Biking for Health

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Biking 101

Are you tired of pedaling a stationary bike or an elliptical machine? Are you in search of a little adventure? If so, maybe you’re ready to get outside and try real biking. Although the fundamentals of bicycling haven’t changed since you owned a 10-speed, great strides have been made in many aspects of this activity, making it both more accessible and more enjoyable.

Technology has greatly enhanced bicycles, helmets, and even apparel. Biking clubs across the U.S. make it easier to find others to ride with. And many communities are becoming more bike-friendly by, for example, creating bike lanes or separate bike paths, providing bicycle parking areas, and installing racks on trains and buses so that bikes can be transported with their riders.

So if you haven’t touched your bike in years, now’s the time to get it out, dust it off, take it to your local bike shop for a tune-up (very important), and assess whether you need any gear, such as a helmet, lock, gloves, or even a new bike.

Why cycle?

Biking is an enjoyable activity that you can do alone or with others. It can be a good way to explore new places or enjoy old favorites. The experience of riding down a bike path or a trail feeling the breeze on your face and the sun on your back is like nothing else. People who ride a bike to work or to run errands also have the satisfaction of knowing they’re getting some exercise and not polluting the air.

Besides being a pleasant activity, biking works the muscles in your legs and arms, increases your lung capacity, and helps you maintain a healthy heart. In addition, all forms of aerobic exercise, including biking, help improve your body’s response to insulin, and lower blood glucose levels.

Even if you regularly do some other type of aerobic exercise, varying your routine with an occasional bike ride will challenge you physically and stimulate you mentally. Cross-training of any type works your muscles a little differently, may help prevent overuse injuries and keeps you from getting bored with your exercise routine.

Trails or roads?

If you already have a bike and don’t wish to buy a new one, the style of your bike will probably determine where you will ride it. If you’re in the market for a new bike, however, you may want to think first about where you intend to bike — on trails or on roads — before buying one.

Biking on roads is convenient since you can usually just hop on and go. However, sharing the road with cars can be challenging and even dangerous. Seeking out quieter streets, back roads, and bike paths may make for more enjoyable and safer bike riding. If you intend to ride on roads, you will want either a road bike with fairly thin tires and a lightweight frame or a somewhat heavier “city bike.” If you plan to commute on your bike, you might even consider getting a foldable bike for easier storage at your home and workplace.

If you prefer biking on trails, you’ll probably need a mountain bike. Mountain bikes have fat, knobby tires and a thick frame, making them both sturdier and heavier than road bikes. They are also much slower on roads than road bikes.

If you think you may be riding on both roads and fairly flat trails, a hybrid bicycle might be right for you. This style combines features from both mountain bikes and road bikes, with a mid-weight frame and tires that are thicker than those of a road bike but thinner than those of a mountain bike. Hybrid bikes cannot be used for very rugged trails.

Finding a good fit

Once you have decided which type of bike, go to your local bike shop and try some on for size. Most shops, especially those that aren’t part of a national chain, are run and staffed by active cyclists who have great enthusiasm for the sport and desire to help others. They are usually more than willing to help you get started, and find the right equipment.

If mountain biking is in your future, you will need to choose between a full-suspension or hardtail bike. Full-suspension models have both front and rear suspension, which allows for a more comfortable ride, but they’re also more expensive. Hardtails have only front suspension. They are lighter and cheaper than full-suspension bikes, and they ride better on smooth surfaces, but they are not as comfortable on rough terrain. Some full-suspension bikes have a “lock out” feature that lets you turn off the front and/or rear suspension when riding on flat surfaces.

Before test-riding any bike, have the sales clerk help you pick the right frame size for your body and also show you how to adjust the seat and handlebars. A properly adjusted bike will maximize both your safety and comfort. To check frame size, straddle the bike with both feet on the ground. You should have 2–4 inches of clearance between the top of the tube and your crotch for mountain bikes and hybrids and 1–2 inches of clearance for a road bike. If the bike has a sloping top tube, which is typical of women’s bikes, measure your clearance from an imaginary top tube.

In addition to examining the height of the top tube, consider its length, which determines how far you have to bend over to reach the handlebars. You should not be stretched all the way out to reach the handlebars. Instead, your elbows should be slightly bent and your back bent from the waist at an approximately 45-degree angle. Riding on a bike with either too much or too little distance between seat and handlebars will make it difficult to maneuver. Bikes designed especially for women often fit them better because they take into consideration women’s longer legs and shorter torsos.

Adjust the bike’s seat so that when you are sitting on it with one foot on the pedal close to the lowest position, your knee is bent slightly. With experience, you may decide to raise or lower the seat to suit your riding style. Mountain bikers, for example, typically lower the seat for greater maneuverability.

Next, adjust the handlebars to the appropriate height. You may need to ride your bike several times to find the right handlebar height for you. In general, handlebars typically range from 2–3 inches below the top of the seat to 2–3 inches above it. Your goal is to find a height that is comfortable and allows you to easily use the brakes and shift gears.

Bike pedals come in several styles. Flat, “platform” pedals are best for novices or those who are doing easy riding on fairly flat surfaces. With flat pedals, you can stop your bike and immediately put your feet on the ground without any problem. Pedals with toe straps or cages secure the foot to the pedal and allow cyclists to go faster since they can use their hip flexors to apply power on the upstroke (as well as pressing down on the downstroke). “Clipless” pedals have no straps or cages but require special cycling shoes with cleats on the bottom that lock into the pedals. They, too, allow the cyclist to go faster by applying pressure to the pedal for its full rotation. Because clipless pedals take some getting used to, only experienced cyclists should use them.


Bike maintenance

Before every ride, it is important to perform a quick inspection. Here are some things to check.

• Check that the brakes are working properly, the tires have plenty of air and are not worn, and the wheels are secure (lift your bike so one tire is on the ground and shake the other tire in the air from side to side).

• The rims and spokes should have no bulges, dents, or dings in them.

• The levers on your quick-release hubs (if you have them) should be in the closed position.

• Your chain should be well lubricated without any kinks or gunk in the links.

• The pedals should be securely attached to the bike yet move freely.

• The seat should be secure.

• If your bike is muddy after riding, clean it with soap and water (preferably gentle soap made for bikes) and dry it off right away. Dirt and mud are abrasive and can destroy bike components.

Other equipment

A properly fitting helmet is essential for bicycling and should be worn at all times, even on a leisurely ride. In addition to a helmet, you may want to consider bike gloves, which give your palms some padding while leaving your fingers uncovered. Although special biking clothes are not strictly necessary, many people find bike shorts with a gel pad in the seat area to be comfortable, and moisture-wicking shirts (generally made of synthetic material) can keep you drier than 100 percent cotton tops. Wearing clothing, such as a vest, made of reflective material is a good idea if you will be biking at dawn or dusk or after dark; it makes you much more visible to motorists.

Biking is an aerobic exercise, so you will want a way to carry some water with you to drink as you ride. If your bike has a bottle cage, carry a water bottle in it. Another alternative is to wear a small backpack with a refillable bladder in it that attaches to a hose with a mouthpiece that reaches over your shoulder. The backpack can also be used to carry food, extra clothing, and other supplies.

To carry bike wrenches and extra tubes in case of a flat tire, you may want to buy a small pouch that attaches right below your seat. Also helpful for dealing with flat tires is a small travel bike pump, which attaches to your bike. If you are out after dark, a white headlight and a flashing red rear light are necessary to make you more visible to motorists. Reflectors on your bike will also make you more visible on city streets.

Choosing a route

Bike shops are usually a good source for local route and trail information. They often have maps and books that contain detailed information such as mileage, difficulty level, and terrain. Participating in a group ride organized by a bike club is another good way to discover places to ride. Shops also can help you find a bike club in your area.

As you would with any new sport or physical activity, start with a route that you can cover easily, then build up your distance and difficulty gradually.

Safety first

Bicycling is great exercise and it’s fun, but accidents, delays, or simply the unexpected can happen, so it’s best to be prepared. In addition, bicycling will probably lower your blood glucose level, so you may need to stop for a snack or adjust your diabetes regimen in some other way to account for bicycling’s blood-glucose-lowering effect. Here are some things to remember before you head out.

• If you have a cellphone, bring it with you.

• Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan on coming back, especially if you are cycling by yourself. In general, however, biking with other people is safer.

• Always carry some food with you. Energy bars are easy to carry (although in warm weather, avoid bars with chocolate or yogurt coatings, which will melt in the heat). Energy gels are another option. They are essentially pure carbohydrate and can provide a quick pick-me-up when you need one.

• On longer rides, carry your blood glucose monitoring supplies with you.

• Rain can be particularly hazardous for cyclists. When it rains, the ground gets slippery, your bicycle’s brakes may not work as well, and visibility — both yours and that of motorists — decreases. If you get caught in the rain, ride conservatively: Use your bike lights, avoid roads with heavy traffic, yield to cars at intersections, and start slowing down before you turn to avoid skidding in the turn. If you are on a low-traffic street or a bike path, ride in the center of the lane and not on the side, where puddles and wet leaves may collect. “Dragging” your brakes, or putting a little pressure on them as you ride, can help to remove water from your tire rims, making it easier to stop with your brakes when needed.

• Lastly, if you ever feel unable to control your bike because of weather conditions, stop and get off. You may be later (that’s why you brought your cellphone) or wetter than you otherwise would have gotten, but you will be alive and able to take another bike ride when conditions are more favorable.

Originally Published June 29, 2010

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