10 Tips for Getting Started With Outdoor Cycling

Maybe you've been taking indoor cycling classes in a spin studio, and now you're itching to try out your pedaling prowess on the open road. Or perhaps you haven't ridden since the days of your childhood Huffy, but now you're ready to give it another go (but maybe sans tassels on the handlebars or playing cards in the wheel spokes).

When it comes to effective cardiovascular fitness, it's hard to beat outdoor cycling. Paul Johnson, founder of Complete Tri, a resource for triathletes, runners, cyclists and swimmers, says that many athletes use outdoor cycling as a long, steady, fat-burning workout that is easy on the joints and visually interesting.

"There is a reason so many people move from higher-impact sports like running to cycling as they get older," Johnson notes. "Cycling provides a great workout without destroying your knees, shoulders or other joints."

Once you've decided to give it a try, you might be tempted to just buy a bike and hit the road. After all, how hard can it really be? It's just likewellriding a bike—right?

Yes and no. Almost everyone knows the mechanics of two-wheeling, but if it's been awhile since you've cycled outside, a quick refresher could help you get the most out of your session, keep you safe and comfortable and increase your chances of a long, happy relationship with biking.

Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Cycling

If you've taken indoor cycling classes, you know they have their advantages. They're quick and convenient, you don't have to spend time planning routes and you stay safely out of the elements on cold or rainy days. Plus, you don't have to worry about navigating rugged terrain or avoiding traffic on busy roads.

That said, there's just something invigorating about taking your bike into the great outdoors, breathing in the fresh air and exploring new areas as you exercise and improve your fitness. "The time passes much faster when cycling outside, and you have way more variation in your workout," Johnson says. "We love spin bikes, but sitting inside spinning is only fun for so long. When riding outside, you never knew when you will encounter a hill, wind or a beautiful sight—all elements that add interest to your bike ride."

In Johnson's experience, it's common for people to spend 90 or 120 minutes riding bikes outside, but generally only around 50 to 55 minutes inside–and those longer rides lead to more muscle work and more calories burned.

Lisa Maloney, an avid road and mountain biker from New Haven, Connecticut, says spinning is a great way to stay fit and keep the legs primed for outdoor biking, but that riding on the road is a real workout for the body, lungs and heart. "There is nothing like riding out of doors. The wind in your face, the scenery, the challenge, not to mention the calories burned. For me, it keeps my heart healthy and keeps my blood pressure low."

Differences Between On-Road and Off-Road Cycling

Most new bikers will opt to stick to paved roads and trails, but some of the more seasoned and adventurous cyclists may prefer to go off-road and tackle more rugged terrain. Road biking uses a classic road bike with much skinnier and lighter wheels–usually under 30mm wide–and mountain bikes have much wider tires and a different gearing system, Johnson notes.  

"Both types of biking have risks and benefits," he says. "You typically don’t have the issue of traffic with off-road biking, but you do find some trails that are technically challenging and easy to crash on if you are going too fast."

Maloney enjoys both road riding and mountain biking. She estimates that road riding probably burns more calories, but feels mountain biking is more of a body and mind workout. "With road biking, I can rack up a 50-mile ride, but with just 10 miles of mountain biking, I feel like I’ve gotten a complete body workout, because you use your arms like shock absorbers when going over rocks, roots or other obstacles," she says.

For beginners, Johnson recommends riding only on roads with shoulders that are four feet or wider, ideally with traffic that is moving at 40 mph or less. He points out the new, popular trend of gravel bikes—they look like road bikes, but are built to also handle gravel roads and trails.

Tips for Outdoor Cycling Newbies

  1. Get the basics—and skip the bells and whistles (for now). The experts agree that all you really need to get started is a bike, helmet, tire pump, tube and patch kit, eyewear and water bottle and cage (for mounting on the frame of the bike). To enhance the ride, optional add-ons include padded cycling shorts, cycling shoes that clip onto the pedals and a stash of healthy snacks. If you'd like to test the waters first, Maloney suggests buying a used bike or borrowing one and getting a few rides under your belt before committing to a big purchase.
  2. Visit a bike shop. Making the leap from indoor to outdoor cycling can be intimidating. Lauren Wilson, a master instructor at CycleBar, says it's a good idea to stop by your local bike shop, introduce yourself and ask plenty of questions. "Based on what you are trying to achieve, they can help set you up with appropriate gear and maybe put you in touch with a group ride best suited for you," she says. "Some bike shops hold a class on bike safety, which I highly recommend attending. If one is not available, meet with an expert road cyclist to go over the basic hand signals and road safety." Like anything else, notes Wilson, the more you practice, the better and more comfortable you will be on the road.
  3. Always, always, always wear a helmet. Even if you're just going for a few blocks, never skip this potentially life-saving safety essential. According to statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, bicycle helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50 percent.
  4. Pay attention to your surroundings. It's easy to become hyper-focused on the bike and equipment, but Maloney stresses the importance of keeping an eye on what's around you—such as other riders, cars, potholes, runners, walkers, squirrels or anything else that could interfere with the enjoyment and safety of your ride.
  5. Learn how to switch gears. If you're riding a bike you're not familiar with, this is super important. Don't wait until you're in the middle of a tough hill to try to manipulate the gears.
  6. Work on bike control. Trainer Melis Edwards, founder of HIT Method Fitness, has coached ultra-distance marathon and triathlon events. When transitioning from indoor to outdoor cycling, the biggest hurdle she sees is in bike handling. Because indoor bikes are in a fixed position, they can give riders a false sense of confidence, leading to difficulty maintaining bike control on the road. This can be dangerous when riding in traffic or around other cyclists. "A great drill to work on this is to ride just inside (in the bike permissible area) of the white line, with both wheels not shifting more than just a few inches in either direction," Edwards suggests. "Then, while doing this, you can try to reach down for the water bottle without looking at it, take the bottle out of the cage and take a drink, then put it back. Seems easy, but if you are new to biking, it is actually quite difficult."
  7. Choose a couple of "safe routes." If Johnson could pick the most important tip for beginners, it would be to find a route that you are confident navigating and know is safe, and stick to that route at first. "Get comfortable, and then branch out and explore new routes," he suggests.
  8. Share your route. Ideally, you should do this in a literal sense by bringing along a cycling buddy. Even better, choose someone who has more riding experience and can provide some guidance along the way. But if you must ride alone, always tell someone where you're going and for how long you expect to be gone.
  9. Skip the headphones. While your favorite fitness playlist can be fun and motivating, all that Red Hot Chili Peppers will drown out more important sounds—like a car horn, another biker calling out that he or she is passing or the sounds of nature.
  10. Carry water. Even if you don't feel as hot or thirsty as you would while running, biking requires frequent hydration.

With the right planning and preparation, your transition to outdoor cycling can be a safe and smooth one, enabling you to burn calories and strengthen your muscles while enjoying the fresh air and scenery of the great outdoors.