How to prepare for your first ride out on the road
1. Be realistic
Just how fit are you? Can you run for the bus without breaking a sweat or does a single flight of stairs leave you panting and out of breath? There’s no need for heroics here, and we’d suggest keeping your first outing short and sweet.
If you’re moderately active already, make your first ride 15 miles long and aim to complete it in an hour to an hour and half. If you’re less confident about your fitness, try to plan a route with a stop at five miles that gives you the option of adding distance if you’re feeling good or heading home if you’re not.
2. Wear the right kit
If you plan to do a lot of cycling, there’s really no substitute for a proper pair of padded Lycra shorts. Bib shorts are best because there’s no waist elastic to cut into your stomach, but any cycling shorts are better than none.
Shorts should be tight fitting, as loose material will bunch and chafe, and wearing underwear is an absolute no-no. You don’t want to be adding extra seams that could abrade your most delicate and valued body parts now, do you?
If you’re not comfortable showing off your curves in skin-tight clothing, there’s nothing to stop you wearing comfy shorts or leggings as well, just make sure they’re over your cycling shorts and not underneath!
A cycling jersey is ideal for your upper half, but hardly essential for your first rides. If you don’t have one, a close-fitting T-shirt is fine, or a heavier sweatshirt for cooler weather.
Just remember that you’ll be generating a lot of heat when you’re pedalling, so dress lighter than you would normally. A good rule of thumb is that if you feel slightly cold when you first step out of your front door, you should be comfortable once you’re going.
If you haven’t bought all your kit yet then check out our beginner cyclist shopping list video below.
All the kit you need if you’re new to cycling
3. Bring the right kit
You shouldn’t need to carry out extensive roadside repairs on your first foray into the big bad world, but you’ll want to carry the basics for puncture repair. All you need is a spare inner tube of the correct size, a couple of tyre levers, and a small pump.
You should also pack a basic multi-tool in case you need to make easy adjustments like saddle height on the road.
We don’t recommend going on your first ride at night, but if it’s anything other than a nice, bright day, consider whether you should fit front and rear lights to make yourself nice and visible to other road users.
It’s also worth packing a lightweight jacket or gilet if there’s even the slightest chance of rain, and a little cash or a debit card for emergencies. Bring your phone too even if you’re not using it for navigation, just in case.
As we’ve said, keep it short to begin with, and aim to ride on roads with no big hills and minimal traffic. If that’s not possible where you live, consider driving somewhere more suitable.
You’ll enjoy yourself much more if you can focus on riding the bike rather than dodging cars, especially in the first few miles of your cycling life. If it helps with motivation, aim to hit a cafe halfway round for a quick caffeinated morale-booster.
There are lots of free online services that will make planning a route easier, including cycling-specific ones such as Strava and Mapmyride, as well as good old Google Maps.
These sites will allow you to plan exactly how far you want to ride, and whether there’ll be any hills along the way. Just beware of letting software choose your route, as not all platforms have a finely calibrated sense of where it’s appropriate to ride a bicycle.
Some won’t differentiate between tiny farm tracks and dual carriageways when they suggest directions so if you’re in any doubt about a road’s suitability, Google Streetview is your friend. As a general rule, try to avoid A-roads, as cars will generally be driving a lot faster on these.
If you have a smartphone, why not make use of its built-in GPS to navigate using your pre-planned route? Even if you don’t have a handlebar mount for it, you should be able to hear instructions with it stuck in your back pocket.
Your bike shop will have sorted out the essentials for you, but there are some basic things you can easily check yourself.
Your saddle should be at a height where you can pedal freely, and you should have just a slight bend in your knee when the pedal is at its lowest point. If you can place both feet flat on the ground while seated on the saddle, then it’s far too low and you’ll hurt your knees.
Your tyres need to be properly pumped up, and this is best carried out with a track pump (also called a floor pump) with a gauge. The correct pressure varies depending on your weight and the exact size of the tyres.
There are many online calculators and apps that will give you advice on this, but for a typical 80kg rider with 700×25mm tyres, we’d recommend starting with 100psi in your rear tyre and 90psi in your front tyre.
Lighter riders can go lower, heavier riders should go higher. As you gain experience, you may want to experiment with higher or lower pressures to fine tune your ride.
Before hitting the road proper, take some time to familiarize yourself with your bike, making sure you can comfortably operate the gears and brakes. If your bike is fitted with clipless pedals, practice clipping in and out.
It’s a good idea to always unclip one foot a few seconds before you come to a halt. That way you’re much less likely to forget and tip over awkwardly at a standstill.
Try shifting through the gears, but avoid the easiest two at the back when you’re in the bigger chainring at the front, and the hardest two at the back when you’re in the little ring. These gear combinations force the chain to work at an extreme angle, which puts unnecessary strain on your drivetrain.
Don’t operate both shifters at once, and get into the habit of easing off on the pedals slightly as you shift. It’ll make everything work a bit more smoothly and it reduces the chances of an accidental chain drop.
You should be able to ride comfortably with your hands on the brake hoods for prolonged periods, and from there you need to be able to shift both front and rear gears.
The drops are used when you want to go really, really fast, and for descending. It’s important that you can brake safely from either the hoods or the drops, so try both out and make sure you’re comfortable moving from one to the other. Do this one hand at a time so you’re never completely letting go of the bars.
6. Prepare yourself
Come the day, eat a carby but not overly heavy breakfast and give yourself a good hour and a half to digest it. Something like porridge is ideal, or toast with lashings of jam, or ‘jelly’ if you’re American.
You likely won’t need to eat much on a ride this long, but it’s best to get in the habit of carrying a bit of food with you — so take a banana or a square of flapjack.
You should also put a bottle of water or energy drink in your bottle cage, and try to take a sip every 20 minutes or so, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
The rest is up to you, so saddle up, have fun and be safe out there!
Matthew Loveridge (formerly Allen) is an experienced mechanic and an expert on bike tech who appreciates practical, beautifully-engineered things. Originally a roadie, he likes bikes and kit of every stripe, and he's tested a huge variety of both over the years for BikeRadar, Cycling Plus and others. For a long time Matthew's heart belonged to the Scott Addict, but he's currently enjoying Specialized's sublime Roubaix Expert and having a torrid affair with a Giant Trance e-MTB. At 174cm tall and 53kg, he looks like he should be better at cycling than he actually is, and he's ok with that.