Summer is looming and the gym is calling, but there's a more entertaining exercise to help you get in shape for swimsuit season. The addition and expansion of New Orleans' bike paths — like those on the east bank of the Missisippi River levee and along Carrollton Avenue — coupled with the flat landscape mean cycling in the Crescent City is easier and more sensible than ever.
Dr. Scott Montgomery, an orthopedist for Ochsner Health System and the New Orleans Hornets, frequently recommends bicycling to patients of all ages and backgrounds as a way to stay active. "What we like about cycling is it's a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get people moving," he says. "People are becoming so much more sedentary in our society, and the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic performance, like biking, are enormous ... not just for physical health, but for mental health as well."
Mark Delaney agrees. An avid cycler since the mid-1980s, Delaney's hobby quickly progressed into competitive racing, culminating in him becoming president of the New Orleans Bicycle Club (NOBC). "Bicycling is nonweight-bearing, so it's easier on the joints," he says. "Your cycling workouts can go much longer, because you have the ability to vary your effort level: You can push yourself really hard or take it easy." It's a common return to activity for athletes who have recently torn a knee ligament, for example, he says.
As with any physical activity, preparation is essential. To begin cycling, a person should be healthy enough for low to moderate exercise and should get properly fitted for a bicycle; a badly sized bike is "the biggest pitfall for new cyclists," Delane says. In addition to making the session more of a struggle, it also can contribute to knee and hip discomfort, Montgomery says.
Stretch before and after a ride to prepare muscles and prevent the possibility of strain. "Focus your energy on stretching your legs, quads, back and hamstrings, since those are the muscles you'll be using," he suggests. Ask employees at the bike shop for advice: "Go in and tell them, 'Here's the type of cycling I'd like to do,'" Delaney says. "Whether it's racing or recreational, they can give you a list of what you'll need." They'll also be able to help you find the ideal cadence of revolutions per minute to optimize your workout; many beginner cyclists pedal too slowly, which fails to effectively engage the appropriate muscle fibers.
When you're ready to take to the road, make sure you heed traffic. Many routes put cyclists in close proximity to automobiles, increasing the risk of collision and injury. "There's not much you can do to make people better drivers, but you can put yourself in a position where you're less likely to get in a wreck," Montgomery says. Wear reflective clothing so you're easily visible to motorists and familiarize yourself with hand signals. Delaney advises using a white front light and a rear flashing light at dawn or dusk, and cautions against riding while wearing headphones, as it can make you less aware of your surroundings. When approaching an intersection, he says, "make some kind of connection with the drivers around you. Make sure they see you and that you're aware and anticipating what they're doing next." Always ride with traffic, and obey the rules of the road.
Montgomery and Delaney agree biking is an excellent way to stay active, see the city and enjoy the springtime weather.
For prospective racers, the NOBC hosts regular events for all levels of cyclists, like the Tour de Louisiane June 9-10. According to Delaney, it's the oldest continuously running stage race in the city. Participants advance to various levels based on their qualifying scores, competing for prizes all the way. A racing license is required, but riders can purchase one-day licenses from USA Cycling (www.usacycling.org). Find more upcoming races at www.new-orleansbicycleclub.org.