Teaching an adult to ride a bike...
February 17, 2009 5:11 AM   Subscribe

How do I teach an adult to ride a bicycle?

I have never taught anyone about bicycle riding, and it's been long enough since I learned that it just feels like instinct to me. Girlfriend has been asking about learning to ride for awhile now, so we're going to give it a go when the weather warms up a bit.

I need some advice on how to pull this off. We're about the same height, so I was going to just drop the seat on my commuter and use that to teach - bad idea? Should I buy her a cheap woman's cruiser or something? Adult training wheels? How do I even go about teaching someone this skill?
posted by backseatpilot to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I never used training wheels. And I don't think you need to buy her a new bike.

It's not a skill at the level you're talking about here... you're basically overthinking this, in my opinion. For you riding has all of these extra things you have to do with gears and chain tension and spinning rate and etc. I'm the same way with my car, so it's difficult for me to teach somebody to drive stick--I always have to remind myself that they don't have to heel-toe the downshifts.

The only thing she needs your physical help for is balance. She'll need your advice later, of course.

I learned to ride a bike by having my dad run alongside holding me upright. Start slow. Walking pace. And then speed it up. And then, at some point, when it seems like she's balancing on her own, you let go. And she falls. And you do it over a few more times. Make sure she's wearing a helmet, and is aware that she's going to fall. I think you'll have much better results if you do fifteen or twenty minutes a day until she gets it, instead of spending the whole day trying--rest and sleep help the learning process.

And the once she gets it, that's that.
posted by Netzapper at 5:28 AM on February 17, 2009

I learned to ride a bike as an adult. It's not that hard...I think I was riding down the block within an hour. (Of course, I'm still too terrified to ride on Boston streets.) The two things that were helpful:

Teach the person to steer into the direction they are falling
Start them at the top of a gentle hill and let them roll down so they can concentrate on balance at first without worrying about pedaling, since pedaling can knock you off your balance

Don't bother with training wheels.
posted by phoenixy at 5:30 AM on February 17, 2009

You might consider removing the crank-arms on the bike.

Probably totally overkill for an adult but for really small kids pedal-less bikes such as this one learns the kid balance and steering without having to mess with those annoying pedals that are mostly just in your way when you are nervous about biking.
posted by uandt at 5:51 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I taught a grown-up friend of mine to ride a bike once. By "taught", I mean we just went to a big old empty parking lot and I let her fall down a lot.

I really think that's all there is to it. Stopping without overbraking seemed to be the hard part, but even then it only took a couple hours until she was confident enough for the roads.
posted by rokusan at 5:55 AM on February 17, 2009

Get her mirror neurons firing-- have her watch different videos of people riding bicycles beforehand. My fencing and tennis improved a lot this way. Don't forget the helmet...a down jacket might be nice for padding, too.
posted by aquafortis at 5:55 AM on February 17, 2009

I taught myself to ride a bike when I was 26, just bought an old one and cycled round in circles till I stopped falling off. Tell her to lean in when she tries to turn. I wish I'd picked up on that one quicker. Don't let her practice turning near thorn bushes either. Also, she should stop if a dog comes.
posted by biffa at 6:00 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the recommendations of an empty car park and of having somebody hold onto the bike and walk/run with it initially. Keep the seat height a bit lower than you would use for regular riding so that the person has a little less further to fall.
posted by rongorongo at 6:05 AM on February 17, 2009

I learned to bike (and later, skateboard) by rolling down a slight incline.
I did fall off a lot, though, so I wouldn't advise doing this on pavement.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:14 AM on February 17, 2009

I taught both my kids to ride bikes by having them forget about the pedals. Have her sit on the seat and push herself along by pushing her feet along the ground. The goal is to learn to coast, so as the earlier posters said, a little incline can help. Once she is able to coast for a few seconds, have her put her feet up on the pedals and take off.

forget about running along beside/behind. You will kill your back, it is exhausting, and you won't be able to prevent her from falling by gripping the back of the seat. Once she can coast, it is an easy transition to the pedals.

both my kids managed without repeated falls, and they are not any more coordinated than any other normal kid.
posted by midwestguy at 6:20 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I taught myself to ride a bike when I was in my early 20s. I was afraid of falling on pavement, so I rode around in grass (the baseball field at a local park) until I figured it out and gained confidence. Then I practiced in a parking lot. I think just having you there to provide encouragement will be enough.
posted by desjardins at 6:24 AM on February 17, 2009

I didn't learn to ride until I was 23- My wife and I took a long walk and she brought her bike along. At the end of the night I said, "I am arriving home by bike!" and I did. About 4 hours later.

Key: Find a decline if you can. Small hills, handicap ramps etc. Learning to balance is challenge number one. Divorcing balance from the already difficult task of pedaling will be helpful

My largest problem was pedaling- I was fine doing "down", but didn't really get the feel of the "cycle", following the pedaling through the whole circular motion. Once I caught on that you kind of push and then chill and push and chill, well, that made more sense.

Parking lot: Find one. Even once I was confident enough to hop on, it took me a few hours in a parking lot to feel comfortable turning and stopping and starting and going.

Anyway, good luck! Within two weeks I was totally ready to go. Also, haunt Craigslist for a cheap-o bike. Learning to do 101 repairs will be totally helpful.
posted by GilloD at 6:34 AM on February 17, 2009

Definitely definitely find an empty parking lot to practice in. (I gave a bike-riding lesson to a 50-year-old friend in a parking lot that is also used by Somali immigrants who are learning how to drive ... ) And try to involve some speed right from the get-go. She'll be more likely to fall if she's just crawling along -- the momentum helps balance a lot. Good luck! Oh, and maybe make it a parking lot with a good bar nearby. A beer or two afterwards will do wonders towards repairing sore muscles and relationships.
posted by delayed-reaction android at 6:47 AM on February 17, 2009

Thank you for this thread. Never learning to ride a bike is a source of shame for me, and pretty soon I will be moving to a city where biking is practically an imperative. The reassuring advice and anecdotes about all these people learning to ride in their adulthood is great. Not to mention that I now realize that a lot of why I hated trying to learn when I was small was totally my parents' fault. They did practically everything wrong for me as a learner with problems comprehending physical actions without verbal descriptions. I hope your girlfriend benefits from this thread as much as I will try to be.
posted by Mizu at 6:49 AM on February 17, 2009

Step one: get a bike
Step 2: put the seat as low as it goes. Adjust it down so there is about 2" of post showing.
Step 3: Sit on the saddle and "kick push." Just use your feat to push the bike along until you
get the idea of how it works. Watch out for those peddles, maybe take them off if you know how.
Step 4: Try using those peddles, now you are riding.
Step 5: Get that saddle way up so you get full leg extension.
posted by bdc34 at 7:03 AM on February 17, 2009

I asked a similar question a year ago. Please teach her all the things that go along with bike riding that she doesn't know about, but would make her feel massively stupid if she learned the hard way. Locking up her bike, wearing proper clothes, how to deal with other bikes in a row/cage, etc., basic and triage repair, you get the idea.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:04 AM on February 17, 2009

When I was a kid I'd had a lot of trouble learning how to ride. *The* thing that worked was getting a small bike that I could very comfortably put my feet down and then doing the push method that others mention. I think the small bike helped overcome my falling fears. I would think that, as an adult and therefore having a healthy respect for how much falling can hurt, being able to get your feet comfortably on the ground would help a lot.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 7:46 AM on February 17, 2009

Nthing the classic "find a gently sloping grassy hill, bike down it until you don't fall off" method.
posted by desuetude at 7:47 AM on February 17, 2009

The big advantage she will have over a child and far more developed gross and fine motor control. Kids learn to ride bikes while those skills are still developing. Remind her of this. Otherwise, bdc34 is pretty much there in his description.
posted by plinth at 8:36 AM on February 17, 2009

Show her how the brakes work before you send her rolling down hills.
posted by yohko at 8:54 AM on February 17, 2009

posted by fixedgear at 9:13 AM on February 17, 2009

A friend taught me how to ride a bike when I was 21. No training wheels.

A few people above said that they taught themselves by "cycling around" until they got the hang of it. I have no idea how that could be possible, unless they had biked at some point when they were kids and just hadn't done it since. I could not do anything on a bike when I first started learning. That is, if I sat on it and put my feet on the pedals, I fell over immediately. Teaching myself by "riding around" doesn't make sense to me - if you're riding around, you already know the basics and you just need some practice, yes?

What you have to teach first is balance, and I would not have been able to do this at all without my friend helping me. What she did that was incredibly useful was to hold the seat under my butt (yeah, you gotta deal with some butt-touching, but this is your girlfriend so I assume there's no problem with that) and make sure I was completely steady while I began to pedal. Then, after running along with me for a bit, she would let go, and I'd bike until I fell over. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, I was able to start without her help. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Biking isn't the hard part - once you're moving, it's easier to stay balanced. Starting is really the tough part. But this system worked for me, and within a couple of days I was riding through parks. A few months later, city streets.

Good luck!
posted by timory at 9:46 AM on February 17, 2009

And try to involve some speed right from the get-go. She'll be more likely to fall if she's just crawling along -- the momentum helps balance a lot.

The top secret of cycling is that the wheels are gyroscopes. That's part of why it's much easier to balance a bike when you're moving.

Obviously, don't get the person you're teaching to go too fast, but also don't let them go too slowly out of fear and thereby make it hard for themselves.

(This is also the secret to taking your hands off the handlebars while you're cycling.)
posted by Mike1024 at 10:56 AM on February 17, 2009

I pretty much learned as an adult (I "learned" as a kid but could count the number of times I rode then on one hand).

What worked great (and I think my wife picked this up from previous Metafilter discussions) was to spend a lot of time (multiple sessions) just learning to coast without worrying about pedaling at all. Once your balance is good enough to coast indefinitely, you have a great base for learning to pedal (which is largely just a question of getting going from a standing start).
posted by dfan at 11:21 AM on February 17, 2009

Mike1024: that's a common misconception: it's really more about how you steer. In fact, you can (with some mechanical ingenuity) add counter-rotating discs to a bike's wheels that exactly cancel out the gyroscopic effects, and it's no harder to ride.

As usual, Wikipedia has the details.
posted by teraflop at 12:38 PM on February 17, 2009

I'm going to agree with a lot of people here.

Last year, I helped a few of my adult friends learn how to ride bikes (how I have 3 friends who never learned to ride as kids, I don't know :x). Basically, I told them, "you're going to fall a few times, all you need to do is build momentum so you can balance."

It didn't take long and nobody got hurt.

Good luck!
posted by carpyful at 7:02 PM on February 17, 2009

A standing start off:
1. Hold the handlebars and a brake lever.
2. Straddle the bike with left foot on the ground, and right foot on the pedal...the pedal should be in a high-forward position to immediately receive right leg power.
3. Smoothly give the right pedal power as you release the brake lever and lift left foot to left pedal.

Some people new to bikes will just throw both feet on the pedals making for an awkward and unbalanced start.
posted by artdrectr at 12:32 AM on February 18, 2009

As yohko says, show her how the brakes work first. Also, if the bike in question has handbrakes instead of a friction brake, you might want to disable the front brake until she gets the hang of things. Nothing like someone grabbing the front brake in a death grip by mistake at low speed to bring a ride to a painful conclusion....
posted by barc0001 at 1:16 AM on February 18, 2009

Thanks all. We took our first bike ride together last weekend after about four lessons in the high school parking lot!

I stripped all the junk off my road bike (lock, tool bag, etc) and dropped the seat as far as it would go. She coasted down the school's driveway for about a half an hour and then took up the pedals. I didn't have to do much expect provide some encouraging words.

One difficulty that presented itself - I'm slightly taller than her, so my bike (and narrow saddle) were a bit uncomfortable for her. Still haven't found a bike yet, but she has a helmet and is now very excited about the possibility of getting her first bike!
posted by backseatpilot at 12:52 PM on April 23, 2009

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