Essential Accessories for the Beginning Cyclist

by Myra VanInwegen and 5339, a website catering to the sporting cyclist

Cycling isn't just about exercise, but also about outings with family and friends. It can also be a very good way of getting around: of commuting to work every day or doing your weekly shop. With the right accessories, you'll never find yourself unprepared on the road.

Below is the list of the most important accessories the beginning cyclist should consider buying to ensure both safety and efficiency of his/her riding experience. Some of these are more relevant to the utility cyclist (someone who rides short distances on a regular basis to get to work or do shopping), while some are more relevant to the cyclist who's riding for fun and fitness. I'll mention who it's most relevant for in the blurbs below.

Knowledge of how to ride safely

If you ride in towns, you need to know how to ride safely in traffic. This does not necessarily require a purchase, but if you want to buy a book you can either get John Franklin's Cyclecraft (more oriented towards UK riding) or John Forester's Effective Cycling (more oriented towards the US). If you don't want to spend any money you can read my article Bicycle Safety. If you are never riding in a town but are only riding on empty country lanes or offroad tracks, then you will not need to be an expert in riding in traffic, but it would be a good idea to have a look at my article anyway, as these skills can help make trips through villages safer.

Something to carry stuff

Everyone needs to carry things with them on a bike. If you're a utility rider, the main options are rucksack (aka backpack) and pannier. You've probably already got a rucksack, so no purchase is necessary. If you do buy a rucksack for utility riding, look for one that's brightly colored and has lots of reflective stuff on it to increase your visibility both night and day. Or you can buy a rucksack cover that's brightly colored and had lots of reflective stuff. Many people don't like to have anything on their backs when they ride, so a rack and panniers (bags that attach to racks with clips) are the way to go there. The longer your rides, and the heavier the load, the more important it is to get the weight off your back and onto the bike. If you buy a rack for your commuter bike, make sure you get one that has a light mounting plate on the back with holes 80mm apart, so you can mount a good rear light to it.

If you are a fun/fitness rider, your options are rucksack, saddlebag, or pockets. The rucksack option is useful when you are just starting out, since it means you can get going with one less purchase, but if you're going to be riding mainly on roads, you'll soon want that off your back. Offroad riders tend to use rucksacks that can carry water bladders (known as hydration packs or Camelbaks, after the most famous makers of these things), as water bottles tend to bounce off your bike and are more difficult to drink from when it's bumpy. If you go this route, make sure you get one with some space to carry bits and bobs (a basic toolkit, mobile phone, etc). Road riders usually either have a small pack under the seat to carry essentials, or if they are travelling really light, they will put just the bare minimum of stuff in the back pockets of thier jerseys (special cycling shirts).

Lock

If you are a utility cyclist, this is your first absolutely essential purchase (after the bike of course). The best lock for this use is a heavy hardened steel D-lock (aka U-lock in the US). Always lock your frame up to something, never just the wheels! Wheels can be easily taken off, and you might come back to find you have just a very securely locked wheel. Because wheels can be easily removed, if you have quick-release skewers on your utility bike, consider replacing them with Allen key ones. These make it more likely that your wheels will still be attached to your bike when you return to it. Alternatively, you can carry a cable lock as well to secure your wheels. Actually, it's a good idea to have a cable lock anyway if you will be locking your bike in different places, as it allows you to lock your bike to a tree or lamp post that your D-lock will not fit around.

If you're a fun/fitness cyclist, a lock will probably not be necessary when you first first start out, as you'll be doing fairly short rides that begin and end at your house, with no stops in between. But when you start doing longer rides you'll need to stop for refuelling, and cafes are ideal for this. Unless you can sit right nesxt to a window where you can keep an eye on your bike, it's best to lock it up. A thin light cable lock should be sufficient here.

Maintenance/Emergency Tools

Like any vehicle, a bicycle will require repairs from time to time and tire punctures are not uncommon on longer rides. I would say that if you are going for a ride longer than about 3 miles, then at the very least you will want to pack a puncture repair kit including a pump, spare tube, and tire levers when you are out. It is also useful to carry a tube patch kit in case you get more than one puncture, and Allen keys to do minor adjustments. Utility riders can stick this toolkit in their rucksack or pannier. Offroad riders will put this in their hydration pack. Road cyclists will usually attach the pump to the frame of their bikes using the bracket provided, and will put the tools/spare tube in thier jersey pockets or saddlebag.

Lighting

If you're going to be riding to work year round in the UK, then lights are a must, as it gets dark around 4pm in the winter. Lights are also very useful for fun/fitness riders: if you want to do a weekday ride in the winter and work during the day, then you will be riding at night. In addition to using lights at night, you should make sure that you have something light-colored (eg yellow) and reflective on your body at night. If you have a dedicated cycling jacket, this can do the job on its own. If not, you can get a waistcoat or vest (a highway works safety vest works very well, or you can get cycle-specific ones) or a "Sam Browne" flourescent/reflective belt.

There are three main options for lights. By far the most common are small battery-powered lights that attach to your handlebars, seatpost, or rack. While there are some still available that have old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, LEDs are definitely the way to go here: white LEDs for the front, and red LEDs for the rear. You can get very reasonably priced sets that include a front and rear light and brackets to attach them to your handlebar and seatpost. However, if you have a rear rack, then you should look to get a light that is meant to attach to a rear rack. The batteries on these last longer (since they use larger batteries) and they have a big reflector built in, further increasing your visibility. These lights require a mounting plate with holes 80mm apart, so if you ever buy a rack for your bike, get one with a light-mounting plate with holes 80mm apart.

Commuters who ride along unlit lanes and fun/fitness cyclists who ride at night will often want a headlight brighter than these small LED headlights with the batteries in them. To get this brighter light, you generally need a bigger battery, which means that the battery is separate from the light and attached to it with a power cord. Here you have a choice of several different types of battery and several different types of lighting heads. There are some articles about high-powered bike lights on this website (for example, see Halogen-Bulb High-Powered Bike Lights) but frankly they are out of date and need to be revised! I just need to find the time...

The last option is one of the oldest technologies: lighting powered by dynamos (generators in the US). Don't laugh! If your experience with dynano-powered lighting systems is from a bike that your Mom used to have 20 years ago, then you need to take a look at what's avalable now. Check out my article on dynamos (Dynamo (Generator) Lights: Fact vs Fiction) for some more up-to-date info. In my opinion, the lighting systems decribed in this article are by far the best for the regular commuter.

Waterproof Jacket

This is essential to the utility rider and a very good idea for the fun/fitness rider. You should look for a jacket without any kind of insulation (since you will want to wear it even when it's not very cold, and you can wear a fleece or sweater underneath to keep warm when it is very cold) that is brightly colored and has lots of reflective stuff. (Riders who only go offroad may want to skip the "brightly colored" bit, but everyone else should avoid dark colored jackets.) The ideal jacket is very light in weight and can be easily folded into a bag (rucksack, pannier, or saddle bag), but there is a tradeoff between light weight, waterproofness, and cost. The important thing is to find something serviceable that will efficiently deflect moisture. A hood will help keep you dry when you're off the bike, but it's a very bad idea to use a hood when riding as it cuts down your side vision.

Hydration

This is mainly for fun/fitness cyclists, as utility cyclists usually don't go on rides long enough that you need to drink en route. One universal problem among beginning cyclists is failure to stay well-hydrated. Exercise and fitness experts recommend drinking water every 20 minutes. There are a variety of ways to carry water with you while you ride, from bottle racks attached to the frame to hydration packs worn on the cyclist's back. In the latter case, tubing from the pack is positioned near the riders mouth so he can drink without having to slow or stop his ride. The hydration pack is usually used by offroad riders.

Ride Computer

This is something that all cyclists can use. For a serious fitness rider it is essential to know how far you went, and how fast, but even for the utility and casual rider it's nice to know the distance you travelled. Basic models tell you trip distance, total distance, average speed and top speed, and journey time. More expensive models can have a huge array of functions, such as position (via GPS), heart rate, altitude, or calories burned. I recommend starting with a cheap basic one and then, if you find you need more fancy features later on, upgrade as needed.

Padded Shorts

These are pretty much essential to anyone who rides further than say 15 miles at a stretch. Even professional cyclists have been known to drop out of long-distance races due to the pain of "saddle sores," a condition that can be avoided (or at least made bearable) with proper clothing and a proper bike saddle. While it may be stating the obvious, men and women are built differently. Be sure to buy shorts designed for your gender. In general, shorts with more panels in them fit better and cost more. Shorts with somewhat heavier weight material last longer and are more supportive, and are of course more expensive.

Proper Saddle

If you only make short trips on your bike you will probably get on all right with the saddle that came with your bike. However, as you up the mileage, you may find that your saddle becomes, quite literally, a pain in the ass! The main thing to look for in a saddle is that most of the weight should be on the "sit bones". These are kind of bumps in the shape of your pelvis, and you can feel them when you sit on a hard flat surface like a table. You want the wieght to be on these rather than on the soft tissue between the sit bones because, simply put, pressure on your soft tissue will over time cause blisters or excruciating pain. Saddles usually come in womens and mens versions. This is because women usually have sit bones that are further apart than men do. Most women get along better with women's saddles than men's; however I usally find the women's ones too wide and prefer a not-very-narrow men's saddle instead. Unfortunately, saddle choice is a highly personal thing, and what works for one person often doens't work for another person who seems to be built the same way and have the same kind of riding style. The best advice I can give is to ask your friends what they like and, if possible, get them to loan you a saddle so you can try it out. Some bike shops have loaner saddles for you to try, and this is a good idea too.

Helmet

OK, this is an article about cycle accessories, so I need to say something about helmets, which is probably the number 1 thing that people think of when they hear the word "cycle accessory". Way back when, say 15 years ago, I thought that helmets were absolutely essential for cycling and I would never leave for a ride without mine firmly attached to my head. However, in the intervening years I have read an awful lot about cycling safty, accident statistics, etc, and the following is my opinion now. Cycle helmets can reduce the severity of injuries in some situations, but I do not feel that all forms of cycling are dangerous enough to require that a helmet be worn all the time. There are some situations where a helmet is a very good idea, such as hardcore offroad riding. There are other situations where I don't feel that a helmet is necessary, such as popping down to the corner shops to buy a pint of milk and a loaf of bread. I will leave it to you decide if the kind of riding you do is the kind where you need a helmet. Whether or not you buy a helmet, make sure that you ride safely, obeying traffic laws (see my article on Bicycle Safety), use lights at night, and dress visibly at all times. I feel these will do more to prevent an injury than wearing a helmet, but if in addition you want to wear a helmet for just that little bit more protection, then go ahead.

If you do buy a helmet, then here are some things to look for. First, make sure it fits. If you have a small head do not buy one of these "one-size-fits-all" helmets. With those helmets, there may be some mechanism to actually attach the way oversized helmet to your head so that it won't fall off, but it won't protect you in a collision as well as a properly fitting helmet. Second, get one that's round. The fashion now is for helmets with pointy back parts. These serve no purpose other than looks and can catch on the ground and whip your head around if you crash. My helmet is the Bell Metro, which is an excellent example of a round helmet. Third, get one that's a light color to help with visibility. To be honest, you may have enough difficulty finding a round helmet that fits you, so that finding one in a light color would be simply impossible. In this case, stick some reflective tape on it and call that good enough.

More Bike Articles