“For many of us cycling is second nature. It was something we learnt as a child and when we jump on a bicycle, even if we only do it once a year, it is something we never forget. But what’s it like to learn to ride as an adult?”
A few years ago I was privileged to work as a cycle instructor training people to ride bicycles. The most magical moments usually came when I was teaching an adult to ride a bicycle for the first time. For some reason they had missed out on the chance as a child and now they wanted to make up for it. There was one young man I recall training who was in this position; as a child he had been driven everywhere with limited independence. Or there was the sixty year old woman who had recently retired; she was now catching up on all the things she had missed out on earlier in life. I learned to cycle as a child and have no memory of the experience but this is my imagining of what it is like to learn to ride a bike as an adult based upon my experiences as a cycle instructor and Level 1 of the Bikeability cycle training scheme.
“Teaching an adult how to ride a bicycle can be broken into three steps.”
First of all you are going to practice setting off. Right now you don’t need to know how to balance so your instructor will take hold of the handlebars to hold the bicycle upright. Sit on the bike and hold the handlebars with your fingers covering the brake levers. One foot will be on the ground and the other should already be on a pedal, at about the two o’clock for maximum leverage. You are going to practice pushing down on the pedal and picking up the other one as it comes around. For the first few goes you can look down to see what you are doing but gradually you should begin to look up and where you are planning to cycle.
The second step (usually combined with the setting off) is learning how to stop safely and under control. Most new cyclists imagine they are going to fall off and this can make it difficult for them to be able to start riding independently. If you can feel that you can bring the bike to a safe stop under your own control then you are more likely to be able to set off on your own. Your instructor should still be holding the handlebars; all you need to do is set off for a short distance then, when you want to stop, squeeze the brakes gently and set one foot down on the ground once the bike has stopped. Practice this until you are happy you are able to stop the bike safely.
“For this you will need a big open space.”
Once you have got the hang of setting off and stopping the bicycle now you are ready to move on to balancing.
Bicycles don’t stay upright because of gyroscopic forces. You stay upright because you are constantly wobbling! Your bicycle is falling all the time; what stops it from hitting the ground is that it is constantly steering into the fall to bring it upright again. This is why a bicycle will fall over if its wheels get caught in a tramline for example; there is not enough room to steer into the falls. For experienced cyclists the constant steering is barely noticeable; as a new cyclist it is going to be more exaggerated until you get the hang of it. Which is why you need a large space!
“Training somebody to ride a bicycle can be hard work.”
Your helper has just spent time holding the bicycle up with the handlebars. Now they are going to move to the back of the bicycle to hold it up with the saddle or the seat post, so that you can take control of the steering. You can now put into practice what you learnt earlier and combine it with learning how to steer the bicycle to stay upright. Gradually you will get it. At some point you will set off and come to a stop a little distance away. You’ll look back to see where your helper is. Nowhere near you. You did it all on your own! That’s when it becomes magical! With a bit more practice you will be able to ride the bicycle unaided and control where it goes.
“It was about this point when my trainee turned to me and said, “It’s just like flying!”
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