Learning to Ride a Bike: Basics like Balance & Braking

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.

bike braking
(Photo credit: Ben Shine)

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!

Comments 22

  • Hey, thank you so much for the tips!! I’m 17 and am just about to learn how to ride a bike :S I’m so scared of falling and I totally suck at balancing, so I never managed to actually ride a bike properly. my bike is also too high – and the seat is at its lowest 🙁 so I have no choice… I guess I should get a shorter bike then. thanks so much for the guidance! I hope to try those soon 😀

  • I appreciate these tips very much………..I am over seventy years old and one of the things on my bucket list is learning to ride a bicycle:)). I was never allowed to ride a bike as a child because of my overprotective parents…..The bike shop had no one who wanted to be a teacher, and they told me training wheels would cost me over $300…….I will print out your tips and use them when I finally find someone willing to help me learn to ride………Thanks again, Mary

    • Mary – did you learn? I have just bought a bike and also adult stabilisers from Amazon which were not costly. I am 63 and looking forward to being to join my family and friends. Jo

  • what a relief to know that there are other adults who never learned to ride a bike. It’s been a source of embarrassment for me for so long. Your how to guide is a relief and now I feel more inspired to overcome the fear and just do it. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Kathy

  • Thanks Kristen, I am 26 and just learning to ride myself. These tips really helped me out and I was able to start riding in about two hours. Still practicing my technique but it is a major improvement over staring at riders wondering “what sort of two wheeled magic is this?”. Best of luck to all the new riders out there!

  • Lol. I’m 26 and I’m learning tomorrow with my 8 year old niece’s bicycle.
    Really embarrassing. I have to because my girlfriend is buying a bike and told me I have to learn how to. As much as I hate bikes, I gotta. Dang! 😀
    Super Embarrassing!! Lol

    • I didn’t learn how to rise without someone holding onto the bike until 15. I need to get back out and practice but I’m shame.

  • At 58 I have decided to take up cycling. I did ride as a child but it has not stayed with me! I can balance on the flat as long as I dont have to do any sharp turns. I have already fallen off a few times and I am so fearful…I am sure this makes me worse. My grown up children find it all very amusing. I have to go out at daybreak when no-one is around. Everyone tells me it is just a matter of practice.
    These tips are so helpful. I will try again with renewed optimism. Thanks.

    • Val – this is so great! It sounds like you’re doing the right things, and I’m excited that you’re going to renew your commitment to this new adventure. High fives!

    • My wife learned at 32 and would do what you did – go out when no one was around. Now she cruises like a pro. Good luck!

  • This is encouraging. I am 59 and never learned to ride a bike. As a kid, my mother wouldn’t let me take my training wheels off because she was afraid I’d go head-first over the handlebars. (However, my parents bought me a pony…people are always amazed that my mom let me ride a horse, but not a bike, LOL).

    Anyway, I bought myself a bike today and am determined to learn. Luckily, our cul-de-sac is pretty deserted during the daytime. Hopefully, I’ll be riding before it’s time to return to my job teaching school in a month!

  • Hi, I am 44 and learning to ride abike.Balancing is real tough and however much I try I have to put my foot down to avoid falling

  • well I am 57 , started riding today. As the saying NEVER TOO LATE TO LEARN. It’s so encouraging to get feedback from people around the similar age group and with the same goal in life. Thanks to everyone for whatever input.

  • Lovely to read all the comments. I’m 57 and my husband just bought me a bike today. I’d had a bit of a try on his bike and it looked somewhat promising so now we’re all systems go. Like many, I over-steer and have odd moments where I seem to just lose confidence and wobble to a halt/almost fall. Luckily Melbourne (Australia) has so many bike paths so I’m not having to negotiate roads (yet). Had a load of fun today and looking forward to getting better. Oh, yeah, my Mum is still saying ‘you’re a fool/you’ll fall/kill yourself/you’re no good at this stuff’. Time to give the earworm a rest.

  • I am 75 and just got a coaster bicycle for Christmas. Having trouble balancing but hope to master riding a bike again. I did as a child.

  • Hey thanks for guidens it help me and I am 14 jears old it help a lot thx

  • So, I’m not alone! Haven’t ridden a bike since being a young teen and I still remembered the confidence I had and how easy it was. I didn’t even think about how I was doing it. I just did it. So now at 51, I’m hoping that feeling is suddenly going to kick in soon. I can’t believe I’m so bad at it now. Very wobbly. Pretty fearful of stacking myself and bike into every tree, or every jogger or dog-walker coming the other way. But it will not beat me! Power to all the late-bloomers! You can do it!

    • Wow, going through the same thing. Am almost 68 and decided I wanted a bike. Bought a single speed cruiser 26 inch. Had to return it for a 24 inch because too short to touch the ground on the 26 inch. Have fallen half a dozen or so times and now frankly terrified of getting on the bike again. But I will today and put these tips to use. Thanks!

  • I just can’t balance now matter how hard I try I just keep putting my feet down and no matter how much steering I put into it I always seem to lean to one side! Someone please help me! Can anyone give me tips?

  • Thank you so much! I’m twelve and within a week I was able to ride a bike with your tips!

  • Thanx! I’m 15 yrs old and I will learn in only 5 days I was able to ride a bike with your guidance! I have joined the group ghost rider…. “I’m a rider” just search in Google what is ghost rider group……..

  • So wonderful to read I’m not alone in learning to ride a bike – I’m 50 and haven’t been on a bike for over 30 years. Windsor park is great for cycling but I’m struggling with giving hand signals – I can’t seem to let go of the handlebars. Any tips on how to do it?

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