When I first started commuting in London, by bike 15 years ago I would often get asked the question: “what’s your average speed?” I always thought this was an odd remark given the amount of time I spent stopping at sets of traffic lights and the fact that my purpose was to get to work, not set any land speed records.
The time it takes you to get to work may be something you want to reduce over time but ultimately really doesn’t matter - leave early enough to reach your destination on time and you can take as long as you like. Regardless of how fit, or unfit, you think you are right now there’s nothing stopping you getting on a bike and taking things at your own pace.
Don’t sweat it
It’s completely reasonable to worry that you’re going to turn up to your destination sweaty and with a hint of beetroot colour in your cheeks but there are plenty of reassurances on this front. Research shows that the fitter you are and the more you train, the more likely you are to sweat so any negative connotations are simply a myth.
The way to allay any worries about looking fresh and presentable at the end of your journey is to arm yourself with some key items in your pannier, bag or rucksack. I like to carry deodorant, wet wipes and a spare hair band, but pop in whatever makes you feel ready to embrace the rest of your day. For many journeys, just taking your time is enough to keep the sweat at bay.
When other people have arrived by car or public transport without so much as a hair out of place I think it’s really important to bear in mind why you’re riding. For me, the benefits have always far outweighed any concerns about looking a little dishevelled, and with so many people embracing cycling now we’re more likely to all be in the same boat. If you’re ever wondering what people are thinking, it’s probably how much they admire you for being active or envy that you have been relieved of sitting in endless traffic jams.
How to build your fitness
The wonderful thing about cycling is the endless by-products and this includes increased fitness. A ride that may seem endless on day one will quickly become more comfortable and not only because your cardiovascular system becomes more efficient but you’re simply used to being on the bike.
I’ve heard seasoned riders refer to cycle commutes as ‘junk miles’ but this is far from the truth - every mile counts and you will start seeing the fitness benefits with every journey you make.
Consistency is key - get organised so you’re in the habit of getting everything you need ready to get out of the door on two wheels and you’re less likely to break the habit. A lost piece of kit or flat tyres can make it a hassle to get going so eliminate the morning faff by being organised.
Once you’re in the regular habit of riding you don’t need fancy fitness regimes and extreme training plans, you’ll probably start to notice you’re feeling a lot more sprightly and often your clothes will start to feel a little looser too. You can burn around 500 calories an hour cycling, which you could easily clock up riding to and from work, and if you don’t want the weight to drop off, you can add some extra snacks into your pre- and post-ride routine. Something like a bagel, with jam or peanut butter, a cereal bar, or a banana will do the trick.
We’ve already addressed the fact that it doesn’t matter how quickly you get to your destination, because it will always be smoother and less frustrating than sitting in a rush hour traffic jam. But when you’re out on the road you need to have the confidence to take your time.
If you end up approaching a big junction or multiple lanes that you don’t know how to navigate, there is no shame in getting off and pushing your bike on the pavement until you reach the next safe section, or seeing if there’s an alternative bike path you may have missed. I’ve known people to be self-conscious about what other road users may think but ultimately you are in charge of the decisions you make on the road and you must be confident in what you deem to be the right one.
Don’t allow other road users to pressure you into making a move you’re not confident with. If another cyclist decides to go up the inside of a bus and you don’t agree that’s a safe decision - do not follow. If you’re waiting at a junction and a car behind is pressuring you to go, honking or tutting, remain confident in your judgement - you are the one that can see the road ahead and know when you are safe to manoeuvre at your pace.
Similarly, when you’re riding slowly it can feel hard to assert yourself but you must remember you are every bit as important as the next road user, whatever your pace so don’t be tempted to hug the kerb and put yourself in the gutter to get out of the way because being assertive is key.
Again, take your time. The more time you can leave yourself for your commute the better, this avoids rushing and decreases the likelihood of making inadvisable decisions in the moment.
The fast walk
In the ever cycling-friendly Netherlands you’ll often hear the term Fietser which refers to the use of a bicycle for ordinary errands, a very common activity for the Dutch. It’s faster than walking, speeds up a trip to the shop and means that riding a bike isn’t perceived as an exclusive sport for MAMILS or the uber fit.
Switching journeys can be a lot easier than you think, you can wear your regular clothes, as long as they’re comfy and not restricting your movements on the bike, along with your everyday shoes and flat pedals.
If you do chose to wear Lycra, there’s a plethora of great options out there all fit for purpose but that doesn’t mean you have to rush out and change your entire wardrobe, unless you desire.
Choosing the right bike is all down to what its intended use is and how comfortable you feel on it, whether that’s commuting or recreation and on- or off-road. Having the right bike that fits and fills you with confidence can make a huge difference to how fit and capable you feel and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. It’s amazing how much further you can go when you’re comfortable and in control. The cycle to work scheme can make affording a new bike much more manageable. For all the information you need see our guide here.
There is no specified minimum fitness when it comes to cycling however if it feels like a big leap to get to your destination entirely under your own steam, e-bikes are a wonderful addition to the world of riding. They don’t always get the best press as they’re not the cheapest piece of equipment but when you consider the potential daily benefits combined with the amount you’ll save on other forms of transport, for example a season train ticket, it all starts to look a lot more reasonable. I know many people who have started off on an e-bike and improved their fitness so much they’ve sold it, or saved it for the hilly days, and switched to a push bike.
Two thirds of all journeys are less than five miles, so it could be a much smaller step than you think to join the movement and get on your bike.
Story by Rebecca Charlton, cycling broadcaster & journalist.
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