If you made a New Year’s resolution to get fit, you may well have headed to your nearest bike shop and bought yourself a shiny new road or mountain bike; after all, cycling is excellent for cardiovascular fitness, weight loss and mental health and wellbeing. Once you have invested in your bike, you will soon realise that the list of additional purchases does not stop there. Lycra, cycling shoes, helmet, hi-vis gear, tools, water bottles - the list can seem endless. To decide what is essential, you need to think about the type of riding you will be doing, your personal safety, staying legal, keeping cool and comfortable, and staying injury free.
Road or trails?
Although commuting by bike is excellent for maintaining overall fitness, nothing builds up your stamina and works the large muscle groups in your legs like cycling for longer distances, either on the road or through the woods on mountain bike trails.
There is no doubt that the type of clothing mountain bikers wear is far easier on the average body - loose shirts and baggy shorts with extra padding are comfortable and don’t look out of place in the pub. When buying jerseys, check for fit when you stretch out your arms and bend over - if the sleeves ride up or the jersey pulls clear of your waist, you won't feel comfortable when you are riding. Choose fabrics that have good moisture wicking properties to leave you feeling cool and dry, and you can ride in trainers before you tackle cleats.
If you are serious about putting in the miles on a road bike, you will need to embrace your inner Lycra lover. Nothing moves with your body quite as seamlessly, allowing a full range of movement while you ride. The British weather means you need a range of clothing to cope with all conditions; however, a good basic cycling wardrobe should consist of a base layer - merino wool is a smart choice - a short-sleeved jersey, and a pair of good bib shorts with adequate padding.
Add a long-sleeved jersey or soft shell top for cold weather, plus a gilet and a packable rain jacket with good wind-stopping abilities. Arm and knee warmers can be a good investment for spring and autumn days, keeping the muscles warm until you heat up and easy to remove and store in your backpack or saddlebag - another essential for long rides.
Although bicycle helmets are not compulsory in the UK, it makes sense to wear one to avoid injury. The key is to find a helmet that meets rigorous European safety standards. This does not need to cost a fortune; however, it is worth paying for plenty of protection padding, easily adjustable straps, and a way of adjusting the cradle so that it fits snugly on your head.
If your helmet is going to be effective, it needs to fit properly and be worn level, covering your forehead. Add a helmet cam if you are riding in traffic, which is proven to make motorists pay more care and attention.
Sunglasses can be another wise investment, protecting the eyes from debris such as dirt and insects and useful when riding in the rain.
Hi-vis gear is another controversial area, but for most riders it is better to be seen and be safe. Try fluorescent jerseys in bright light, as they show up better, and save the hi-vis jacket with reflector strips for night riding.
If you will be leaving your bike unattended, invest in a bike lock with a gold security rating. Both shackle and cable-chain locks are now equally secure and your choice will therefore come down to personal preference and issues such as weight and ease of use.
Finally, a decent portable tool kit with a few essentials such as a bike pump, tyre levers, screwdriver and chain link extractor will help you to make quick repairs that should get you home if you have a mechanical failure in the middle of nowhere. Don’t forget a fully-charged smartphone with a bike computer app and Strava installed to help you log your heart rate and mileage - and you can always use it to get a taxi or a lift home!
Stay bright, stay legal
By law, you must have a white front light, a red rear light, a red rear reflector, and amber reflectors on your pedals. Modern LED lights can be incredibly effective but there are a few considerations to take into account; for example, flashers are a good idea but the effect of the light lens and the beam shape can affect the way in which your lights behave. Buy the best quality and the brightest lights you can afford and make sure they are charged up and mounted properly before you set off on a ride.
Keep hydrated, keep comfortable
Keeping properly hydrated before, during and after a ride can have a significant effect on performance and health. Sipping plain water from a bidon will keep you hydrated on a shorter ride, but for longer distances you will need electrolytes and carbohydrates provided by sports drinks. If these upset your stomach, dilute with water or use energy gels during your ride. A 500ml bottle fitted securely to your frame in a bottle cage will provide adequate hydration for most rides; alternatively, you can invest in a hydration pack, worn like a backpack, if you intend to ride for longer distances.
Choosing the right clothing can also keep you comfortable on your ride. We have already discussed the core components of your cycling wardrobe and it is essential to choose a jersey and shorts that fit your body type and are made from breathable and moisture wicking fabric. Anti-bacterial fabrics can minimise odour, while UV protection makes sense if you will be riding in the warmer weather. The key, as with all your essential cycling gear, is to buy for fit, comfort and quality, which will prove cost effective in the long run.
Get the fit right
Staying injury free is important if you want to get the best out of your bike; fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to avoid some of the most common cycling injuries.
Saddle sores: Make sure your cycling shorts have an adequate layer of padding and that you invest in some good chamois cream to keep everything moving smoothly. Cyclists do it commando, so buying the best shorts you can afford is a wise investment.
Compression injuries to the hands: If you start to feel tingling pains or pins and needles in your fingers when you ride, you may be compressing the ulnar nerve by gripping the handlebars too tightly. Invest in some good gloves so that you make better contact with the handlebars, and move your hand position every so often.
Knee problems: If you are riding in cleats, these are the culprit if you start to experience shooting pains in the knees. Use good-quality cycling shoes that are fitted correctly and then take the time to set up your cleats properly - you will find the pain disappears. Well-adjusted cleats also add power to your pedal stroke.
Muscle fatigue: When you first start riding over longer distances, you will experience fatigue in your quad muscles. Stretching and a good warm up/cool down routine will help, as will kinesiology tape applied before you set out for a ride. Add this to your kit if you are experiencing muscle soreness.
Back and neck pain: It may not be a piece of cycling equipment, but a proper bike fit is absolutely essential if you are serious about pounding the pedals for health and fitness. Just the smallest of tweaks to the height of your seat stem or handlebars can make a huge difference to your riding position and usually sees niggling pains disappear pretty quickly.
Nice to haves
Depending on your budget - and level of commitment - there are some other items of cycling gear that are nice to have once you have established your core kit. Number one is some form of indoor trainer. These range from roller devices to which you attach your road bike to fully-fledged indoor bikes of the type you would see in a spin class. The advantage of the home trainer is that you can maintain your fitness levels even when the weather is too miserable to get out on your bike and ride - you can work on your strength, endurance and technique while the rain pours down. Add a training programme and you can even test your speed and fitness alongside the pros.
Other than this, the list is endless but includes summer and winter tyres, electronic shifters and disc brakes for your bike, and clothing that can cope with absolutely all types of weather. If you invest in the good-quality essentials and keep your bike well maintained, however, you should have everything you need to start getting fit and healthy on the road.