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Take care when you take that new bike out on the road

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Published Nov. 13, 2014

They say you never forget how to ride a bike. But if you've been away from anything two-wheeled for years, and just bought a new bike to get in shape, you may find riding in traffic a little daunting. It's probably not a good idea to go charging onto a busy road until you've reacquainted yourself with this human-powered vehicle.

Instead, start out by riding on a designated route such as the Pinellas, Upper Tampa Bay or Suncoast trails, or through your neighborhood (provided it's fairly quiet). Even on a bike trail or residential neighborhood, you'll encounter many of the issues you find on the open road, but at a slower speed with less or no auto traffic.

"During those first rides, you discover things about your bike, including how it fits and how to change gears smoothly," said DeWayne Carver, a safety instructor with Cycling Savvy. (Learn more at cyclingsavvy.org.) You'll also learn what those gears can do for you. The first time you stop quickly, you'll learn something about how the bike handles. When you encounter something unexpected, you'll find out how you and your bike might react in a similar situation in road traffic.

But most of all, those first rides will reacquaint you with the pure joy of riding a bike. And that's most important. Take about a month with no agenda and no particular destination. Enjoy yourself. Learn about your bike.

During those first few weeks and months, you'll also want to acquire good habits — like not trying to make pedaling your bike incredibly hard by using the wrong gear.

"One of the biggest mistakes new riders make is to crank too large a gear," says Michael McCollum, who has trained many bike riders over his 50-year cycling career. "You need to visualize your legs turning a flywheel, not pumping a piston." Aim for a cadence of 90 revolutions per minute or more. Use easier gears than seems intuitive. McCollum says with every revolution of the pedals think of scraping something off the bottom of your shoe at its lowest point. "You want to pedal circles, not squares," he said.

You should not only try different hand positions but use them all during your rides — on the shifter hoods, in the handlebar drops and on top of the bar. "In whatever position you're in, keep your arms relaxed, bent at the elbow at a 90 degree angle if you can," McCollum says. "Don't get too upright, as you don't want to be pushing air."

Once you've become comfortable and ready for the roads at a more sustained pace, you'll need to start thinking about what you want out of riding. Of course, that can change the more you ride.

Basic fitness will require about three days a week on the bike for at least an hour each. A new rider doesn't need to focus on miles or speed, but rather time on the bike. And if fitness and losing a few pounds are your goals, that's really all you need to do. The more you ride, the more fit you'll become, and unless you start eating more, the more weight you'll lose. Even the pros ride the winter months focusing on technique and spinning easily. No reason you can't do the same.

But with long, slow distance rides you won't become a strong rider, one who can generate a lot of power and sustain a higher speed over a longer time. There is evidence that getting your heart rate higher will accelerate weight loss, but the faster speeds are more for fun and friendly competition with other riders, or if you decide ultimately to race.

Licensed cycling instructor Camille Stupar says club rides can help people in many ways. "If people are looking to get into distance training or more fitness riding, I refer them to the St. Pete Bicycle Club's Saturday morning rides," she says, where as many as a dozen different rides at various speeds can satisfy most any rider. The club also has a group called the Wanna Bees whose sole purpose is to introduce new riders to the sport and help them learn group riding techniques.

Or you might decide you're more interested in multiday destination rides known as bike touring.

But if you want to get in shape, set both short- and long-range goals. Maybe at first it's to ride 15 miles, but in a year, you might aim for 100 miles, known to cyclists as a century.

Above all, take it slow. Riding at 12 mph through your neighborhood is rewarding in itself. You'll feel better afterward — and then will likely want more. There are a lot of options out there for enjoying those two wheels and plenty of people to help you on your journey.

But first, put in the miles.

Bob Griendling is vice president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He blogs at bobgriendling.com. Contact him at bob@griendling.com.

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