Cycling Secrets: Revealed

Confused by cycling jargon? Look no further than our guide to bike basics

Posted: 12 April 2011
by Liz King

7. Terrain train

Mountain biking is a great way to improve your handling because you ride over and around obstacles such as tree roots, and on varied surfaces, such as gravel and mud, and all manner of tracks. If you're a beginner, go with a group in case you fall off and injure yourself.

8. Be prepared

Make sure you have everything you need when you go cycling: money, mobile phone, pump, gels, energy bars, water, energy drink and repair kit. And learn how to repair a puncture. You’d be surprised how many people have no idea how to do it, and equally surprised how easy it is. Also, dress for the occasion.

“People go to Majorca, for example, and just go cycling because it’s warm,” says Cope. “But it can be very cold at the top of a mountain. Be prepared. Look at the weather forecast.” You need to stay warm but bear in mind that you’ll wear less in a race – adrenaline will help keep you warm.

Cope has a rule when it comes to cycling and weather: “If there is ice on my car windscreen, then I won’t go out. You need to think about what the road is like.”

9. Master the basics

Cycling in a group can be nerve-racking, but you will become used to it. Find a club with experienced riders and if you are a little freaked out by riding in a large group, ask to go in a slower/smaller group until you are happy with the etiquette and the numbers.

When cycling in a group you can ride two abreast but think about the traffic conditions and choose a route where you can cycle safely.

Group cycling comes with certain dos and don'ts. One of the most important
is also one of the most unpleasant to consider: if you need to clear your nose
or spit, please drop to the rear of the group. If you need to be told the reason, perhaps you ought to stick to cycling alone. On empty roads.

"It is also important to point out holes in the road, or any other obstacle you see, to the riders behind. I have seen many people hit a twig and then it gets caught in their mudguard. But remember, you can't be responsible for adults," says Cope.

10. What to wear

When starting out you don't have to purchase bike-specific gear but be sensible - high heels won't help with your pedal stroke. Wear comfortable, warm clothing and thick, preferably windproof gloves if it is cold.

Always take a jacket because the weather can change quickly. Once you have the basics, you can consider clip pedals/shoes, bib cycle trousers, gilets, cycle shirts and jackets. Wear a buff ( around your neck, and pull it up over your nose and mouth on very cold days. This will be handy if you have asthma because it helps prevent cold air getting into your lungs.

11. The Gears

There is a lot of jargon when it comes to gears, but don't let that faze you.
A compact chainset has two chainrings at the front, known as 50/34; this relates to the number of teeth on each of the big cogs at the front of the bike.

A 12/25 cassette - on the back wheel - has 12 teeth on the smallest cog on the rear cassette and 25 teeth on the biggest. If you're unsure about gears, ask the staff at the bicycle shop to show you how to best use them.

Gear basics

Changing gears when you first use a bike seems a complicated business, but you will soon get the hang of them. Before you can do anything, you need to know which part of your gears does what, and why.

With most bikes the left shifter will control the gears on the front (the two or three chainrings by the right-side pedal). The bigger the chainring, the harder it is to pedal. On the right gear shifter, controlling the cogs (cassette) on the back wheel, the opposite is true: the bigger the cog, the easier the gear.

When you go to change gear, you need to continue pedalling while you're moving the lever. The chain needs to be moving or the derailleurs (say 'dih-rey-ler') can't shift it from one ring or cog to the other. Pedal softly.

If you're powering away while trying to change gears all you'll hear are grinding sounds. You can pedal softly without losing speed, so don't worry about that.


You should think about adjusting your gears as you approach a hill  and make the change before you start climbing. Changing at the last minute can interrupt your pedal action and slow you down. Changing the left shifter has a big impact on your cadence, while using the right shifter has a more subtle effect.
You will lose cadence if you jump through too many gears too quickly, making your climb harder.

Some gear combinations of front ring and back cog are extreme and will put great strain on your chain, owing to the angle (this is called cross chaining). You should try to keep your chain in a fairly straight line - if you have it on the biggest ring and biggest cog the chain angle will be excessive. This is bad news for you (your chain may come off) and your bike - it damages the chain. 

12. Joining a club

To get the best out of your three disciplines you should swim with swimmers, ride with cyclists and run with runners. Go online to find a triathlon or cycling club near you.

There are different types of cycling clubs. Some focus on time trialling, while others concentrate on road racing or mountain biking.The British Triathlon Federation is the UK's governing body for triathlon; it  has a list of clubs around the country.

Useful links

British Triathlon -
British Cycling -
Cycling Time Trial -

13. Jargon Buster

Get to know your bike, with our fully labelled diagram.

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Discuss this article

Well meaning article but rather patronising for over 5s!
Posted: 13/04/2011 at 18:17

Assume all other road users and pedestrians are blind and deaf and out to get you.

Pot holes and gravel on corners will hurt you and you bike.

If you are on a road bike you are allowed to acknowledge mountain bikers and vise versa.

Posted: 14/04/2011 at 09:45

 "Assume all other road users and pedestrians are blind and deaf and out to get you.

Pot holes and gravel on corners will hurt you and you bike."

Fantastic advice for beginners Andy- thanks!

Posted: 14/04/2011 at 10:24

If struck by a sudden rainstorm, remember to keep testing your brakes well before you need them !!!  Also avoid wet manhole covers in the road, and dont ride so close to the kerb that you ride over the grids, especially those with missing grid covers or say goodbye to your wallet!
Posted: 14/04/2011 at 15:30

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