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The Fit Chick's Guide to Falling in Love With Cycling

Upgrade your two-wheeler to a bike built for fitness, and you'll be ready to roll in no time.

Woman riding bike
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Want to clear your head and get in a great workout? Just hop on your bike and put the pedal to the metal. Cycling isn’t about entering the Tour de France. It’s about staying active and connected to your body and the world around you. Upgrade your two-wheeler to a bike built for fitness, and you’ll be ready to roll farther and faster in no time. 

OK, but do girls ride?

Yes, we do! A survey of 16,000 individuals, commissioned by PeopleForBikes (peopleforbikes.org), found that women are riding every day. Of the 104 million people who rode bikes in 2014, 45 million (43%) of those were women. Moms and dads bike more than their single counterparts, and most women ride for recreation. No matter where you fall in this cycling soup, it’s time to take back the open roads and learn to love one of the fastest, most effcient, and most freeing forms of cardiovascular exercise.

This “Fit Chick’s Guide to Falling in Love With Cycling” will get you from a never-ever Nancy to a Lycra-loving Lynda—or somewhere in-between, putting the wind in your hair as you crush calories. Check out our expert advice on fitness and training basics that will let you take back the road while your legs turn and burn those pedals.

Road bike
This category of bicycles is the queen of fitness—yet it can be overwhelming to choose one if you’re not sure what you need. A staggering array of bike variations affects performance, speed, comfort, usability, and price. These features include things like skinnier tires, lighter alloy materials, and smoother components (like grippier brakes or better shifters), all for a faster, sweeter ride.

So how do you know which is right for you? The “perfect” road bike is one that has the right frame geometry for you. Everything on a road bike—from the frame height, stem length, and handlebar depth to the distance from the seat to handlebars—will put you in a more ergonomic position (compared with fitness bikes or cruisers) to gain speed and get in a great workout. And although road bike geometry takes some getting used to—since your torso is angled more toward the ground—once you’ve learned to love a faster ride, the added advantages these positions offer will become essential to your workout regimen.

Fitness/urban bike
What was once more broadly called a hybrid bike, the fitness bike has risen in popularity to put the urban rider more squarely in focus. It gives a comfy, fast ride that can be your go-to for running quick errands, or it goes the distance on Saturday and Sunday if your weekend warrior strikes.

A fitness bike is built like a road model but with wider tires. It’s a bit heavier, which also means slower; it has straight handlebars (rather than drop), which can be more comfortable for newbies; and it has what’s called a “more upright geometry”. (Your torso is more perpendicular to the ground.) Plus, it usually has a more comfortable seat, to name a few of the more common differences. The “urban” bike also falls into this category and usually has a similar design to a fitness bike except that it’s set up to easily accommodate front and back racks to transport groceries and other items.

Mountain bike
We won’t cover mountain bikes here, but it’s worth mentioning in case you love to hike, want to be far from cars, and are a mountain girl by nature. Mountain biking is like hiking but with a badass boost. To learn the basics in a safe, supportive environment, consider signing up for a mountain biking camp for women of all levels, like the I Choose Bikes camp run across the U.S. by downhill mountain biking champion Leigh Donovan (ichoosebikes.com).

Bike fit

Fit instructor Julie Bates from Specialized Bicycles says: “Finding the right bike fit puts you in a perfect position, so you don’t have to think about anything other than riding. Go to a bike shop and sit on the various sizes of bikes, with guidance from knowledgeable bike shop staff. They will want to know how far you plan on riding and your goals and aspirations to help pick the right bike, in the right size, for you to test ride.” Everything from your torso length to your sit-bones width and arm and leg length will be taken into account to get you a solid bike fit. And although the perfect dimensions will be different with every brand, women-specific bikes account for some of these factors, so they’re a great place to start your search.

Frame size
This is the main component of the bike; everything is attached to it. If you have a smaller torso or legs, your frame will be smaller, and vice versa. Finding the correct-size bike is often overlooked by newbies, who may simply adjust the seat height to make up for a frame that’s too small or large.

Road and fitness bikes sometimes come in small, medium, or large, which makes it easier. A general rule of thumb is to stand over the top tube running the length of the bike and make sure there is 1-2" of clearance between the top of your inseam and the bar. (This applies if it’s a straight tube rather than an angled or a step-through tube design.) Here’s a very rough idea of frame sizing:

Height of rider/frame size (CM)
5'3" and under - extra small, 48–50cm
5'4" to 5'7" - small, 50–52cm
5'8" to 5'10" - medium, 54–56cm
5'11" to 6'1" - large, 58–60cm

Seat height
After you’ve been fitted for a frame, adjust the seat height. Place the heel of your foot on the pedal (not the middle or ball of foot), and pedal to bottom of stroke. Stop pedaling, keeping leg straight. You want your heel just brushing the top of the pedal. Achieve this by adjusting saddle height up or down. Your knee should be slightly bent, at 80–90% full leg extension. “The general rule for saddle height is for a rider to have a knee angle of 25-35°. This will protect knees from injury and create the most power and comfort,” Bates says. With these elements in place, 60% of your weight should be on the saddle and 40% on the hands and upper body, she says.

Saddle comfort
Some women’s saddles may not feel comfy enough for long rides. But you’ll be able to ride longer when other elements of bike fit are addressed, Bates says. “Have your sit bones measured—then it becomes a choice of padding, cutout, and shape of the saddle.” Positioning the saddle in the right spot will also help you ride without down-there pain. Investing in a good bike short/chamois (shorts padded in the seat area) will also help with this, she adds.

Bad pain, good advice
“Most new cyclists don’t know the difference between good pain and bad pain. Good pain is sore and tired muscles; you’ve ridden your bike, and your body is tired. Bad pain is numbness, burning, abrasion, sore joints, saddle sores, etc. People assume that hand, lower back, shoulder, and wrist pain are just normal in cycling. Not true! Cyclists should never accept bad pain as the norm,” Bates says. 

Maintenance and safety basics

Properly inflate tires
The side of your bike tire will say what PSI (pressure per square inch) the inner tube should be inflated to. Check the pressure before every ride to help prevent flats. If you have to inflate your tires a lot before every ride, you may have a slow leak.

How to change a tire/tube
Detach tire from bike. Then remove tire halfway off rim so you can remove the inner tube: You’ll likely need two tire levers, one to hold under the bead and the other to slide between the tire and rim. Once tire is off one side of rim, slide out tube. Look in the tire for debris like glass or rocks; inflate tube to listen for leaks. If the hole can be patched, do so now, following directions on patch kit. If tube is badly damaged, tuck a new inner tube under tire that is still half-attached to rim. Use your fingers to tuck tire back onto rim. Then reinflate tire and reattach to frame.

Wear a helmet
Current helmet technology offers cute and very effective protection from serious head injuries. Helmets reduce odds of severe traumatic brain injury by 51%, odds of mortality by 44%, and odds of facial fractures by 31%. Always wear one.

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