First, get professionally fitted at a bike shop if you didn't do so when you bought your bike. Spending 60 to 90 minutes with an experienced fitter will help you stay injury-free and fully enjoy cycling, whether you're riding for fun, fitness, competition or transportation. Then follow these three easy steps.
When you start, simply riding for 30 to 60 minutes two to four times a week is enough to increase your cycling-specific fitness. Pay attention to your breathing rate and spend most of your time at an endurance pace (see "The Simple Way to Go Hard," below). Stay at this stage for two to six weeks, depending on your initial fitness level.
Friendly group rides one to three times a week will help you learn the skills and traditions of cycling. Ask local bike shops where you can join short (10- to 20-mile) rides that average 13 to 16 mph. If you have an endurance-sports background you can likely go faster, but stick with a beginner or intermediate ride until you've learned the basics of pack riding. Here are two key skills.
Spacing: To reap the benefits of drafting, ride within half a bike length of the rider ahead of you. Keep your head up to anticipate pace changes and practice maintaining a steady distance between your front wheel and the wheel up ahead. Speeding up then hitting the brakes makes your ride harder and disrupts the fluidity of the pack.
Standing: When beginners stand, they inadvertently jerk their bikes backward, which leads to crashes. To prevent this, shift into a harder gear and stand when one foot reaches the top of the pedal stroke.
During the first two to four months of unstructured pedaling, your endurance and speed will improve quickly. But that progress is likely to level off if you don't add some structure to your riding. Increase your ride frequency until you're cycling three to five times per week. Then, twice a week, mix in one of the following workouts during a 45- to 75-minute ride.
Set 1: Ride six minutes at a challenging intensity, followed by four minutes of easy spinning. That is one interval; do three more intervals to complete the set. This boosts your power for sustained efforts such as longer climbs.
Set 2: Do six three-minute intervals spinning a small gear (light resistance) at as high a cadence as you can hold without bouncing in the saddle. Your breathing rate will increase dramatically. Ride easy for three minutes between intervals. This set improves pedaling mechanics and cardiovascular fitness.
Once you've incorporated these workouts into your routine, you'll be ready to take your cycling in any direction—whether it's centuries, gran fondos or even racing.
Assuming you don't have a heart-rate monitor or power meter, you can estimate your intensity level using the following scale:
Easy: You can hold a conversation without difficulty.
Endurance: You need to breathe through your mouth.
Challenging: Your breathing is labored but controlled.
Hard: You're panting uncontrollably.