Tips for New Cyclists

My first post-college bike. A fixie (sigh), aka no gears. I’ve learned things since.

The writer Austin Kleon posted recently about buying a bicycle (his first as an adult) and getting obsessed. He’s a total beginner, so he put out a call to his readers asking for tips.

I’ve ridden my fair share of miles on a bicycle (30,000+ by last count), so I decided to weigh in. I pulled from many arenas: daily commuting in the rain in Portland, cross-country bike tours, mountain bike day rides and longer bikepacking trips…but no unicyles.

Here’s my response:

YES TO BIKES! Careful, you’re going to be planning a cross-country tour before you know it.

You can ride a bike without a bunch of fancy gear, but the right equipment makes it a) far safer c) more practical for errands and c) comfortable. As a long-time cycling fan(atic) who has ridden tens of thousands of miles on roads and trails, I’d recommend the following:

  1. Get a rack and some panniers to haul stuff like groceries and books to the bookstores. Ortlieb makes the best panniers IMO. (I’ve commuted and toured the world with mine for 10,000 miles with zero problems.)
  2. Get lights that can blow cars off the road. Front and back. 600 lumens front and a cherry bomb rear are perfect. Check out these reviews.
  3. Get a sweet bell like a Spurcycle. Pedestrians and other cyclists know what to do with bells, but ON YOUR LEFT makes them step left. Always.
  4. Get padded shorts aka a riding chamois…AND get chamois butter to rub on said bike shorts and nether regions before rides. That stuff is magic for reducing saddle sores, especially for new riders.
  5. Study basic bike maintenance. Learn how to change a flat and tune up your shifting as a bare minimum. Lots of bike shops offer them and YouTube is your friend.
  6. Always have chain lube on hand and use it frequently. Finish Line is excellent.
  7. Find your city’s best bike routes and stay away from cars as much as possible. Learn those routes so well you don’t need to look at a map.
  8. If you need a map, a phone coupled with Quadlock’s products are the bomb. Mount your phone on your bike so you can follow Google Maps hands-free.
  9. If you want to get faster, find experienced cyclists to ride with. Go get your ass kicked trying to hang on their wheel.
  10. Get a bike rack so you can take your bike anywhere you travel.
  11. Find and support (if you have the means) your city, region, and state bike advocacy groups. Great sources for maps, routes, bike info, and events, plus they’re likely the groups fighting for bike infrastructure. (Someone added this to my list and I stole their excellent idea!)


There are of course many more ideas, but this will get you rolling!

trail of the hiawatha ebike

My Case For Why Ebikes Rule

trail of the hiawatha ebike
My dad ticking off (rainy) miles on the Trail of the Hiawatha on his Rad Rover ebike.

EBIKES. Some people love them, while others beseech the pope to label them the 8th deadly sin.

I’m a cycling enthusiast (some might slight addict) and don’t personally ride an ebike. However, many people around me do, and I think ebike maligners are missing the potential of electric bicycles.

There’s a place for them, as well as justifiable restrictions. The aim of this post is to add to the developing discussion about their use.

First, three prime uses where ebikes shine.

1. Folks who can’t ride a normal bike for whatever reason (e.g. injury or medical condition)

My dad, who is a hale and hearty 77 years old, underwent knee replacement surgery a few years ago. Even with the repair, he couldn’t rally his old-school mountain bike on the gravel roads of N. Idaho like before.

Ebikes to the rescue. For his birthday last year, I surprised him with a Rad Rover ebike. From barely riding, suddenly he’s pedaling longer miles than before. That’s more hours on the bike leading to better health. Zero issues

For a test, we took his Rad Rover to ride the Trail of the Coeur’d Alene for a few days. He proceeded to smash my quads into submission. We watched moose browse trailside, birds flocked nearby, and we enjoyed excellent outdoor time…all because my dad could ride his ebike and wasn’t relegated to a sedentary lifestyle by an injury.

My dad cruising the Trail of the Couer d’Alene. I’ll convince him to wear a helmet…ohh probably never.

Rather than a knee injury, what about someone with a heart condition who loooves biking, but can no longer do it? Convince me that isn’t a positive use for an ebike, even on a mountain bike trail?

2. Bike commuting versus slowly expiring in a vehicle

So many examples here. My brother, for one. He has kids and a full-time job with a 10-mile commute. He could sit in the car for 40+ minutes each day OR hammer on his Magnum Metro ebike for an hour, most of it on a dedicated bike path. One polluting car removed from traffic, one happy dude getting exercise and clearing his head at the same time.

My friend John used to sit in his car for 1.5 hours a day, grinding his way through Portland’s rush hour traffic. With an ebike, he charges over the steep west hills of PDX and gets a great workout, all in the SAME TIME that he used to drive. (He used the Bafang ebike conversion kit on an old mountain bike.)

Complete no-brainer. I’m (almost) sad to work from home and miss out on ebike commuting.

3. Ebikes level the playing field so riders of different strengths can ride together

Consider this: what if your group ride didn’t need to regroup or wait for slower riders? Everyone rides as hard as they want and still stays together.

Pure roadies will hate this, but let them “enjoy” their elitist Hammer Death Rides. The rest of us shall have more fun!

My close-to-home example: my wife Chelsea. She loves to ride and has pedaled loaded touring bikes across the U.S. and through 15 European countries. However, she’s a slower rider than I am, which (thanks to my VERY occasional inability to be mature and patient) creates stress. No one likes to slow other people down, myself included.

Enter the Trek Allant+ ebike. Now I hammer away like the maniac I am and she stays right with me. I doubt it’s a positive, but she can also truly see my intensity on a bike. (Good thing she can’t see me mountain bike downhill…)

From thousands of feet of climbing on mega-scenic McKenzie Pass, churning up dirt on forest service roads, or pedaling around town, Chelsea is loving her new bike. The idea of bike touring from hotel to hotel (gotta have charging stations) with her on an ebike sounds delightful. And not only because I want her to carry all the heavy stuff…

mckenzie pass
Chelsea enjoying Mckenzie Pass on her Trek Allant ebike.

Additional Ebike Uses

  • Ebikes as grocery and kid haulers around town, and also for spinning to work or a restaurant without arriving sweaty and tired. Numerous friends charge around with toddlers in tow and bags of food attached to the bike. The more people who ride, the more money flowing to bike infrastructure, which can help lower traffic congestion. And emissions, of course.
  • Ebikes as a range extender during van trips. Even for me, lover of long mtb rides, this holds promise. Sayyyy huge days in the Downieville mountains like this Santa Cruz Heckler video? I lack stank in the legs to ride ALL of a destination’s trails on a road trip. Which is ok…but what if my horizon expands to 2x the daily riding without annihilating myself? Intriguing for sure.
  • Another mtb application: ditching the shuttle vehicles that churn up and down fire roads near mountain bike trails. What if those gas-guzzling trucks were replaced by the low whine of a peloton of emtbs cranking uphill? Yes!
  • My friend’s Pam and Bob carry slim Specialized ebikes on the back of their Sprinter van, which allows them to cruise around towns they visit during their travels.

Potential applications go on and on…

For recreation, ebikes are already priced similarly enough to non-motorized bikes. Components and weight don’t matter as much when you’ve got a motor, after all.

For practical applications, the ebike prices are low enough that ditching a car and replacing it with an ebike is a smart investment for many families. A UPS driver told me that he was delivering 8 per day (!) to a nearby hilly neighborhood. That’s momentum.

A Few Caveats

Positivity aside, I don’t support free reign for ebikes. While I’m for electric vehicles in general (motorcycles, cars, trucks, whatever), seeing speeding ebikes or emotorcycles on bike paths or trails isn’t ideal.

Some ebikes are essentially small dirt bikes masquerading as pedal-assist ebikes, which makes for a) dangerous encounters on mountain bike trails and b) potentially shredded trails. Pedal-assist bikes with no throttle, plus speed caps (like Class 1 and Class 3 ebikes) and enforceable penalties are one way to go. Expect to see tons of contentious discussion in the coming years.

Railroad trestle crossing on the Trail of the Couer d’Alene.

There must be a way to make it work! I’m a fan of getting more people off their asses and enjoying the outdoors, motorized assist or not. Yep, even if it means more crowded spaces.

A few checks in the cons column doesn’t dissuade me from thinking ebikes are positive overall. I also understand why people fear opening legislation – suddenly seeing beautiful natural spaces overrun with dirtbikes is not my idea of success in this arena!

Regardless, ebikes are here to stay. Growth is incredible right now (almost 100% in spring 2020) and the bikes keep getting sleeker and lighter with more range. To handle that, we need productive, nuanced discussion, not pitched battles of NO EBIKES vs EBIKES EVERYWHERE.

To all you ebike owners, a simple ask: if you see me sweating up a climb, don’t blow by and smash my ego. Slow down to a conversational pace and say hi to the Bike Luddite.

Then pedal away with a breeze in your hair and a smile on your face while I contemplate why I don’t own an ebike.

Carrying my bike uphill in Graegle, CA. A good potential day for an ebike…