So You've Agreed To A Bike Ride.
Maybe you were convinced (perhaps no so subtly), maybe you’ve always been wanting to, or maybe you had a few too many beers and shook hands on something. Now the day approaches, and you’re going to show up because you are a man/woman of your word. Excellent. See you there!
Whats that? You don’t know what you’re getting into? Here are some questions that you should be asking, and some guidelines for an answer. Ask me more comments “for a friend” below and I’ll help “your friend” out.
All this said, as a ‘newbie’ you are given some leeway and if you show up completely prepared, the people you’re riding with will be surprised and pleased. I’ve lost track of how many times people I ride with all the time have forgotten a shoe, their helmet, food, a battery for their light, cold weather gear, sunscreen, tools, etc.
When is this happening?
You care about several things, first up is when you need to be ready for someone to pick you up or when you need to meet people somewhere. If you’re lucky, you just need to be standing outside your house for someone to drive by. Meeting at a destination is a little more tricky. Next up, the advertised “ride time” is generally when you need to be somewhere ready to ride (dressed, fueled, etc) but it’s not always clear if this is the actual time that wheels start moving or the time that everyone starts seeing who is the last person to get ready. You should find out what will happen if you are late, will they wait for you? The difference between meetup time and ride time can also be interesting if you need to time your coffee for things to “do their thing” somewhere other than on the road/trail.
There is also the time you should tell your significant other when you will return home. Even once you are really into the swing of things, this estimate is pretty much always going to be wrong. Leaving home at 8am to drive an hour to ride bikes for 2 hours? “Mid afternoon” may be a safe bet. Have a bigger ride in mind? “I’ll text you when we get back into cell coverage on the way home and should be home ~2 hours after that” is a much better idea. Dinner will be missed sometimes, and the after-ride lunch could be at 4pm.
How far are we going?
Climby rides are talked about in time for elevation gain, long rides are talked about in terms of miles, and crazy rides can be more hand-waving “hours of exposure”. As a general rule of thumb, climbing across all kinds of bikes tends to be equivalent. Mileage on a mountain bike counts 2-3x that of a road bike depending on who you ask, and hours are hours. For comparing to running you can usually do about 4x the time on a bike that you can do running. There is also ‘intensity’ to be concerned about. Is this a race-pace pacelining road ride with sprints at every county line, or a super-chill exploration ride involving lots of sandwiches?
As another general rule of thumb, while adding 10% to your total volume any given week is the most you can do consistently without getting injured, it is totally reasonable to 2x your highest/longest ride. You’ll feel it the next day, but you’ll survive. For example, if you’re used to running a 30 minute 5k every week, or once in a while you go for an hour long bike ride, 2 hours of a casual mountain bike ride (~14 miles and 1400 feet of climbing) should be totally reasonable. 2 hours of high intensity on a road bike or 6 hours on a mountain bike? Probably not the best idea.
It’s also important to know that the sun goes up and down. Depending on where and when you are riding, lights may be a good idea. A ‘blinky’ red taillight is always okay (even in the middle of the day), and hopefully your newfound riding buddies have already talked to you about lights to see with if there is any chance of it being dark on the ride.
Be honest with the people you’re riding with about what you’ve done before and if they think you’ll make it.
What sort of bike will work?
Your Walmart $99 bike is not going to cut it for a ‘ride’. Maybe to get to dinner around the corner, but yeah… A ‘road’ ride calls for a ‘road bike’ with multiple gears and skinny tires (32mm or narrower sorts of things). A ‘mountain bike’ ride calls for an actual mountain bike with gears, at least front suspension, and wide (1.9” or wider) knobby tires. There are other kinds of rides and even more kinds of bikes, so take a photo of your bike and send it to the people you are riding with and ask them if it will work. Or just borrow theirs the first time or few. Plenty of people have extras.
Also, this ride with other people probably shouldn’t be the first time you have ridden this bike. Do a few laps in your neighborhood, make sure it’s adjusted ok, has working brakes, shifts ok, doesn’t have loose parts, and doesn’t have flat tires.
What should you wear?
Bike shorts with a chamois are a must. Wear them as your layer closest to your skin (no undies under them). Ask if you can borrow some. “Bib Shorts” with suspenders are life changing, but reasonable ones cost $100 or more so borrow first.
Shoes are a must, make sure you have clip-in bike shoes that attach to the bike you’re riding or athletic shoes and confirmation that the bike you’ll be on has ‘flat’ pedals.
A helmet is a must. They don’t make you bulletproof, but for an ‘athletic’ ride with a group they’re required. Helmets are kinda personal, so it’s probably good to have your own. $30 at Walmart will go a long way.
Other than that, you have a lot of flexibility. Avoid cotton if you can, shirts are probably a good idea. Wear something over your bike shorts if you don’t feel the need to walk around in spandex pants, but nobody cares. Seriously. For more specific guidelines based on the weather, check out What To Wear. Layers are good, gloves are nice, and you’ll warm up pretty quickly on the bike even if it’s cold out. Weather can be weird, especially when you gain elevation.
Sunscreen is great too.
Ask the people you’re riding with what they’re wearing.
What should you eat?
If you’re riding an hour or less, don’t worry about it. Have your usual breakfast/lunch/dinner and leave an hour or so in there before wheels-moving time to digest and you’ll be fine. For rides pushing 2 hours, you’ll start to get a little hungry so think about a snack bar or some nuts or a banana or something to eat about halfway through, and for rides longer than 2 hours you’ll either want to start thinking about sandwiches (PB&J is great) or a small stockpile of bars/gels/etc.
Ask the people you’re riding with what they’re bringing.
What else should you bring?
You will want water. No energy drinks or any other kind of fancy beverage is needed. Find out if your bike has water bottle ‘cages’ and bring at least one water bottle if you’re going that route, or bring a hydration pack with water in it. If it’s really hot out you may drink as much as 1 liter an hour, and if it’s super cold you may not drink much at all. Find out if there are places to refill water along the way: this may be a faucet at a gas station or a person with a water filter (Thanks Bob!) in a mountain stream somewhere.
You will probably want a way to carry things. Back pockets in a bike jersey shirt may be sufficient, as might a bag or two attached to your bicycle, but cargo pockets aren’t going to cut it. If you’re new to this, nobody is going to laugh at a cheap Jansport backpack with a water bottle and a sandwich in it. The clothes you wear/bring will affect this too. If you’re planning on taking of a layer, you need somewhere to put it.
Bring a towel to change under and clothes to change into at the end of the ride. For a ride that I’m driving to, I usually change into riding clothes at the start of the ride, and back out at the end. This includes shoes and socks, as you might end up with wet feet.
A multitool, tire levers, spare tube, etc, all go a long way but you can likely count on the person/people you’re riding with to have this covered the first time or few that you ride with them. That said, if you’re on a 29” mountain bike and they are all on 26” mountain bikes, you probably should bring a spare 29” mountain bike tube with you.
Cash is king. Especially when you stop mid ride at a gas station for snacks. Sometimes people appreciate you pitching in with gas money when they drive, but with my group of friends the person that drives is entitled to free lunch and drivers rotate around.
Your cell phone can save your life, and help you get back to where you started, and can take photos of sweet jumps and people falling over in creeks, and sweet selfies. Bring it in a waterproof case (e.g. a ziplock bag) and make sure it is charged up and ready to go. I include my ID, a credit card, my health insurance card, and some cash in there too.
Where are we riding and what happens if I get lost/dropped?
For your first one of these (or maybe all of them) you don’t need to know where you are going. You can load routes onto a Garmin or your phone, but generally you’ll be with a group and someone will wait at turns, the tops of climbs, etc, for you. Do confirm this before you start, but if you are riding with friends and they ‘drop’ you without telling you, they are jerks.
Ask the people you’re riding with if they are jerks or not.