We have learned a lot together. And I don’t just mean that in a warm and fuzzy, “I already know this stuff but I’m telling it to you and then saying ‘we’ so you feel included,” type of way.
I mean…I didn’t know a good amount of this stuff at first, either!
A lot of this is a learning process. I had a degree in anthropology and I liked cycling. That’s about 15% of what Pedal Powered Anthropology has become. The other 85%…well…I figured that out along the way and told you what I learned as I was learning it.
So. We have learned a lot together.
But I realize…while I’ve taught you all sorts of stuff about anthropology and we’ve had some good discussions about science and culture on the Facebook page and in the Facebook group. I’ve learned and shared all sorts of stuff on film making as well. But I haven’t said a whole lot about cycling. Other than that I love it.
Getting into any new hobby or sport can be intimidating, and so I’m writing up a bit of a guide to get you started in cycling.
Why? Because I love it, and I’m building a career on evangelizing anthropology/science, and cycling-based outdoor exploration.
Cycling is incredibly accessible, first of all. You can spend as much or as little as you’d like, so virtually any price point can get you riding. There are also adult tricycles, recumbent bikes, electric assist bikes, cargo/freight bikes, velomobiles, and all sorts of customization you can do to make your bike work for you, your body, and your mobility level.
It is incredibly accessible, although at some point it can be unaffordable and some people simply cannot cycle at all for a variety of reasons.
But for many, it is the great equalizer. And also for many…it is the great rabbit hole trying to get started.
So, I’m going to give you some tips to get riding for whatever reason you want to, but keep in mind that ultimately, I want you to go out and explore and learn about the world around you. So I’m gonna be a liiiittle biased towards versatility.
The best bike to start riding on is the one you already have. I don’t care how old it is. I don’t care that it’s been in the garage for 10 years. If you have a bike that seems a decent size for you, air up the tires, walk it toward the road and squeeze the brakes a few times. If it seems like it stops. Ride it.
Just around the block for now. But try and feel how the bike feels.
Does the steering feel steady? Is it smooth and gliding, or tight and squirrely?
Do the brakes stop nicely or does it just feel like you’re coasting to a stop more quickly?
Are there creaks? Squeaks? Does it sound like a wheel is dragging against a brake?
Are you comfortable with the amount of reach or how upright you’re sitting?
How far does your leg extend when your foot is all the way down in a pedal stroke?
Just take stock of all of this stuff. If you like the bike, I’d also suggest taking it to a bike shop and have them give it a once over. Let them know the answers to all those questions I just gave you. It’ll help them diagnose any issues and get the bike properly tuned and fitted to your body.
One thing about bikes is the saddle. There’s a reason it’s called a saddle even though you usually only hear lycra-clad idiots like me calling it that.
A saddle is a type of seat, but not all seats are saddles. A saddle is designed as a seat that doesn’t take all of your weight. In that respect it’s more similar to an equestrian saddle than the seat in your car. On a bicycle there are 3 (or 5, if you wanna get picky) points of contact. Your feet, your hands, and your butt. Some of your weight is borne by each, and sometimes in different amounts.
When you first start riding, you’re going to hate your saddle. And you’re probably going to want a bigger, softer saddle.
DON’T GIVE IN.
Cycling is an exercise. When you start any new exercise, you get a bit sore. For cycling, your ischial tuberosities (or sit bones, or ass tips as I like to call them) are part of it.
Give it a week. Better yet, give it two weeks. Ride every day or every few days, whatever. If you find you still hate your saddle, then look into replacing it. But if you’re new to riding or if you haven’t ridden since last season (spring time is when many cyclists suddenly think they hate their saddles), give it some time.
As for the cushy, soft, gel saddles. Those seem tempting. But again, don’t give in. Saddles aren’t designed to take all your weight. Softer saddles encourage putting more weight on your butt, and can cause discomfort there, and in your back. In sinking into the saddle, you’re creating a lot of friction. Friction creates raw patches and eventually can cause saddle sores.
Also, you sweat a lot. A soft saddle may feel really nice when you’re squeezing it when it’s hanging up in the store. But when you’ve spent 3 months sweating into it with no way to actually clean it and develop a sore from the friction, you may change your tune. Not to mention the havoc it can wreak on the female anatomy.
Would you wear underwear for three months without cleaning it? Same idea.
That’s why cyclists wear those goofy shorts. They’re padded at critical areas and less padded in less critical areas. The padding is ventilated to keep your bits cool. The fabric has a special weave that wicks moisture away from your body. Many of them are now antimicrobial.
The tight lycra compresses your muscles which helps with lactic acid buildup (“the burn”) and just gives you an overall more comfortable ride. The padding moves with you, instead of you wriggling around and building up heat and friction.
And lastly (maybe most importantly) you can wash them.
If you’ve given your saddle what you think is a fair shot, I would again suggest heading to your local bike shop and asking them to fit you for a saddle. They have a nifty thing you can sit on that will measure your sit bones and then you can pick out a saddle that’s the right size.
THAT’S RIGHT, saddles come in different sizes for different people. Too wide a saddle and you’re sit bones are too close to the center and it’ll be rubbing on your thighs. Too narrow and your sit bones will sit on the downward curve of the outside of the saddle. This has caused hip and knee problems for my wife with certain saddles. It’s immediately remedied with others.
So ok. All that said. Let’s now assume you need a bike.
You might be tempted to go to your local big box store and pick up the cheapest thing that looks cool and has what seems to be some bells and whistles.
You can do that. And you may very well be happy with that bike.
But those bikes are priced so cheaply for a reason. They’re made with quantity in mind. The shifters and brakes are less-than-precision, the frames are often incredibly heavy and less sturdy than the types of bikes you’ll get at a bike shop. They’re also likely assembled by people who aren’t bicycle mechanics and lack proper training.
Essentially, they are manufactured to fit within a sub-$100 price point. I’ve spent $90 on handlebars.
If you want to ride around the block with your dog, these bikes might do. Anything else and you may find they’re wearing out quickly and gears are starting to skip and you can’t do much about it except replace the gearing.
Only…you can’t replace the individual chain rings, and have to buy an entirely new crankset because the stock one wasn’t built to be serviced. Turns out a new crankset is as expensive as the bike was.
Do you replace the crankset? Do you buy the same bike again? Or do you buy a bike from a reputable manufacturer?
I’m going with the reputable frame, and I always will. My “first” bike (as an adult) was from a department store. It was $140 or thereabouts and I thought it was fantastic. After about 700 miles (a summer and fall, and start of spring), it was skipping. Goofy stuff was happening. I wanted to piece out components and quickly found out exactly what I just you about replacing parts and such.
It was less expensive to buy a $300 entry-level bike from a bike shop than to piece out the crummy parts from my department store bike.
If you want to start cycling, good equipment is part of it. Many bike shops have quality used bikes that are in fantastic shape. You can get entry level bikes for around $300, and Craigslist is a great option as well. If you’re not knowledgeable, ask your local bike shop if you can meet a seller there and have them give it a safety inspection.
There are also programs like Recycle-a-Bike, which refurbish used bicycles and sell them for almost absurdly cheap. They also offer maintenance and building classes!
The last question you have to ask yourself is what you want to do with cycling. Spending hours hauling ass along country roads is different from multi-state touring, which is in turn different from commuting to work, which is in turn different from hauling your children to school.
Think about the kinds of things you want to do with it. A road bike is excellent on pavement but designed minimalistically for aerodynamics. Some of them can be tricky to work on roadside and nearly impossible to carry any tools on anyway.
Mountain bikes will take you…well…up and down mountain trails. But the size and tread of the tires make them impractical for pavement.
A hybrid bike is a good compromise that will take you smoothly and comfortably over pavement, and fairly quickly. You won’t be setting any land speed records, but you’ll have a fun time flying down hills. You can also take some trails and gravel roads with it.
For the purposes of what I do, which is exploring, traveling, and filming, they’re a great option. They have lots of clearance in the frame to install things like fenders/mud guards. Many can carry a rear cargo rack, or even a front rack. Many have disc brakes which are better at stopping a bike in wet conditions or when under load.
Essentially, if you’re new to cycling and want to go on comfortable and self-sufficient adventures, a hybrid bike is an excellent first choice.
Tinker Galoot, Pedal Powered Anthropology’s first bike, is a hybrid. He started off as a really low-end hybrid that I bought for winter commuting (I’m in New England) when I didn’t want my nicer bikes to get ruined by the snow and salts.
One bike failed me, and all the components from it went to this hybrid.
Tinker Galoot is a hybrid/touring bike. I built this bike from my own ideas of what I wanted out of cycling. I used a solid hybrid frame and installed components that I knew would stand up to what I was going to put it through. And as you know, it served me for quite some time.
This bike has over 9,000 miles on it and is a main character in Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution. It was only very recently that I needed a change.
Enter One Long Boi.
One Long Boi is a freak of nature.
The link above to cargo/freight bikes? This bike fits into that category–it is a long-tail cargo bike.
Essentially a mountain bike, but kind of like a hybrid, but also about 33% longer than any bike has any business being, this thing is changing my life.
It can carry over 200lbs of cargo, and the frame even has foot holds to carry passengers.
As you can see, it has no problem making its way through 3″ of snow. I’ve filmed two Pedal Powered Anthropology episodes (Language and Identity and The Science of Dating) from this bike and have mostly worked out all the kinks to video production with it.
At the end of April, Pedal for Pongo! kicks off, and this bike will be hauling all of my camera gear and a good amount of clothing from Providence to Philadelphia while filming a documentary on primatology and animal conservation.
There is so much you can do with cycling. With minimal (or no!) upfront investment you can get riding.
Once you’re riding, you can literally travel the world.
In my future blogs on Anthro-spinning, I’ll start detailing how to outfit your bicycle for adventure. For now though, let’s just get you in the saddle.