Cycling: Staging Your Personal Tour de France (cont.)

People who bike to work report less stress from having to deal with traffic and say they generally feel good about themselves. Plus, some cyclists have the added satisfaction of being friendly to the environment.

If you're still not convinced, consider this: At age 50, Mary Madison was in the worst shape ever. She suffered from arthritis, complications from childhood polio, and had the beginning symptoms of emphysema after smoking for three decades. She did not think she could ride even one mile on the bike.

Fast forward 18 years, and Madison cycles some 2,000 miles from East Montana to Sacramento, Calif., to her 50th high school reunion. The retired nurse also made the trip back home. She says doctors now can't find signs of her emphysema, and her arthritis and complications from polio don't bother her as much.

What happened? Madison says she just started biking. First, she did one mile, then two, and then five. Gradually, she worked her way up to cycling multiday long-distance rides around her home state of Montana.

"When I biked, it was the one thing that gave me relaxation and help me feel good," says Madison.

Getting Into Biking Shape

To make her cross-country expedition, Madison used biking maps laid out by the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA). The group offers a network of relatively safe bike routes (mainly secondary highways and back roads) through a big chunk of North America. It also provides handy information for traveling bikers, such as location of campgrounds, bike shops, water holes, and general weather alerts.

"Biking is a sport that can be taken up by people of all ages and levels."

The ACA's mission is to inspire people of all ages to travel by bike for fun, fitness, and self-discovery. They sponsor 7- to 93-day tours around the U.S. They also offer tour classes, and, at the very least, give interested bikers some tips on how to prepare for a trek.

The organization is only one of a number of cycling clubs around the country. Various groups are geared toward different levels of riders. The League of American Bicyclists posts a list of groups around the country.

A lot of bike groups give information on how to make the most of the sport. Here are a few tips and cautions to get started:

  • Tailor your effort accordingly. If you want to bike for fitness or weight loss, remember that results depend upon the length and intensity of the ride, your fitness level, or the grade of the climb. The fitter you are, the faster the pace you need to go, the longer you need to ride, or the steeper the terrain you need to tread to get a workout, compared with a nonfit individual.

  • Stay at the right level. For a cardiovascular workout during cycling, adhere to the talk test, says Bryant. You should be able to speak but not be chatty. If you're too out of breath to have a basic conversation, you are overdoing it.

  • Have the right equipment. Use a bicycle that has at least 10 speeds so that you can adapt to any change in grade, says Bryant. He also says a helmet is crucial for safety. Other accessories that could make riding more comfortable include padded shorts, biking gloves, and toe clips.

  • Adjust your seat. The right-sized bike can make a difference. "The bike's seat height should be high enough so that the leg on the down stroke is not quite completely extended," says Bryant, who notes that a saddle that's too high makes it difficult to deliver enough muscular power. A seat that's too low makes pedaling uncomfortable, especially for the knees and quads. Also, make sure you are not constricting any blood vessels in the genital area. If something hurts or is numb, chances are your saddle needs to be adjusted to make biking more pleasant for you.

  • Properly manipulate gears. Shift them so that you can maintain a cadence of 80 to 100 revolutions per minute, says McCormick. Improper gearing could damage the knees.

  • Follow traffic laws. "A bike is considered a vehicle, according to the laws in all 50 states," says McCormick. "If you want to be safe, you need to act as though you are driving a vehicle." This means following traffic signs and lights and using hand signals for a turn.

  • Go for the total-body workout. Supplement biking with resistance training twice a week, suggests Bryant. Working out the lower extremities will help you gain strength for cycling, and strengthening your upper extremities is important for total fitness.

Biking is, indeed, a sport that can be taken up by people of all ages and levels, even for the inactive and not so young. For these people, Bryant has the following advice: "Try to focus on enjoying the scenery, and going at a comfortable pace. Look at it as a positive time to be moving. After developing some consistency with that, then start thinking about challenging yourself. "

Published June 28, 2004.
Medically updated June 29, 2005.

SOURCES: Bob Roll, author, The Tour de France Companion. Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist, American Council on Exercise. Patrick McCormick, spokesman, League of American Bicyclists. Mary Madison. Nancy Nichols, spokeswoman, Adventure Cycling Association. Le Tour de France. Bicycling magazine.

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