Friday, 14 May 2021

A Beginner’s Guide To Cycling

In this article you will learn how to choose the right bike and accessories for maximum riding comfort and pleasure. To read my previous article, 'The Innocence Of Cycling', click HERE.

The cost of a decent bike

Certainly, a bike costs much less than a golf club membership. Swinging at golf balls will burn perhaps a hundred calories per session, and hurt your wrists and the back.

By contrast, a bike will make you burn nearly 700 calories per hour, get you to places, and greatly improve cardiovascular fitness. Cycling also beats pumping-iron at a gym to gain muscle mass.

A branded bike’s well-matched components will last much longer than unbranded cheap junk. Forget about bikes that cost $100 (Rs 15,000 in Pakistan). To know what I mean, read my article 'Refurbishing An Old Bicycle'.

The starting point is Rs 80,000 for a branded mountain bike (MTB), and Rs 120,000 for a road (‘race’) bike. Better bikes cost between three and twenty-five Lacs (only).

Over a dozen top brands dominate the global market. In Pakistan, Giant (Taiwan), and Bianchi (Italy) are available.

You might come across other brands but these ‘second-hand’ options are not recommend mainly because the any damaged or worn out parts will require repairs or costly replacement.

Availability of quality parts is an issue in Pakistan. Unless you personally know the previous owner or can thoroughly get the bike mechanically checked, DO NOT waste money on used machines.

Alternatively, you could borrow or rent a bike, try it out for a few rides, and then buy the best possible bike with as much money as you would spend on acquiring the latest ‘smart’ i-phone (‘i’ is for idiot)?

Right attitude, wrong bike

Years ago, browsing through bicycle magazines I would marvel at young riders having off-road fun in the dirt. I thought if they could do it, I too could.

I resisted buying a road bike during several trips to China and Europe, and ended up buying a mountain bike (MTB) which I rode on non-mountainous terrain.

Much later, in 2019, out of several top brands I purchased a Bianchi road bike. This Italian brand, being the world’s oldest manufacturer, has dominated the market since 1885. In retrospect, I should have bought a road bike much earlier.
Bop till you drop

Gym, jogging, swimming, cycling?

Jogging in middle age stresses the knees and hip joints.

When a friend died after having a cardiac arrest on a treadmill, I told my treadmill-brethren who usually poked fun at cycling, “At least my bike gets me to places; your treadmills get you nowhere!”

The gym-types need to understand that pumping iron in gyms rob you of two things: fresh air and vitamin-D. By contrast, both of these you will get for free and in abundance while cycling.

Dog-work at the gym
Swimming is problematic because of water contamination and COVID fears. Golf is for old folks, ex-servicemen, and desperate social-climbers. For more on golf, read my other two articles:

As The Crow Flies
Refurbishing An Old Bike

So, stop being a sad grownup, cycle to strengthen the lower body, and delay or prevent expensive hip or knee surgeries in old age. As a reward, Mother Earth will thank you for leaving zero CO2 footprint in her environment.

Meet my MTB

Mountain bikes come in three kinds of frames (there are actually several other variations too):

Rigid: without any shock absorbers, just like a normal street bike

Hard-tail: with a shock absorber only on the front wheel to dampen lighter jolts

Dual suspension: with shock absorbers on both wheels to dampen bigger jolts on rough terrain

During a visit to the humungous Giant showroom in China in 2003, I felt like a child in bicycle heaven. This Taiwanese brand remains the world’s top manufacturer.

Looking at the road bikes with low handlebars and skinny tyres, I felt that riding one might turn me into a hunchback of the Notre Dame variety. I tried an MTB whose relaxed geometry felt better. A knowledgeable English-speaking wide-eyed Chinese salesgirl helped narrow down the unbelievable choices, and happily I paid for a Giant C-Rock 1 model.

This ‘dual-susser’ (dual suspension) came equipped with Shimano Alivio group-set, meaning, three sprockets on the front (at the pedal cranks’ position), and eight cogs on the rear wheel’s hub. The 3x8 configuration meant I had 24 gears to cater to varying riding conditions.

All through my childhood I rode a fixie, meaning, a bike with only one gear. Suddenly having 24 on my MTB seemed like overkill, considering a car’s five gears. Soon I would get used to selecting gear combinations to generate decent pedalling power.

Out of China, I paid nothing extra as air freight charges, and the nice Pakistan Customs levied no duties on my purchase.

The bike’s assembly was DIY (do-it-yourself). After adjusting the handlebar, installing the pedals onto the cranks, and pumping up the tyres I hit the road.
Dual suspension mountain bike
Timings and places

The friends I asked to join me for cycling considered it ‘very dangerous’ because their mothers or the wives said so. Finding no manly company, I decided to soar alone like an eagle.

In the beginning, I rode close to home usually during late afternoons. When short distances and the sameness of scenery began to bore me, I switched to early morning rides. From 15 kilometres, I progressed to 25 and finally 32 per session.

Cycling enhanced my road sense, opened the eyes wider, improved the hearing, broadened the peripheral vision, greatly improved the metabolic system, had me eating healthy and drinking plenty of water, sleeping early, and rising before daybreak. It was goodbye to a sedentary lifestyle.
Triple chain-ring (front)
Company on the road

During the morning rides, the roads belonged to me, no pollution, no traffic mess, not even traffic lights would stop me.

Strange fans sometimes suddenly appeared during the rides. The poor, with their rickety bikes, were the silent admirers. When I sped past them, some attempted to chase after me but when I changed to high gear, they just could not compete. Their poorly-maintained machines and the drag-inducing apparel (shalwar qameez) always took a toll on power output and efficiency.

Motorbike riders or rickshaw drivers sometimes rode along, asked about my bike’s price, and then sped away. The ladies just looked on, and the school-going children giggled; perhaps they all dreamed of cycling.

Cogs (rear) 
Sometimes I ran into professional cycling teams of various government departments. To them I was a mountain-biker in his mid-40s, riding on paved roads while attired in apparel appropriate for road cycling. I would reach home by 7:30 a.m., by which time the school rush-hour hit its peak.

Until a decade ago, I mostly saw on the roads, poorer folks on ordinary bicycles. After 2017, recreational or fitness-oriented cycling in Lahore took off, and several clubs appeared on the scene to cater to different age groups and riding styles.

Helmet and gloves

All thinking heads require serious protection.

The first accessory I bought was a Bell helmet and which gave me greater confidence on the road.


When the time came to accessorise and customise the bike, I replaced the original knobby 2.35-inch wide Kenda tyres on my 26-inch rims because these required considerable effort to pedal over paved roads.

I chose narrower 2-inch wide Geox tyres which sported plainer treads, produced less rolling resistance, and helped me ride faster to greater distances with much less fatigue.

Improving the wardrobe

Even if one is not a professional, it does not hurt to look so.

Increasing passion made me invest in padded shorts to protect the family jewels, a team-jersey that had three rear pockets for storing eatables, and a pair of summer gloves.

Pedals and shoes

The stock pedals of my MTB had plastic toe-covers on one side which allowed me to place the toes properly for firmer pedalling. Their plain reverse side was suitable for use with sneakers.

Pedals with toe-clips
There was more to pedalling then just moving the legs in circular motion. The next great improvement was buying Wellgo WPD-95B pedals.

The clipless side of these heavier diecast alum catered to special cycling shoes, while the reverse side was designed for ordinary foot wear.

Next, I bought Shimano’s MTB shoes which used 98A (SPD type) metal cleats under the soles. These kept them locked over the pedals in a perfect position so that while pedalling hard my feet did not slip off. This allowed maximum power transfer from the ball of each foot, and increased pedalling efficiency. I was catching up with science.
Special clipless pedals

There was one minor drawback in cycling with special shoes locked into such pedals: to unlock my feet I had to move the heels outwards. This required some practise, which meant experiencing a fall or two. The most memorable one was at a traffic light where I failed to disengage and fell sideways.

I waited for a worried damsel to rescue this knight in distress but nobody appeared exclaiming, “Hai Allah! Aap ko choat to nahi lagi?” (Oh, God! Hope you haven’t hurt yourself?). For some moments I remained an amusing sight for the male onlookers.
Cycling shoes with cleats

Cycling computer

The next upgrade became an essential training tool: Cateye Astrale-8 cycling computer.

This wired system came with two magnetic sensors: one I affixed to the inside of the left pedal crank to read the cadence (revolutions per minute of pedalling), and the other to one of the spokes of the front wheel to generate speed data. The 2”x2” screen also displayed distance covered, total distance, average speed, and ride time.
Cycling computer

Gear-wise, I usually used the largest front ring (42-tooth) with either the second smallest (13-tooth) or the third smallest (15-tooth) rear sprocket. It took time to understand how various combinations of front and rear gears worked.

Soon I stopped being a speedy Gonsalves distance-freak to concentrate on maintaining more efficient cadences (pedalling revolutions per minute).

I also discovered that professional road cyclists tended to maintain higher cadences because pedalling at a cadence of 60 was less efficient than going at 80. Faster pedalling also burned more fat and caused less muscle stress and damage.

With machine-like efficiency I went about cycling for up to ninety minutes with no breaks. Back then I started on an empty stomach, and took along only a 500 ml water bottle to quench thirst on the road. Years later I would correct these serious nutrition-related mistakes for improved performance.
Head and taillights

Because sometimes I rode in the evenings, I invested in a Cateye headlight to light up the road, and a Smart safety taillight to warn traffic in the rear.

Puncture-repair kit
Safety taillight

Every cyclist gets tyre flats. Soon after I got my first one, I put together a repair kit that contained patches, adhesive, sandpaper, and tyre levers. It was not easy in the beginning but I learnt to repair punctures during rides. The most memorable one happened on Gulberg’s Ali Zeb Road (named after the famous acting film couple: Mohammad Ali and Zeba).

Pumps and pouch
Make-up kit

Initially, I only used a hand-pump to inflate the tyres at home but later purchased a floor-pump. A small pouch attached to the seat-post made it easier to carry the puncture kit, the hand pump and the cell-phone.

Other types of bikes

Apart from an MTB, you have other types of bike choices:

Road bikes: light-weight, built for speed and endurance

Road bike
Gravel bikes: with features borrowed from both road and MTB bikes for mixed terrain riding

Hybrid or fitness bikes: frame geometry that suits riding in the city

Cruiser bikes: for sandy terrain

Hybrid e-bike
E-bikes: with battery-assisted power for reasonably fast speeds. These are still quite expensive and neither environmentally-friendly nor maintenance-free.

My advice is: DO NOT succumb to expensive trends but rather save money by remaining traditional and mechanical. These days the bicycle manufacturers are forcing down several expensive choices down consumers’ throats; these are listed below:

Disc brakes

Traditional rim brakes use inexpensive rubber pads, and work beautifully under most conditions. Disc brakes are more efficient on downhills but are heavier and costlier.
Fat bike

Hydraulic brakes

With these the price and maintenance hassles go up. You will either have to learn to service them yourself or pay regular visits to a mechanic.
Click HERE for a comparison of mechanical versus hydraulic brakes.

‘Intelligent’ gear-shifting
Caliper brakes

If you are too lazy to even change gears, this bit of technology will decide which front gear will work best with which rear one. Wireless Blue Tooth will move both the gears and the brakes without mechanical wires.

To read more about this technology, click HERE

Let us now look at basic bike maintenance.


Disc brakes
New bikes come 90% pre-assembled; the remaining 10% work—as I have already mentioned—is DIY. A bike provides years of trouble-free service if you keep it clean and lubricated.

Never go for bike repairs to a shoddy mechanic; instead prefer an able mechanic for jobs that you cannot handle yourself.

If you are a DIY handyman, invest in a few essential bike tools. God bless YouTube instructional videos; you too can become a decent repairperson if you do not mind dirtying the hands.

Grace under pressure

Schrader valve
Modern MTB tubes use Schrader (or American) valves which are the same as those found on cars. This means, you may visit the nearest tyre shop and use its air-system for inflation. However, road bikes use Presta valves which require a different pump nozzle.

Check the sidewalls of your tyres and note the minimum and maximum pressures in p.s.i (pounds per square inch) or bars (1 bar is 14.7 p.s.i).

Instead of pinching a tyre to check for inflation, buy a floor-pump with a built-in pressure gauge, and nozzles for Schrader and Presta valves.
Presta valve

Do not maintain equal pressure in both the tyres because about 60% of your body weight is on the rear wheel, with only 40% up front.

Neither fill the tyres to their minimum pressures nor to the maximum. Too much air pressure will make the bike feel jumpy with less road grip; too little pressure will slow you down and cause punctures.

Find the right pressures that suit your body weight, riding style, terrain and weather conditions. Check your tyres for proper inflation at least twice a week if you ride regularly.

Chain reaction

A bicycle’s chain has hundreds of moving parts, and these require regular de-greasing and oiling.A dirty dry chain will not only wear out fast, it will also shorten the life of other components being driven by it.

To obtain maximum pedalling power, DO NOT use grease or automobile engine oils to lubricate the chain. Instead buy special chain oils, de-greaser fluids, and a chain-cleaning tool for quality maintenance.

Hand pump
Brakes and gears

For rim brakes, keep the rims clean. For discs, keep the rotors spotless. Both types must be properly adjusted for free play, and their pads kept dirt-free.

Stopping in most situations will only require a mild application of the front brake. Since most of your weight is on the rear wheel, applying the rear brake will only wear it down faster but not slow you down faster. For sudden stops, apply both brakes together, giving more weightage to the front one.

Words of caution

The manufacturers are clever; they want cyclists to part with serious cash for gizmos that usually add more weight to the bike which wastes cycling power.

Having unnecessary electronics and Blue Tooth onboard causes distractions, increase maintenance, and seldom do little to increase riding pleasure.

Speaking of distractions, DO NOT take or make phone calls or read text messages while cycling. Tune your ears to the environment by NOT wearing earbuds. If you must listen to music, do it elsewhere.

DO NOT be tempted by ‘lighter’ carbon bike frames as these pretty things are expensive. While steel or aluminium frames can be repaired, if you ever crash a carbon bike, its hairline cracks will be impossible to mend. Aluminium frames remain the cheapest and the best choice for frames.

Chain-cleaning tool
Select a machine suitable for your body and riding style. Do your own research or ask a knowledgeable cyclist. Allocate a budget of at least 10%-20% of the bike’s cost for a helmet, clothing, tools, and other items.

Now what?

Well, put that silly cell-phone away, and get on a bicycle. Good luck with the rides.

Read my other related articles on cycling: