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How To Ride A Bicycle
And how to teach someone else to ride one...
One of the most wonderful things I have ever learnt to do is to ride a bike. Like so many people, I learnt when I was young and can't really remember much about it, except that I was first scared about my father letting go of the bike and then delighted that I didn't fall off.
In the last few years I've spent a bit of time on cycle campaigning work and as a result have had the opportunity to teach quite a number of people to ride bicycles - adults and children. I've always done this on normal bikes not fitted with stabilizers (stabilizers make it impossible to learn to balance).
It can be especially difficult for adults and teenagers to admit in front of others that they never learnt to ride and adults will also be fearful of failure and of showing themselves up in a way that young children are not.
I have found that most people can be taught to ride a bike in a very short time if they are simply told how the mechanism of balancing a bicycle works and how to apply this when riding. After that it's just practice.
The same method described here also worked with teaching both of my daughters to ride, and they both now experience the freedom of cycling.
The lessons below are shown as separate sections, and people will learn at different rates. I've taught some fearless children in as little as 5 minutes. Others, especially adults, take a little longer. It can take time to learn a new skill, so don't worry about taking longer than you think you should take.
Preparing the bike
You need a bike which is big enough for you, but not too high. When you are more familiar with cycling you will find that you need to have your saddle at such a height that you need to stretch your legs a little to reach the pedals in their lowest position and stretch quite a lot to reach the ground. While learning you need to have the saddle much lower so that you can rest your feet easily on the ground while sitting on the saddle. The lessons don't start with pedalling, you need to be able to walk at first.
If you have a choice of bikes, use one with a low step through frame (even if you are a man). It is easier to get on and off such a bike.
Where to practice
Find a largish area of concrete or tarmac. It's tempting to use grass because it is softer, but bicycle wheels do not run as smoothly or as easily on grass, so I recommend starting with a hard surface. We are going to try our best not to fall. You need a wide as well as long area as you will find changing direction difficult at first. A tennis court or empty car park can be ideal.
A slight downhill slope can help.
First lesson - stopping
There is a correct way to stop a bicycle, and it's not by putting your feet down before you've stopped.
There are a number of problems with using your feet as brakes, and perhaps the most important is that they are not very good brakes. Also, your feet get swept behind you and then they're in the wrong place to stand up so you fall over.
Because of this, I suggest that the first thing to learn is how to stop your bike. Most bikes have brake levers on their handlebars. Squeezing them operates the brakes. Get familiar with this. Walk beside the bike while pushing it and operate the brake levers. They should cause the bike to stop. One of the levers operates the front brake while the other operates the rear. It is best to apply both together carefully. You may have heard of tales of people going over the handlebars because they used their front brakes. It is not impossible, but you do need to be going quickly and then apply the brakes very hard. We won't be going quickly in these lessons and you can apply both together carefully without danger.
In the following lessons you will need to be able to stop efficiently in this way as doing otherwise you may find that you lose control of the bike. Please remember not to use your feet as brakes. When stopping a bike, you are less likely to fall if you wait until the bicycle has stopped before putting your feet down.
Second lesson - balancing
The first thing to learn is how to balance the bike. Don't worry about pedalling or about changing direction yet. Note that stabilizers must not be fitted to a bit in order to learn to balance, and you also cannot learn to balance on a tricycle.
A lot of things have been written and spoken about balancing a bicycle which are simply not true, or are effects which are much less important and basically can be ignored. These include the idea that bicycle wheels work as flywheels, that steering a bike is accomplished by moving one's weight rather than moving the handlebars and several other theories. I realised a while ago that most people who can cycle make dreadful teachers because they don't actually realise how they balance their own bikes.
The only thing you actually need to keep in mind when learning to balance a bike is that if you keep the bicycle underneath you, you won't fall off it. It is exactly the same as balancing a broom on your hand as shown in the video to the left.
Note that whichever way the broom falls, the hand has to follow in order to stay beneath the broom. This way, the broom stays upright.
Balance of a bicycle works the same way. If the bicycle is moving forwards in the usual way then all you have to do to prevent yourself from falling from the bike is to use the handlebars to keep the front wheel beneath yourself. You can see this demonstrated in the video.
Push your bike forwards while standing next to it. Try not to support the weight of the bicycle, but keep it balanced. You will find that the bike starts to lean one way or another. If you turn the steering in the same direction as the bicycle is falling, then you will correct the fall. Don't worry about travelling in a straight line - that comes later.
Now straddle the bike, sit on the saddle and scoot along. This is easiest if you are going down a slight slope. If you are doing this on your own, the idea is to get your bike moving forwards at a slow running pace eventually with your feet resting on the pedals, but not trying to turn the pedals as yet. Again, do not support the bicycle's weight with your legs but try to balance the bike by using the steering to always turn into the direction that the bike is trying to fall.
If you are helping a child to learn, try pushing the child. It is tempting to hold the bike upright as you push, but you must avoid doing that except to catch the child if they are about to fall. They must feel the way that the bike loses balance and be shown how balance is restored by using the steering to turn into the fall.
When it is time to stop, use the brakes and then put your feet down.
You should now be able to make the bike move with your feet, or be pushed on it, and balance until you want to stop by using the brakes.
Third lesson - pedalling
It's now time to start pedalling. If you have a bicycle with many gears, please try to select a gear near the middle of the range before going further.
We are now going to learn how to start the bicycle from a standstill. You should hold the brakes firmly as it stops the bike from "misbehaving" and falling over while you prepare to go. I will now assume you will start pedalling with your right foot (ultimately you want to be able to do this with either foot), so put your left foot firmly on the floor. The bicycle should be nearly upright. The toes of your right foot can be used to pull the pedal backwards until it is in an 11 o'clock position. The right foot should then be ready to push sharply on the pedal. Keep your left foot stationary on the ground and supporting you.
You are now ready to go. You need to do three things at the same time:
Having done this you should find you're riding along as at the end of the second lesson and able to use the brakes to stop.
If you push too gently you will start at a very low speed and be unable to balance. If this is what happened, start again and push harder this time.
If you find you can start like this and stop quite well, try continuing to turn the pedals. That's riding a bike. However, you don't know how to turn corners yet, so stop before you leave the practice area.
Fourth lesson - turning
Turning corners on a bicycle is not done in the obvious way of turning the steering in the direction that you want to travel. In fact, it is a controlled fall which is started by turning the steering in the "wrong" direction for a very short time first.
These are the steps involved in making a left hand turn (right turns involved the opposite directions, of course):
If this seems unlikely, try it for yourself when pushing your bike and balancing it. You'll find that a turn can only be started by steering the "wrong" way.
At this point, you're a cyclist. You need a lot more practice before I'd suggest going on the road. Perhaps you need to book some training courses for safe road riding and I'd suggest reading your local Highway Code so that you're aware of your legal responsibilities too.
For learning to balance there are two other possibilities. For children, there are now an abundance of "walking machines" available, such as the lovely wooden Likeabike.
Scooters can work well - so long as they're the bigger wheel variety and not the tiny things with skateboard wheels which don't roll well and are too skittish to be easy to balance. Trailerbikes or tandems can also work very well to give children the sensation of what cycling feels like.
Different types of bicycles
The techniques described here work equally well for all types of bicycles. Some people find that a recumbent bicycle is difficult to balance due to the different sitting position. It actually is balanced by using the steering in exactly the same way as any other bicycle.
Tricycles are not bicycles. This might seem an obvious statement, but it's not so obvious to everyone that balancing is not required on a tricycle. Adults trying to ride tricycles (they're very good with child seats or for carrying a load) often find that the trike doesn't behave itself at all. It appears to veer off the road. The problem is that they're trying to balance it as one would a bicycle. This is not required. Just point tricycles in the direction you want them to travel and they will go there. The problems with tricycles occur when you corner them fast enough to lift a wheel. They are then temporarily bicycles!
My eldest daughter learnt to balance early one Sunday morning when she was 4. For a while I'd be encouraging her to let me take the stabilizers off her bike. On Saturday we had borrowed a trailerbike for her to get the experience of riding, and on Sunday she woke me at 6 am to ask if I would teach her to ride properly. By 7am she was riding around in the park opposite our house. Still unable to turn where she wanted to, or to stop safely, I got a lot of exercise running beside her !
After a short while she was a confident cyclist able to go just about anywhere, and soon she'd ridden 35 miles in a day with the temptation of a fair at the far end of the journey.
My youngest daughter
learnt in a similar way at a similar age, but perhaps making more use
of a scooter and having a chance to ride a Like-a-bike when on holiday.
p.s. If you noticed some of the pictures and videos are missing, sorry. I've not yet quite finished this page.
Our webshop has a special section with products for cycling with children.