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.
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.
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!