Surely one of the worst places to try riding a road bike for the first time is in a busy London street right outside Liverpool Street station where there’s constant traffic, a throng of pedestrians, road signs and traffic lights, potholes and roadworks as well as, on the day I chose to actually do this a steady drizzle of rain!
I had just bought my first road bike via Ebay, met the seller at Liverpool Street and just couldn’t wait to get on it to see what it felt like. So, in completely unsuitable clothing and with a rucksac on my back I did a rather wobbly circuit around the streets round Liverpool Street station and then got the bike on the train home sitting there gawping at it with a silly grin on my face all the way home!
So, what is it actually like riding a road bike for the first time? Particularly if you’re a rather inflexible middle aged gentleman such as myself who is rather accustomed to comfort and lack of physical exertion!
The first thing that struck me was the fact that, even with my hands on top of the handlebars (or, as I was to find out it was called on “the hoods”) it feels like you are almost lying down. Your centre of gravity is in a different place from on a more traditional bike, you are flatter and in order to see where the heck you are going you have to strain your neck upwards or look up through your eyebrows!
You also notice, very quickly, that the points of contact between you and the bike i.e. your backside on the saddle and your hands on the thinly taped handlebars make a harsh and intimate acquaintance both with the metal frame of the bike and also directly with every single undulation, bump and slight imperfection of the road surface. There is absolutely no give, cushioning or flex in a road bike and you feel every single bump in your bum! After six months of road biking now I’m fairly convinced that this is the most dangerous aspect of the activity. Hitting a bump at 25 miles an hour will make your arse richochet into the air as the seat mercilessly thwacks your perineum and an unlucky connection with a pothole at any reasonable speed would easily throw you off the bike.
Of course there’s a number of things that you can do to help ease the pain including wearing padded shorts and gloves but, on first aquaintance and in ordinary clothing the discomfort of the bike is quite disconcerting!
So, having sat on the bike for a moment and marvelled at how you feel too far forward to strain your neck to see where you are going and wondered how you are going to cope with even a couple of minutes of the slicing feeling between your buttocks what happens when you actually make your first pedal stroke?
Well this is the point where it all starts to make sense. A road bike is startlingly responsive. It feels like every ounce of your pedal effort is immediately transferred into power and propels you forward, there feels like there’s a direct link between your legs and the road. Obviously even a modest road bike is significantly lighter that a standard bike and this makes a huge difference. Combine this with the relatively narrow handlebars and the lower centre of gravity and the bike feels twitchy and responsive, every slight movement you make is transferred to the bike and it feels a bit insecure and highly strung. (exactly the type of partner you don’t want for long days spent together!)
But, it’s a great feeling. Moving forward is relatively effortless and even when you are just starting to get going it feels as though you are going to go fast, the bike is clearly meant for speed and it feels sporty and fun!
Now I wouldn’t recommend riding a road bike for the first time in the circumstances that I did. Firstly I would try to find a suitably quiet, flat and well maintained road and make sure that I was wearing more suitable clothing. With the best will in the world hoisting your leg over and pedalling in a tight pair of jeans is going to be a struggle and anything like a jacket will feel like a hindrance.
Most road bikes will have some sort of tiny pedal arrangement only suitable for cycling in special road shoes on but I would recommend, for a start at least, cycling in trainers. Having your feet clamped to the bike in road shoes on your first try is a recipe for disaster and it’s easy enough to change the pedals for some more suited to using trainers and then change to more specialised ones when you have a bit of experience.
Secondly, it’s worth spending a little time making sure that the bike fits you properly even for a short test ride. If you’re looking to buy a road bike from a shop they will ensure that it is the correct size and fit but even if you are trying a bike in other circumstances it’s important that the frame is the right size and at least the saddle is the correct height.
Once on the bike and ready to roll have a quick check that you know how the gears work and that you are in a reasonable low gear to start off with. On a majority of bikes this will mean that the chain needs to be in the middle sized or chainwheel by the pedals if you have three chainwheels to choose from or the smaller chainwheel if there are two. At the back the chain should be towards the larger of the cogs but not right at the very largest or the gear will be too high. Check also that the brakes are working, the brakes on a road bike may well feel much stronger and more sensitive than on a standard bike so just have a quick feel and check of them before you set off.
Position wise the bike will feel most controllable if you have your hands on the top of the handlebars resting on the brake hoods. You are reasonably high up in this position and your hands are as wide apart as they will go giving you a feeling of more control over the steering!
So, there you are – all ready to take your first pedal stroke and set off on the wonderful and exciting world of road biking! Forget the pain in your bum, the ache in your back and the constant sense of being rattled around by the road surface. Forget the fact that you constantly feel as though you are going to fall forward and have to strain your neck upwards to see where you are going! Enjoy the thrill of the wind in your hair, the sensitivity of the machine beneath you and the sensation of propelling yourself forward purely with the effort of your own muscle power. The world is your oyster, the open road beckons and adventures are on the horizon!