Riding a bicycle is independence. Whether you ride swiftly, slowly or some rate in between, you do it yourself and you do it for yourself. Here's the other significant payoff: Riding a bicycle is one of the best activities for your body-it's easy on the joints, it increases muscular strength and blood circulation, it maintains weight (or helps you drop it) and it reduces stress.

Riding a bicycle is independence. Whether you ride swiftly, slowly or some rate in between, you do it yourself and you do it for yourself. Here's the other significant payoff: Riding a bicycle is one of the best activities for your body-it's easy on the joints, it increases muscular strength and blood circulation, it maintains weight (or helps you drop it) and it reduces stress.

Here's how to begin:

Buying a bike

When you walk into a bike shop, a salesperson will ask, "So, what sort of riding do you do or think you want to do?"

Unless you're planning to go off road, steer clear of bikes with knobby tires and shock absorbers. You're not looking for a mountain bike equipped with rock- and mud-eating features; you're looking for an efficient, asphalt friendly machine that glides and makes you remember what it felt like the first time you sailed atop a paved road as a child.

If your goal simply is to pedal a pedestrian path or commute to work or the grocery, consider a "hybrid," which is a marriage of road, mountain and old-time cruiser bike design.

The utilitarian bikes' features are what bike-industry folk call "relaxed": upright positioning that's easy on the neck and lower back; flat handlebars rather than the "drop" bars of old-school 10-speeds; more forgiving seats (or "saddles") and wide tires that allow you to roll with confidence over a variety of urban terrain (sketchy pavement, pea gravel, curbs). Some are sold with commuter-ready racks, fenders and lights.

If your goals include riding long, consistent distances, say 25 miles or more, consider an entry-level road bike. Your body will forgive you if you ride one of those 25 miles or more instead of a hybrid.

Unlike a hybrid, a road-specific bike, or "touring" bike, puts the rider in a more aerodynamic position thanks to "drop" handlebars, a thinner seat (saddle) and a more stretched-out bike frame. Slick, thinner tires than those of hybrids allow for more efficient pedaling (less rubber connects with the road so less energy is needed to move the bike forward).

What you need

Helmet: Any helmet sold in stores meets federal safety guidelines. Not every helmet meets contemporary fashion guidelines. Look in the mirror in the store. Is it a giant that looks as if it's ready for an astronaut? Put it down. Ask the clerk to hand you another.

Socks: Visit www.sockguy.com or most any biking store in the city. The socks are sturdy, chic and fun.

Shorts: Become familiar with the word chamois. Shorts are sold at a variety of prices but a pair without a chamois is a pair your body needs. Choose basic black unless you enjoy spending time coordinating colors more than riding.

Gloves: Look for a pair with padding, which fights numbness in the hands while providing better grip when you start to perspire.

Shoes: Shoes that clip into pedals allow for more efficient pedaling but require some practice. Until you are comfortable riding in a group, perhaps use pedals with toe straps so you can easily remove your feet at stops. All hybrid bikes are sold with wide platform pedals or pedals with straps. Most entry level road bikes are sold with pedals with straps. You can always upgrade to clip-in pedals down the road.

Pumps: Buy a sturdy floor pump (in the $20 to $30 range) and learn to use it. The easiest way to avoid flat tires is to maintain the proper air pressure, which is written on the sidewall of each tire. Buy a lightweight frame pump and learn to use it. Even today's tough tires are susceptible to flats.

Sunglasses: Wear them for UV protection but also to be practical. Avoiding glare leads to safer rides.

Basic saddlebag kit: Tire levers (for flats); a tube; a patch kit; a bit of money; ATM card; driver's license and aspirin. Even if you don't know how to change a flat someone with the group -- or someone who comes along -- will. Always carry a spare tube and tire levers.

Where to ride

If you're just getting started on two wheels, check out Central Ohio Greenways to find a recreational path near where you live.

There are more than 75 miles of trails just beyond the front door offering views of the city, as well as rivers, streams -- and other citizens pedaling away.

Car-free pathways not your style? Check in with Columbus Outdoor Pursuits, central Ohio's go-to group for organized rides. The non-profit's volunteersmap out rides nearly every Saturday between April and October, with various other rides beginning after work on weekdays. No matter your speed, there's a ride for you.

Right now hundreds of riders are gearing up for the 48th-annual Tour of the Scioto River Valley, or "TOSRV" ("TAH-SERVE"), a Columbus-to-Portsmouth (and back to Columbus) jaunt May 9 and 10.

Stores

B1 Bicycles
124 E. Long St. (614-221-0017)

Bike Source
2887 N. High St., Clintonville (614-262-4998)
4840 Sawmill Rd., Dublin (614-459-1200)
591 S. State St., Westerville (614-891-6280)

Roll
3950 Townsfair Way, Easton Town Center (1-877-550-7655)
2042 Polaris Pkwy. (614-8857655)

Trek Bicycle Store
2720 Sawmill Place Blvd. (614-791-8735)

Questions?

The local bicycle advocacy group Consider Biking (614-579-1127) has all the answers and if they don't they will find them.