Cycling, just like swimming, is a beneficial life skill. But not everybody has the chance to learn how to ride a bike as a child.
That shouldn’t mean adults who can’t cycle never will, though — and helpfully, the process involved in learning how to cycle is the same no matter how big or old you are. Matt Lamy offers his advice on how to ride a bike.
Although our dad ran a bike shop, my brother Ritchie never actually learned how to ride as a child. There were quite a few attempts to set him off on what would always become a slow-speed fall, but because his balance was fairly poor — probably due to the fact he suffered from quite severe glue ear — eventually the idea of riding a bike was abandoned. However, a couple of years ago and now in his mid-30s, Ritch decided he wanted to learn how to ride a bike again. I used the same techniques with him that I had used previously with my own children and — hey presto — within hours, he was pedalling away unaided.
So, genuinely effective and fully used and approved by my brother Ritchie, here’s how to teach non-cyclists of any age how to ride a bike…
Stage 1: To learn how to ride a pedal cycle, first we need no pedals
The most important rule when it comes to the fundamentals of cycling is: first, you just need to learn how to balance on two wheels. Throw away any idea of using stabilisers or training wheels, and throw away the stabilisers themselves which simply promote ‘wrong balancing’. Then, for little riders, buy or borrow a balance bike.
Although you can find slightly larger balance bikes, as far as I am aware, nobody makes one big enough to fit an adult. However, the same theory behind balance biking is just as effective for larger or older riders. Thankfully, you can make your own balance bike simply by taking the pedals off a typical adult bike. (If you’re really keen you can remove the cranks, too, but because of the relative size of an adult rider, these shouldn’t get in the way as much as they would for a child rider.)
Now find a nice quiet and flat venue to practice in. Although grass may offer a softer landing should your rider fall, it’s also a much more difficult surface to learn to cycle on, so a large concrete expanse is actually best. With both child and adult balance bikers, set the saddle height so the rider’s feet are flat on the floor and tell them to push themselves along. As their confidence and ability grows, get them to lift their feet off the ground for longer periods, so that they can ‘coast’ both in a straight line and around corners. The more time they spend on a balance bike, the easier the transition to pedal cycling will be.
Stage 2: Spin those legs and develop those skills
Once your balance biker is fully capable of scooting along on, lifting their feet off the ground, and comfortably balancing in the saddle, it’s time to move on to pedalling. For a child learner, sit them on a pedal bicycle and again set the saddle height so that they can get both feet flat on the floor. For an adult learner, simply fit the pedals back on (remember the threads are reversed on the left-foot pedal). In both cases, we’ll raise the saddle only once they are confident pedallers.
The child’s bike will probably have a single speed, although in the case of the adult’s bike, select an easy gear for them before they start. Now hold your learner rider under the armpits and walk/run alongside, supporting them as they pedal. In both children and adult learners there are some drawbacks to this approach: it’s easier to hold a lighter, smaller rider upright although you might get a bad back from bending over; bigger, older riders will require a lot more strength from the cycling teacher — I wouldn’t suggest helping anyone who is taller or heavier than you. With your hands still under their armpits, you can gently lean your rider one side and another to show how steering and balance are related. Do not hold the handlebar or saddle — the rider needs to feel how their bike moves naturally underneath them.
As your rider starts to successfully balance and pedal themselves, you can begin easing your hold on them. Don’t withdraw completely, you’ll need to be there to catch them if there’s a wobble, but subtly reduce your influence on their cycling experience as you follow alongside them. In the case of nervous riders, do not tell them you are relaxing your grip — you can reveal that afterwards and enjoy the look of surprise then satisfaction on their face.
Stage 3: From a standstill — pushing off alone and other skills
So far you, the cycling teacher, have helped with the initial momentum to get the rider moving. However, a cyclist isn’t really a cyclist unless he or she can pedal off from a standstill. Get them to sit on their bike with their feet on the floor. Then, with their strongest leg, ask them to rotate the pedal crank round until the pedal is in a position above and in front of the pedal axle (10 or 11 o’clock if looking at the left-hand crank; 1 or 2 o’clock if looking at the right-hand crank).
Ask them to put their foot on the pedal and give a big push before lifting their other foot onto the other pedal. In my experience, this stage of learning to ride can be the most frustrating for the new cyclist, as they know they can cruise happily once up to speed but can’t quite get enough momentum to reach that point. The only way to successfully address that, though, is to repeatedly practice standing starts.
Once setting off is mastered — and while we’re still in our ideal flat and safe cycling learning location — get your learner to do some other bike control skills. Place cones or jumpers on the floor and ask your rider to weave between them — you can bring the cones closer together as they improve. If there is a bit of open grass nearby, ask them to ride over that so that they get used to bumpy, tougher surfaces. Generally, get them to do as much as you can to test their bike control. It’s unrealistic to think they will perfect all this in just one session, and don’t put them off by asking them to do too much. Try to gauge when they’re ready for another challenge or when they’ve had enough.
Stage 4: Time to explore — taking things further
After the basics are mastered, it’s important to keep the momentum going and use these new cycling skills to do something special. A visit to a local Forestry Commission centre with cycle routes is a perfect idea to keep the excitement building. Obviously, don’t encourage your new cyclists to attempt the hardcore mountain bike red run — the relaxed family route is more than enough and should supply the right amount of enjoyment and inspiration. Even if you can’t access a self-contained cycling facility, keep your new cyclist to traffic-free routes until you are absolutely certain their bike control skills can handle the open road.
There is also a wealth of other options that don’t necessarily require your personal time to extend a new rider’s cycling. Bikeability training is taught in many schools but the programme isn’t just for children and you can find adult training courses on the Bikeability website. For younger riders wanting to experience a taste of competition, Go-Ride cycling clubs are a great entry into cycle sport. And for adults, both British Cycling and Cycling UK have a huge range of organised rides and cycling groups they can get involved with.
But it was you who helped start all this. As someone who has taught a new rider to cycle, you are the gatekeeper to a huge world of two-wheeled, pedal-powered possibilities. Well done!