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Preparation key to bicycling fun

So you participated in the Ride for Roswell and decided you wanted to make cycling a regular part of your summer routine. Perhaps you were inspired by friends or family who did the annual Tour de Cure or maybe you're intrigued by the sport as the Tour de France gears up for the month of July.

Where do you begin? Here's a look at some of the key elements of getting into cycling or in kicking up your current fitness routine into a more competitive environment.

*The basics: A bike and helmet

The first step in buying a bike -- think about what it is you want to do. Are you looking for simple recreational cycling? Do you have some performance goals or want to try and go fast? Are you thinking of going off-road and mountain biking? There are bikes in all price ranges in various categories, but be sure to know what it is you want to use your bike for.

"You need to pick the type of bike to match your goals," said Peter Cummings, head coach with Plan2Peak Endurance Sport Coaching. "The biggest mistake is that people buy the wrong bike. They get a mountain bike and want to ride on the road with their friends. Or they buy a bike online and don't understand the fitting process."

Yes, the fitting process. Much like women's dress sizes, bicycle manufacturers have different systems when describing the size of their bikes. Why is a good fit important? It keeps you comfortable and from getting injured. If you feel good on the bike, you'll continue to get on it, which is good for your fitness, your learning curve in the sport and your investment of time and money.

The best way to start with a good fit is to go to a local bike shop. Most places will work with you to match you to a bike that meets your cycling goals, your price range goals and fits your body.

And really, don't even think about riding without a helmet. It's part and parcel of the cycling package whether you're riding a paved bike path, city roads or outdoor trails.

*Bells, whistles and other gear

While a bike and helmet are the only requirements for cycling of any kind, there are things which can make the experience more enjoyable -- starting with nutrition and hydration. Carry water or sports drink either in a water bottle in a cage mounted on your frame or a camelback system (think water bottle backpack). It's also nice to stash a nutrition or granola bar -- something small to eat -- in your pocket, just in case.

It's also wise to carry the necessary tools to fix a flat. A basic cycling multi-tool and a spare tube can help save the day. So of course, can knowing how to use them. Many local bike shops offer clinics on how to change a flat and perform simple bike maintenance. And if they don't, chances are someone there will help teach you.

If you're a numbers person or just curious about what you're doing, a bike computer which mounts to your handle bars can give you basic information (how far and how fast you're going) up to more detailed info (cadence and heart rate). Those interested in fitness and training can also invest in a heart rate monitor.

The first "upgrade" most people make is to cycling apparel. Shorts, gloves and a jersey can make the ride more comfortable. And if you want to move from beginner into intermediate or enthusiast level, cycling shoes and pedals (often called "clipless" pedals) are the next step. The system connects you to the bike, allowing more efficient pedaling and more control over the bike.

*Off the beaten path

It's no surprise, if you're interested in hitting the trails instead of the pavement, the most important thing is a good mountain bike.

"The first thing is to get an appropriate bike which typically is not a department store bike," said Wil Couch, an active mountain biker who works locally for Felt Bicycles. "You need to get something durable enough to handle mountain biking. If you have the wrong equipment, you won't enjoy it from the start."

Other keys include going out with some experienced friends and starting on a trail that suits your ability. Hunter's Creek, for instance, is a popular place for local mountain bikers, but not necessarily a good spot for your first time on a trail.

What to expect on the trails?

"Very varied terrain where you'll experience rocks and go over tree roots," Couch said. "There may be steep climbs or descents and turns. It's common to find mud and often you're quite secluded. You're typically not riding with a ton of people. It's very peaceful and secluded. Make sure you're within your abilities. If you come across an obstacle you're unsure about, there's nothing wrong with getting off and walking a section or going to inspect a section before attempting to ride over it. Safety is a huge aspect of mountain biking because it is a dangerous sport."

*Where to ride

Bike paths can take cyclists away from vehicle traffic, but watch out for runners, walkers and other recreation users. Online resources including sites like mapmyride.com allow users to create their own routes or search ones that others have created. Additionally, the Niagara Frontier Bicycling Club (www.nfbc.com) allows members to purchase map packets, which include elevation profiles and route difficulty ratings. If you're joining a group for a ride, know your Western New York geography. A ride based out of Chestnut Ridge Park, for instance, is going to include hills. A ride in Clarence, on the other hand, will likely be flat, country roads.

For mountain biking, popular local spots include Sprague Brook, good for all skill levels, as is Holiday Valley. If you've honed your skills, advance on to Hunter's Creek. Plenty of maps and trail ideas are available through the Western New York Mountain Biking Association. (www.wnymba.org).

*Getting competitive

So you've been riding and want to kick it up a notch? Or just need some competition to keep your motivation? Cycling races are available across the region in different disciplines and for all levels. The best places to start looking for competitions are through the Buffalo Bicycling Club and the Western New York Mountain Biking Association.

Roadies have three types of local events to choose from -- time trials (individuals race a course against the clock), road races (cyclists ride a road course in a pack with the first to cross the line winner) and the criterium (tightly bunched riders doing laps on a short course with tight turns).

"If you're just starting, I'd say begin with a time trial," Cummings said. "There's no drafting, no pack skills needed. It's real easy to enter and when you're done you can compare your speed to the speed of other riders and it gives you a good way to measure what you'd be up against in other races."

As for mountain biking, Couch said there are new racers in nearly every event and that most competitions have a beginner or novice division.

"Honestly, the best way to get into racing is to go do it," Couch said. "You don't have to be worried about going out there and getting killed by everyone. Pretty much every race I've been too, there have been at least a handful of people doing their very first race. You won't be alone. And it's a really fun atmosphere. It's still competitive in nature, but it's a really fun event."

*Etiquette: Rules of the road and trail

As with any sport, there is an etiquette system and general rules of riding, especially when riding with a group. The best bet -- ask. Different groups have different courtesies and a group of racers out for a training ride will have different rules of the road than a casual group of riders. Often touring or recreational riders will announce themselves with an "on your left" when passing another rider -- and always pass on the left. Other communication sayings you may hear include "car up" (a car is approaching from the front of the group) or "car back" (a car is approaching from the back of the group). The other basic -- ride with traffic, not against traffic.

On trails, cyclists should yield to hikers, trail runners and horseback riders. Slower riders should allow for faster riders to pass them and faster riders should ask to pass.

Preserving the integrity of the trail is important. Avoid riding in poor conditions as riding in mud can cause damage to the trails. If you come across muddy sections or standing water, though, it is best to ride through it rather than around it.

In the same vein, it's important to ride only on the trail. Most trails in state and national parks are created with permission. Riding off trail can damage the park and lead to restricted use in the future. So can littering, so take out what you bring in.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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