Bicycling — The Road to Thinsville

by Charles Platkin, PhD

With gas prices and bellies both swelling, why not solve two problems with one simple tool — a bike? Bike riding is one of most efficient calorie-burning activities around, which means it can help you lose weight. Riding at a leisurely pace of 10 to 12 mph, a 155-pound person can burn 423 calories in just 60 minutes, or about 7 calories per minute. Now up that to 14-15.9 mph, and you’ll be burning about 700 calories per hour.

Why do it?

  • It builds muscle, particularly in your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves.
  • You can control the level of your workout by riding slow or fast on city streets, roads or scenic trails.
  • It’s a convenient, inexpensive way to get around town. Parking is always simple, and you can get some exercise while you’re running errands.
  • It’s a great way to enjoy the outdoors and do some sightseeing.
  • It helps the environment.

Here are a few to get started.

Getting a bike
However you acquire your bike, be sure it is in good working order and that it fits you. If your bike has sat unused for a while, it is probably best to get a tune-up. For $30 to $60, any reputable bike shop will put your ride in the best condition possible. You can also have the seat and handlebars adjusted to put you in the best riding position.

How do you know what kind of bike to buy? “People have lots of ideas about what they’re going to do with their bikes. They think they’re going to ride everywhere, but don’t, and as a result they can get stuck with the wrong bike,” says Bill Strickland, the executive editor of magazine. He suggests making an honest assessment that takes your past behavior into consideration. Think of the one thing that you’re sure you will do with your bike and buy it based on that. Is it commuting? Road or mountain racing? Bike paths? Touring?

“There are many categories and many components for bikes. What is your budget? The most expensive and elaborate bikes are unnecessary for the vast majority of cyclists,” says Richard First, president of POMG Bike Tours of Vermont ( Also, consider the climate and terrain where you live, because people often bike only when it’s convenient for them to do it. So, if you think you’ll go mountain biking, but you live two hours from the nearest mountain trail, you might want to reconsider, adds Strickland.

Other tips include making sure you get a color you like, says Strickland. People often buy something because it’s a good deal, but they don’t even like the bike. If you can rent the bike first and try it, do it. It can prevent you from making the wrong investment.

And what about costs? You can spend anywhere from $200 to $10,000. Place more value on a good frame and wheels, and don’t worry so much about the components. You can always upgrade components later.

Getting the right fit
Purchasing a bike without seeing if it’s the ideal fit is a bad idea — and if you’re not careful, you may only realize it some time down the road. That’s when everything from a sore back to a beaten-down bottom can leave you much worse for wear. The wrong fit will also leave you with a bike that spends more time hanging out in the garage than riding the trails and streets. Choosing a bike that best fits your body allows you to ride more comfortably and proficiently, says John Howard, U.S. Bicycling Hall of Famer, 14-time national champion and founder of

Bicycling magazine’s Strickland also advises visiting a well-established bike shop where the salespeople are experts. “In fact, if they don’t discuss fitting you to the right bike within the first 15 or 20 minutes of working with you, you’re probably in the wrong shop.”

Finding the Best Match
Get on the bike and make sure it’s comfortable. Softer and wider seats are better for cruising around town; however, for long distances, narrow seats (which start out less comfortable) are better because they prevent your legs from rubbing excessively along the edges of the seat.

Get in position. The actual positioning of the rider is an important consideration, says Howard. Also, make sure the frame is the right size for your height. Straddle the bike in front of the seat, and plant your feet on the ground. There should be at least a couple of inches between the top tube (the bar running from the handlebars to the seat) and your crotch, says Strickland. And, if you plan to take the bike off-road (for mountain biking), you may want to have 3 to 4 inches.

The seat should be adjusted so that your legs are about 90 percent straight when your feet are at the bottom of the pedal stroke while sitting in the saddle. A 40-to-45-degree bend in the knee is ideal, says Howard. Your knees should never lock, and you should never feel like you’re reaching with your legs as you pedal.

Handlebars. When you’re in the saddle and your hands are on the handlebars, your elbows should be slightly bent — not straight. If your arms are stretched too far, the bike is probably too big. You want to be able to reach the handlebars without overextending your arms or hunching your shoulders up around your ears. Your shoulders should be relaxed, elbows bent and back straight.

Take it for a test ride. Make sure it feels right and you’re not forced to ride in uncomfortable positions. Also, don’t be shy — play with the gears and brakes and travel on the terrain where you’re most likely to use the bike.

What kind of bike should YOU get?

Most road racers have 20 gears and feature options that let you push the bike through faster speeds, such as a pair of aero bars (compressed handlebars that aim straight ahead) and composite wheels (three-to-five-spoke wheels) for less resistance.

Best for: Intermediate and advanced cyclists who like to race or simply appreciate speed.

Not good for: Beginners — besides being expensive, they react quickly to your body movements.

Cost: $2,000–$10,000.

These bikes feature big, fat tires — suspension on the fore and rear shock — and straight bar handlebars.

Best for: Mountain biking — a twisty terrain.

Not good for: Biking on regular roads.

Cost: $200–$7,000.

Touring bikes:
These road handlers have fender racks and saddlebags to hook your travel gear.

Best for: Long-distance cyclists interested in using their bikes for a relaxing journey.

Not good for: Anyone who’s not going to do several five-day bike trips per year.

Cost: $1,200–$3,000.

Cruisers (or beach bikes):
Built for comfort over speed, they have big, comfortable, cushy seats and wide tires.

Best for: Using the bike as a comfortable utility vehicle for errands.

Not good for: Speed or long rides —10 miles on a cruiser is a lot.

Cost: $150–$250 (can be costly if customized).

BMX (bicycle motocross):
Built for races that involve lots of jumping, these bikes have smaller wheels and frames.

Best for: Tricks and jumps.

Not good for: Most people.

Cost: $100–$2,000.

These bikes look like other road bikes but have narrow, knobby tires and look a bit stripped down.

Best for: Racers, but also commuting to work in rough climates.

Not good for: General population.

Cost: $1,000–$4,000.

Time Trial Bikes:
These bikes — designed specifically for events like triathlons — have slightly smaller wheels and slightly different frames along with aero bars.

Best for: Triathletes.

Not good for: General population.

Cost: $1,000–6,000.

Sport Touring Bike (formerly hybrids):
With lightweight frames and slightly larger saddles than racing bikes, these are the best value in cycling and can be used for just about anything.

Best for: Long-distance cyclists — people who ride on the road more than twice a week for more than 10 miles. Good for beginners to advanced bikers (not racers).

Not good for: Casual riders.

Cost: $750–$3,000.

Folding or Traveling bikes:
These convenient bikes fold up to fit into an average-size suitcase.

Best for: Jet-setters, not beach bums.

Not good for: Those who don’t want to spend a lot of money and would like the best performance.

Cost: $650–$2,100.

Recycled Cycles
Buying a recycled bike could be a great way to get started. But you never know what you’re going to get until you actually get it.

Here are some key tips:

  • Follow the same principles (including size, color and style) that you would if you were buying a new bike — don’t skimp because it’s used.
  • If you’re buying privately, get the bike evaluated by a local bike shop, says Strickland. The evaluation should cost $30–$60, and it’s worth it. Make sure they check the wheel alignment, brakes and gears and that they look for cracks in the frame and worn chains. Get it in writing.
  • Test it out, and make sure to take it on the terrain you will be using it on.
  • Get the bike’s history. Was it ever in an accident?
  • If you’re buying from a bike shop, get a written warranty. A bike shop should offer a standard 30- or 60-day warranty.
  • What about online? “The deals are pretty good; however, I would suggest online buying only for more experienced cyclists — it’s a jungle online,” says Strickland. Take a look at, or even And if you’re buying online, get a local shop to check it out anyway, warns Strickland.

Be Safe

The helmet. The most important item besides the bike is the helmet. A helmet won’t make you invincible, but it will help dissipate the force of an impact on your head. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a federal regulatory agency, says that wearing a bicycle helmet while biking can reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent, and the risk of brain injury by up to 88 percent. And, according to CPSC’s 2004 estimates, bicyclists were treated for about 151,000 head injuries in U.S. hospital emergency rooms that year.

Even a helmet can’t help you, however, if you don’t wear it properly. Most come in basic sizes (small, medium, large, etc.) and different brands fit differently, so try on several to get the best fit. According to CPSC, “The shell should conform as closely as possible to the shape of your head and should cover your hairline. Wear the helmet level on your head, not tilted back to expose your forehead, and make sure you don’t have it on backwards (it can be hard to tell sometimes). Helmets also usually come with stick-on pads to fine-tune the fit, and some models have special accommodations for ponytails.”

Adjust and secure the straps and try to move the helmet around on your head with both hands. It shouldn’t move more than an inch or so in any direction. The straps should be comfortably snug, but not so tight that they pinch or you can’t open your mouth.

Make sure to look for a CPSC safety standards sticker inside the bike helmet showing safety compliance.

Other safety tips. Pretend you’re a car, says Erik Moen, PT, CSCS, a Seattle-based orthopedic physical therapist specializing in bicycling injuries. Obey the rules of the road. Use hand signals for stopping and turning. Be predictable in traffic — avoid erratic riding patterns. Howard also suggests riding defensively but aggressively. In other words, don’t be timid. According to First from POMG, “Sharing the road is critical. Laws vary from state to state, so find out your state biking laws and follow them. Most states allow bicycles the right of way on a roadway where bikes are legal. Wear bright clothing so you are visible. If you are slowing down traffic, let them pass, but not until you are safe. Ride on the shoulder if it is safe, and use reflectors and lights at night.” And have a whistle or other signaling device.

Warm up. Make sure to do a gentle five-minute ride to warm-up. According to Moen, “Bicycling requires good flexibility of the quadriceps, hamstring and gluteus maximus.” Dede Barry, author of Fitness Cycling (Human Kinetics, 2006) recommends a stretching routine, including legs, back, neck and arms and a core strength program.

Possible pain. “Typical pain/injury experiences in endurance/recreational bicycling can be considered bicycle-related pain syndromes and true overuse injuries. The primary areas of pain will be related to the contact points of your bicycle — saddle, pedals and handlebars,” says Moen. The most common pain complaints originate from the anterior knee and lower back.

How do you avoid pain? “Pay attention to proper bicycle fit, appropriate strength and flexibility training for bicycling, good pedaling skills and appropriate progression of riding volume and intensity. Also, wear appropriate clothing: bicycle shorts (with padding), padded bicycling gloves and bicycling shoes,” adds Moen.

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