Parts of me are actually brave and awesome. Not this part of me.
April 9, 2012 8:16 PM   Subscribe

I've been riding a bike since I was six. Please help me learn how to ride a bike. Apologies for length.

This thread, with subsequent links to braking, made me realize MetaFilter might help.

My parents bought me a tricycle and then a little bike with training wheels and then a "real" bike, pushed me down a tiny hill and said "ride." I did, always in totally flat places, never in traffic, never usually on any surface harder than a dirt road, always VERY cautiously because I guess somehow I knew I didn't know what I was doing.

I eventually got a bike with 21 gears. No one ever really explained how to use them, so I usually kept things in the middle most of the time. Shifting "up" and shifting "down" sort of confuses me. Does "up" mean 3? Does "down" mean "the pedals are harder?" I was embarrassed to tell people I really didn't understand when they tried to explain. But hey, flat dirt paths. No problem.

I moved and my bike was in storage for 2 years. When it arrived, SO excited, so happy to have my bike. The brakes squealed every time I pressed them (annoying and embarrassing!) but my friend insisted they were fine. (Post-crash bike shop inspection also said they were fine. Except now they don't squeak. This is also confusing.)

Less than an hour into the ride I was on a concrete path, not going fast (I never go fast), very very very slight slope downwards. Not what most people would probably even describe as a slope. Around a corner there were people with dogs, weaving kids. I didn't feel panicked, but I thought I should slow down. I don't think I locked my brakes. I guess I locked my brakes. Over the handlebars, pancake on the concrete. Arm broken in three places, broken teeth, bruises for miles. No health insurance. Lucky me. No, really. LUCKY me. I didn't have to have surgery and it could have been so much worse.

So, now. I have insurance. I would like to ride my bike again. I had higher handlebars put on, for a more upright position, because leaning over the bike made me scared and I cried. please don't laugh. How do I learn not to get hurt or even more terrible, hurt someone else? This sounds so dumb but I am actually crying now. (Needless to say, I lack confidence in this area. I feel old and stupid.)

tl;dr I really need help learning how to ride a bike.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (29 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Using the front brake alone, especially during sudden stops, can cause you to tip
posted by embrangled at 8:23 PM on April 9, 2012

Response by poster: I promise I'll try not to threadsit.

I had always braked using both the hand brakes, although I didn't know until after the crash that one controlled the front and one the back. (Because I am stupid. About bikes.)

Is there some sort of book I can buy? Or a place I can go in isolation to practice on mattresses without the shame of spectators? Because no way am I practicing anything on a hard surface, ever again.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 8:27 PM on April 9, 2012

Sorry you've had such a rough time on your bike. Using the front brake on its own, especially during sudden stops, can cause you to tip over the handlebars. It's best to use both brakes together and to apply them gradually whenever possible. Your brakes might also need adjustment to make them work more smoothly.

You don't say where you are, but do a search for 'bike safety training' in your area. In Australia and the UK there are organisations which contract to municipal councils to provide free training in exactly the kind of skills you need to learn. Even if you can't find a scheme like that, there'll almost certainly be a local cycling advocacy group who would LOVE to get someone like you feeling safe and confident on a bike.
posted by embrangled at 8:34 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kudos for getting back on the bike! Biking in traffic and around people is much different than the kind of riding done when young.

Make sure the bike fits properly. Adjusting the handle bars is a good start.

Many cycling organizations run classes for people to learn to ride in traffic and busier places, and cover things like gears, breaking, turning, and negotiating curbs. they are designed for people like you who want to be able to ride in more challenging areas.

Some rules for gears I follow: shift one step at a time, not many at once, so it is a gradual change.

Aim to keep the actual pedal motion steady by using the gears.

Finally, there's nothing wrong with slow!!! I ride daily to work, and spend my weekends on my bike, and honestly after 20 years I am still crawling along. And loving it!
posted by chapps at 8:35 PM on April 9, 2012

Yeah, it sounds like you used only your front brake and maybe too hard too quickly. That will send you over the handlebars easily, even without locking the wheels.

The front brake will stop you much more effectively than the rear brake, but you should use them both together to maintain the greatest degree of control of the bike under brakes. I'm not an expert on the front:back ratio, but I'm sure someone will be along soon who is.

'Shifting up' means changing to a gear with a higher number, meaning 'the pedals get harder'. 'Shifting down' means changing to a gear with a lower number, meaning 'the pedals get easier'. To start with, ignore that you have 21 gears (ie ignore one of the levers that is probably marked '1, 2, 3'). Seven gears is confusing enough. Normally, you start off in a low gear (probably 1st) and shift up incrementally to match your road speed (the speed you are actually travelling at) with the pedal speed (the speed you are turning the pedals) and change back down again as you slow etc. Lower gears are better for uphills, because they reduce the amount of effort to move the bike along (ie turn the pedals), higher gears for downhill and in the middle somewhere for flat riding. You can easily come to terms with this if you have a quiet, flat place to ride that lets you change up and down the gears and feel the change in effort vs speed it makes.
posted by dg at 8:36 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I should have previewed. But do take the bike in for a service in case the brakes need adjusting.
posted by embrangled at 8:36 PM on April 9, 2012

You are not stupid. Here's proof: you wisely had upright handlebars put on. Those rams-horn -looking bars are not for your (or my) style of riding, which is slow and cautious.
I don't think you need to practice riding, because you already know how. What you want is maneuvering skills. You can ride on grass, or with pillows strapped to your limbs, but that hard, paved surface wants you to ride on it. That's how you'll improve.

Go to a big, empty church parking lot on a sunny Saturday and practice weaving around the painted lines. Practice braking slowly, and then quickly. Take it easy! You don't have to prove anything to anyone. Ride at a pace that feels good to you. Fast does not equal good.

Get back on and enjoy yourself.
posted by BostonTerrier at 8:37 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ontario's Ministry of Transportation has a how-to guide online that you might find helpful.

This is the section on handling the bike.
posted by chapps at 8:38 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't feel stupid. I rode a bike all my life, and kind of handled gearing like you. I didn't learn how to actually use the gears until I trained for a triathlon at age 37 and found it made a huge difference to my speed and effort and, finally, enjoyment. Gearing properly was worth learning. Fortunately, there is a ton of advice and explanation online. Google around for "bike shifting," "how to shift bike gears," and similar. You will find things like this and this and after reading a few it begins to sink in. Experiment a little in safe, traffic-free, flat areas.

Once you learn it, it's wonderful because you can really use the gears to control the bike.
posted by Miko at 8:42 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Because I am stupid. About bikes.

You need to stop describing yourself like this. People think it's funny and "self-deprecating", but talking about yourself in those terms rots the soul. Nobody's born knowing how to ride a damn bike; all of it can be learned, but you don't need to do so at the cost of your self-worth.

Don't go too fast, and figure out which brake is the back brake and only use that one for a while. Brake gently and early. Twiddle your gears for a bit until you know that turning the gears one way makes it easy to pedal up a hill and turning them the other way makes it easy to go faster on flat roads.

Be considerate. Wear a helmet, go slowly, you'll get there.

But Christ, stop talking about yourself like that.
posted by mhoye at 8:46 PM on April 9, 2012 [12 favorites]

I have yet to meet a bike nerd who wouldn't ADORE THE OPPORTUNITY to teach you all about your bike, how it works, and how to ride better. Local bike blogs or message boards or bike shops can probably help you find someone who can help you learn more than you ever wanted to know!

There are lots and lots of adults out there who don't know how to ride, and many many more who know how to balance and pedal, but don't know the ins and outs of proper braking and whatnot.

It's good to learn how to use your gears and to know some general information about gears, but there's not really any right or wrong to gears. I used to like to ride with it on the "hardest" gear because I liked to pedal hard but less often. Now I vastly prefer to pedal lots and faster but not have to push so hard but get less momentum off each push. Neither one is right or wrong. It's my bike, I'm the motor, I get to decide what I like. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:56 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

BostonTerrier said:
Go to a big, empty church parking lot on a sunny Saturday and practice weaving around the painted lines. Practice braking slowly, and then quickly. Take it easy! You don't have to prove anything to anyone. Ride at a pace that feels good to you. Fast does not equal good.

I agree, 100%. Do little drills like this. You don't even have to ride to and from the parking lot if you can transport it otherwise. Be gentle with yourself -- you had quite an accident and it's not at all "stupid" that you're scared now. If you weren't at least a little scared after breaking your arm in three places, you'd be foolish.

One day you will be riding along and everything will just click, and you will shift gears or steer around something on the pavement without even thinking about it, and it'll be like the bike is an extension of your body, and it will feel like flying. It just takes some practice to get there. You can do it!
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:59 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here is a really, really good explanation of how to brake safely on a bike.

Excerpt: "The cyclist who relies on the rear brake for general stopping can get by until an emergency arises, and, in a panic, he or she grabs the unfamiliar front brake as well as the rear, for extra stopping power. This can cause the classic "over the bars" crash." This sounds like what happened to you, so it might be a good thing to read.

In summary, practice a lot in controlled situations and learn to rely on your front brake.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 8:59 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'll start with "there's no substitute for experience".

Actually, I'll start with "I'm glad you're okay". That sounds like a hell of an experience, and while it could've been worse (it can almost always be worse), it's amazing you can describe yourself as "lucky" in that context.

Back to there being no substitute for experience. Seriously, find some place to practice. Do some of the drills people are mentioning. See what you're okay with. See what needs work.

I never learned to ride a bike as a kid. My parents got me a bike and kind of tried, but I was resistant and didn't see the point. A few years ago, when I was 29, I decided it was past time I learned. (There was a bit of a delay there because my girlfriend wouldn't let me do anything until I got health insurance. This was a good idea even though nothing more serious than a few scrapes has come from my riding.) But how does an adult learn to ride a bike? How does anyone learn to ride a bike?

So I went to the internet. I read articles from Sheldon Brown and found some interesting things right here on ask.mefi. I went to some local stores until I found one that felt right, and I made someone's day (RJ, formerly of Bike Pedlar in Nashville) by having him be the guy to start me on my adult-bike-riding journey. It helped that I lived in a quiet neighborhood, so I had room to practice a) on my lawn, b) on my driveway, c) on the street right in front of my house.

I was lucky. Things clicked for me. Maybe my brain works the right way or my experience in other areas helped me out. I haven't thought too hard about it and I don't have any good comparison. The important thing for you to know is that this not clicking for you doesn't make you wrong or stupid. If you're having trouble, find someone to help you out in person, and don't be embarrassed to admit you're having trouble.

There's still a good number of (biking-related) things I'm not so great at. I should practice, too. I'm just not sure where or when.
posted by cardioid at 9:26 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Repeating what someone said above, there are clubs and organizations in your city with bike classes for people like you. i was you a few years ago. Here in NYC we have Bike New York and the NY Cycle Club. Find a class and enjoy!
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:33 PM on April 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the links and the support. The online stuff and anecdotes are helpful! Don't mean "stupid" to shred my soul, just get angry at myself. Possibly because I'm cocky about so many other things. (Let me show you how to scuba dive like a boss!) So I over-react with humiliation when not grasping something norman people can do.

I'm in Colorado, where every third person is Lance Armstrong. (Seriously. That dude is everywhere. Like Elvis.) Not sure there are any "people like me" as it relates to bikes here, but I'll put out feelers. Intimidated By Spandex R Us.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 9:43 PM on April 9, 2012

"I'm just not sure where or when."

A park department near you may run a Bicycle Safety Town, which is basically a park laid out with a miniature city of streets and traffic signals, where mostly kids, but also adults, can go to learn about bicycle (and pedestrian) safety, including both proper riding and how to obey the law relating to bicycles.

If there's a Safety Town near you and they don't have an adult program, you should ask them if they'd coordinate one (and involve a local bike club!). They can have out, like, a bike cop and a bike shop owner and some local biking enthusiasts who can help you get your bike adjusted properly and learn some safe riding skills and tell horror stories and get you to go on their next scenic city-viewing ride and whatnot. Plus you get to play in the miniature fake city which, let's face it, never gets less fun.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:43 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's no substitute for practice. An empty parking lot is good. Get to know your equipment. Shift through the gears and note the effects. Experiment with squeezing the brakes very gently at first, then a little harder and a little harder until you get a good feel for how the squeeze pressure relates to the stopping distance.

I'm very comfortable on my bike but when I made a change to my equipment recently (I started using "clipless pedals" for the first time), I went to a quiet, flat area where there was a mown-grass field next to a paved walking path. I practiced first on the grass where I couldn't ride very fast but the fall wouldn't hurt as much if I tipped over. Then I moved to the paved path. I spent a while getting used to the new equipment before putting myself in a situation where I'd be dealing with cars and pedestrians and road signs and such.

You could also possibly benefit from taking a bike maintenance class. I took one and I don't actually use the skills that much—I mostly still take my bike to a shop and pay them to do the maintenance—but after learning the mechanical ins and outs of my bike I have a much better understanding of how the gears, derailleurs, brakes, etc. work. If a maintenance class seems like too much of a commitment, see if you can find a bike enthusiast volunteer to just put your bike up on a shop stand and show you all the workings. When you're riding the bike you don't actually SEE the gears changing and see how it changes the ratio of pedal-turns to wheel-turns, or how squeezing the brake levers pulls the cable that makes the brakes grab the wheel. It's good to see this stuff and know what's going on underneath you when you operate the bike.

Finally, go easy on yourself. Crashes happen. I'm sorry you were so badly injured in your crash. In recent years, I've crashed three times, all of them at low speed, with no injuries beyond scrapes and bruises, thankfully. All three crashes were due to not being thoroughly familiar with the equipment. Once, I did the same thing you did, but at lower speed—I was on a borrowed bike with "grabbier" brakes than I was used to, and while braking on a short downhill I accidentally made the bike stop dead while my body kept moving. Twice, I failed to extract myself from the clipless pedals at a stop, and just tipped right over to one side. I'm told that everybody does that at least once when they switch to clipless pedals. Anyway, this just circles back to: practice. There's no substitute for practice.
posted by Orinda at 9:55 PM on April 9, 2012

This is pretty good on some of the basics (more articles on the site are worth some time, too).

More basics.

This and this might be a little ahead of where you are now, but are very good when you get to the point of riding more on the street.

As others have pointed out above, bicycling is a physical skill, so the more you practice, the more confident and capable you will be.

Just for example, on a parking lot you can practice:

- starting & stopping (often surprisingly problematic for beginners/returning cyclists)

- including in the start/stop practice, starting out in a low gear, shift up a gear or two as you accelerate, shift back down to a low gear as you are slowing/stopping so that you are ready to repeat the maneuver.

- signaling with one hand or the other without swerving

- looking over right & left shoulder (traffic check) without swerving

- practice stopping with rear brake alone, front alone, both. Note difference in stopping distance.

- a good brake practice is to speed up to about 10 mph and apply the brakes gently, front & rear about equal. Repeat and apply them a bit harder. GRADUALLY try it a bit harder, a bit harder until finally you will notice the rear brake start to skid. That is the first sign that your rear wheel is lifting off the ground and if you keep braking even a little harder the rear wheel will lift entirely off the ground, and harder yet you will do that fun head-over-heels maneuver you practiced on the trail.

So one thing you want to become familiar with is how to carefully modulate the front brake, who much force it takes to brake gently, moderately, and to the point where the rear wheel starts to skid (which is when you need to back off the brakes a little).

Obviously, be careful practicing this, but do it until it becomes second nature how much force you need for gentle, moderate, and "emergency" braking, and it becomes second nature to feel for that rear wheel skid and back off the brakes a bit when the skid strikes. When it becomes second nature is when you will still be able to do it properly under stress or in an emergency.

Also note the "quick stop" techniques here - if you lower your weight and shift it towards the back while braking hard, you can brake quite a lot harder without danger of doing the old endo. That's something that might have contributed to your trail endo, too--if you are standing up high and very forward on the bike it is far, far easier to go over the front. Low and back (practice lifting yourself off the seat and shifting your rear end back behind it) and it becomes almost impossible to endo, allowing you to brake much more aggressively with perfect safety. That's something you need to practice in the parking lot, too--and of course, not necessarily the first thing to experiment with . . .

Here is a video showing some of these parking lot practice drills, as well as some others I didnt' mention.
posted by flug at 10:10 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

As far as shifting goes, I have no idea what is up or down but when you're going uphill, shift so that it's easier to go uphill; when going on level surface, shift back to be able to go faster -- that's all there is to it.

For braking, first figure out which brake is for front wheel and which is for back. When bike is stationary, look at which wheel's brake gets squeezed when you use brake handle.

Back brake is easier to use when you just want to slow down, but it's not an emergency. You can press it as hard or as easy as you want and you won't go over the handlebars, if you press it hard enough, back wheel is going to lock, but that's ok.

You need to train yourself to press the front brake carefully and gradually to get a feeling for how much is still safe and how much starts to get dangerous. Press it a little bit and the front wheel will slow down, press it a bit more and you will feel your body moving forward, inertially, and you'll feel handlebars pushing back harder against your hands. If you press it a bit harder still, you will feel that you're almost lifting up, i.e. you're no longer pushing down on the seat as much.

If you feel adventurous you can even push a bit harder and feel the back wheel lifting up a few centimeters and then falling down when you ease on the brake.

The best way to stop quickly in an emergency is to apply both brakes gradually, until you get to the point where back wheel is almost, but not quite lifting up.

I don't think you need to know anything beyond what I wrote above. I've never read any safety materials, etc, and I rode my bikes for many, many years on roads, in traffic, etc.

I did go over the handlebars once when I was trying to make the front wheel drag on the pavement just like back wheel does when it's locked. Luckily I didn't hurt myself. I actually feel from bikes and when roller blading quite a bit when I was growing up, but luckily never hurt myself, maybe because I'm very skinny and light!
posted by rainy at 11:12 PM on April 9, 2012

When I'm braking, I usually stand on my pedals with my knees bent so that my ass is hovering just above the seat rather than on it. Then if I am stopping quickly, I shift my centre of mass so it is further back on the bike, like instead of over the seat I am hovering slightly over the back wheel. You can try this out and practice and you'll feel how you're more stable and less likely to go over the handlebars. I forget where I learned this; I think I was reading some kind of commuter cycling tips at one point.

In terms of general safety and riding in traffic, British Columbia's BikeSense publication is great.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:59 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The reason you have trouble understanding how your derailleur gears work is basically this: derailleur gears are a crude hack, and they suck. But they're the Microsoft Windows of bicycle gearing systems - they're everywhere, and if you don't know how to use them you're limiting your choices pretty severely. Also, gearing systems that suck less cost more; the Rohloff Speedhub scarcely sucks at all but it will cost you more than most people pay for two whole bicycles.

Here are the rules of the derailleur gears game:

1. You have one or more chainrings attached to your pedals, and one or more sprockets that together form a cluster attached to your rear wheel. At any time, your chain is supposed to connect one chainring to one sprocket.

You have two shift controls. One of them selects a chainring. The other selects a sprocket.

2. The higher the ratio between the numbers of teeth on the selected chainring and the selected sprocket, the faster your bike will go for any given pedaling rate and the harder it will be to make it go uphill. "Shifting up" means manipulating the shift controls in a way that increases this ratio; "shifting down" decreases it.

So there are two ways to shift up: use your chainring (front) shifter to select a bigger chainring, or use your sprocket (rear) shifter to select a smaller sprocket. Either of these actions increases the chainring:sprocket tooth ratio.

Likewise, there are two ways to shift down: use your chainring shifter to select a smaller chainring, or your sprocket shifter to select a larger sprocket. Either of these actions decreases the chainring:sprocket tooth ratio.

3. Your chain is happiest when it doesn't need to go sideways to get from the sprocket to the chainring. Unfortunately, dragging it sideways is exactly what derailleur gears do to it most of the time; so the best you can do is avoid the worst extremes of that. In a 21-speed setup, this means that you should use your leftmost (smallest) chainring only with the three leftmost (largest) sprockets; use your middle chainring only with the five middle sprockets; and use your rightmost (largest) chainring only with the three rightmost (smallest) sprockets.

Rule 3 means it's best to use only 11 of the theoretical 21 "speeds" that a three-chainring, seven-sprocket configuration offers you. If you fail to follow this rule, nothing disastrous will happen but your gears might make clattering or grinding noises and you will wear your chain faster than you need to.

If you sit down and work out the tooth ratios, you will find that the combinations Rule 3 says you shouldn't use have ratios that fall in between others that you can. So even though you seem to be giving up half your gears, you're not actually losing much capability.

Derailleur shifters won't shift when the pedals are stationary, or when you're pedaling hard. So you need to allow time for shifting. If you're going uphill, it's better to shift down before you find yourself needing to push too hard. It's also a good idea to shift down into a gear that will make it easy to take off before you come to a stop.

And you don't ever ever ever want to spin the pedals backward while attempting a shift. Really. Don't do that.

Rear (sprocket) shifts are generally much quicker and smoother than front (chainring) shifts because of the way the mechanisms work. So one reasonable approach, especially when you're still getting used to your derailleur gears, is to leave the front shifter selecting the middle chainring all the time, and use only the rear one to shift up and down.
posted by flabdablet at 12:04 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's ok. I've been riding bikes for transportation for well over a decade. Mostly I ride a recumbent and when I get on an upright, it's scary for me, too.

These Colorado bike collectives exist for the express purpose of helping you learn more about your bicycle. I could go on for hours, but then, so will the folks at places listed in those links.

Many drivers don't realize this, but it is legal to take the road where that's the safest thing to do. Your bike lane may not be safe. I have only been doored once. Once was enough. Here is a short lesson on the door zone. It's good.

Here's another good, short lesson. This one demonstrates how to safely ride your bicycle in common traffic scenarios.

Be a predictable cyclist. Feel free to email me.
posted by aniola at 1:20 AM on April 10, 2012

I'm in Colorado, where every third person is Lance Armstrong. (Seriously. That dude is everywhere. Like Elvis.) Not sure there are any "people like me" as it relates to bikes here, but I'll put out feelers. Intimidated By Spandex R Us.

I'm only just learning this myself, but cyclists wear spandex on long rides because it doesn't chafe as much as street clothes. That's really the only reason. It doesn't mean they're better or cooler or meaner than you. Most riders I know adopted the spandex look with reluctance and embarrassment but are sort of resigned to it because it's just so damned practical. I still feel like a total tool in a cycling jersey but I wear one sometimes because it has rear pockets to hold my phone and an emergency snack. I'll probably have to switch to lycra knicks as I start riding longer distances and I'm expecting it to be a humiliating transition. So if it helps you feel less intimidated, think of the Spandex R Us brigade as ordinary people who occasionally dress like Lance Armstrong in a desperate attempt to avoid sore bums and sweat rash. There, our secret's out. Sorry, lycra-wearers.

And you know what? Some of those same people are bicycle evangelists. They desperately want to see their regions become bike-friendly places. They consider it a social good to get as many people as possible riding bikes. That absolutely includes "people like you" who need a little training to become a safe and confident cyclist. In fact, you are their target market. Please contact one of the bicycle collectives mentioned in aniola's post. I promise you someone there will be happy to help.
posted by embrangled at 2:57 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not really a bike person, but a horseback rider, and here's what I do after a terrifying fall...

First I pad up. I generally get a new helmet (maybe you didn't hit your head--but maybe it's time for a new one anyway!--now that you're motivated to make sure your helmet fits perfectly), I'll put on my padded vest... that would mean knee and elbow pads for bikers (they make fairly non-obvious ones, that can go under your clothes).

Then I work on some "fancy" low-speed stuff. Things that not everyone can do, but which also are super safe. I think the equivalent for bikers is learning how to trackstand.
posted by anaelith at 4:30 AM on April 10, 2012

Hell I endo'oed this morning on my way to the train, tore my new jeans, broke my fender and cut my palm. I feel you! Crashing sucks!!!

Your front brake is not your friend. I know this, yet used it anyway. Like a dumbass.

I guess, I'm trying to say you aren't the only one, so try not to feel so alone in this?
posted by roboton666 at 8:27 AM on April 10, 2012

Googling for the words bicycle commuter classes denver turns up a lot of classes and advocacy groups to follow up with. They may be able to point you towards something in your city.

Cycling with traffic can be scary, and I tend to think about the statistic that bicyclists outlive everyone else because the benefits of bicycling outweigh the risks. That is to say, bicycling is so safe that it's safer than not bicycling. Everyone will be happy to help you become more confident because the more cyclists on the road also contribute to a safer environment overall.

When you're ready for riding in traffic, is a great defensive riding primer. One thing to remember is that being too timid can get you in trouble. Looking over your shoulder and taking the full lane is an important skill.

Try not to think too hard about up and down gears and gear numbers. Bicycling skill is all muscle memory. I honestly don't really recall how many gears my bike has.

Have fun!
posted by Skwirl at 8:30 AM on April 10, 2012

Do you live near an REI store? They have monthly classes on basic bike maintenance that may help you learn more about your machine and what each part does.

See also, The Art Of Urban Cycling.
posted by Brittanie at 1:08 PM on April 10, 2012

Adding to flabdablet's explanation of shifting up and down, I found it helpful when I bought my 24-speed bike to actually draw a picture of the gears. 21 speeds should mean that you have three front gears attached to the pedals (called "chainrings") and 7 back gears attached to the rear wheel (called "sprockets"). If the shifters on your handlebars are numbered, the one labeled 1-2-3 controls the front gears, and the one labeled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 controls the back gears. Shifting the front gear to a higher number makes the bike go faster, and makes the pedals harder to push. Shifting the back gear to a higher number does exactly the same thing-- it makes the bike go faster, and makes the pedals harder to push. Here's a drawing showing how the gears are numbered, and the number of teeth on each gear (this is just an example-- the actual numbers of teeth may be different on your bike):

            PEDALS               REAR WHEEL
        (3 CHAINRINGS)          (7 SPROCKETS)

                                     =        7 / 12
                                    ===       6 / 14
3 / 48  ===============            =====      5 / 16
2 / 38   =============            =======     4 / 18
1 / 28    ===========            =========    3 / 21
                                ===========   2 / 24
                               =============  1 / 28

Gear # /                                      Gear # /
No. of teeth                                  No. of teeth
The front gear pulls the chain forward as your pedal. The bigger the front gear, the more teeth it has, and it pulls a longer section of chain for each complete turn of the pedals-- one link of chain for each tooth on the gear. More links of chain per crank of the pedals = bike goes faster = harder to pedal.

For the back gears, the higher the number, the *fewer* teeth it has. This means that a shorter length of of chain is needed per revolution of the rear wheel. Fewer links of chain per revolution of the rear wheel = bike goes faster = harder to pedal. The 21 "speeds" on your bike come from the 3x7=21 combinations of front and rear gears. The table below lists each combination of front gear (1-3) and back gear (1-7), along with the ratio of front teeth to back teeth for each combo. (The number in parentheses is how many times the rear wheel turns for each full crank of the pedals. The higher this number, the farther and faster you go with each crank, and the harder it is to pedal.)
Speed Gear Ratio     Speed Gear Ratio     Speed Gear Ratio
1-1   28:28 (1.00)   2-1   38:28 (1.36)   3-1   48:28 (1.71)   
1-2   28:24 (1.16)   2-2   38:24 (1.58)   3-2   48:24 (2.00)   
1-3   28:21 (1.33)   2-3   38:21 (1.81)   3-3   48:21 (2.29)   
1-4   28:18 (1.56)   2-4   38:18 (2.11)   3-4   48:18 (2.67)   
1-5   28:16 (1.75)   2-5   38:16 (2.38)   3-5   48:16 (3.00)   
1-6   28:14 (2.00)   2-6   38:14 (2.71)   3-6   48:14 (3.43)   
1-7   28:12 (2.33)   2-7   38:12 (3.17)   3-7   48:12 (4.00)   
As you can see, there's some overlap, meaning you don't need to use all of these combinations. Much of the time, you should be just fine leaving the front gear on 2, and adjusting the back gear as needed (say 2 or 3 to go slow, and 5 or 6 to go fast.) But say you start climbing a hill and you're slowing down because it's really hard to crank the pedals, even though you've already shifted down to 2-2 or even 2-1-- that's a time to switch the front gear to 1. Pedaling will get easier, but your legs will suddenly be cranking really fast and you'll get even slower. You can shift the back gear up a bit if needed, to 1-3 or 1-4, to make it more comfortable. As you reach the top of the hill you might find that it gets easy enough to do 1-5 or 1-6, and as you start coasting down you may gain enough speed that pedaling fast as you can takes no effort. That's a good time to shift the front gear up again to 2-- you might need to drop the back gear a few notches so you're at 2-3 or 2-4. If the hill is steep enough or long enough, maybe you'll get up to 2-6 without much effort on the pedals. Now you can shift the front gear up to 3-- this is for going as fast as the bike can go. (You won't spend much time with the front gear on 3 because you're probably applying the brakes and coasting to maintain a safe speed!)
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 3:58 PM on April 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

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