I’ll start off by saying that this article deals only with my own experiences learning to ride a bicycle at nearly twenty years old. There are plenty of articles available offering step-by-step guides, tips for choosing a bicycle or places you can buy cheer-up cake, but when I was desperately scouring the internet, looking for somebody to tell me what to do, I was more interested in the personal accounts of how learning to conquer a bicycle could be achieved, rather than seven to fifteen easy, impersonal steps.
My first piece of advice is this; buy your own bicycle. I tried in vain a few times to learn on a bicycle borrowed from my mother, but it was a gorgeous machine and I was afraid of damaging it, so I was unwilling to really get moving for fear of falling. The first advantage with having your own bike is it’s nobody’s problem but yours if it gets damaged. Secondly, you can choose a bike that you like. I did this and it helped to get me excited about cycling, since I already adored my bike.
The bike I chose was a secondhand Standish road bike. The gentleman at the store told me it was about twenty-five years old, making it older than me. It only cost me sixty dollars (which was a huge bargain), but you should be able to pick one up for a reasonably good price. Alternately, you might even find one being given away, this happens all the time on networks like Freecycle and the lesser known ‘roadside garbage collection’ network. It’s worth making sure the brakes work and that the bike is in rideable condition (though it doesn’t need to go far), so you may want to take a friend who knows how to ride and ask them to ride down the street a little. Many of the guides I’ve read suggest buying a brand new bike, but I’m not sure this is a good idea. A brand new bike is expensive (though undoubtedly safer) and, if you’re anything like me, you won’t know yet which sort of bike you prefer. I suggest you get a new bike once the second-hand one has done its job, and then retire the old girl with full honours.
Which type of bike should you look for? Well, I taught myself on a road bike with racing handlebars and very thin tyres. This, on reflection, may not have been the easiest choice I could have made. I now own a few bikes and I’d recommend looking for an old mountain bike; they’re a little more stable because of their wider tyres, even though most of them are terribly ugly. I chose my bike based mainly on the great bargain. Having said that, one can learn on a bike like mine, evidently.
If you’re an Australian, like me, buy a helmet. Sure, you’ll probably only start out going five kilometres an hour down your driveway, but the hope is that you’ll be able to extend that distance once you learn the basics. It would have been very sour indeed to be pulled over and fined by the police on my first ride. If you’re elsewhere, it’s probably not a bad idea to buy a helmet anyway. That’s fiercely debated, though, so it’s up to you.
So, you have an old bike and (maybe) a shiny, new helmet. How do you start? At the time, I had every man and his dog offering advice on what I should do, based mostly on their experiences learning to ride at six or seven years old. Some of these tips proved helpful, others didn’t.
By far, the most overwhelmingly common piece of advice was ‘just go’, with the explanation that a bike, once in motion, is less likely to fall over. True though this is, it wasn’t very helpful advice to someone who had never put foot to pedal before. As anyone reading this article has probably discovered, once you take your feet off the ground, you fall. When and how do you start to go?
A friend advised me to start off riding along next to a wall and reach out to it for support. While this did give me a feel for making the bike move under my power, it wasn’t really very helpful overall. In addition, I got a lot of cuts and bruises on my hands from reaching out suddenly to correct my balance. So, this step is optional for late-blooming beginners, I suppose. Wear some gloves if you do want to do it, but I wouldn’t recommend it overall.
Most of the good advice I received came from my Dad, and I’ll lay it all out.
First, have one pedal at the top of its rotational area, ready to push off and then turn your front wheel very slightly towards the direction of that pedal. It seems a little counter-intuitive, but this will correct the initial imbalance from pushing on the pedal.
Keeping your other leg out of the way of the other pedal, push down on the raised one as hard as you can. It’ll start the bike going and after enough times, you should be able to put your other foot on the other pedal before you start braking madly to avoid crashing into the back fence. Take a moment to congratulate yourself when you reach this step (I know I did) since you are now, more or less, riding a bike.
Finally, probably the best piece of advice I received throughout the whole process was this; when the bike starts to tilt, like you’re going to fall, turn the front wheel in the direction you’re falling. I always had the instinctive drive to turn the other way, to compensate, but it makes sense if you think about it. Avoid putting your feet down (despite the overwhelming urge to do it) and try this a bunch of times. It was after I mastered this that I felt the most pleased with myself.
After doing this enough times, I went to a local waterfront area which is usually deserted (I walked the bike there for fear of making a mess of things on the street) and rode up and down many, many times. Eventually, I tried turning corners and I didn’t find this hard to master. My first cycling injury came when a small dog, off its leash, ran in front of my front wheel. I panicked and, instead of using the brakes, turned sharply to the left, tipping my bike over and spilling me onto the ground. A ripped pair of jeans and a grazed knee. So uh… don’t do that. Make friends with your brakes and use them.
By now, it’s probably time to buy yourself a new bike and start practicing for real. If you’re lucky, your secondhand bike will still have some life in it. Mine certainly did, I still ride it regularly. If you do buy a new bike, keep the old one around and take it apart in your spare time. Learning some fundamental bike maintenance skills is very, very useful. If you’re going far from home, assemble a simple repair kit with a bike spanner that fits your wheels, tyre levers a patch kit and, if you can fit it in, a spare tube and a pump. I got a flat tyre several kilometres from home on one of my first trips and had to get picked up on the side of the road. Avoid this. This website is a good resource for learning some bike maintenance skills, as well as thousands of guides on available online, especially on YouTube.
Altogether, it took me three days to learn to ride a bicycle, spread across a week or two. I’ve heard stories of people mastering it in an hour, though, so you might have more luck than that. If it takes longer, don’t worry too much. It is hard, something that a lot of people who learned to ride as a kid may not remember. It’s even beginning to seem silly to me, now, that I couldn’t master it once upon a time. I go cycling regularly now and own several bikes. It’s a great hobby and it has the potential to deliver a lot of fun.