Starting a Cycling/Mountain Biking Program

By Lindsey Townsend

Those first-graders pedaling around your neighborhood with the gap-toothed grins are on to something that a lot of adults have forgotten: in addition to being a liberating form of aerobic exercise, biking is good old-fashioned fun. And the best news is that cycling is not just for kids anymore. In fact, about 20 million adults get on their bicycles at least once a week looking for fitness and fun.

For maximum cardiovascular benefits, most experts recommend that you bicycle 30 minutes in duration at least three times a week. If you're out of shape, though, begin slowly. Limit initial rides, whether outside or inside on a stationary bike, to 20 minutes, and work up gradually. “With a 20-minute ride one day and a 30-minute ride the next, you can sneak up on fitness without overdoing it,” says Jacquie Phelan, bike skills trainer and founder of the Woman’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society (WOMBATS). As a non-impact sport, Phelan says that mountain biking is great for older women. “The media has misfiled it under ‘Fun for Boys,” she remarks. “Mountain biking offers a terrific full-body workout that really works the quads, forearms and triceps.”

Phelan recommends starting out easy by pedaling briskly on fairly flat surfaces. To make your ride a truly aerobic activity, you need to move your legs at least twice as fast as you would during a brisk walk. As you get comfortable with your bike and workout schedule, you can begin maintaining your target heart rate for the duration of the workout.

Whether you’re a road runner or a mountain biker, your conditioning workout should emphasize strength training for both the upper and lower body. In addition to the quads and outside thigh muscles, cycling works the upper body because it helps to steer and control the bike. John Graham, director of the Human Performance Center at the Allentown Sports Medicine and Human Performance Center in Pennsylvania, recommends barbell and dumbbell curls to strengthen the biceps, overhead extensions for the triceps, and wrist curls to give you strength to keep the bike stable. One-arm dumbbell row sand bent-over rows will also increase muscle strength for the upper back, and squats, leg presses, and leg curls will maintain proper balance between the quadriceps and hamstring muscles. For a Core Routine that will serve as a good starting point for cycling fitness, check out The Men’s Health Guide to Peak Conditioning (Rodale Press, 1997).

One of the biggest misconceptions about mountain biking, according to Dan Vandamis, advocacy associate with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), “is that you have to be super-aggressive. You don’t have to have a ‘gonzo’ personality to enjoy the sport. You just need to be someone who’s willing to try new things.” Vandamis says that the difference between cycling and mountain biking is that “in mountain biking, the terrain is rougher, and you use your upper body and arms a lot more to get over the roads. Physically, you need more power than you do when just cycling. It’s a great full-body workout.”

For serious off-road riding, Vandamis suggests that you spend somewhere between $400-500 for a good mountain bike. To select the right bike, first consider your needs: will you require a racing, mountain, or touring bicycle? Racing bicycles are lightweight, with low-slung handlebars and many gear settings; mountain bicycles have sturdier frames, more upright handlebars, and wider tires with heavy tread; and touring bicycles are somewhere in between.

A dedicated bike shop is usually the best source to buy a bike, Vandamis says, because, “A specialty bike shop will fit you correctly, which will help avoid knee problems. Good bike position is really important.” Rhonda Hoyt, owner of Richardson Bike Mart in Richardson, Texas, says, “To get road-ready, you’ll need a bike, a helmet, a tire tool, patch kit, spare tube, pump, water bottle and cage, and some money. Add a cell phone, and you can go across the country!” Hoyt said that you can get a good recreational bike for as little as $250. “If you’re just riding around the neighborhood with the kids, you’ll do fine on a touring bike with platform pedals and a good stiff shoe. If you plan on riding more seriously, you might consider the snap-in type pedal and a cycling shoe that will give you more power to pedal.”

Your local bike shop can also put you in touch with nearby biking clubs, or you can attend an instructional clinic to get up to speed quickly. Dirt Camps Inc. in Boulder, Colorado offers a variety of instructional safety clinics for novices nationwide. “One of the most common injuries is when someone breaks a collarbone from taking a fall and sticking their hands out to try and break their fall,” according to vice president Elias Bachmann. “We offer instruction on the right and wrong way to fall and teach trail riding clinics covering topics like ascending and descending hills and how to get fitted correctly on a bike. If people are fit wrong, they can have knee and back problems, and if their cleats are positioned wrong, it can also cause strain on the knees.” For more information on Dirt Camps, check out their website at or call (800) 711-DIRT (3478).

When riding on the highway, always follow the traffic as if your bike was a motor vehicle. Keep reflectors clean and install lighting to ride at night, and wear reflective clothing and attach reflective strips to your helmet. Finally, keep your bike in good working order, and take it in for a tune-up regularly. See you over the top of the next hill!

Cycling and Mountain Biking

  • Benefits: Good total-body aerobic exercise; easy entry into sport; increases stamina and endurance.
  • Cons: Higher startup cost than other sports such as running or walking; may be difficult to bike in adverse conditions; risk of falls/collisions.
  • Must-Haves: Bike, approved safety helmet.
  • Cost: $250 for a recreational (touring) bike; $500 for entry-level mountain bike; helmet $35; basic clipless pedals, if desired: $35; clipless shoes, if desired, $60; tire tool, patch kit, spare tube, and pump $30; water bottle and cage, $15.
  • Biking Personality: “The great equalizer”; appeals to all personalities; mountain biking tends to satisfy thrill-seekers who enjoy varied terrain and changing conditions.