this may not be appropriate right now, or that you will certainly want to sanitise the bike handlebars first, they are a great way of getting around a city at a low cost. If you live in London you’ll probably already be familiar with the Santander Cycle hire scheme (perhaps still better known as ‘Boris Bikes’). But there are other sharing schemes all around the country – you can have a look at some of the best, here. For just a couple of pounds you can hire a bike and see how you get on – perfect if you’re just dipping your toe in the cycling pool and aren’t yet sure if you want to pursue it.

Cycling is a social and supportive sport, so once social-distancing is lifted it might be fun to explore the cycling community. There are cycling groups for everyone, no matter your ability – and you might think cycling groups are only for lycra-clad athletes, but that’s definitely not the case! While it’s great if you have enough internal motivation to ride regularly, there’s something nice about having friends to encourage and motivate you – and because many people in these groups have been cycling for years, there’s also someone on hand to learn from.

While all rides are currently suspended, Cycling UK regularly holds over 50s rides throughout the UK. These rides are specifically designed for riders who have been out of the saddle for a while, and are fun ways to get cycling and meet new people. Life Cycle also runs regular group cycle rides for over 55s, although again these are unfortunately cancelled until further notice due to the current social distancing restrictions. There are also plenty of UK cycling clubs for women, including Let’s Ride Breeze Rides, which has free group bike rides for women of all abilities.

4. What cycling equipment will I need to buy?

You’ll need more than just a bike to get started. First and foremost, you need to make sure can ride safely. But you’ll also need a few extra bits of gear to help you maintain your bike over time…

A helmet - essential

The most important bike accessory you can buy is a helmet. UK law doesn’t dictate that cyclists must wear a helmet, but common sense would urge you to wear one at all times. It really can be the difference between safety and a life-changing injury or worse – it’s simply not worth the risk of not wearing one.

If you have an old helmet lying around the house, it’s advisable to take it into your local bike shop to get an expert opinion on it – as helmets do have a shelf life and can deteriorate. If in any doubt at all, the safest option is to purchase a new one (it’s definitely a case of better safe than sorry!). The right helmet should be comfortable, light and crucially the right size so it stays fixed in position as you move your head around. Again, it’s best to head to your local bike shop to choose a helmet so that you can try before you buy (or at the very least, get some advice).

Pedals and a saddle - essential

Stating the obvious? Well, many models of bike don’t come with these already fitted. This might seem bizarre, however it’s pretty common – especially as you rise up the price bracket. If that doesn’t make any sense, it’s because many keen cyclists upgrade these components rather than stick with the fittings that come with a bike. This isn’t always the case, but it’s worth checking what components come with your bike – as there’s nothing more frustrating than your bike arriving, only to find that you can’t use it straight away!

Bike lights - essential (especially in winter)

Lights are also an important purchase – even if you don’t plan on cycling at night. It’s better to be able to cycle around freely, without the fear of finding yourself out after dark with no lights.  UK law states that when it’s dark, cyclists must have a red light for the back of the bike and a white light for the front. Similarly, a pair of cycling sunglasses will be incredibly useful for the bright summer days – and they’ll also protect your eyes from insects or any flying debris from the road. All these can be bought pretty cheaply at your local bike shop or online.

Reflectors - essential (by UK law)

Even though it’s not a legal requirement that you have to wear a helmet, you do have to have reflectors so that you can be spotted easily by others. You’ll need one on both wheels, a white reflector on the front and a red reflector on the back of your bike. As it’s UK law that you must have reflectors, most bikes will come with them. However, if you’re building your own bike from components or you break the ones you had – you’ll need to make sure you get some fitted.

A pump

Well, you’re definitely going to need one of these at some point – and many new bikes will arrive with tyres needing to be pumped up. There are plenty of options on the market, from larger floor-standing track pumps (which often register pressure and inflate tyres more quickly) to smaller and more portable mini pumps, which are great for carrying around with you in case you need to use it whilst out riding.

A puncture repair kit

Every cyclist will get a puncture at some point, and the last thing you want is to be stranded miles from home. As well as patches to repair punctures, it’s also advisable to carry spare inner tubes – especially if you’re planning on travelling long distances.

Knee pads, elbow pads and protective gloves

As certain as death and taxes, every cyclist is going to come off their bike sooner or later. If you’re cycling trails or off-road, some protective clothing will make sure you minimise the risk of injury as much as possible.

A water bottle

When exercising, it’s important to hydrate – and cycling can be thirsty work! Most bikes come with holes on the frame to attach a water bottle holder. However, you don’t necessarily need one of these if you’re happy to carry a bottle of water in your rucksack.

Cycling clothing

If you’re just planning on cycling around town, or going for gentle rides with friends, you probably don’t need to spend much on cycling gear. You certainly don’t have to look like you’re about to head off to the Tour de France! Unless you want to, of course…

However, if you’re cycling on roads, it’s always a good idea to invest in some high-vis clothing to help you stay visible to other motorists. If you don’t want to buy expensive high-vis sports gear, you can simply buy a high-vis vest to wear over your clothes for less than £1.50  – a small price to pay for safety.

If you’re planning on going for long rides, padded shorts or leggings come highly recommended. Saddle sores are no joke (professional cyclists pull out of races because of them), and even if you don’t anticipate spending hours at a time on your bike, people who are new to cycling are often more prone to saddle sores, as their skin isn’t used to the pressure from sitting on a saddle.

A lock

Sadly, the fact that bikes are so portable and often valuable makes them a prime target for thieves. If you’re leaving your bike somewhere you can’t see it or don’t have a secure place to store it, a lock will protect your bike and give you peace of mind.

A phone mount

The little super-computer you carry around in your pocket is also incredibly useful for cycling. There are some great apps, such as Strava which you can use to track your journeys and see how you perform on certain routes against other cyclists (who are often a competitive bunch!). But if you’re off on a long trip, your phone can be mounted to the front of your bike with Google Maps giving you directions.

Although not an essential purchase by any means, if you find you’re getting more into cycling and are fed up with having to stop to look for directions (never to this whilst still riding) – a phone mount is a handy upgrade.

5. Learn the cycling basics

So you’ve got a bike, you’ve bought a helmet and you’ve got the other gear you might need. Now the road (or cycle path) is calling. Should you just hop on your bike and get going? Well, it depends. If you’re new to cycling, or haven’t cycled since you were young, it’s always good to familiarise yourself with some cycling basics.

First, get acquainted – or reacquainted – with the cycling rules of the road. A lot of this is common sense, but it’s a crucial step in ensuring your own safety and the safety of others. Some of the most important rules are:

  • Obey all traffic signs and signals;
  • Ride with the flow of traffic;
  • Don’t cycle on pavements;
  • Yield to pedestrians;
  • Use hand signals when turning;
  • Stay on the left side of the road.

For more info on cycling rules and etiquette, have a look at this useful guide. It’s also helpful to check your cycling posture before hitting the road. The main things to remember are to keep your head up and your upper body relaxed, and to always keep your thumbs around the handlebars. To find out more about the correct cycling posture, take a look at the video below.

As tempting as it is to ride while listening to your favourite music, it’s best not to use headphones while cycling. You need to be able to hear whatever the road might throw at you – whether that’s cars behind or in front of you, or an ambulance or police car trying to get past.

It’s not essential, but you may also want to purchase a bike repair kit and learn how to fix a flat tyre. The chances are that you’ll get one at some point! Punctures are the most common technical issue you’ll encounter, but they’re easy and cheap to fix – all you need is a portable pump, an Allen key and a spare inner tube (if you’re planning on cycling long distances, or heading out into the countryside, you should definitely carry these on you). If you don’t know how to repair a puncture, don’t worry: you can learn how below.

6. Figure out your cycling style

Now it’s time to get out there and start cycling. No matter how big your cycling dreams may be, remember to take it slowly when starting out. The first few rides might be much harder than you anticipated, but that’s normal: your body is simply adapting to the strain of a brand new form of exercise. The first few days will always be the hardest with any new activity! From making sure you warm up and down to having a good stretch when you’ve finished, there are lots of ways you can speed up the recovery process after cycling – have a look at some tips here.

As with anything, the more you train, the quicker you’ll progress, but go easy on yourself. Don’t plan a long, strenuous cycle in the hilly countryside when you’ve only been on a few short rides in town. Start small, and get used to being on your bike. It can also help to do some strength training exercises to maximise your cycling performance – these can also help to boost your confidence and comfort levels on the bike. Have a look at some key exercises here.

The more you cycle, the more you’ll start to figure out what type of cycling is right for you. Maybe you only planned to do some relaxed cycling on a Sunday afternoon, but find your competitive streak kicking in and want to push yourself. Equally, perhaps you imagined you’d turn into a cycling adventurer, going off on epic rides through lonely terrain, but instead find you prefer cycling with a friend. There are so many ways to enjoy cycling, so take time to see how you get on.

It can be helpful to set yourself goals along the way so you can keep track of your progress. You could start off by cycling one day a week and slowly increase it until you’re cycling most days. It doesn’t matter if these are just short rides – deciding to get on your bike can sometimes be the hardest part! Alternatively, you could aim to up your distance slowly each week. Or, if you just want to cycle for fun, you could make a list of all the cycle trails you want to visit, and all the new places you want to explore.  That way, you’ll enjoy a nice feeling of achievement as you tick them off.

Consider downloading social fitness app Strava to record your rides. As the number one fitness app for cyclists, it tracks all your rides via GPS and monitors performance stats like heart rate and speed, allowing you to analyse your activity. If you’re competitive, you’ll enjoy Strava segments – popular stretches of road or trail where riders compete to get on the leaderboard for the fastest completion. Strava’s trail network is also unrivalled, so if you’re looking for new routes to explore, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Insider tips from an expert cyclist

Now you’re – hopefully – excited to get in the saddle and get going, what else should you know? We spoke to an expert cyclist and got his top five tips for making the most of cycling.

  1. Embrace the ride. As a beginner, it’s important not to focus too much on the equipment or on bikes that those around you might have. Try to simply enjoy the ride. If cycling becomes something that you want to become more serious about at a later date, then you can always upgrade your bike and/or accessories as and when you need to.
  2. Enjoy the challenges. If you’re new to cycling, then you might find it tough at first but try to find satisfaction in the knowledge that you are challenging yourself to try something new. Apps like Strava are great for staying connected with friends and family members who also cycle because you can track each other’s progress and encourage each other to keep going. I love seeing what my friends have been up to because it motivates me to get out there and do some exercise myself.
  3. Try to ride mindfully. Try to enjoy the actual ride itself without being too focussed on the destination. For me cycling is a great opportunity to keep fit and save money on petrol, but also to relax and unwind. If I’m ever stressed, I know that I will always feel much better after a bike ride. I see things so much more clearly when I’m riding my bike.
  4. Confidence. If you’re not confident taking to the open road, then try practicing somewhere that you feel safe – like your local park. You can then build up your bike rides slowly, going a bit further each time. I started cycling to work eventually, but it’s a fairly long way, so I was a bit nervous. I found confidence in planning ahead and making sure that I knew where a couple of stations were along the route. This meant that if I got tired or became a bit anxious, I could take the train the rest of the way to work and still be on time.
  5. Try to see cycling as a learning opportunity. I knew nothing about different types of bikes and riding techniques a few years ago, but I’ve enjoyed learning about the technical side of things ever since. As I’ve invested more and more time into cycling, I’ve become increasingly curious about all kinds of things that the cycling world has to offer – from carbon bike frames through to how to replace broken bike spokes. But equally, if you’re not so interested in that side of things and just want to enjoy a leisurely cycle now and then, that’s okay too.

Final thoughts…

Regardless of your fitness level or experience, cycling is a sport that’s suited to almost everyone. Aside from the physical and mental health benefits, another big perk is that you can ride any way you want – you can cycle fast or slow, solo or with friends, for just 30 minutes or for the whole day. You can explore new areas, whether that’s your own city or parts of the countryside. Don’t feel daunted about getting into the saddle; remember every single cyclist was a beginner once, and it’s never too late to get back on that bike.

Have you recently taken up cycling? Or are you thinking of giving it a go? We’d love to hear from you! Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.

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