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Ready, set, ride

A group of cyclists are shown.
Prepare for your best cycling self with these tips from an expert. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Biking surged during the pandemic.

New bicycles rolled off the shelves.

Old bikes came down from the garage rafters.

And many adults, looking for adventure close to home, refound the childhood joy of pedaling down the street.

Now with travel restrictions loosened, how do we keep the biking momentum going?

One good option is to prepare for the MSU Gran Fondo, the bike ride against skin cancer hosted by Michigan State University.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan, event offers a fun challenge for cyclists of all skill levels. Participants choose among several ride distances: 8-10 miles, 25 miles, 40 miles and 80 miles.

Signing up for an event like the Gran Fondo can be a great motivator, said Gus Hemingway, a seasoned cyclist and a Spectrum Health athletic trainer.

For 20 years, he has loved riding, racing and working on bikes.

“It’s the sense of adventure that comes with being out on the bike, the sense of freedom of going wherever you want to go with the pedals,” he said.

And bicycling is a great way to get in shape, providing both aerobic and strength-based exercise.

“Like swimming, cycling has very little impact,” Hemingway said. “Cycling is great for keeping the joints moving but in a non-impact way.”

Although the legs do most of the work, bicycling provides a full-body workout.

“You’d be surprised how much your core is worked and how much you use your arms for stability and steering,” he said.

Still, even with the joys and benefits of riding a bike, it’s easy to let other priorities get in the way.

That’s where bike events like the Gran Fondo come in.

“If you don’t have any goal to look forward to, you may not push yourself to go any harder or faster or to get in better shape,” Hemingway said.

“There are always other things in our lives that can take priority. If you have that event on the calendar, it helps you to make it a priority.”

Getting ready for the ride

Hemingway offered tips for those preparing for the September event.

“For the beginner who wants to give it a try, it’s a good idea to try riding consistently,” he said. “Ride a couple of times a week to try to get your endurance up so you will be prepared for it.”

For those with some experience bike riding, he suggests joining a group ride. Local bike shops sponsor rides or can provide information about them.

“It’s good to get experience riding with a group of people who know what they are doing,” he said. “You can get a lot of technical knowledge from riding with others.”

Experienced cyclists who are looking to improve could also look into hiring a local cycling coach, he added.

After a ride, he recommends stretching your legs, especially the hamstrings and quads.

Equipment matters

A few weeks before the event, Hemingway advises making sure your bike is in good working order. Get a tune-up if needed.

“Make it a priority to inflate the tires and check the tire inflation the day of the ride,” he said.

As people increase their miles on a bike, a common complaint crops up: A sore seat.

“The best thing you can do is ride with a comfortable pair of padded cycling shorts,” Hemingway said.

A cushier seat is not the answer.

“A saddle that is firm is better for longer rides than a really soft saddle. It is more supportive for the sit bones,” he said. “A soft saddle isn’t as supportive. If your body sinks into it, that rubs on it the wrong way.”

For those riding the shorter distance—about 10 miles—on a comfort bike, the softer seat is fine, he said. But it won’t work as well for those riding longer distances.

For shoes and pedals, Hemingway prefers a clip-in system.

“You have a better feel of what the bike is doing underneath you,” he said. “They are much more efficient. They keep your foot in the right position on the pedal.”

But learning to ride with shoes clipped to the bike pedals takes practice.

“There is a learning curve. I always recommend going to a grassy field and practice riding really slow figure-eights. Practice unclipping from the pedals and putting your foot down to get used to the feel of it.”

Hemingway also advises being prepared for a flat tire. Carry a spare inner tube, tire levers and an air pump.

“Even if you don’t know how to change it, it’s good to have the supplies you need in case someone can help you fix it.”

The big day

As you prepare for a big event, pay attention to nutrition. What meal works well for you pre-ride?

“When you start a big ride, you will need to know how your body is going to handle what you have chosen to eat,” he said. “Eat what you are used to eating. Don’t change things right before the event.”

He typically starts with a high-carbohydrate breakfast—like oatmeal with fruit.

Remember to drink plenty of water. A good rule of thumb is to bring 20 ounces of water for every hour you ride.

If you come to a food station on your route and you’re hungry, grab a granola bar or cookie, he said.

“You are probably expending more calories than you think you are,” he said.

Last but not least, wear sunscreen, Hemingway said.

The MSU Gran Fondo raises funds for skin cancer research, so that’s a powerful reminder of the importance of sunscreen.

Celebrate

After the ride, feel good at what you have accomplished—whether or not you reach your goal.

“Generally, after the fact, you look back on it and think, ‘That was a lot of fun preparing and doing it,’” he said. “And, if I didn’t finish, now I have a goal to finish next year.”

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