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How to Get (Back) Into Biking During the Pandemic

Whether you need a new bike or just need to tune up your old one, now's a great time to get back into cycling. Here's how.

by Steve Rousseau
Apr 8 2020, 1:09pm

Image: Steve Rousseau

Among everything that is happening as society grapples with an unprecedented pandemic, there is one small, potentially promising trend: more people are riding bicycles.

Bike traffic across New York City's bridges is up 50 percent, while Citi Bike rides jumped 67 percent. Philadelphia's already-popular multi-use paths more than doubled in ridership—even quadrupling in some stretches—leading the city to convert a major roadway into pedestrian and cycling-only traffic. Chicago's bike share program, Divvy, saw twice as many rides during the first 10 days of March compared to last year.

This surge in cyclists and people pursuing alternative modes of transit—a small silver lining in an otherwise grim, stressful and uncertain time—is not without consequence. As with grocery stories, pharmacies and other businesses deemed "essential" by local governments, bike shops are also slammed as people rush to try to either buy a brand new bike, or get one they haven't touched in years properly serviced.

Just as Hurricane Sandy forced a lot of people to suddenly consider riding a bike, the coronavirus is doing the same but arguably on a much more profound scale. With cities enforcing social distancing measures through shelter in place orders, riding a bike is not only one of the few viable ways to get around, but also one of a few ways people can find respite from spending most hours of the day stuck inside their homes.

And that, understandably, leads to a lot of questions. How do you make sure your bike is safe to ride? If you don't have a bike, how do you go about buying one, and how do you know which one is right? If you're starting to ride for recreation, how do you make your bike more fun to ride? Where do you ride? Or, if you absolutely can't leave your home, how can you ride inside?

The good news is that when it comes to bikes, unlike the many uncertainties we're facing during this extremely upsetting and stressful time, there are clear and good answers. Consider this your pandemic cycling guide. Here, we'll get you up and rolling so that you can not only function, but hopefully find ways to, briefly, ride away from the all-consuming dread and anxiety.

Is it safe to go to a local bike shop?

If you're reading this, you're likely in one of two camps: you either do not own a bike, or you own a bike but the unstoppable march of time has seemingly rendered it unrideable. Both very stressful situations if you're looking to start riding a bike, but nonetheless very solvable.

In either case, despite how busy they might be right now, you should strongly consider working with a local shop and try to avoid online shopping as much as possible.

"There's nothing better you can do right now for your local community, and your cycling community, than buying from a bike shop," says Shawn Wolf, co-owner of King Kog and Sun & Air, two Brooklyn-based bike shops. "And even if you buy a bike online, you'll still need to have it assembled or tuned up at a bike shop anyway."

There's something to be said for establishing a relationship with your local shop; it makes regular repairs and new bike purchases an easier experience as you and your mechanic get to know each other. But bike shops also hold an important role as community centers, hosting events and clinics, serving as meeting points for group rides and advocating for policy changes that protects and promotes cycling. If they disappear, so does the local cycling community.

So yes, although most shops are extremely busy—and visiting one is creating one more in-person interaction in a time when we should be limiting our in-person interactions—there are some steps you can take to work with a bike shop while still keeping you and the staff safe.

How to wash your bike

If you have a bike and want to get it tuned up, the first thing you should do is wash it. This is partly for health reasons (you don't want to pass off a contaminated bike), partly for courtesy reasons (even outside a pandemic, it's considered not a nice thing to do to drop off a dirty bike to be serviced), but mostly because you'd be surprised just how many issues a good cleaning can fix. Annoying creaks, crunchy gears, sluggish shifting, and even rust vanishes once you've rid your bike of months, possibly years, of dirt and grime.

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Image: Steve Rousseau

All you need to clean your bike is some hot water, a bucket, dish soap, a scrub brush, and some rags or towels you don't mind getting dirty. (If you have access to a hose and some simple degreaser, awesome. If not, just fill up a bucket with soapy hot water and bring it outside with your bike.) It's going to feel really great afterwards, trust me. There are few joys in life like a clean bike.

First, give the chain, cassette (that's the collection of gears at the rear wheel) and the crankset (those are the gears at the front), a good spritzing of degreaser. If you don't have degreaser, soapy water works just fine, too. Really soak that stuff. Let it sit for a minute or two, then grab your scrub brush and scrub it all down. What I usually do is hold the scrub brush on the back of the cassette while spinning the pedals backwards to run both the chain and the cassette through the brush. What you're trying to do here is loosen up and scrub off all of that old, dirty lube stuck to the chain. Once you've scrubbed, rinse it off. Everything should look all nice and shiny. If it isn't, soak the chain again with degreaser or soap and scrub again.

Next, lather up the rag with some hot soapy water, and wash the rest of your bike, starting from the top and working your way down. Pay special attention to the underside of your fork, and around the bottom bracket (that's where the cranks attach to the frame) as that's where dirt tends to accumulate. Give the wheels a good washing too, focusing on the brake tracks and, if you can reach, the contact surface of the brake pads. Clean brakes stop better! Wipe down the chain, this time with the rag, until it stops picking up dirty lube. Rinse it all off and then wipe down the chain one more time with a fresh rag until it's dry. Awesome, now you have a clean bike.

Once it's dry, give it a once-over. If you can, pump up the tires and inspect the sidewalls for any bulges or tears; take a look at the tread, taking note of any sizable gashes or holes left, and try to remove any noticeable pieces of embedded glass or other road debris. Spin the wheels to check to see if they're true and not wobbly. Go over the rest of the bike looking for any cracks or wear that might need a second look at the shop.

If the bike is rideable, give it a quick test ride. Maybe everything is fine! In which case, you likely don't need to see a shop at all! If anything feels off—the shifting isn't smooth, the brake levers have too much throw—pay attention to the sounds the bike is making, where it's coming from and whether it happens when you're pedaling or coasting. With those three pieces of information most mechanics can pinpoint the issue pretty easily.

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Image: Steve Rousseau

If something is wrong and needs to be fixed, the best thing to do is to pick up the phone and give your local shop a call. Most shops right now are trying to navigate a tangle of local government orders and recommendations from public health experts, and you shouldn't (and in some cases can't!) just roll into the shop. Let the shop know what's up with your bike, and they'll let you know when you can come by to drop it off.

To give you an idea of how things ideally should work with your shop, Arleigh Greenwald, owner of Bike Shop Girl in Denver, has a process that's been approved by an ER Doctor, her wife. Everything in her shop is done by appointment only, either over the phone, email and text or through her website. A customer comes to her shop, locks up the bike they want worked on outside. Greenwald sanitizes the bike, services it, and when it's finished she invoices the customer via email, and locks it back up outside where the customer can come pick it up. It's obviously not as quick as just coming into the shop for some quick adjustments, but it's enough to keep Greenwald and her customers safe.

Not all shops work this way. King Kog's doors are still open, but customers are required to sanitize and are offered latex gloves, but expect to take some extra steps beyond just rolling into a shop with your bike and expecting it to be fixed immediately.

"We're going to try to continue business as usual as much as possible and schedule out our repairs," says Wolf. "It's just going to take a little bit longer and we just ask everybody to have some patience and you know, be mindful that the system is slow right now."

When you come to pick up your bike, ask your mechanic if they'd prefer to be tipped in cash or through an app like Venmo. Given that shop workers, like most service workers at the moment, aren't being given hazard pay, consider tipping at least 20 percent of your repair bill. For a standard tuneup that's about 20 bucks, but if you're getting more comprehensive work done—suspension serviced, new groupset installation—consider tipping a more.

It's OK to buy a new bike, but it's not ideal

Ideally, buying a brand new bike from a shop requires a lot of in-person interaction. A shop would get a sense of what your needs are, show you some options that might fit those needs, and let you test ride a few bikes to see what's right for you in terms of fit and feel. All of this of course runs in the face of basic social distancing practices.

That doesn't mean you should entirely put off buying a bike from a local shop. You can accomplish 90 percent of the bike-buying process with just a phone call. Heck, most bike shop staff can not only help you find the right bike—and believe me, they want to, there's nothing Wolf hates more than selling someone a bike they'll probably grow to hate—but they can figure out what size will fit you over the phone with nothing more than your inseam height.

If you're looking for something more than just getting around, and want to jump into more recreational riding with a road, gravel, or mountain bike, then you can still safely buy a new bike from a shop, but just expect that you're likely going to have to adjust the fit on the bike yourself.

Normally for a proper fit you would spend at least an hour pedaling on a stationary bike in front of an array of sensors measuring your hip angle, pedaling circle and all kinds of arcane geometric measures in real-time, as a bike fitter makes millimeter adjustments here and there for optimum comfort and power output. But I'm afraid that was in the before-times. It's simply just not safe to spend the required hour-plus in close contact with someone else, especially an overworked, stressed-out bike shop employee to get a fit.

The good news is that you can probably give yourself a "good enough" fit with one weird trick: properly adjusting your saddle height. I know this, because in the before-times I paid hundreds of dollars for a number of professional bike fits—thinking that I'd need everything on the bike swapped out to fit my body—and the biggest change the bike fitter made was raising my saddle a few centimeters. So trust me when I say that setting your saddle to the right height will likely get you 90 percent of the way there.

Setting your saddle height is very simple and easy. Get on your bike, and put one foot at the bottom of your pedal stroke, then shift your foot forward so just your heel is resting on the pedal. If you can't, then your saddle is too high and you need to lower it. If you can reach the pedal, but your leg is still bent, you should raise your saddle. What you're looking for here is a comfortably straight leg; you don't want your knee to be fully locked out, but you don't want it too bent either.

Once you have this rough approximation, pedal around and see how it feels. If you find yourself bouncing around, the saddle is too high. If pedaling feels "cramped," like your leg should be extending more, then raise it. Keep in mind that there is no "perfect" saddle height, find one that feels comfortable, and feel free to change it.

Ride safe

Now, with a working bike that fits reasonably well, the only thing you have left to do is to ride it. Thanks to decades of city planning that has almost-exclusively catered to the automobile, how easy it is to ride varies greatly depending on where you live. I am not going to lie to you and say that you can do things that will completely eliminate the threat of sharing the road with 3,000-pound boxes of metal and plastic. 2019 was the deadliest year for New York City cyclists since 2000. Even as someone who has been riding bikes in cities almost every day for the past 7 years, I still have close calls with drivers almost every time I ride.

That said, there are a number of things you can do to mitigate the risk of riding a bike. Because it's worth it! It's fun! It's a great way to stay fit, explore the place you live and ultimately points you towards being a more self-sufficient person.

The most important thing you can do to stay safe riding a bike is to expect that everyone and everything is going to kill you. I know it sounds extreme, but in practice this is mostly just assuming that every car and pedestrian is going to do something stupid. They're not going to stop at a stoplight. They're not going to signal their turns, They're going to drift into the bike lane. They're going to abruptly pull over in front of you, and just as you're about to pass them, the driver is going to swing their door open right into you. It does suck that it has to be this way, but expect the worst at all times and you'll, hopefully, never be surprised.

You can try to stick to roads with bike lanes, but don't assume that some paint makes you invincible. If you find yourself on a road without a bike lane, or have to exit one because there's something blocking it—more often than not a parked car—then ride in the middle of the road, known as "taking the lane," to prevent other cars from trying to squeeze around you. They might get angry and honk, but they can go pound sand. Better that they get mad than letting them take a chance with your life.

If you're still new to riding, and don't really know your way around, Google Maps has a bike routing option if you're just looking to get from point A to point B—it more or less sticks to bike lanes and avoids busy multi-lane roads.

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A wheel-on trainer. Image: Steve Rousseau

If you're wondering where you should ride to get some exercise in, a good place to start is Strava, a social networking site for athletes. While yes you can use it to add your friends and upload any rides you've done, Strava's route-building tool is one of the best ways to find the good roads in your area. Pick a starting point, and place waypoints on roughly where you want to go, and Strava will use every ride that's even been done in that area to route you along the most popular roads for cyclists. Additionally, you can pull up a heatmap overlay to see this data for yourself, allowing you to see where people are riding, and where they aren't. You can also check with your local shop to see if they have any routes for you to check out.

You can use the Strava app for real-time route navigation, but ideally you want a GPS device, like a Garmin or Wahoo, to not only give you an easier way to look at directions, but also to record your ride and any data from a heart rate monitor you might be wearing or power meter on your bike.

Given that you probably have a lot more time in the day now to go ride, a fair question to ask is, well, How do you get faster? How much is too much? How do you ride bikes "right"?

And honestly, if you're just starting out, the simple answer is to just ride.

Start with an hour-long easy ride. Bump it up to 90 minutes once you feel like an hour isn't enough. Try to go hard up the hills every once in a while. You don't have to ride every day to get fit. If you wake up one day and you're not feeling too stoked on riding your bike that day, then don't ride. It might sound flippant, but honestly, jumping straight into a structured training routine is a great way to burn yourself out.

If you're curious, and want to learn more about the science of getting faster on the bike, I highly recommend picking up The Cyclist's Training Bible—a canonical text amongst amateur bike racers, and a really good starting point after you feel like you want to turn your bike rides into more focused, interval-based workouts.

The only specific advice I'd keep in mind in terms of training is that you don't want to increase the amount you're riding from week to week, known as volume, by more than 20 percent. If you're riding 5-6 hours a week, then the following week you don't want to ride more than 6-8 hours, then 7-10, 8-12 and so on. You're not going to physically injure yourself—the great thing about riding bikes is that they're fairly low-impact—but if you try to ride more than your body is used to, you run the risk of overtraining. You'll feel tired and hungry all the time, and you'll start to hate your bike. Which, especially now, is not something we want to happen.

Also, if you plan on riding a lot, invest in a few pairs of cycling bibs. A chamois, the padding in the crotch that makes you feel like you're wearing a diaper, is much more effective at making things more comfortable compared to more padding on your saddle. (The difference is that a chamois moves with your body, while a saddle does not). Also, the suspender-like straps on a pair of bibs keeps the shorts from falling down, and thus the chamois, in place. Do not get a pair of cycling shorts without the straps. They are not good. And if you're worried about looking like a weirdo in lycra, you can just wear them under normal shorts or pants, it's fine!

Social distancing on the bike

One thing to keep in mind through all of this is that even though you're on a bike, you should still follow social distancing measures. Don't go on group rides with friends. Try to stay six-feet away from everyone at all times. Regularly sanitize all the touch points on your bike—saddle, handlebars, shifters, pedals.

Another aspect of social distancing on the bike is learning to become a little more self-reliant in terms of taking care of your bike. As we mentioned earlier, bike shops are overwhelmed at the moment with people either trying to buy new bikes or get old ones fixed. Learning some basic bike maintenance—fixing a flat, lubing your chain, adjusting your shifting—will help free up shops to handle jobs that actually require their tools and expertise. All you really need to get started is a basic cycling multi-tool, an adjustable wrench, some tire levers, a floor pump, and YouTube. (Park Tool has some really great basic maintenance tutorials that I still regularly reference when I'm working on my bikes.)

In addition to not overloading your local bike shop, you also want to consider not overloading your local hospital either. Ride with an extra air of caution, knowing that getting into a crash will only add to a healthcare system that is already running past maximum capacity. Take it easy down fast descents. If you're going to ride hard, do it on roads that you know are safe to do so, like climbs and other long, uninterrupted sections of road with wide shoulders. If you're hitting the trails on a mountain bike, think about skipping technical features you haven't cleared yet. And yes: please wear a helmet whenever you're riding and use lights when it's dark outside. Also consider getting a bell for your bike. It'll make navigating, and maintaining social distance so much easier on crowded streets—people respond better to a bell than you constantly saying "on your left."

If you don't want to take the risk, there's always the option of riding inside—and if you already have a bike you don't need to drop thousands of dollars on a Peloton to do so. A wheel-on trainer will work with virtually any bike, and you can get a used one online for less than $100. Strap on a $40 speed sensor to your bike, plug in an ANT+ dongle into your computer and now you have a setup that can run virtual cycling game Zwift.

If you do plan to stick to riding inside, there are two things to keep in mind. First, invest in a good fan. When you're riding outside, the air naturally cools you more than you think. Without a fan you're going to struggle to ride more than 20 minutes without overheating. Second, even with a good fan you're still going to absolutely drip sweat, so get a towel and drape it over your handlebars—it's incredible just how good your sweat is at corroding your bike.

Despite everything going on right now, it's actually a really great time to get into riding bikes. You can try to set the fastest time up your local hill. You can learn how to fix things. You can strap a bunch of bags on your bike, stuff them with gear and snacks and go camping. You can just ride to your local park and hang out on a bench. There's just an incredibly wide spectrum of ways to ride, skills to learn and things to just spend hours nerding out on.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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