How to learn to ride a bike as an adult
October 14, 2012 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Four-year-olds can do it. Grannies can do it. My mom can do it. I could do it myself thirty years ago, but it isn't true that you never forget. How can I re-learn to ride a bike?

I've searched here and googled extensively. My bike is the right size for me, the seat is all the way down, I have a big parking lot to ride around in. I've tried just starting to pedal and scooting around without pedaling. My big problem is that as soon as I get up any speed, I start to panic and end up falling, and every time this happens I get more anxious until even thinking about getting on the bike freaks me out. Any last-chance advice before I give up and haul the damned thing back to the bike store?
posted by Daily Alice to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
When we taught my adult uncle to ride, we used training wheels for his full size bike. They were inexpensive and gave him a feeling for the motion with some security.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 6:05 PM on October 14, 2012

You've gotta just go for it. I don't think you've forgotten how to ride a bike, I think you've just gotten less confident. The worst thing you can do is be hesitant--you'll never get any momentum that way. Hop on and just start pedaling!
posted by phunniemee at 6:07 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Teaching a child to ride a bike (equally helpful for adults, too).

Rough summary: remove your pedals, find a nice, smooth, slightly sloping patch of grass, and coast to the bottom, using your brakes to control your speed. Do this until your inner monologue is more "Wheee!" than "Oh my god I'm going to die!" Then put your pedals back on and enjoy your new-found confidence.
posted by embrangled at 6:12 PM on October 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

What works even better than training wheels is to lower the seat way down and take the pedals off, and just push yourself along with your feet.

The idea is that training wheels teach you bad habits (you end up relying on them too much for balance, rather than learning how to balance by yourself) and this approach doesn't.

I can't tell if this is what you're describing or not. If not, it might be worth a try. Since your feet are right close to the ground, it's harder to fall and you get less of that freaky upsetting unstable feeling.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:13 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pedals off and pushing along the ground on our roughly level street did wonders for our scared-of-falling 7 -year-old when we taught her to ride. You may need to drop the seat a bit so your feet can easily touch the ground.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:14 PM on October 14, 2012

My advice: Don't learn to pedal; learn how to stop.

Push yourself along at a speed you're comfortable at (ridiculously slow if you have to) then lift your feet up and immediately hit your brakes and stop without using your feet. Slowly build this up until you can happily stop your bike from a speed you can coast at.

You goal is to get confident with stopping your bike with the hand brakes before you worry about trying to balance. If you know you can confidently stop at whatever speed you're going at you're going to be more confident taking steps forward -- first gliding a bit without your feet off the pedals, the with your feet on the pedals, then pedalling.

(Kids don't think things through very much so they'll happily learn how to ride before they learn how to stop)
posted by no regrets, coyote at 6:15 PM on October 14, 2012

Have you tried to ask around the bike shop see if there are any local teachers willing to give a lesson for adult student? Alternative you could just ask family or friend to teach you.

I was in a similar situation as you and it just took one private lesson session to refresh my muscle memory. While I am still not comfortable enough to commute on my busy street, riding for leisure has definitely been enjoyable.
posted by Pantalaimon at 6:16 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm 35 and just learned a couple years ago. You're right - it's terrifying to learn as an adult. Go to a tennis court or an empty parking lot and just practice, practice, practice until you start to feel comfortable. When I was learning my husband kept reminding me that the laws of physics meant that (within reason) the faster I went, the less likely I was to fall over, but it took a long time for me to understand that he was telling the truth. It also helped to lower the seat low enough that I could touch both feet to the ground at the same time. You really do just have to go for it, though. Learning to ride a bike was one of my biggest fears and now I am commuting 9 miles to and from work - if I can do it, you can too. Practice!
posted by something something at 6:16 PM on October 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

The remove pedals deal works so well, way quicker than training wheels in my experience.
posted by zippy at 6:21 PM on October 14, 2012

Yup. No to training wheels. Lower the seat, take the pedals off (the left pedal turns right to unscrew), and learn how to scoot and balance before you even start pedaling.
posted by entropone at 6:22 PM on October 14, 2012

All good ideas here. Important: look straight ahead at your destination, not down at the ground or your front wheel.
posted by The Deej at 6:31 PM on October 14, 2012

This guy doesn't talk that much about technique, but he is a great motivational speaker.
posted by martinrebas at 6:33 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The main thing to remember is that balancing yourself on a moving bike is actually quite intuitive - you just sort of have to give in to that intuition. Don't think about it or stress about it. Just keep trying to coast until it happens.

A big part of proper bike riding is learning to trust the fact that bicycles do, in fact, work, and that you will not, in fact, automatically fall down.

Best of luck, and enjoy!
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:49 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's some good advice here (and some people who maybe didn't read the question) but I'll add my two cents which may or may not help, and that's this: you are not going to seriously hurt yourself if you fall off the bike. Unless you are going quite fast or you get hit by a car, the worst you are going to get is some minor scrapes and bruises. You are not in any real danger just by falling off a bike while learning to ride in an empty parking lot.

In fact, you might as well get it over with because if you start riding regularly you are going to fall off sooner or later. It happens to everyone every once in a while, we all get caught out once in a while by a puddle or a patch of sand or an inattentive driver or pedestrian, or just fail to pay attention ourselves, and fall down. It happens to little kids, it happens to seasoned commuters, and it happens to professional racers. Very rarely do these spills people get seriously injured outside of collisions with automobiles.

So you really don't have that much to be afraid of, unless you're normally afraid of a bump or a scratch in which case I'm not sure what to say. You're going to fall off eventually, but you're going to be fine. It's nothing to be scared of.

Hopefully that helps a bit with the mental aspect, anyway.
posted by Scientist at 6:49 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you explain what you mean by "falling"? Are you falling sideways all the way down on the ground? If so, I think you 1) need to lower your seat just enough to put your foot down- if it is too low, you have less room and less time to get your foot off the pedal and on to the ground. Just practice sitting on your bike at a stand-still, one foot on the pedal and one on the ground. Then switch feet so that you're resting on the opposite foot. Then start allowing yourself to tip just a tiny bit before putting your foot down. Do this on both sides until it seems natural. Then practice scooting (pedal-less), then stopping, then putting your foot down. Then practice pedaling, stopping, and putting your foot down. Over and over and over until your body automatically knows what to do when you stop pedaling. It's very hard to fall over sideways if your foot sticks out and stops you. If you've got coaster brakes on your bike, this is harder, and you should really get a bike with hand brakes instead (they are safer anyway).
posted by oneirodynia at 7:38 PM on October 14, 2012

I re-learned how to ride a bike at 31. it was scary as hell but so worth it! best advice i can offer is: don't try to 'learn from' someone way more experienced than you (like a daily commuter or bike messenger guy or whatever) on a forced ride with them until you're comfortable handling your own bike. i found that when i started, a lot of my biking friends were super excited and supportive, but they sucked when it came to 'cheerleading' me on because they didn't have a lot of helpful input other than 'just do it!'. and some would even get really focused on stupid things that were so way above my skill level, like how i had to learn how to use toe clips or how silly it was that i kept my seat so low or how i shouldn't get freaked out by getting into traffic. i found it really discouraging at first because i felt like i should have 'picked it up' faster than i did and i didn't want to ride it after the first few disastrous attempts.

then one afternoon it was painfully gorgeous outside and all i wanted was to, like, ride the bike somewhere without it being a big deal because i was too afraid of whatever or felt bad because i couldn't keep up with my bike snob friends. I got the bike out and wobbled around the loop on my street about four thousand times, never really leaving the block, until my thoughts were mostly 'yay awesome wheee!' instead of 'oh shit i'm going to die oh shit oh shit stop this insanity'. after that i was able to focus on other things, like mounting/dismounting gracefully, or figuring out the gears, or learning how to use the toe clips, or getting comfortable with traffic.

so as much as it sucks, you do have to 'just do it' at some point, but i found that doing it alone was the way to go. and yeah, what people are saying about going faster when you're wobbling - all true.
posted by par court at 7:45 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Can you explain what you mean by "falling"? Are you falling sideways all the way down on the ground?

Yes, falling down all the way to the ground, which brings severe knee scrapes and bruises on arms and legs, which makes me more reluctant to try getting on the goddamn thing again. Because I am a Person of Shortness, putting the seat all the way down does not make me able to put both feet down. This bike is the right size if I can learn to ride it. My mom suggested trying to learn on my kid's (6-year-old when we bought it) bike. Insightful or insane?
posted by Daily Alice at 8:11 PM on October 14, 2012

Check out the Gyrowheel training wheel at
posted by LiverOdor at 8:24 PM on October 14, 2012

For visual reference of a good fit for learning to ride, check out a kid on a Skuut. That's precisely what you want to learn on: high enough that picking up your feet doesn't throw you off-balance, low enough that you can stop yourself from tipping over easily. Once you're comfortable on the bike, feel free to check out something more efficient for pedaling (either raising the saddle or getting a different bike).

(Also, if the saddle can't be lowered to the point where you can comfortably plant both heels on the ground, it's unlikely to be a good fit for most regular riding. As a Person Of Tallness myself, you have my sympathies when it comes to Things Built For Someone Else.)

The most critical aspect of bike handling for beginners is getting a feel for counter-steering. While going in a straight line at low speed, turn a little to the left. Notice how the bike goes to the right? Now turn the wheel to the right. The bike goes to the right. Play around with that until zigging and zagging are fun and you notice the little micro-corrections involved in going straight. If you panic when you pick up speed, then go slow and focus more on getting comfortable.

The other part of bike handling is braking. A lot of folks develop an irrational fear of front brakes, but that's where about 70% of your stopping power is. Try coming to a stop using only your back brake, then only your front brake, then both. Notice that you need to move your weight back a bit as you brake and play around with it. Play with emergency braking — approach a line, stop as quickly as you can, notice how far it took you to stop. Start slow and up the speed as you get comfortable.

Once this starts to get boring, add the pedals back on. Notice how turning while pedaling affects your balance. (Watch out for leaning over far enough that the pedals hit the ground. Pedal strikes are pretty much instant spills.) Notice how sitting on the saddle or standing on the pedals changes your balance or your emergency braking. (Watch out for grabbing a huge handful of front brake while your weight is up and forward. The bike will stop, you will keep going further than is comfortable.) Up the speed as you play until you find yourself in the middle of a bike ride.

Finally, courage! You are learning how to do something new, which invariably involves close calls, accidents, frustration, feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure, actual failure, regrettable choices, and insufficiently understanding third parties. Treat all things as an experiment and when you fall, brush yourself off, imagine Bill Nye giving you a double thumbs up, and get back on the hated thing.

posted by Coda at 9:37 PM on October 14, 2012

I asked a similar question years back. I was 29 at the time and I did end up learning (at 32, in MVY and England, on different bikes that the one pictured in the FPP, with MeFite help). Now I ride my bike almost every day.

It was crucial that I built confidence in small ways, like understanding traffic, how the bike works, why people have the small habits that they do.

Also, my bike was too big (I did not feel "safer" learning to drive stick in a bigger car either), my seat too high (well, probably just right at the time, but too up there for me then) and I had no motivated path to take (meaning, no reason to regularly get from point A to B in a very safe way). When I moved to England I got a smaller bike (it's hideous and I love it), put the seat down as low as I possibly could (even removing the seat lever, but I'm very short, ymmv) and found a bike path. I often walked the bike.

In fact, to this day I still walk the bike through stretches I'm not comfortable with, like new places with traffic. The thing about walking a bike is that nobody will question you. I pretended to have a lot of 'problems' necessitating walking of the bike. Until people, cars, fears went away. Then I'd get to a point where I was actually grateful to be around other bikers, so I could pack behind them to, say, cross the street or go through cattle gates. And see how it's done.

Now that my eye is trained and my skills are up, I see all sorts of mayhem on bikes. MOST people have their seats too low. A lot of people are learning or inexperienced (and trying to hide it). A lot of experienced bikers have really bad habits.

You can do this. It will take a little bit of humbling humiliation, but you can. Follow all the other advice in this thread (except for putting on training wheels, sorry), it's good!
posted by iamkimiam at 9:54 PM on October 14, 2012

Try on the kids bike. And on grass, preferably with a slight slope so you can pick up speed.

Get used to the feel before switching to your bike on grass.

Do the no pedal thing. or just take your feet off the pedals.

I an certain you can do this. And if it hurt less falling off you'd find it easier.
posted by plonkee at 4:25 AM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Can you get someone to push the bike for you so you can get used to the feeling and be safe from falling?
posted by windykites at 5:04 AM on October 15, 2012

My 5 year old just learned about 6 months ago. The turning point for him was when he accepted the counter-intuitive truth: moving bikes don't (generally) fall over. The gyroscopic effect of the wheels plus the inertia of the forward motion makes this so. Now, you might run into something, or bank yourself over, but it isn't going to happen in that empty parking lot. And, once you get a bit more comfortable Going (and more more comfortable with the concept that "pedaling keeps you upright") you can address minor details like stopping, dismounting, steering, etc.

You can do it!
posted by dirtdirt at 5:17 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you tried an adult learning to cycle course?
posted by Phredward at 6:00 AM on October 15, 2012

Something that worked for me when I rode a bike again after about 20 years -- the bike will go where you are looking. So, don't look at the ground.
posted by JanetLand at 7:00 AM on October 15, 2012

I taught an adult friend how to ride a bike for the first time in one afternoon. He took my bike home with him, practiced, and started riding it to work and back within a few weeks. You can do this! You can totally do this. You just need to get over the association you've made where bike = painful falls, bruises, and scrapes. Here's a plan:
1. Yes, totally use your daughter's bike if you can get the seat up high enough to reach the pedals without your knees being too uncomfortably bent. It's not proper for actual bike-riding, but you'll feel more comfortable learning if you can stop with your butt on the seat and your feet, at least your toes, on the ground. And you'll be able to catch yourself if you start to fall, which is going to be crucial for you now that you've gotten a bit scared of the bike.
2. You need a cheerleader. I'm not sure if you've been practicing by yourself, or with your husband, but someone needs to run alongside you and cheer you on, reminding you to keep pedaling, keep your speed up, and watch where you want to go. It's easy to get distracted by all the moving parts and the fear of falling, so having someone to keep your focus in place and remind you to speed up if you start to go too slow is essential.
3. As others have said, you need to wrap your mind around the fact that you will not fall if you're going fast enough. The bike can't fall unless it slows down or hits something. If you start to panic at how fast you're going, your cheerleader will remind you to keep going and direct you where to go if necessary, until you conquer your fear enough to try stopping calmly, with the hand brakes, instead of in a flailing panic.
posted by booknerd at 7:30 AM on October 15, 2012

Because I am a Person of Shortness, putting the seat all the way down does not make me able to put both feet down.

Then your bicycle frame is too big for you. Trade it in for one that fits you better.
posted by flabdablet at 7:35 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Learn on a bike small enough for your feet to touch the ground, even if it's the "wrong" size. We speak of "learning" but it's more an unlearning. You need to get used to the experience of being on a moving bike without feeling in danger. Try your kids bike.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:38 AM on October 15, 2012

I learned to ride at 26 and I now work part time at a bike shop and ride way more than I could have ever imagined. So yes, regular people really do learn to ride as adults.

When I started practicing how to ride a bike, I would give myself a hard limit of ten minutes per session. You see, when we learn a skill by ourselves, we often go out there and practice until it's not fun anymore. So you end every session when you want to quit. That's not terribly motivating. With a hard limit to practice time, I could end some sessions feeling like things went well. That's a pretty awesome feeling.

Other tips.

When you watch someone riding a bike slowly, you often see them moving their handlebars back and forth a lot. You can probably intuit that this is because it's harder to keep the slow moving bike in balance. What you don't see is that for the most part, you don't turn the handlebars all that much when you are riding normally. Some balance bikes for kids don't even let you turn the bars. The easiest riding speed is slightly faster than a friend can walk next to you.

When you are falling to one side and ready to put your foot down, pull the brakes. Try not to lean back over the bike.

I know from experience that the bike goes where you look. Ow. Look where you want to go and lean ever so slightly that way.

Good luck, we're rooting for you!
posted by advicepig at 8:16 AM on October 15, 2012

I've taught adults to ride bicycles and I prefer to let people start out on grass. It is nice and soft if they fall and it retards their speed so the learning is at more comfortable speeds. Use a low gear but not so low that you spin frantically and go nowhere.
posted by srboisvert at 9:09 AM on October 15, 2012

Because I am a Person of Shortness, putting the seat all the way down does not make me able to put both feet down.

you absolutely must get a bike that you can sit on and still be able to put your feet on the ground.
posted by cupcake1337 at 1:48 PM on October 15, 2012

Response by poster: you absolutely must get a bike that you can sit on and still be able to put your feet on the ground

Then your bicycle frame is too big for you. Trade it in for one that fits you better.

A little more input into this aspect? All the authorities (bike store, online, husband, etc.) seem to think that the bike I have (with the seat all the way down I can barely, uncomfortably, touch the ground with my toes) is the right size. Do I need to look for a smaller one? And if so, where to look, because I think I have the smallest standard adult size. Or should I be looking at an Electra or similar? I'm not looking to break any speed records here, just want to cruise around the neighborhood.
posted by Daily Alice at 2:36 PM on October 15, 2012

A little more input into this aspect? All the authorities (bike store, online, husband, etc.) seem to think that the bike I have (with the seat all the way down I can barely, uncomfortably, touch the ground with my toes) is the right size. Do I need to look for a smaller one?

That's generally considered correct sizing for the average rider. However, you could buy a a bike with a smaller frame that will let you lower the seat a little more to half a foot down on each side, then raise it back to tiptoe height when you are more experienced. You can still practice "falling" from side to side and putting your foot down on the frame you have now. Riding on grass is also a good suggestion. In fact you can sit on your bike on the grass and hop yourself from one flat foot to another, side to side. You need to develop the instinct and strength to catch yourself on one side. You'll have a much less scary time learning to ride if you aren't hitting the ground each time you practice.

The other good suggestion above is to make sure that when you're riding you look where you want to go, and not down.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:44 PM on October 15, 2012

the larger frame is the right size when you already are comfortable riding. the larder frame is the right bike to ride efficiently, the smaller bike is the right size to learn.

you should buy the cheapest bike small enough so that you can have your butt on the seat but still have your feet on the ground. maybe it's a child's bike, maybe it's really old and beat up, it doesn't matter. you're only going to use it to learn to ride and once you're able to ride around the block a few times you can start with the bike that is the right size to efficiently ride.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:08 PM on October 15, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to all who have responded! You've given me the courage to persevere. I'll come back and mark best answers once I've made it around the block a few times without crashing.
posted by Daily Alice at 4:37 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

All the authorities (bike store, online, husband, etc.) seem to think that the bike I have (with the seat all the way down I can barely, uncomfortably, touch the ground with my toes) is the right size. Do I need to look for a smaller one?

I believe so. Assuming for a second that your frame is a standard men's road bike style with a horizontal top bar (just add one on in your mind if it's not that shape) you should be easily able to stand straddling that bar with both feet flat on the ground. Regardless of bar style, with the seat all the way down, you should be easily able to sit on the seat and scoot yourself along with your toes, and you should be easily able to lean the bike over a little bit to get one foot flat on the ground.

With the seat adjusted to proper riding height (typically be about the length of your hand higher than all the way down), your foot should end up pretty much horizontal and your knee should be fully extended when the ball of your foot is centred on the pedal at the bottom of a stroke. If your knee stays bent at the bottom of a stroke, the seat is too low and you'll be working far harder than you need to but it's fine for learning on the flat, especially if the pedals are off and you're just scooting.

One useful thing to practise is scooting while standing on a pedal. Stand straddling the bar and spin the pedals backwards until one of them is as low as it goes. Then practice stepping onto that pedal and slowly transferring your weight to it. You should be able to find a way to lean the bike slightly so as it doesn't tip straight over onto the low pedal side, and having done that, you should then be able to scoot it along with your ground foot. Effectively you'll be riding your bike as if it were a rather awkward standing-up scooter.

Having mastered that, the next step is to get your initial push-off from the pedal you're standing on. So instead of starting with the pedal down low, start with it most of the way up. When you stand on it, it will push the bike forward and give you a nice smooth start as it descends.

And only when you've mastered that should you try sitting back onto the seat and putting your scooting foot on the other pedal.
posted by flabdablet at 7:27 AM on October 16, 2012

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