It takes a special breed to hop on a bike and ride 50-plus kilometres on a Saturday morning when others are lingering in their pyjamas over coffee and crosswords. This tribe is none other than the cycling-club member, a helmeted, Spandex-clad individual who thrives on camaraderie and the lactic acid burn in his or her quad muscles.
You'll find cycling clubs across the country for beginners to competitive racers, which organize regular rides on weekends as well as weeknights. A close relative to distance runners, club members can be identified by their telltale tan lines, their wiry arms and chiselled legs, and the self-discipline required to push on, even when their lungs and heart protest. See them in their natural habitat, negotiating traffic on roadways, wind blowing through their vented helmets, or resting in flocks on a sunny patio after a long ride.
Cycling is one of those sports you can do at almost any age, so it's not unusual to find 30-year-olds riding in the same pack as boomers twice their age. Unlike riding solo, cycling as a club member means you can count on others to motivate you, to watch your back when you're on the road and to make sure you don't get lost when tackling new routes. Safety is one of the top reasons to join a club; you stand a better chance against traffic en masse. Many clubs also organize social events and postride gatherings to extend that unified spirit.
Daniel Yang, president of the Beaches Cycling Club in Toronto, says his club organizes regular events such as beer nights to foster esprit de corps.
"It keeps the people at a level where everyone knows your name, kind of like Cheers. That way, when you're on the road, and you've got your sunglasses and your kit and helmet on, people know who you are," he says.
"So everyone pretty much looks out for everyone else."
A fancy bike won't help a poor cyclist. Many clubs require a basic level of fitness to ensure you can keep up with the pack. But the kind of bike you ride does make a difference. Yang recommends that road cyclists have a bike with 700-centimetre (28-inch) diameter wheels and road-bike gearing. These can range in price, from the cost of a fridge, around $1,000, to that of a Honda Civic, as much as $20,000.
Once you've got your bike, you're going to need the right attire. Cycling jerseys aren't just for looking the part. Their built-in pockets allow you to carry your wallet, phone, keys and snacks, which you'll need to fuel long rides. Helmets are also a must.
And riders should carry a kit equipped with all the essentials for fixing a flat, including a spare tube, says Angela Bradfield, president of Toronto's Dark Horse Flyers Cycling Club. (Don't worry if you don't know how to actually use these tools. Your club chums will be there to get you through a jam.) These kits can fit nicely into bags that attach under your seat.
Wear padded cycling shorts, and your groin will thank you.
"Cyclists are really big into hand signals, especially when you're riding in a group," Bradfield says.
A pat-the-dog motion is the sign for slowing down. A peace sign waved behind your back indicates there are train tracks or streetcar tracks ahead. A simple point of an index finger indicates a pothole or other hazard.
"Sometimes new riders aren't comfortable taking their hand off the bar to point out a pothole, so they might just yell, 'Hole!'" Bradfield says, noting they otherwise try not to yell too much, especially if they're riding through residential
neighbourhoods early in the morning.
With the exception of advanced groups, Bradfield says all of her club's rides are "no drop," meaning no one is left behind. On these kinds of rides, avoid being a "hammerhead," someone who keeps surging ahead or pushing the pace.
A surefire way to alert everyone that you're a newbie is to show up wearing the wrong thing. Bradfield says new riders sometimes make the mistake of wearing tank tops and arm warmers, which leave the shoulders vulnerable to road rash if they fall. Helmets with visors may be great for mountain biking, but they're "frowned upon a little bit" among road cyclists, she says. Visors are unnecessary if you're not riding through branches and falling leaves, and they block your face when you're crouched over your road bike.
Oh, and one more thing. Do not wear underwear under cycling shorts. "A lot of people think, 'I can't go without underwear.' But it will rub the wrong way and you'll get saddle sores and it will chafe and you'll get all kinds of bacterial issues," Bradfield says. Consider yourself warned.