what makes cycling cool?
Remember those endless summer days? The wind in your hair. Faster than you’ve ever gone on that last downhill. Your own way of getting around. Independent. These childhood memories will come back to you in a flash when you get on a road bike again. Yes, you may ride rather unsteadily down your neighbourhood streets at first, but cycling is quite easy to get into, evidenced by the huge fields in some of our local races. It’s an amazingly empowering sport which will take you to new highs, a greater awareness of your place in this world, and the realisation that the harder you work, the luckier you become.
Be warned though: the combination of speed, busy roads and maniacs can be hair-raising at times. Your reliance on good road surfaces and the need to avoid collisions with objects heavier, harder and faster than you means you should take your time learning the ropes.
Any bike (road or mountain bike) as long as it does not have triathlon bars fitted. Mountain bikes (aka MTBs) are harder work to pedal, and should be fitted with slick tyres if you want to reduce your disadvantage. If you find your legs battle on uphills, triple chainrings can be fitted to make steep gradients easier, or your bike store can install a wider range of gearing to make the most of your double chainring setup. Helmets are compulsory in races in South Africa, and lights are essential in low-light conditions.
training for novices
The best time to learn the basics of road cycling is in summer. Firstly, it’s safer, because the sun’s up early, so you’re more visible to drivers of vehicles, pedestrians and other unpredictable creatures of the night. You’ll also see potholes and other dangers of the road better. Second, it’s more pleasant riding in the warmer conditions, so you’ll be more motivated.
Remember, you’re so new to this sport that you’re probably wearing inadequate cycling clothing (in the wrong shade of lime), and winter requires more experience in the dressing department. In summer, you’ll also find it easier to find a greater depth of cyclists to ride – and share knowledge – with, so you’ll improve faster.
Although summer is the best season to start riding as a novice, it doesn’t mean you should wait until summer to become a cyclist. You should start preparing your foundation the moment you read this. Start planning which bike you need, based on your ability and goals. If it’s winter, start with short rides once the sun is up over weekends. Join a spinning class at your local gym, or buy a cheap indoor bike so you can ride whenever you want. If you’re out of shape and haven’t exercised for a period of time, visit your doctor, and see what they say about you training. Start walking if you have to. Just get moving, dammit! Life’s too short to waste on indecision. Once you’re on your way, there are races throughout the year, even winter, with the major ones in autumn and late spring. League racing keeps the licensed racing snake riders busy in winter.
Helmets are compulsory in races in South Africa, and lights are essential in low-light conditions. Damaged helmets should be replaced for maximum protection. Allow ample time to inform vehicles behind of your intention to turn either left or right with hand signals and be very cautious at blind spots, think ahead before you react. It is safer to cycle with a friend or in a group. Indicate your intentions (for example if you are going to turn right) and check if the driver has seen you. Make eye contact with motorists at intersections – smile and nod your head so that they know you are there. Thank motorists that give you right of way. Make sure your bike is in good working order and check your spokes regularly to avoid wheel buckles and make sure your chain is kept clean and lubricated at all times. Wear bright, reflective clothing and fit lights on your bike (a white light in front; a red one on the back). A good set of eyewear is very important to keep the sun out of your eyes or to brighten conditions if you are riding at dawn or dusk. Novices should take part in fun rides, it’s a great way to practice your bunch riding skills in a safe environment. You need to know what’s going on around you, so put safety first and leave your iPod or MP3 Player for the spinning classes at gym and remember to wear a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 25-30.
Back in the 1960’s, it was common for riders in races like the Tour de France to stop off at roadside bars for a glass of wine or something stronger. This seems hardly believable now, but there were some marathon stages in those days and a more laid-back attitude prevailed, at least in the early part of a long hot day. The death of Tom Simpson in the ‘67 Tour is generally blamed on a cocktail of amphetamines and cognac.
Sports science hardly existed in those days. Today, there is much better understanding of proper nutrition and, specifically, proper hydration. This is vital for endurance racers, but should not be neglected by anyone setting out on longer rides – certainly if you will be riding for more than a couple of hours, even at a moderate pace, hydration is important.
Put it another way: de-hydration can have all sorts of unpleasant consequences. Cramp is the most obvious, and real heat exhaustion can follow, which can even be life-threatening. But dehydration can impair concentration or judgement, which could also be life-threatening on a tricky pass or if you’re riding among traffic.
Low-level, sub-critical dehydration may have no obvious symptoms, but still makes riding less comfortable, less efficient and less pleasurable. If you tend to gulp down several glasses of water or soft drinks at the end of a ride, you’ve probably reached this point.
What to drink?
Plain water is good, up to a point: it’s certainly loads better than nothing. When exercising you lose fluid partly through breathing and partly through sweating. What you breathe out is mostly water vapour but sweat contains chemicals, often referred to as salts or electrolytes, which also need to be replaced. The more you sweat, the more important this becomes. This is where special electrolyte drinks come in; these are designed to match the chemical balance of what you lose. However these are expensive and for the average rider, as opposed to the marathon competitor, may be overkill anyway.
Commercial soft drinks are usually loaded with sugar – something you don’t need so urgently for most rides – and generally do little to replenish electrolyte levels. Some – especially so-called ‘energy’ drinks – also contain caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic (it makes you pee) and so doesn’t help hydration.
Tea and coffee are not particularly helpful either as they are also diuretics. Coffee is probably worse than tea in this respect, though it’s hard to make comparisons as strengths vary and coffee is often drunk in smaller volumes.
Dilute fruit juices are an economical and healthy choice. If it’s hot, you could add a little common salt. The operative phrase is ‘a little’. Remember that the total recommended daily intake of salt is just six grams (about 1 teaspoonful), though this is a guideline for sedentary people. Those who are taking a lot of exercise, particularly if they sweat heavily, can use more. But even so, the quantities needed are small, just a couple of milligrams per litre, so drinks should not taste obviously salty.
During long rides, especially if it’s hot or you’re pushing yourself, it is certainly wise to avoid strong drinks or excessive consumption of coffee.
contacts & events
South Africa has a huge cycling community and we play host to some of the biggest cycling races in the world, including the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour which is the world’s largest timed cycling event. There are cycling events (big and small) around the country every weekend especially in Gauteng and the Cape.
Contact: Cycling South Africa www.cyclingsa.com