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Copyright 1987, by Bob Soetebier
Once you have an appropriate steed beneath you, and a good bicycle shop behind you for support, it's time to talk about proper gradual build-up and physical conditioning. First and foremost, you don't want to start out without keeping in mind any possible physical limitations you may have. If you have any doubts, or particularly any personal or family history of medical problems, you should have your doctor give you a complete physical exam before you begin, especially if you have led a sedentary life, are overweight, over 30 years of age, or have been a cigarette smoker.
Before you get out on the road, familiarize yourself with the safe operation of your bicycle and its proper adjustment. Check your bicycle's brakes, shifting adjustments, and loose nuts and bolts. Make sure your tires are pumped to the proper pressure as this makes for less rolling resistance; thus easier pedaling. It also helps prevent some flat tires and possible wheel damage! (Proper tire pressure is stated on the side of all tires.)
NEVER leave the house without your helmet, eye protection, water bottles, tools, patch kit, pump, rain protection, & sunscreen, and first aid. (Sounds like a lot, but you'll regret being without them when they're needed!)
Wear bright-colored clothing: Orange or yellow best. Use an 18-inch, horizontal (NOT vertical) bicycle/traffic-spacer safety flag. I've used one for 8 yrs./50,000 miles --- they're great! (If you must ride at night, be sure to have proper lighting front and rear.)
On a properly adjusted, well-fitting bicycle, your body weight is suspended on the saddle, leaving your legs free to do their work without undue stress or strain; WHEN RIDDEN CORRECTLY, WITH THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT. Bicycling is an aerobic activity, which strenghthens the heart and lungs. Proper pedal cadence is the KEY to aerobic conditioning, and is the best way to prevent overstressing your knees, preventing possible crippling knee damage (provided you are correctly positioned, with the ball, NOT the heel of your foot on the pedal, and correct seat height.)
THE BEST PEDAL CADENCE IS 90 RPM (revolutions per minute). The easiest and simplest way to calculate this is to count each 360-degree revolution of ONE foot while pedaling for six seconds. Example: Nine, 360-degree revolutions in six seconds equals 90 rpm. (Strive to keep your pedal cadence in the 80-100 rpm range for optimum efficiency, both for aerobic benefit and ease of pedaling.)
Pedal cadence is also your key for knowing when to shift "up" into a "higher" (harder) or "down" into a "lower" (easier) gear. If you have a low enough gearing range on your bicycle, you should have little trouble maintaining this efficient pedaling cadence, even on hills.
Grab your helmet! Time to get out on the road (or if you prefer indoors on an exerciser, during windy, cooler, or rainy weather). Find yourself a fairly level, wide road to ride that's relatively traffic-free with good sight distance. (I do not recommend shoulders or bicycle paths, because of lack of maintenance, build-up of debris, and intersectional conflicts!)
Riding at least 4-5 times per week is best. Be sure to alternate easy and hard days, in terms of distance, speed and terrain. You should continue this amount of riding until you reach your desired plateau, where a minimum of 3-4 alternate days per week will be sufficient to maintain your levels of conditioning. If you wish to continue riding more times per week, do so; BUT, do give yourself at least that one day a week off for rest and recuperation.
Start off for the first couple of days with only 5 to 10 minutes/one to two miles on flat terrain. (Don't worry about pedaling style right now; just do it comfortably and DON'T OVERDO IT!) The following days, increase this to 10 to 20 minutes/2 to 4 miles, then 15 to 20 min./3-4 miles.
Your second week you should continue to add 5 minutes or one mile per day (comfortably) until you have reached 30 min. and/or 5-6 miles per session. Don't get impatient; let your body adjust gradually.
Once you've gotten yourself to the 30 min./5-mile range, you're ready to start concentrating on your pedal cadence on a flat area with no wind. Adjust gradually up to 90 rpm, testing yourself every 5 minutes, or 3 or 4 times a ride. Don't neglect attention to the road or traffic, though! (A stop watch with a beeper, bicycle computer, or friend to time your intervals is a great help.) Soon you'll learn how to shift to maintain the 80-100 rpm range, discovering "the secret" and ease of pedaling effciency. With a little practice, you'll be surprised to find that it has solved the mystery of how and when to shift into a "higher" or "lower" gear!
At the beginning, and end, of any riding session spend the first and last five minutes in your warm-up and cool-down modes by using your lowest (easiest) gears. Also do some SLOW (NOT bouncing) stretching of your muscles for 5 to 10 min. before, and after, your ride. After the first week or so, your muscles should become accustomed to this new experience. You'll soon be ready to move on to longer distances and even a few small hills.
On successive weeks you should add a mile or two on alternate days, maintaining your built-up mileage at an easier pace on the in-between days. Include some hills; gradually building up to longer and steeper challenges. By the end of the month, your miles and strength will increase along with your confidence and stamina.
You can maintain aerobic conditioning with 3 alternate days/week 30-45 min./90 rpm cadence sessions. If you wish to maintain an average 20-mile distance and stamina for hills, you should increase this to 1 1/2 hours on equivalent terrain.
If for any reason you should miss more than three days of bicycling in a row, drop back to a lower level of effort for the next few days. Miss a week or two of riding: drop back to a level fully 1/2 of what you were doing. Miss more than a month, consider yourself back to square one.
Five minute rest/butt breaks are recommended every 45 min. to an hour, but not too long or your "loose" muscles may stiffen-up. (Do more slow stretches after a longer lunch break.) Be sure to have some fresh fruit along to eat every couple of hours, and sip water FREQUENTLY, rather than all at once or just at rest breaks. Since thirst is a sign of dehydration, drink BEFORE you're thirsty, at the rate of one pint water bottle per hour. Drink plenty of water before and after you ride, too.
Avoid refined sugar, because of its fleeting "high" and the following "low". Avoid fats and meat. They take too long to digest drawing oxygen away from your brain and muscles, resulting in listlessness, fatigue, and muscle cramps! FRESH FRUIT IS BEST.
A final note: Bicycling tends to develop the top muscles of the thigh. To avoid an imbalance and possible stress on the knee, you should not neglect other exercise to develop the back-of-the-thigh muscle. Additional exercises could include walking, swimming, and easy weight-machine exercises of the upper body, neck, shoulders, arms, and legs.