The Basics of Cycling

The Beginning – The real Cycling Proficiency

I remember taking my cycling proficiency back in the 70’s and I don’t remember any Rolf Harris/Jimmy Saville moments. In fact I don’t remember much other than getting a certificate and a badge. It was in a multi-story car park with cones laid out and we were taught basic road safety. Since then I’ve only been wiped out by a car once – someone setting off form a parked position straight into a U-turn on Roundhay Road. I recon that’s a pretty good record.

 If you are really new to cycling then I’d recommend swallowing some pride and taking a cycling proficiency test. If that’s a bit much for you then at least have a read through the cycling section of the Highway Code. Quite simply it’ll give you insight into some of the very basics that keep you safe on the road.

Wear a helmet

It’s a fact, bash your head in a small fall and you can end up with brain damage or dead. You can slip off the curb while staggering home from the pub, fall awkwardly, crack your head and game over. But it isn’t very likely is it? Well, statistically speaking no, neither is winning the lottery but it does happen to someone every week and many many more believe that each week it could be them. A helmet is there to protect your life in the event of an otherwise innocuous spill.

Helmets come in various styles, colours, and at a range of prices. Forget all that, the most important point is to get a good fit. Most of this you can achieve by adjusting it properly. Imagine yourself wearing it through your triple-salko quadrouple-summersault routine on a trampoline. The helmet should stay perfectly in place throughout – that’s what a good fit means. It needs to be still in place when (or rather if) you fall. Going to a shop (rather than internet) gives you a chance to try before you buy.


Apart from looking cool(?) cycling gloves do have a functional value too. Summer cycling gloves or mitts as some prefer to call them have padding in the palm specifically around the points most commonly in contact with the handlebars. The backs are typically open or of a light fabric to allow your hand to breathe. The padding is often a gel-type and does give a bit of isolation from the vibration you sometimes get through the handlebars on a lumpy road. The palm itself helps to prevent callouses forming as a result of gripping the bars. And in the unfortunate event of a fall the gloves will protect your palms when you reach out just before hitting the deck. Winter cycling gloves add waterproofing and warmth to the portfolio.


There’s load of cycling shorts to choose from; from the classic lycra road cycling shorts to mountain bike baggies, bib shorts, undershorts. And there’s a range of prices and quality to boot. One thing they all have in common – they’re made for the job, made for the job of comforting you bum. The padding varies from thin cushioned fabric, to foam to gel to memory foam. They are all better than normal unpadded shorts.

Where to start? So much comes down to personal preference and how they fit on the bike. The only starting point I can really offer is to look for a good make (one that sells higher-priced gear) and choose something from lower down their range, towards the cheaper end of their range. Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard many tales of the really cheap shorts simply not lasting.


There’s lots of types of pedals which I glibly categorise as clipped-in or not. Most bikes are supplied with ‘normal’ flat pedals and they’re fine for casual use, however you can’t ‘pull up’ with these pedals. When professional-types cycle they don’t just push the pedals down, they also pull-up on the pedals too – so on any given pedal stroke both legs are working, the front one pushing down and the back one pulling up. It’s more efficient and faster though only works with clipped-in pedals. I

There’s another side-benefit to clipped in pedals too – your foot is always in the same, and hopefully right place on the pedals. The ball of your foot should be positioned over the spindle of the pedal or thereabouts. Pedaling with the heels of your feet is way too labour intensive!

What type of clipped-in pedals?

The ‘cheap’ end and most basic is good old toe-clips costing maybe as much as £20 including straps and fitting to most flat-type pedals. Their one advantage that you can still wear normal shoes/trainers with them. Typically as you set off you hook your foot into the toe-clips then tighten the straps as you ride. When you come to a stop you must remember to loosen the straps in order to be able to get your feet off the pedals and on the floor before falling over. Toe-clips are old news and there are much better options.

‘Proper’ clip-in pedals need special shoes too, shoes with cleats on the bottom. The cleats clip-in to the pedals and you twist your foot to release from them – an important technique to master, significantly though you do not need to use your hands. It’s worth asking the guys in the club for advice on which pedals to go for – I’m way out of date still using toe clips on my mountain bike and plain spd’s on my road bike. Silly old bastard.

Crunch your gears, Break your chain

The most common gears these days are ‘derailleur’ gears, 10 or 11 ‘cogs’ on the rear wheel and 2 or 3 ‘chain rings’ at the pedal-end giving a total of 20-33 different gears, far more than the old 3 speed sturmey archer days gone by. For all the technological advances there is still no clutch and the gear change on the derailleur is achieved by simply de-rail-ing the chain from one cog to another. The trick is to release the pressure on the pedals as you change gear, keep them turning just without full-gas pressure. Try it and you’ll find the chain slips nicely between the gears. Keep the pressure on while you change and you can’t fail to notice the crunching noises.

Chain-crossing is where for example your chain is on the outside chain ring and the inside cog. If you look at the chain it visibly bends when it leaves the chain ring and bends again when it reaches the rear cog.

Chain Crossing

It’s a bad thing because it takes energy from every pedal stroke, it puts a strain on the chain, and it is unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because there’s a big overlap with your gears – big chain ring, big cog will be a very similar gear to other/middle chain ring and cog 7/8. As a rule of thumb avoid crossing from the chain ring to the two most extreme cogs.

Chains don’t break very often. Mostly though when they do it is a combination of chain-crossing, big effort on the pedals and crunching gear changes. Now you know the killer cocktail you need to avoid.

Riding in the Pack

Ok, so you’ve got you fancy pedals, your lycra shorts, your MFCC cycling shirt (or other less popular design), you have the shoes and gloves and you look a twat. Now you need to find other similarly fashion-blind comrades to ‘fit-in’ with. Get out on a club ride! Or at least get out with a couple of mates.

Apart from the social side of riding in a group there some important performance benefits too. Slipstreaming. You hear about it in F1, lorries sometimes do it on the motorway, and the lazy buggers in the middle of the Tour de France peleton do it a hell of a lot. Really it is quite simple: as you ride along you have to ‘punch a hole’ in the air: the air in front of you was still and stationary before you got there and you’re pushing it out of the way as you ride through it. Now, if you are close behind the rider in front then they have already made a rider-sized hold for you to go through. Of course the hole closes behind each of us as the air re-fills the gap where we once were, but if you are close enough to the guy in front then you get to use some of the hole he has made. Wind tunnel tests demonstrate up to a 30% saving for the guy behind. Better still, the guy in front gets a 10% benefit from the air not closing in directly behind him. Win-Win. And if you are mid pack you could be getting the full 40% benefit, that’s massive.

So where’s the catch?

Crashing. Or concentrating. When you ride close to someone else, either behind or alongside you increase the risk of crashing into them. The closer you are, the higher the risk. Simple. The mitigation is to concentrate on what you are doing, on what they are doing and if possible on what is around you too. With practice it becomes easier and to start with you might ride a foot or two behind the person in front. With experience you could be just a few inches behind.

Fortunately in a touch-of-wheels crash it is invariably the guy behind that comes off worse. This feels like justice to me since the guy behind is the one controlling the gap. Or to put it another way you are responsible for your own safety when you follow someone. The gains are definitely worth it, and crashes don’t happen that often. Concentrate, and ask for advice if you’re not sure.

The Basics of Cycling