Picking Up Cycling? What to Know and Where to Go
Many of you are likely considering biking as a safe form of coronavirus travel. Here are a few things to consider, plus some awesome trail suggestions around major cities!
When I rediscovered my love for a bike, it was to lose weight—a lot of weight. I was trying to recuperate from a sedentary academic life and reclaim my health. I would ride the neighborhoods around the house on an inexpensive Schwinn mountain bike that I purchased from a big box store. I rode so often that two little kids down the road would run to the end of their front yard and wave when I passed.
“Bike man!” I’d hear them shout. “Hello, bike man!” I felt like I wore a cape and should have bellowed back, “Hey kids. Now listen to your parents and stay in school.”
The bike has always allowed me to recenter my anxious thoughts—to find a place of movement when life seemed to be going nowhere. It is no surprise to me, then, that—under our quarantined ennui and pandemic dread—I see so many people back on bikes and see stories about bike sales skyrocketing. If one contagious thing could stick around after this nightmare is over, it should be cycling. So if you are one of those rediscovering your bike right during this mess, here’s how you can stay in the saddle.
First, welcome. You are now part of a large and—because of the pandemic—growing global community. May is Bike Month, so you’re going to see a lot of us right now.
People everywhere, regardless of where they are from, their ages, their genders, their beliefs, or lack of beliefs, or even political affiliations, share one thing in common: they love bikes.
Whether I’m riding trails in my home state, through the tropical biking paradise around Brownsville, Texas, to the Indy 500, or just to the grocery store three blocks away, when I see someone on a bike, it is frequently accompanied by a nod of solidarity. Even when cycling in Saguenay, Quebec, I didn’t have to know French to know what I shared with others on the trail.
It is hard, after all, to not smile on a bike—even if it is now under a mask.
If you want to keep cycling after the pandemic, there are some adjustments that will transform your cycling experience.
First, be sure to right-size your bike by either getting your measurements down (see this helpful fitting page) and finding the right bike frame to fit you or by visiting your neighborhood bike shop and having a professional fit you. If you’re on a bike that is too big or too small, you risk hurting your back or your knees over time.
Next, and not to be creepy, but what are you wearing?
What you wear when you ride can be a game changer. A brief ride in everyday shorts to just get a couple miles of fresh air is always good, but avoid jeans entirely. In fact, never underestimate the power of padded spandex bike shorts to add miles to your ride and fight saddle soreness. If you’re feeling self-conscious about them, you can always wear a shorts shell over them.
(And yes, you should go commando underneath. It will avoid the uncomfortable rubbing and twisting of underwear seams.)
Invest in decent cycling jerseys. A jersey’s high-wicking synthetic fabric is safer and more comfortable for a longer ride. Cotton holds the sweat against your body and that can lead to heat stroke or heat exhaustion.
Also, buy a helmet and wear it.
Fun fact: you are mortal and a helmet can save your life. Studies show that those who wear cycling helmets tend to have fewer injuries and spend less time in the hospital.
And since we are living in a world with a communicable disease just waiting to pounce, bring hand sanitizer and wear a mask. This can be a cloth mask or a neck gaiter that you pull up over your mouth and nose. While advice continues to evolve in this area when it comes to exercise, you should still protect yourself and others when on the trail, and know the current government orders around masks for your area.
Lastly, get out on a trail, but for now, do it close to home.
“Right now we’re really urging people to use the trails that are close to their home,” said Brandi Horton, vice president of communications for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) at the recent one-year anniversary Zoom event for the Great American Rail Trail. A massive project launched last year by RTC, the Great American Rail Trail will allow cyclists to travel from coast to coast—from Washington, D.C. to the state of Washington—and provide approximately 4,000 miles of seamless, paved trail. Over half of the trail is complete.
“We’re seeing surges of trail use all over the country doubling,” said Horton, “200 percent increases of trail use on average just everywhere.”
Neighborhood streets are nice, but one way to ride local is to explore your area’s trail system through parks and rail-trails—and there is an easy way to find them.
Rail trails are former railways converted into bike paths, many of which are paved or covered in crushed stone. As these were former railways, they frequently are flatter and have gentle slopes. RTC’s full network has approximately 37,000 miles of trails, each with varying lengths, across the country, and this goldmine of trail options—along with other trails—can be found using apps like Trail Link.
Think of cycling your local trails this way: exploring where you live by bike is a hybridized vacation—not exactly a staycation, but not quite traditional tourism. It gets you away, but recognizes our current limitations responsibly.
In Boston, for example, the Mass Central Rail Trail was a former railway destroyed by a hurricane in 1938 and offers some beautiful rides through nature. Currently, only parts of this (eventually contiguous) 104-mile trail from Boston are ready for riding, but with street routes or short hops by car, you can make connections to different sections. Also, The popular Charles River Bike Path is 22.9 miles of riding through parks and towns with a varying degree of human activity and for many is a regular way to get out on the bike.
If you live in or around New York, you know the value of finding open spaces outside.
The Central Park Loop’s six miles might readily come to mind as a cycling option, but depending on where you live, some options are more accessible than others. Biking the 13 miles of the Hudson River Greenway is another clear choice, for example. It is the nation’s busiest bike path, so cyclists need to be prepared to make room and wear a mask. If you want to get away or if you live on Long Island, the Bethpage Bikeway offers fantastic greenery by paved and mountain bike paths through Trail View State Park, Bethpage State Park, and Massapequa Preserve.
In Washington, D.C., the Capital Crescent Trail is 11 miles and part of the start for the Great American Rail Trail, with seven miles of it paved and four over crushed stone between Silver Spring, Maryland and historic Georgetown. You can build up your riding chops by continuing on into Maryland, taking advantage of 184.5 miles of contiguous trail from D.C. along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park trail.
Miami also has plenty of options, like the 8.5-mile Rickenbacker Trail, which is full of scenic beaches, parks, and bays, guided by palm trees or the (also) 8.5 mile Black Creek Trail, which will give you opportunities to see wildlife.
On the other side of the country, in San Francisco, make use of the iconic The Wiggle, which is a relatively flat zig-zagging East/West route across the city, which can get you to Golden Gate Park, where more cycling opportunities are available. If you want to take on bigger fish, try taking on pieces of the planned mammoth 500-mile Bay trail, which has over 300 miles complete. It can become a summer project.
If you live in L.A., you have plenty of great weather to try out trails in the summer. The 21-mile Marvin Braude Bike Trail, for example, begins in the affluent Pacific Palisades and runs along beautiful beaches of the L.A. Strand, including Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach. Ballona Creek Bike Path begins its 7-mile journey at Syd Kronenthal Park (Culver City), taking you through neighborhoods and wetlands to the Pacific Ocean, where—if you're up for more—you can pick up the Marvin Braude Bike Trail.
In the midwest, Chicago's Lakefront Trail is by far one of the best known trails in the city, with its 19 miles of city and water views, it is hard to beat. When it reopens—and following the city's guidelines—it is a great place for a cyclist to stretch their legs and build up miles.
Heading into the Southwestern United States, Houston has the Buffalo Bayou Trail, also known as the Sandy Reed Memorial Trail—a 15 mile paved trail with green urban spaces. A recent trail connection allows you to pick up more miles at the White Oak Bayou Trail, with 17 miles of green spaces available.
And in Dallas-Fort Worth, just pick up the Trail Link app and play Russian roulette with the dozens of trail options in the area.
There are short trails, like the lush Big Bear Creek (5.6 miles) or Arbor Hills Trail (3 miles), or longer routes, like the flatter mix of urban green spaces along the Champion Trail (17 miles) or the ambitious 35.2 mile Chaparral Rail Trail, which connects four counties. When it is complete it will run 130 miles and connect 19 communities.
In other words, wherever you live there are generally going to be cycling options available to get you outside and local advice to get you to the best views and stops. There are opportunities to feel like you’re getting away, even if the pandemic is putting limitations on what’s possible.
For now, while we have to stay closer to home, keep a safe distance, and wear a mask, we can build up those cycling legs, try different terrains, soak in the sun, and prepare ourselves for when we can travel further away again.
When that day comes, we should pack up our bikes and go out and meet that global club of peddle pushers—those who also jumped on the bike to lose weight or get out of the house during the pandemic, but instead caught the contagion they never knew they wanted.