Want to start cycling after 50? Here's how

The benefits of bike riding

Bicycling can have a plethora of positive health effects. Cycling increases muscle strength in your lower body and spikes a healthy brain protein essential to maintaining and improving neural pathways. The low-impact exercise can help facilitate weight loss and keep your heart healthy. When you bike outside, the benefits are even greater: exercising in nature is proven to help diminish anxiety and improve your mood.

If you've never learned to ride a bike in the past half-century, it might be time to start. Research shows that bike riding comes with many health benefits for fifty-somethings and those in their retirement years.

Getting outside on a bike doesn't have to be a scary proposition. With the right bike and a little time learning basic skills, you'll be ready to enjoy this health-building activity, even if you've never ridden before. And you won't even need to wear Lycra.

Choosing the right bike

Although it's entirely possible to be as healthy and fit as many younger people when you're over 50, getting older can sometimes be accompanied by joint problems, chronic pain and even balance issues. Selecting the right bike for your physical size and condition is the most important first step to your bicycle becoming your new best friend.

Lifestyle bikes are made for riding in comfort. Padded seats cushion the ride, and a U-shaped lower top tube makes mounting and dismounting easy. An upright frame lets you ride in a natural, comfortable position, and low gears and the forward placed bottom bracket make riding easier on the knees. Some two-wheel upright bikes also come with power assist, an electric motor that helps power you up hills.

Recumbent bicycles provide full back and neck support and focus your center of gravity on the area of the bike seat, making it easier to balance. Recumbent bikes have a much lower center of gravity that makes them more stable and reduces the fear of falling. The elevated leg position can also make it easier to ride up inclines.

Three-wheeled bikes can help with balance issues, but if you're not ready for a clunky adult tricycle, don't worry: streamlined recumbent tricycles offer the same benefits as recumbent bicycles, but without any worries about balancing. However, low-to-the-ground models can be difficult to get on and off of if you have knee issues. Look for 18-inch high models instead of 10-inch models to ease the strain.

Coaster vs hand brakes

When choosing a bicycle, you will have a variety of options presented to you. One decision you’ll be faced with is that of brakes: coaster or hand brakes?

Coaster brakes, also referred to as “foot brakes” or “back pedal brakes,” slow the bike when the pedals are rotated backwards. These types of brakes are most commonly seen on cruiser or lifestyle bikes, and bikes specifically designed for children. They require no hand strength and dexterity, making them perfect for beginners or those who have limited use in their hands. Coaster brakes also come with a few disadvantages. For example, they do not allow for the rider to fully rotate the pedals backwards, which can make it difficult to establish a good beginning riding position. Additionally, the likelihood of a skid increases at higher speeds because coaster brakes are somewhat difficult to modulate and can result in locking up of the rear wheel. If you plan on riding your bike at a leisurely pace, coaster brakes might be a good option for you.

Unlike coaster brakes, hand brakes require hand coordination and strength. To use hand brakes, the cyclist must pull on the left or right lever located alongside the handlebar hand grips to stop. Hand brakes differ from coaster brakes because they allow for the rider to slow down, rather than only be given the option of stopping, as is with coasters. The ability to slow down gradually gives the rider more control, making skid-related crashes less likely. If you plan on riding your bike at higher speeds or in high traffic areas, hand brakes might be a better option for you.

Single speed vs. geared bikes

You will also need to decide if a geared or single speed bike is most appropriate for your needs.

The difference between geared and single speed bikes is self-explanatory. A single speed bicycle is exactly that; it has one single speed. If you are a beginner rider or require a minimalist bike that is simple to use and requires less dexterity and hang strength, a single speed bicycle might be the way to go. They are ideal for slow-paced, leisurely rides. In addition to being easy to use, single speed bikes are also easier to fix and maintain.

If you plan on riding your bicycle at higher speeds, or in busy areas, you ought to consider a geared bike instead. Geared bikes have multiple gears that can be changed according to your needs. Like hand braking bicycles, geared bikes require a certain level of hand coordination and strength. In order to switch from one gear to the next, you must adjust the shifter with your thumb, which is located near the hand brake. If a hand brake doesn’t work for you, than it is likely that a geared bike isn’t for you either. Multiple gear bikes are best suited for people who road ride, mountain bike, or use their bike for commuting.

Learning to ride an upright bike

Finding your balance is essential to a safe and enjoyable ride. If you're riding a two-wheel upright bike for the first time, get comfortable mounting and dismounting, and spend time just sitting on your bike with your feet on the ground to get the feel of just being on it.

Sit on the seat and start moving the bike forward with your feet on the ground. On a lifestyle bike with pedals located toward the front of the bike, this should be no problem. If you have a more traditional bike and find that the pedals keep banging into your ankles, remove them with a wrench for this step.

Practice steering and braking while pushing the bike around with your feet. Once you feel comfortable, give yourself a push with both feet and glide with your feet off the ground. Practice maneuvering around small objects, like safety cones, until you feel confident to add in pedaling. Keep in mind that greater forward momentum will make it easier to balance the bike than if you hesitate and start out slowly.

Get going on a recumbent bikes

  • Riding a recumbent bike is a bit different than an upright bike, but you'll still find the bicycle is easiest to balance when you have adequate forward momentum. It's best to have the help of your bike shop or an experienced recumbent bicyclist to help you get your seat and pedal position set the first time.
  • Relax back into the seat. You might feel like you're in a lounge chair, but the weight of your back and shoulders against the seat help balance your bike. If you find yourself wanting to lean forward, adjust the seat to a more upright position.
  • Set one foot on the ground and place the other on a pedal positioned at 12 o'clock. Press forward with your pedal foot and lift your other foot off the ground and onto the pedal. Don't push off the ground with your foot or you'll end up doing the splits or maybe even running your foot over.

Trikes Aren't Foolproof

Although you don't have to worry about keeping your balance when you sit on a recumbent trike, it's possible to overturn a recumbent trike when cornering too fast. Keep your turns wide and loose, leaning into the turn to keep more weight centered over the inside wheel to prevent fishtailing or tipping.

Play it safe

Always wear a helmet and appropriate clothing that won't get caught in your bike's chain or spokes. Practice your new bike skills along park pathways and familiarize yourself with bicycle traffic laws before taking your bike out on the road. Don’t be afraid to use extra lights, reflectors and flags to make yourself more visible to motor vehicle traffic. Remember, you can never be too careful. Finally, invest in a good lock and insure your bike against loss, theft or damage to protect your investment.

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