First-time bicycle rider: I want to buy a bicycle and learn how to ride it.
May 11, 2012 12:42 AM   Subscribe

First-time bicycle rider: I want to buy a bicycle and learn how to ride it. Any recommendation / advice?

Recently I have been diagnosed with Runner's Knees (from training for a 10k marathon) and the physiotherapist suggested riding a bicycle instead of running/walking. Unfortunately I have never properly learned to ride a bicycle.

Except for my recent hobby of walking (and the tragic attempt at running) I have been fairly un-active and un-athletic all my life. I am a female in her late 20's, 5' 2'' and a healthy weight. But I have naturally poor reflex, sense of balance, sense of distance, strength, speed, flexibility, etc, etc. i.e. I was always the slowest and weakest kid in class whose best possible grade in gym class was a C.

Therefore I do have doubts and fears about this 'moving very very fast with possibility of falling or hitting something with high speed and minimal protection', but then everybody else seems to be doing it and I want to learn too.

I eventually want to ride it around to get to places and also for fun. I am not interested in mountain biking or any other strenuous genre. I am thinking more paved roads and dirt roads in parks.

1. Any recommendation for a first-timer bicycle? I would want to lift it when I need to (stairs?) and also be able to reach the ground comfortably when I am sitting on it.

2. My plan is to i) get a bicycle and ii) start practicing in a large, open and completely flat area, like an empty parking lot. If you have any tips/advice for practicing, please share. I already have one tip from a friend: a helmet and knee pads.
posted by eisenl to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Training wheels. Worked wonders for me when I was 4.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 12:44 AM on May 11, 2012

I had to re-learn how to ride a bike in my late 20s. Some things that helped me:
* Getting a bike with fairly fat tires
* Practising on a straight, paved bike path with soft grass on either side
* Riding in a high gear; on my three-speed bike, first gear felt too wobbly and loose for me, while third felt much safer
* Practising a lot before I went near other riders
* Specifically practising turning
posted by neushoorn at 12:56 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might find this method useful: I helped a friend "relearn" how to ride a bike using the slope method, and it worked well.
posted by oceano at 1:27 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The nice thing about bikes is that you can go pretty much as slow or as fast as you want. And you're sitting! So when I first started biking for transportation, I liked to call it "the lazy man's sport."

Recumbents are significantly more ergonomic. I highly recommend considering them. They look weird but there's pretty much no going back to a "normal" bike. I've tried. They're just *so* much better.

Pick a bike out with a friend who knows about bikes. It's fine to get a used bike. Bikes are one of those things where you don't want the lowest quality. You certainly don't need top-o'-the-line, just know that "department store bikes" are infamous for a reason. They hardly make it out of the store intact.

There are bumpy tires (mountain bike tires) and smooth tires aka "slicks". Since you're not mountain biking, bumpy tires are pretty much only there to make you go a lot slower than necessary. Avoid, avoid. Slicks are fine. There's also in-between tires that are more or less smooth but still somewhat textured for better grippiness. Those are fine, too, and are probably best for beginners and dirt paths in parks.

Either take the pedals off or resolve not to use them until you can ride and balance on the bike. More fun, less stress. This is the tried-and-true method around these parts.

Once you have bicycling down
and you're riding it to get places, here are some things that people discover over the course of time to be very useful bike "accessories." They're not really accessories (cars have 'em!). You can get most of these used.

- bell
- strong front light (keep it charged)
- strong rear light (keep it charged)

Being Practical

- fenders
- bike rack
- bike panniers (or bike buckets)
- patches kit, tire levers, hand pump (Since you're not walking, you'll want to be able to change a flat in a pinch so you can get home.)

When you find yourself biking everywhere all the time and wish you didn't need your car so much

-a guest bicycle (this doubles as a spare bike when you just don't have those 15 minutes to patch that flat.)
- guest helmet (helmets are made of styrofoam and get invisible fractures. They have a limited life span. They should not be used past their expiration date for the purposes of protecting your head but make decent planters.)
- a trailer. A used kid's trailer will work just fine.

Signal. Be a predictable bicyclist. Don't weave.
(I've read that there are some circumstances where weaving is a good idea for visibility if you're a motorcycle, but I've never heard any advice other than "don't weave" for bicycles.) The gears and shifters are there to make your life easier. Most accidents happen at night. Don't bike too close to parked cars or you could get "doored." There are some circumstances in which the safest thing to do is take the lane. I live in a famously bike-friendly city, and this still holds true.

Visit your local bike shop or bike collective when your bike inevitably needs maintenance.

And most importantly, have fun! Biking feels like flying.
posted by aniola at 1:28 AM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's a good set of Articles For Beginning Cyclists.

a helmet and knee pads.
Add bike gloves to that. If you do have to catch yourself, this way you don't scuff a palm.

and also be able to reach the ground comfortably when I am sitting on it.
The bike shop (or bike recycling coop) will find one that fits you.

When you're comfortable with your riding ability, you'll want to have the seat height so that you can touch the ground with the toes of one foot.

When learning, you may prefer to have the seat lower so that you can plant one foot on the ground. Dunno? The bike shop/coop will show you how to adjust it.

1. Any recommendation for a first-timer bicycle? I would want to lift it when I need to (stairs?)

Any hybrid (also called city bike, cross bike, and commuter) should be fine. These should meet your dead-lift requirements and will handle dirt roads easily. If the bike coop only has used mountain bikes, many will be fine as well in terms of weight, although you may want to pick up a set of less-nubby (non-trail) tires eventually.

Keep your eyes open for a intro-bicycle maintenance class so that you can learn how to change your tires and so on. And pick up a spare tube and pump when you get the bike so that you can actually fix a flat when you're out riding.

Pick up a pamphlet on how to ride safely on the road.

Your local small friendly bike shop / bike cooperative / rei will be comfortable answering beginner questions and so on.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:34 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Both kids learned by removing the pedals, and just scooting around for 20mins. Then putting pedals back on and they were off. I would do that.
posted by lundman at 1:49 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I got on a bike in my 60's although I had ridden as a child and have a fair sense of balance. What made it easier: our city is flat so I bought a single speed cruiser bike with coaster brakes--no gears, no hand brakes, just the kind I rode as a child. I put a basket on it and a comfortable seat and had the seat adjusted at the shop so that I could reach the ground. I took it over to the church parking lot on a weekday and within an hour I felt ok on it. I practiced there a few more times and then tried for the streets.

I stayed off of busy streets and back-streeted it everywhere I could. I made myself a rule that before I took my hand off the bike, I had to lock it with a secure lock no matter where I was or how quickly I thought I would return. I carried the bike up a few steps and into the hallway every night. I also bought a good bicycle pump.

I tried never to ride fast so if I saw roses growing along a fence, I'd stop and smell 'em. I loved the bike; sold my car after a while and went through three bikes, riding them everywhere until I retired. In that fifteen years, I fell three times--once was my fault for trying to go too fast in the rain and twice I got hit a glancing blow at a busy intersection. Never hurt seriously or broke any bones or bikes. Go slow, never assume the motorists see you. If your balance is a real problem, try a three-wheeler. Get a great color and wonderful baskets and be a free spirit! Good luck and good fun.
posted by Anitanola at 1:52 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I learned to bike in my mid-twenties. I would guess that, like me, you'll never be as fearless on a bike as people who learned when they were kids, you can be confident and careful. I also probably go a lot slower on my bike than many people, but it's still faster than walking, so I'm happy with it.

I borrowed a friend's bike to get practice, and learned in a parking lot (on a road bike with skinny tires), and then on a grass field on a more hybrid-style bike. The grass field had a gravel track around it. I found it a more comforting place to learn, because I wasn't as afraid of falling over. Moving from the grass to the track caught me up a couple times, but I got better pretty quickly. I think borrowing a bike may be a better idea than buying one right off the bat.

For a while I was afraid of practically every object within a few meters of me, including parked cars, but as I got more confident about my ability to not fall over, this fear went away.

It's great if you can find some relatively flat areas to bike on with minimal car traffic--search for bike trails in your area and drive your bike to them if it makes you more comfortable.
posted by that girl at 2:05 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like you, I was rubbish at sports when I was at school. But riding a bike came really naturally to me - the balance thing is the only thing you need to really "get", from there it's as easy as, well, riding a bike.

I'm not sure I can add much to the excellent above comments, but it might be worth getting a bike and treating it like a balance bike to start with - ie, just put your feet on the ground and scoot along until you get your balance, then move onto putting your feet on the pedals. Apparently kids learn the basics of cycling faster with balance bikes.

One more thing to bear in mind: my Mum always said it takes seven falls to learn to ride a horse, and (in my experience) the same applies to bikes. You may take the odd tumble, but provided you're in a safe environment like a park you won't do too much damage to yourself.

Don't let that put you off though - cycling is literally the most fun thing you'll ever do. Good luck!
posted by hnnrs at 3:39 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Puncture-resistant tyres changed my life. I went from about 1 puncture every couple of months to none at all for the last 2 years of almost daily riding. They're a bit heavier than normal tyres, but fixing punctures is so annoying that it's worth it.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:46 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My wife who happens to also be 5'2" learned to ride a bike in her late 20s. She got a hard-tail mountain bike, in whatever the smallest size they make for people who aren't children. Her bike cost something like $250 at the local bike shop, which included fitting it for her and tuning it up a few times the first year she had it.

She rode around a parking lot for a while, then got the nerve to go over a speed bump, then promptly called one of her parents to tell them about her speed bump triumph. After a few days she no longer looked like a drunk trying to pedal home from a bar. A few weeks later she got a little bicycle speedometer/odometer, which broke six or seven years later after she rode the bike 6,000 miles. Somewhere after a few thousand miles she tried out a bunch of road bikes and hybrids but she didn't like them.

Despite her riding a mountain bike, she never leaves the pavement by choice, and is more likely to walk her bike on a dirt road. Her bike has fat tires and a front shock both of which help crossing train tracks, potholes, and whatever else. I think it really just requires a bit of practice, since both of us are comfortable riding wherever and we produced a kid who uses his face to catch a ball.
posted by foodgeek at 4:11 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might check the League of American Bicyclists; you can search Instructors and Classes by state, and there are classes for adults learning to ride. If you can't find one nearby, an league certified instructor near you might be able to help you out.
posted by katinka-katinka at 4:57 AM on May 11, 2012

I rode a bike to and from school (about 5 kms each way) and all over the place for ... I dunno... 15 years or so. I fell off it so many times it wasn't funny, but I never did any major injuries to myself.

Then, I got a car.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and I decided I wanted to take up bike riding again. Spent $1000 on a nice hybrid bike. The very first time I rode it, I got the front wheel caught in a tram track, went straight over the handle-bars into the bitumen. Ended up in a trauma ward for 4 days with a tube sticking out of my chest re-inflating my lung.

But the really scary thing was the damage that was done to my helmet, which are a legal requirement in my country. Looking at it afterwards, it was obvious that the helmet hit the road first. If I hadn't had the helmet on, it would've been my skull, and I'm pretty sure that would have taken more than 4 days with a tube and nice pain-killers to mend.

So that's my advice - WEAR A HELMET!
posted by Diag at 5:16 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might consider a trike--essentially an adult tricycle. They're more popular than you might think. Don't have to worry about balance issues, of course. Also recumbent bicycles (or tricycles or quads) are an option, although they are more expensive. I once saw a new bicycle that had two rear tires in the shape of an inverted V (essentially a cool tricycle) and as you went faster, the rear wheels slowly came together so they were parallel. As you slowed they separated into the inverted V to help you balance. I can't find it on the internet but it was way cool. I bet it was very expensive though.
posted by luvmywife at 6:17 AM on May 11, 2012

Seconding the puncture-resistant tyres. I have these Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres on my new Big Dummy, along with sealant in the tubes, and in the six weeks I've had it I've not only had no punctures but have not even needed to add any top-up air.
posted by flabdablet at 6:17 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Where are you? A lot of cities have cycling advocacy groups that have free classes for adult beginners, and then free bike maintenance classes for cyclists of all stripes.

I'll second the advice above about removing the pedals, lowering the seat so the ground is within easy reach, and scooting around for awhile. The seat may be a little uncomfortable at this point. It'll feel better when you've got the pedals back on because some of your weight will be supported by your legs (which is why a lot of cyclists call it a saddle).

Once you're comfortable with balancing and using the brakes, put the pedals back on. The best technique is to use the pedals to mount and dismount because, as sebastienbailard said above, a properly fitting bike will mean that you can touch the ground while seated with the toes of one foot. It's kind of hard to explain, so I'll leave it to Sheldon Brown.

The late Sheldon Brown is an awesome resource, by the way. He is a very much opinionated, a font of minute details and technical jargon, but he has a lot of good advice for beginners and a lot to say about comfortable seats.

I can think of two potential causes of accidents that might not be obvious to beginners: braking too hard and flying off your bikes, and getting a wheel caught in a rut.

On soft grass, with your protective gear on, see what it's like to try to stop as quickly as you can. You want to see what the forces feel like as you try out progressively stronger applications of your brakes. The rear brake will lock up your back wheel, starting a skid that is usually short and inconsequential, but it can bring you and bike down. You can recover by releasing the brake (although many cyclists can steer through a skid and do it for fun). The front brake, which is where you get most of your stopping power, can be strong enough that applying it full force can cause you to "endo," to launch over your handlebars and off your bike. The brake stops the bicycle but your body still has forward momentum. When you do fast stops, shift your weight back and keep your elbows flexed and ready to absorb some of the force.

Ruts on the pavement are just something you have to watch out for. Don't cross them with your wheels parallel to the rut; if you're at a 45 degree angle or more you should be fine. They are an issue at train tracks, as Diag mentioned above. You also have to watch out for them on pavement made from Portland cement (the light grey kind, not the dark asphalt), since it's usually laid down in sections with gaps that run parallel to the roadway.
posted by hydrophonic at 6:32 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

also be able to reach the ground comfortably when I am sitting on it.

No. Chances are if you can do this on your bike, the saddle is too low (its possible to put a toe down still in the saddle on a bike that fits well with a low bottom bracket, but otherwise, not possible). Saddles that are too low give people chronic knee problems. This is one of the things about bike fit that most people get wrong unless they get professionally fitted or at least follow a "fit formula" rule of thumb (there are several out there). What feels good to you will be too low, what is right for your body over the long run will feel too high at first. Getting the bike fit by someone who really knows what they're doing is the best way to ride pain free and avoid injury.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:33 AM on May 11, 2012

I wouldn't suggest "buying a bike and then learning how to ride it" as a helpful process. There are a decent variety of bike styles that this could cause more problems. A high pressure salesman could get you into a road racing bike that you would hate, or a too-big model just cause it's on sale. You wouldn't know this is bad because regardless of what you try it out it will feel foreign to you as you don't ride bikes (yet!). If I were to suggest a bike though it would be a single speed beach cruiser type bike. Very easy to ride and uncomplicated.

Do you have friends with bikes? I would suggest getting them to take you somewhere so you can learn. A paved path with grass on the sides as mentioned above would be ideal.

Wear a helmet. I mountain bike quite a bit, and after wearing a helmet for years and only going down a few times, I still wear one when going around the block with kids. It only takes a second for bad things to happen.
posted by Big_B at 8:59 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also recumbent bicycles (or tricycles or quads) are an option, although they are more expensive.

Recumbents can be more expensive, but they don't have to be. Wikipedia says they're 10-15% more than an upright of the equivalent quality. I ended up getting my first recumbent in 2005 because it didn't cost any more than a decent upright.

Here is an article by Livestrong that says recumbents are low-impact for your knees. Using the gears is good advice for everyone, but they say that for people with knee problems, it's extra important.

Note: When I first started riding a recumbent, my knees started hurting pretty significantly. Then a person who rows told me I might need to move the pedals in a bit. Instantly the problem was gone! Conclusion: The pedals need to be closer to you than they typically are on an upright bicycle.

If you get a recumbent, get a short wheel base. They will fit on any bus or car bike rack a normal bike fits on. This is handy. I can carry my recumbent up and down stairs as easily as I carry other bikes.
posted by aniola at 10:36 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I totally recommend learning to ride on grass! I did that as a kid and it is great, falling is no problem.
posted by fshgrl at 12:35 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely start scooting and balancing while rolling before you try pedaling, and do keep the seat too low at first; it will feel safer that way. It's bad fit, but you can raise it later. Most importantly, be patient with yourself, because this will take you waaaay longer than it took people who were little kids when they learned. I was in my mid 20s when I learned to ride a bike and you'd never know it now, but it took quite a while before I was genuinely comfortable on one.

If you can borrow a bike from a friend with a good bike that fits you, do that. If you can borrow a few different bikes from friends with good bikes that are close to fitting you, that's even better, because it will allow you to get a sense of what you like and don't like before you buy something.

And if you're comfortable having those friends around while you flail and fall and generally are awkward on their bikes, even better, because it's easier to feel silly, rather than dispirited, when you've got someone there to cheer you on. Also, if there are any unused tennis courts (or maybe running tracks?) near you, they are the best possible surface to learn on-- they're as even as pavement, but softer when you fall. And you can teach yourself to turn and to aim your back toward a narrow path by doing figure-eights around the net!

Good luck and have fun! Riding a bike seems kind of impossible at first, but once you figure it out it is totally amazing and fun.
posted by dizziest at 12:48 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Definitely see if you can borrow a bike to learn on. You really need to be able to test ride a bike to see if it will work for you.

If not, an electra townie bike with flat foot technology might be a good idea. It's designed so that you can touch the ground easily whilst still on the seat. I've test ridden one, and they're really nice bikes.
posted by kjs4 at 5:46 PM on May 11, 2012

While I too enjoy a good recumbent bike, I'm not sure that it's necessarily the best starting point for someone who has never ridden before.

I would suggest trying out a cruiser with gears. It's a sturdy bike, with a low center of gravity, and you're going to be able to reach your feet to the ground easily. They are also built for comfort. However, they are not terribly versatile when it comes to gears/speeds.

If you find the idea of a 3-speed bike being too limiting after trying one out, I would suggest trying out a 7-speed hybrid, which will give you a little more versatility (and potentially be easier on your knees as you will be able to change gears to more readily adjust to your terrain). These bikes are also built for comfort and utility, without being overly complicated. This particular model has a women-specific design that may make things easier for someone with shorter legs.

I linked to Trek's website, but most major bike manufacturers will make similar models, and most bike shops will only carry 1-3 brands, but most major brands--Specialized, Giant, Electra, Bianchi--are pretty equivalent in quality. Do not buy your bike in a department store, as those bikes are usually poorly manufactured and made from inferior parts, which makes them heavier and more likely to break. Common department store brands are Diamondback, Mongoose, Scwhinn & Huffy. Avoid.

I think there's some good advice above about borrowing a bike to at least learn the basics. Then once you have a handle on riding, go to a bike store and take some of the options out for a test. You're sure to find something you feel comfortable on.
posted by erstwhile at 8:17 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks all for great answers, stories, and kind, encouraging words! These are tremendously helpful. I will be coming back to this page many many times in the future.

Two things have been suggested multiple times:
- 'scooting' : I had to look it up on youtube to understand what this meant. Now I know it it makes perfect sense. Definitely will try this.
- starting with a borrowed bike first, then purchasing one when I know how to ride one

Reading the answers I realized that I have no idea how a bicycle works. I have a vague notion of what it does - you pedal and somehow move forward keeping while impossibly perfect balance - but I did not understand many terms here (gears, cruiser,fender..) and I am still not sure how a moving bicycle can be stopped.

Now I really want to learn how a bicycle works and gradually absorb more and more information, while searching for and coaxing a friend with a bike for my first try. Thanks again.
posted by eisenl at 11:26 PM on May 11, 2012

You stop by squeezing brake levers. These are on the handlebars.

Here is a very popular and useful picture of the anatomy of a bicycle (created by someone I know). Assuming you have a printer or your own computer, you can print it out and hang it on your fridge or make it the background on your computer.
posted by aniola at 11:43 PM on May 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

kjs4: "If not, an electra townie bike with flat foot technology might be a good idea."

See also "pedal-forward" or "crank-forward" - same idea. Other brands have pedal-forward designs besides Electra, usually on just one or two models. You can read more about them here at and their other benefits, such as reduced neck, wrist, and back pain. I myself want to try one of these with a chair-like seat.

See, what I didn't learn until I was an adult is that when you are on the seat of your bike, the very tip of your tippy toes should barely be able to touch the ground - in other words, you really shouldn't be able to stand up and be on the seat at the same time. Once you learn how to balance, you're supposed to push the pedal down to get the bike going, and kind of "jump" on. (Really not a jump - you're just standing on the pedal you just pushed down.) Here's a demo page with a video. (Doesn't autoplay.)

If your feet can touch the ground, your knees are probably going to hurt when you ride the bike, because the pedals are too close, making your knees bend too much. Personally, I haven't ridden in a long time and don't feel secure doing a "proper" mount (well, it's actually the stopping and jumping off, not the mount), not to mention I have a bad knee since my car accident, and have been looking into pedal-forward bikes. So yeah, definitely an option to learn on - if you get more secure you can move to a regular bike.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:35 AM on May 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I printed it and pinned right in in front of my desk. I stared at it for a minute and then suddenly understood everything. So the essence of this machine really was a "gear"! Wow. Whoever invented this must have been very smart.
That was a little mind-blowing moment with all my 1st year physics memory coming back, with small gears / large gears, torque, and how you would 'change your gear' according to the terrain, etc.

Thank you - this really is a picture being worth a thousand words. I love the drawing and I enjoy looking at it. Still more to learn from it too. Please thank the someone you know - he or she has created something simple, beautiful, and powerful.
posted by eisenl at 12:41 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a vague notion of what it does - you pedal and somehow move forward keeping while impossibly perfect balance - but I did not understand many terms here (gears, cruiser,fender..)

I think you will find that it's easier to keep balance than you're anticipating, and the only likely reason that you will ever fall will be due obstacles in your path. If you're an alert rider, then you shouldn't have too much to worry about.

And, a cruiser is just a bike that is built for comfort over speed (usually in the style of classic bicycles).
posted by erstwhile at 6:13 AM on May 12, 2012

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