The sheer range of stuff available in a typical bike shop can be bewildering. What’s a CamelBak? Why might you need a turbo trainer? In reality, you don’t need all of this stuff – many people ride happily in their normal clothes with just a rucksack to carry things. But a few items are essential if you do more than ride in flat, dry conditions between secure garages. Some will make your ride easier, safer or more comfortable, and some are simply nice to have.
If you leave your bike on the street at all you’re going to need to lock it. This is one area where you truly get what you pay for: good locks are not cheap, but the best ones will resist anything short of power tools, and so make a thief look elsewhere for the funding for his next fix.
It’s impossible to be certain how good a lock is just by looking at it. What we’ve found is that the best protection comes from D-shaped shackle locks with hefty armouring around the lock mechanism. The U of the lock should engage at both ends, and the key should be flat – not a cylinder key, which are easier to attack.
Budget £50-£100 for a lock. That might sound like a lot, but it’s a small price to pay to avoid the inconvenience of a long walk home and the cost of a new bike. For more information, see BikeRadar's Buyer's Guide to Locks.
There are many ways to carry things on a bike, from a simple shoulder bag for your money and keys to a full set of racks and panniers loaded with enough gear to cross continents. What’s best depends on the type of riding you’re doing.
For pootling round town, lightly laden, then look for a small, compact rucksack with compression straps to keep the contents stable, or a courier-style shoulder bag. Bags on your body have the advantage of easily coming with you off the bike, but the disadvantage that they can make you sweaty. For many people, the combination of a rucksack and drop handlebars is simply uncomfortable.
If your rides are longer, then the best way is to let the bike take the load. A rack and panniers will give you lots of capacity for office essentials, shopping or even a weekend away. If you don’t need that much carrying ability, look at rack-top bags or saddle bags that can come with you.
If you’re going off-road then a rucksack is the way to go. There’s a vast range of options, almost all including a bladder for water (waterbottles tend to bounce out of cages on mountain bikes). CamelBak invented this idea and have literally hundreds of models, from simple water-carried with a pocket to big packs for all-day adventures.
It’s a sad fact of life that it rains now and then in good old Blighty. To keep the weather out, a cycling jacket needs to fit in the riding position, with a longer back and arms than a regular jacket. High-visibility colours and reflective materials are popular for obvious reasons, and the best jackets are both fully waterproof and breathable so you don’t get that horrible boil-in-the-bag syndrome.
The other half of preventing a soaking, mudguards are a vital component of any everyday bike. Few bikes come equipped with them because they don’t look racy, but if you’re going to do more than ride on sunny days, keeping the spray from the road down where it belongs is vital.
Most entry-level road, mountain and city bikes have the necessary mounts on the frame for mudguards. There are also mudguards that fit bikes without mounts. They vary in effectiveness, but the best ones, Crud Roadracers, provide full protection.
Essential if you’re going to ride after dark, lights do two jobs: make you visible, and illuminate the road. In the city, there’s enough ambient light that you just need small, fairly bright units so other road users can see you, and they can be combined with reflectors to increase your profile.
For unlit roads, you need something more powerful. In the last few years the development of extremely efficient, bright LEDs and lithium-ion rechargeable batteries has resulted in compact lights that pack incredible power. For the most part they’re aimed at mountain bikers who like to ride off road at night, but they’re great for long-distance commuting too. For more information, see BikeRadar's Buyer's Guide to Mountain Bike Lights.
Pump, spares & tools
As the Scouts say, “Be prepared”. Carry a multi-tool, tyre levers and a couple of spare tubes in a small bag under your saddle so they’re always there when you need them, and fit a pump to your bike.
We recommend full-size pumps over mini-pumps unless you really can’t carry one. They’re much faster to get a tyre back up to pressure, so you’re not standing around getting cold and wet any longer than necessary.
Is a helmet essential? It depends. Cycling is actually much safer than you might think, especially if you observe a few simple techniques. Your chances of having a serious crash just riding round town are very small, which is why you don’t see helmets on the heads of everyday cyclists in European towns. And helmets are only designed to offer protection in relatively low-speed crashes that don’t involve motor vehicles.
On the other hand, many people find wearing a helmet reassuring. For types of riding where there’s a significant risk of a crash that doesn’t involve a motor vehicle, such as mountain biking a helmet will probably save you the odd minor concussion.
If a helmet’s going to be effective at all, it needs to be properly fitted and securely attached to your head, which means it should be level, covering your forehead, and the straps should be snug.
Nice to haves
Specialist cycling clothing may look odd – particularly on those of us who aren’t low-body-fat super-athletes – but it’s very comfortable, especially for longer rides. The good news for the bashful is that you don’t have to ride head-to-foot in Lycra. Mountain bikers have long worn loose-fitting cycling shorts, with hidden padded liners and non-clingy jerseys. These look normal enough to wear down the pub too.
If your ambitions are sportier, we recommend you overcome your shyness and learn to love Lycra. Stretch, close-fitting shorts move with your body and are completely breathable, so you don’t get sweaty. Wear them without underwear and wash them after every use.
As your skills improve, pedals that attach you firmly to the bike are definitely worth considering for road riding and the less extreme end of mountain biking.
Cycling-specific shoes have stiff soles so your feet don’t get sore flexing over the pedals. There are shoes with plain soles, but the vast majority have threads so you can bolt on the cleats used with clipless pedals. Mountain bike shoes are sold with these threads covered so you can still use them with regular pedals and this is a great option for new riders.
More nice to haves
Want to know how fast you’re going, and how far you’ve been? How about your heart rate or even a satnav map of your route? Bike computers cost from £15 or so into the hundreds and can give you a wealth of data about your riding.
Almost an essential, especially for summer rides in the country where getting a fly in your eye is no fun at all. Choose glasses with as much coverage as possible and look for interchangeable lenses so you can adapt them to the conditions – dark for sunny days, clear for night and yellow or orange to make overcast days look cheerful. You can get a basic set with three lenses from about £30.
Want more beginner tips? Then make sure you pick up On Your Bike! Your Complete Beginner’s Guide to Cycling.