From what I can tell there are two major processes to learning how to ride a bike as an adult – figuring out the mechanics and then figuring out how those mechanics work in the real world. The simplest and, in many ways, most challenging part of learning involves some basics mechanical processes. Those include making the bike move forward, not falling off the bike (balance), steering and braking. None of those are easy tasks, but they aren’t impossible, either. All of the information below assumes that a person is taking the precautions she or he has deemed necessary for physical safety.
Making a bike move & balance: Many folks will suggest teaching an adult to learn to ride a bike just how movies tell us that children learn to ride a bike. That is, starting at the top of a hill, pushing the learner, and hoping that no bones break in the process. That doesn’t work for adults for a variety of reasons. Adults are a bit more rigid, both due to physical and psychological factors, and can get hurt easily. Adults are also more risk-averse, meaning that they’re probably not going to go along with that sort of process. Finally, an adult-sized bike is certainly less push-able than a kid-sized bike.
Instead of this method, my internet searches revealed less scary ideas. (My favorite source has been Bike Forums, as the contributors there offer a variety of approaches, different experiences and perspectives on a many critical issues. Another good article, a bit about process, but a lot about feeling okay with the process can be found on the New York Times.) Some of those ideas:
- Lower the seat so your feet can touch the ground and you can coast around a bit.
- Remove the pedals and lower the seat, for more security when coasting around. Add pedals as balancing oneself becomes easier.
- Find a softly inclining grassy hill and, with either of the bike modifications described above, practice rolling down the hill.
- Do none of these things: on a flat surface and with plenty of padding/guards/helmet/etc., just make the bike move, as movement makes balancing a lot easier.
- Many sources suggest putting the bike in 2nd or 3rd gear, if that’s possible with whatever shifting technology one has, to help the learner feel more in-control of the bike.
- No matter which of the above techniques is used, it helps to remind a learner to have their pedal at about 3-o’clock and just to push down to get going.
- What I did: My bike has “flat-foot technology”, so I was able to coast around with my feet on or off the pedals to gain balance. I did all of this in an alley, because it’s less trafficked and less embarrassing. The balance part was fairly easy for me (thanks Patricia’s School of Dance!), but feeling comfortable going anything but slow-motion speed has been my greatest challenge. Faster speed means easier steering, but it just feels more threatening.
- My favorite thing that I read anywhere that relates to not falling off: Riding a bike is basically about using the bike to make long, arching curves. Good bike riders know how to make the curves longer and to quickly adjust them, as needed.
Braking: Learning to brake depends, of course, on what sort of brakes one has. I have coaster brakes, which feel intuitive to me. But many people will likely learn on a bike with hand brakes. Most sources suggest disabling the front brakes or at least rotating them out of easy reach, to prevent the learner from tumbling forward, possibly off the bike. Learners need to know both how to use a bike’s brake and how to use their body to brake effectively – bracing their arms, being prepared to lean to one side and put a foot down BUT, BUT, BUT to do so only after stopping.
One thing I can suggest with coaster brakes is to make sure that the learner practices braking with each foot (rather than just the left or right) right from the beginning. Most useful braking tip: My husband told me not to put my feet on the ground to try to stop, to use my brakes rather than the soles of my shoes, which I needed to hear and needed to hear repeatedly. I highly recommend learning braking as soon as the rider begins to have a basic sense of how to coast and just barely get going.
Steering: I think this is either something that comes to you easily or it doesn’t. It did not come to me easily. Instead of moving smoothly toward anything, I was very jerky, quickly moving my handlebars from one direction to the next. However, by focusing scores of yards ahead, instead of immediately in front of my bike, I’ve been able to feel less urgency with steering. Best steering tip: look where you want to go and lean into off-kilter moments.
The steering best practice for me was, again, riding in an alley. Alleys have irregular surfaces, dips and cracks, which force a learner to learn to correct smoothly. When I transitioned to playgrounds – a much smoother surface – I had to make up little courses for myself to make sure I was still practicing steering, as the surface was so nice.
Finally, when a person you know tells you that they are learning to ride a bike, may I suggest that you don’t make some reference to the whole “it’s as easy as riding a bike” cliche. Someone has said it before, believe me.
If you have other ideas, perspectives or experiences, please share!