tips for new cyclists: have the gear you need

If you’ve read much of my stuff, you may know I’m an advocate of spending less; of thinking about what we can avoid buying. Part of the reason for taking up cycling for me was to avoid a lot of car-related costs. But if your bike is going to replace your car as a means of getting you to and from work, there is some stuff you’re going to have to get in order make the ride safe and comfortable and to keep your bike working. In this post I’ve categorised this stuff across three priority areas. Must Have stuff is the stuff you need – no questions asked – before you set out. Get As Soon As You Can is the stuff you may get away with not having when you start out, but you should probably think about getting hold of within the first week or two, and finally, Nice To Have stuff is – stuff you can probably do without if you really need to, but it would be better if you didn’t have to. The list assumes you already have your basic bike, and it’s in reasonable working order. Where I have any special advice concerning brands, I’ve added it. Where I mention prices they’re in Australian dollars. Experienced commuting cyclists may disagree with my category placements – and that’s fine. Please feel free to add to the post by replying.

The Must-Have Stuff

1. Shoes: It goes without saying that if your bike has pedals designed for cleats (strongly recommended), then you’re going to need shoes that fit them. My advice would be to only buy online if you’ve first been fitted in person and know your size. Don’t guess on size. Also, once you get the shoes, bear in mind the position of the cleats on them is adjustable. Have a ride and see if the cleats need to be adjusted. I like to have my cleats right under the ball of my feet, and to my surprise I had to adjust my two shoes differently to make this happen (I guess my feet are slightly different sizes).

2. Inner Tubes x 2: One day you’re going to need to replace an inner-tube. There’s no telling when this is going to happen, but it definitely is going to happen. For me I had the good fortune of riding my regular route for 3-months before the fateful day came. But that day could just as easily come tomorrow. When it comes, you could conceivably find yourself needing to replace two inner-tubes (you have two tyres right?). Inner-tubes come in different sizes. Your tubes need to be the right size to fit your wheels. A good way to ensure you’re getting the right size tubes (at least the first time you buy them) is to take your bike, or at least the wheel, into a bike shop.

3. Tyre Levers x 2 (or 3): These are cheap little tools necessary for changing inner tubes. You need at least two. The first pair I bought were plastic and broke the first time I used them … at night … in the rain. I recommend the Lezyne alloy ones which, at around $20 a pair, are more expensive than the nasty plastic ones, but – well you don’t want your tyre levers to break … at night … in the rain. Trust me on this.

4. A Pump: A little one you can carry with you on the bike. It won’t get your tyres up to optimal pressure, for that you will need a workshop pump (see below), but this one will get you out of trouble when you’re on the road and you need to replace a flat. When you buy your pump you’ll probably want to get one with a clip that attaches to your bike. Make sure the pump has a fitting that works on the kind of valves your inner-tubes have. There are two popular types of valve: the more traditional Schrader and the more recent, and narrower Presta.

5. Lights: Front and Back. If you’re going to ride at night, or in reduced light, you can’t do without lights. A red one for the back and a white one up front. These are sometimes also worn on the helmet. There are a wide range of back lights, usually at around the $20 mark. They run on one or two AA or AAA batteries, are usually supplied with a clip that attaches to your seat post, and are generally equipped with 3 settings (on, off and blinking). Most riders I see use the blinking setting. The point of the rear light is to get you seen – I guess most riders think, if it’s blinking, people are more likely to notice it.

The headlight is a vastly different animal to the back one. For starters, you need to know what function the headlight is going to serve. Headlights can be designed to either get you noticed or to actually illuminate the road in front of you. The varying factor is the brightness. This is measured in units known as Lumens, which in the world of headlight advertising, seems to be a pretty flexible unit – ie; it seems possible for two different 700 lumen units to vary widely in brightness when actually switched on. Your decision on the kind of headlight you get will be based on how dark it is when you ride and how well-lit the areas you ride through are. If you’re riding at night and any part of your route is not well-illuminated by street lights, you’ll need a bright headlight that lets you see what’s in front of you. If, on the other hand, your ride only takes you through well-lit areas, you might get away with a weaker light that just aims to get you seen. Prices vary enormously. A weak headlight that runs on disposable batteries can be bought from a department store for maybe as low as $40. My light (a Cygolight Triden) cost $300, is pretty bright (750 lumens), and has a separate rechargeable battery. If you need a headlight that will actually illuminate the road, you can end up spending some pretty serious money. Be warned!

6. A Helmet: This is a no-brainer. You can’t ride without one. You can pay a stupid amount of money for these – but to my mind, whether they cost $30 or $300, they’re basically the same thing; a piece of molded polystyrene with straps to hold it on.

7. A Bell: Negligible cost, but an absolute must-have. This is how you let pedestrians know you’re coming up behind during those times you’re sharing the footpath with them (ie; when it is a shared footpath/bikeway). Also very useful when approaching blind corners. I use mine everyday. On a price:usefulness ratio this would have to be the most useful bit of gear on my bike.

8. A Lock: Again there is a variety of these. I have two. One for work and one for home. This saves me from having to carry a lock with me every trip. Why do I lock my bike up at home? Well, it’s possible for someone to break into my garage, and if they do, I don’t want them to be able to just walk off with my expensive bike. At home I use a Kryptonite U-Lock and at work I have a Kryptonite combination cable lock. I’m happy with both. The U-Lock is thicker and thus harder to break with chain cutters. When you lock up your bike, remember your wheels are removable, so make sure you pass the lock through your wheels and around part of the frame.

9. A Saddle Bag:You need some method of carrying your spare tubes and tyre levers around with you. Saddle bags are a popular solution. These are little bags that strap under your seat and are just the right size to carry a few little needful things. For me, since my home town can get pretty rainy, I spent a bit more and bought a water resistant, extra-large saddle bag to keep my phone dry while riding in the rain.

The Get-As-Soon-As-You-Can Stuff

1. A Chain-Cleaner and Lubricant: If you have dirt and grit in your chain it will eat away at the metal in the links until eventually one of them breaks. A broken chain is something you want to try and avoid. Unless you’re lucky enough to have your chain break near enough to a bike repair shop that you are able to walk your bike to it – a broken chain usually means calling your partner or friend and having them come and pick you and the bike up; an ignominious end to a ride. You can extend the life of your chain by keeping it clean and lubricated. I’ll cover this in detail in a future post about weekly bike maintenance, but for the purposes of this list, you should get yourself a means of cleaning your chain, including a stiff brush, or even better one of those fantastic chain-cleaning machines, and some citrus-based cleaning fluid. You also need some chain lubricant. There are a few brands available. Don’t use WD40, car engine oil or household oil. Instead, get one of the specialised bike chain lubricants from a bike shop. The advice I was given is that one drop per link is all that is needed.

2. A Floor Pump: I’ve received varying advice about the best pressure at which to keep bike tyres inflated. Generally people that like to race seem to prefer a higher pressure to those that don’t. A figure I’ve seen recommended (for a road bike) is 120psi. It is also recommended that lighter riders may require less pressure, and I’ve come across different recommendations for mountain bikes so I suggest doing your own research on this. At any rate, your little carry-on bike pump won’t tell you the pressure of the air in your tyres, nor will it enable you to achieve 120psi. For both these tasks you will need a floor pump. These are bigger, heavier, sturdier and designed to live in your garage or workshop and be regularly used to maintain your tyre pressure. This is important because tyres at a low pressure are more likely to get a puncture. Again, my upcoming post on bike maintenance will go into this in more detail, but until then check your tyres every couple of days and keep them at the recommended pressure.

3. Gloves: My hands got chafed on my very first ride so I went to a bike shop near my work and bought a pair of gloves. As with all cycling clothing, you can spend a ridiculous amount on gloves. I bought the cheapest pair in the shop (Campagnolo; an Italian brand) for $30. Since then I’ve seen cheaper ones online, but I should mention that four-months-on, my Campagnolo gloves are still holding up great. Most riders I see wear gloves, but you do see some riders that seem to manage OK without them.

4. A Bike Rack, or Some Means of Storage: See my point above about locking up your bike at home. You’re going to need something to chain it to. You may have a fence or something that will work OK for a while, but at some point you probably want to organise a proper method of storing your bike. I bought a single-bike rack, drilled bolt holes in it and dyna-bolted it to the garage floor. It was surprisingly cheap (around $40), very solid and has worked out great. Wall racks are also good and there are some good ceiling storage solutions available too. I suggest getting online or going to your local bike shop and having a look at what’s available.

5. A Water Bottle and Bracket (cage): Necessary for longer rides, especially in summer.

The Nice-to-Have Stuff

1. Knicks: While most riders I see are wearing knicks (those very attractive lycra pants with padding), I also see plenty just wearing normal shorts. I had knicks before my first trip and have actually never ridden a work commute without them, so for me I’m tempted to make them a higher priority on this list, but there are plenty of people that seem to manage OK without them. The thing with knicks is that they can cost a lot of money. and if you’re wearing them 5 days-a-week you obviously need a few pair, so you’ll need to find somewhere that sells reasonable quality knicks for a good price. The best deal I’ve found is from Cell Bikes (in Australia). Their own brand sell for $40. I have a few of these and for the price they are excellent. All but one pair of mine are Bib knicks. These are the kind with shoulder straps to keep them up and no elastic in the waist. It’s hard for me to imagine anything more comfortable to wear while riding a bike.

2. Jerseys: Bike jerseys are nice, but again, pretty expensive for what they are. I have one I was given, but I can’t justify buying them. Instead I found some t-shirts at a department store, made of the same sort of moisture-wicking material as jerseys, for about $10 each, so I bought a few and have been wearing them on my commute ever since. If you buy t-shirts to wear on your rides, a close-fit is better than a loose-fit. You don’t want fabric flapping around, catching the wind when you’re riding.

3. A Multi-Tool: You won’t own a bike for long before you start wanting to adjust things. Most bike adjustments require an Allen-key (Hex-key). You can carry around a bunch of different-size Allen keys, or you just get one of these multi-tools which are a bit like a Swiss-Army-Knife for bikes. They have every size of Allen key you’re likely to need, plus maybe a couple of screwdrivers and sometimes some other stuff too, plus it all folds up into a handy handle-thingy.

4. Arm Warmers: Essential for winter. I can get away without leg-warmers where I live (if you live in a colder climate, be aware that leg warmers are available and might be an essential bit of gear for you), but my arm-warmers make a big difference on those cold winter mornings. Arm warmers provide the advantage of saving you from having to buy long-sleeved tops for winter, by making your short-sleeved summer stuff wearable during the cold months.

5. Glasses: Desirable for two reasons – A) To stop things like dirt, bugs and rain from going in your eyes, and B) To stop the glare from low afternoon sun temporarily blinding you. I don’t have a pair, and have often wished I did. This is the next item on my list.

6. A Bike Computer: This item almost didn’t make the list as it’s pretty difficult to argue that you need a computer on your bike, but the reality is that I have one (sort of) and I like it. My bike computer is actually my phone. I have an app for it called Cyclemeter that only cost me a couple of dollars and uses the phone’s built-in GPS to capture stats about my rides. From this I know exactly how far the ride is, how long it takes me – and hence my average speed. I know changes in elevation during the ride. I know my fastest speed for each ride and I have a history of every ride I’ve done, which tells me about how my time is improving, slowly but steadily as I get more experience. None of this is essential, but it does add more interest to the whole commute experience. If you don’t have a GPS-enabled smart phone don’t despair, stand-alone bike computers are available which are, in many ways, a better option than using your phone.

Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without briefly discussing where to get this stuff. New bike shops are popping up like mushrooms in my town. If you have any bike shops near you, you should go take a look. Compare prices, talk to other cyclists and try and get a feel for which shop offers the best value. Most bike shops also offer a workshop service which you may end up using one day. Some of the shops in my town have a reputation for providing either good or bad workshop service. Again it’s worth talking to other riders to get their view on this. Of course the alternative to brick and mortar shops is online shops. There are a few players here and in order to minimise delivery charges (and waiting) you might want to favour one based in your own country. In Australia, Cell Bikes is well known, have everything you need and are price-competitive. I’ve made a number of purchases from them and have no complaints. In the UK, Wiggle is one of the biggest players. I don’t know who you would use in the US, but I’m sure a few minutes of Googling will turn up something. I’ve also bought bike accessories from Amazon and received a good deal. If you really want to save money on your bike gear I strongly recommend spending a bit of time shopping around online. Most online bike shops allow you to subscribe, which will add you to their email list. This has to be one of the best ways to get hold of cheap gear.

Well, at nearly three-thousand words, this has been a mammoth post. Thanks for sticking with it and I hope you found something useful in there somewhere. If you’re getting hold of some new bike gear, let me know how you go. I (and millions of other cyclists) am always interested to hear about good new gear and cheap suppliers.

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