Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Learning to bike as an adult

I learned to bike when I was well into - ahem, let's just say adulthood - and I received a lot of really bad advice in the process. Most people (and all people in the Netherlands) learn to ride a bike when they're under 10, usually somewhere between 5 and 7. They learn how to do it and they do it well, but basically they have no idea how they learned or really, what they learned. As an adult, you tend to think through things more, you tend to be more aware of risk, and your own (potential) failings - all of this consciousness actually works against you, and I would say that learning to ride a bike as an adult is much more difficult than doing so as a child, even a fearful child.

But, having said that, it's possible and it can be fun. It took me some concerted effort, but now I ride a bike everyday, amidst Dutch bike traffic which can overwhelm even a seasoned biker. That's not to say that I haven't had a spill or two, but I can get around, and I now know how to actually ride a bike!

So, here's a guide for adults learning to ride a bike, culled from my searches of a few web forums and my own experience.

1.Experiencing balance.

What most adults don't have is a sense of balance on a bike - that is, we know what biking looks like, but we don't know what it feels like. This is important because knowing what it looks like, helps you figure out when what you're doing is not working (when you're at a severe angle and are teetering, you automatically know, you not riding the bike right!), so that you can visualise the right thing, but it also helps establish some muscle memory. If your body know what balance feels like, it can try to achieve that automatically. So this part is about visualisation and establishing muscle memory.

  • Lower the seat so that your feet are flat on the ground - this will make you feel like you'll catch yourself in a fall. If you can't do that, you'll spend all your time being afraid of falling.
  • Take the pedals off the bike. If you can't take the pedals off, try to pretend they're not there.
  • Sit on the bike and try coasting. Push off a little bit (ignore the pedals!), lift your feet off the ground and coast (it helps if you're on a very slight incline). You'll tip from side to side at first, but do this for a while and you'll eventually feel what balance on the bike feels like.I did this coasting exercise for about 10-15 minutes everyday for several days. It gets super boring and you feel like an idiot, but it's pretty crucial to be comfortable with balance before you move on to the next step. Comfortable balancing? Move on to step 2.

2. Connecting with the pedals

When you're frustrated with coasting, you begin to think, "How hard can it be? I just put my feet on those things and go." You're feeling cocky because you've mastered balance - that's good, because you need a little confidence to make it through connecting with the pedals. I tipped to the side a lot and having the seat low enough that my feet caught me helped a lot - it defused fear of falling and it meant that I would catch myself and get back on the bike very quickly since I wasn't actually crashing.

  • Start slowly. Push off just as you did with coasting.
  • While you're coasting, try and put your feet on the pedals.
  • After you've coasted and made contact with the pedals a few times, add pushing the pedals (that is, actually pedaling).
  • Stop frequently and visualise (imagine, in detail) exactly what it is that you're trying to do: "I'm going to coast and balance, and that feels normal. Once I've pushed off and I'm coasting, I'm going to gently place my feet on the pedals. Then I am going to push the pedals. If I lean to one side, it's ok to stop with my feet and start again."

I made a few mistakes that are actually connected to balance, but became apparent at this stage: 1) I leaned on the handlebars - that's what I thought they were there for. This is wrong. You lightly rest your hands on the handlebars. They do not do anything for your weight. 2) Connected to this issue, I didn't know where my weight was supposed to go, so I put it on the handlebars and on the pedals - that's why I kept tipping over.

  • Your weight rests almost entirely on the seat (or saddle as true cyclists will tell you). You do not put weight on the handlebars - that is, don't lean on them - and you do not put weight on the pedals - you pedal using force, not necessarily your weight.
  • Imagine that your centre of gravity is right through your seat (the one on your body and on the bike), like you're sitting in an very upright chair. This will help you avoid leaning on the handlebars and on the pedals and disturbing your balance.

3. Practise!

Practise in short segments (15-25 minutes) so you don't tire out and get sloppy. Some of amount of frustration is good - it motivates you to say, "I'm just going to push off and go" - and that's actually what happened for me. I practised a lot and I didn't seem to be getting anywhere - which wasn't true, but I was extremely frustrated - and I just kept imagining pedaling for more than a couple of revolutions and staying upright. I then hit a point where I was doing it, but I didn't realise I was doing it, because I was preparing to catch myself from falling!

After that, it's just more practise, and soon enough you have a shot at being as good on a bike as your friends who learned when they were 6.

A few general tips

  • Do it by yourself. Remember that people who already how to ride a bike, probably don't know how to learn to ride a bike - that means they're full of well-meant but useless and often complicating advice - so having them around, especially at step 1 may be counter-productive.
  • It's ok for your feet to touch the ground. Experienced cyclists know that it is more efficient (in terms of strength and pedaling) to have a high seat, so that you're on your toes when you get on the bike. You're not an experienced cyclist, you're learning to ride a bike. That means you need to feel safe and be safe; it's ok to have the seat low so that your feet are flat on the ground.
  • Practise on smooth ground. I thought grass or gravel would be best, but asphalt is far easier to coast on, and if you have your seat low enough, you can always use your feet to brake. I found empty parking lots and cul de sacs to be perfect for practising.
  • Remember, your weight should be on your seat, not your hands.

That's it! Good luck!


Anonymous said...

What would be a good-sized bicycle to use if you want to learn as an adult?

Spilled Peaches said...

I'd suggest getting yourself sized at a bike shop, or if you get a bike from a department store, just getting the average bike for your height. The most important thing if you're learning though, is to be able to adjust the bike seat down so that when you're sitting on it, you can put your feet flat on the ground. Then, once you're actually riding, adjust the seat height up.

Anonymous said...

Hi, and thanks for the post. I've managed to get past this phase of coasting on my own, but the advice you offer is nonetheless useful (about not leaning on the handlebars etc.).
However, now I need to practise some more and I'm having trouble at figuring out the gears and how to use them, so as to cycle efficiently. Perhaps you could give some advice..or publish another post.. Thanks again!

Spilled Peaches said...

Good question about gears! My experience has only been with 3 speed and 5 speed bikes - and keep in mind, I haven't become a bike enthusiast/hobbyist - to me it's still a tool to get around with, so people who are racers, etc. might give you different advice.

First, the lower gear, the less resistance on the pedals, so use lower gears for inclines - for example, going up a hill, you'll want to be in 1st gear, coming down, you'll probably want to be in 3rd (on a 3-speed).

Where I bike, it's mostly very flat, so I stay in 2nd gear on a 3-speed or in 4th on a 5-speed. At moments when I've been fitter, I've used 3rd gear on the 3 speed, but I have found that if I'm on any kind of incline - no matter how slight - getting started in 3rd can be hard. In 3rd, with a slight incline, your pedals really need a good hard push from a stopped position and that's why I've ended up using 2nd almost all the time.

On a 5-speed, I've found 4th gear to be about the equivalent of 2nd gear on the 3-speed.

On both types of bikes, the first time I changed gears was a unsettling, because I didn't quite realise what was happening. Basically, you'll be changing gears while you're riding, and when the gears change, the bike chain is moving (slipping) from one cog (the gear) to another. This is a mechanical process, and that's what it will feel like. To me, changing gears while pedalling feels a little like your pedal got caught on something and then released. If you're going from a higher gear to a lower one, you'll feel that snag and then all of sudden pedalling will be easier until you start going uphill. If I need to lower gears to go uphill, I like to do that a little before I actually hit the incline.

I hope this addresses what you were wondering about!

Anonymous said...

I am trying to learn riding bicycle by my own. But still struggling to get the balance right. I have tried for 1 week, 15-20 mins per day. I am bit worried. Am I taking too much time? Also feeling that I am holding the handles tightly. Is it wrong? How to improve?

Spilled Peaches said...

I don't think you should worry too much about how long you're taking, but the fact that you're holding the handles quite tightly indicates that you might be very nervous and stressed while you're on the bike. It can be hard to relax enough to feel the sensation of balance - is there anything you can do for yourself to relax before you get on the bike? For me it helped a lot to reduce the pressure to learn by telling myself, "Ok, right now, I'm just going to get on the bike and basically walk it, while I'm sitting on the seat". That way, I wasn't spending all my time worrying that I was not learning anything. I think the key for you might be to lower the pressure on yourself, and find a way to relax a little before you get on the bike. Good luck!

Rosa said...

thank you for this. I just finished teaching my daughter how to ride her bike in two days, but I've never learned to ride. I am starting to get the itch to learn myself. I want it to be a family activity. I had thought of doing what you suggested way before reading your post. Your post just validated my plans. Thanks so much. I will keep you posted on how it goes.

Spilled Peaches said...

Kids are so lucky that they learn the bike thing so quickly! I'm sure you guys will have a blast once you're biking too, and you can bike around together. Good luck and I'd love to know how it goes!

Rosa said...

On Friday, I bought a cruiser, 7 speed Schwinn on sale, and a helmet, of course. On Saturday, Hubby checked out the bike and made sure to tighten everything and fill the tires with air.

I strapped on my helmet and went down the hill (a bit steep). It was a panicky feeling. After about 30 minutes of going down the hill while putting my feet down and braking to keep my balance, and walking up the hill way more often, I took a break.

In the afternoon, I decided to try to pedal; quite sooner than you suggest. I just wanted to try. After many exhausting minutes, something clicked. I was trying to keep the front wheel/handle bars straight, but I started to steer myself into balancing while simultaneously tried to pedal. I started to pedal faster while steering and balancing. I called out to my husband to watch and I pedaled right down the street to the cul de sac. The key to it was to relax and not clutch the bars for dear life. I also stopped looking downward, which helped my posture.

A neighbor kept yelling out tips that helped. I kept going and practicing and I am happy to say that I am now riding a bike. I didn't need stabilizers. I didn't need my hubby or my neighbor who offered to hold me. I still have a lot of work to do in regards to braking and stopping without hard stops. I panic when I go too fast. I can't quite turn without fearing a wipeout.

Thank you so much for your instructional post. I am so pleased that I can do this for the first time in 35 years.

Spilled Peaches said...


It sounds like your experience was really similar to mine - although you went a lot faster ;)

I'm so glad to hear you're biking! It's cool to finally be able to do it, isn't it? Yay!

the things I want to say said...

I'm just so nervous that I can't. I'm 34. Is that too old?

I'm on day two of coasting and I keep worrying "what if I can't"...

Spilled Peaches said...

34 is definitely not too old! Before I hit my tipping point and actually managed to stay on the bike, pedal and move forward, I was just about to give up. I had basically decided that I was probably never going to pick up this whole riding a bike thing - but guess what? Now I do it all the time! :)

It can be a super-frustrating process, but my best advice is just to be persistent and don't get too down on yourself. If you need to take a break for a day or for a week, that's ok, just make sure you come back to it. Good luck!

Spilled Peaches said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rosa said...

I learned how to bike ride at 35, two weeks before my 36th birthday about 3 months ago. I think I would have regretted not learning at any age. I hope you try it.

Anne Beeche said...

Thanks a lot for this advice, especially about where to put your center of gravity. No one else has told me this before!

I am a 17-year-old who due to training wheels, my parents being poor teachers, and some neighborhood bullying in the past, never got the opportunity to finish learning to ride the bike. Since it's now summer and I think I know a good place where I can learn to ride away from too many prying eyes, I've decided that I'd give the bike another try.

Denise said...

Thank you thank you thank you for this post! When almost all the resources for learning to ride are for teaching kids, and most about adults are about how to teach adults (rather than the experience of novice riders), this was an encouraging breath of fresh air.

At the bike shop, I managed to go all of 20 feet pedaling in an alley without freaking out. It was my first 20 feet on a bike in 18 years, and it felt *great*. Contrary to the expression, you *can* forget how to ride a bike, and having the correct size frame is critical for learning how again. Your post helped me keep the confidence to actually go into the shop and ask. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you for this gem of a blog. I am 34 and rode a bike for the first time tonight. Reading that riding a bike is as much about steering as it is about balance, and imagining my center of gravity going through the seat were immense helps. I spent an hour coasting down my driveway to get a feel for it, and experimented with the pedals. Tonight i cut loose with the pedals and was riding. It really does help to focus on distant objects...especially when turning. I'll say this, the first thing that should turn when you're maneuvering the bike should be your head. Great tip. I feel like I slayed my white whale tonight, and this blog was an immense help.

RobM said...

Thank you for writing this blog, it was very informative and I will try it. I am 35 and going to learn to ride a bike tonight for the first time in my life!!! wish me luck!

Anonymous said...

I am 34 years old. Never learned to bike as a kid. I started last week.I took a lesson from an instructor which was great. Was able to ride within an hour! My instrutor was brilliant.
I have started practising in a small car park. Can ride about 50-80meters. That's all the space i have in the car park. I cannot do turns as yet,am still wobbly at times. I am hoping now its just a matter of practise.
I thought it was just me who couldnt bike at my age. Reading your article was very helpful. Knowing that i am not alone and that it can be done.
How long did it take you to be able to bike on the road from when you got the balance?

dimi said...

THANK U!!! I wanted very much to learn how to ride a bike! I followed your advices and learnt the second day after 20 mins of training! Basicaly what I did was this; I went to big empty parking lot. I completely removed the pedals and I started coaching using both feet in order to gain speed. After some efforts I started to balance while coasting and I was super excited. Then I attached the pedals and here we go! As I was pedaling fast it was easier to balance. I cycled for about 2 hours!
Now I have to keep it straight because I noticed that I turn a lot the handlebar to balance...

Anonymous said...

I'm 55 and just learning to ride. I've had two sessions with professional teachers (paid for by my local council!). They used the method described here and it works really well. I am now able to cycle short distances on quiet roads or pavements (not strictly legal). I have bought a bike and now plan to practice for a short period each day. Once you can balance and pedal it's all about confidence which only comes with practice. And, doing it on your own is far less embarrassing :-)
Good luck to everyone else here.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this post.
im 30 now and never had the chance to learn how to ride a bike during my childhod. and never did try when i was older until last night. :)
i followed what you've written here. in about half an hour i was able to pedal the entire length of the parking lot. a good 50 meters maybe. then after an hour i was doing laps around it. need more practice though. need to try and keep my handlebar sways minimal.
thanks very much again!!!