"It's just like riding a bike!"
June 25, 2017 6:32 PM   Subscribe

How does an adult go about learning to ride a bicycle for the very first time?

So I never learned how to ride a bike as a kid. I'm inching closer to 30 and I desperately want to acquire this skill. I have SO many questions, and I'm also a little scared. For the purpose of this ask, assume that I will be doing this entirely on my own, have access to UK streets and pavement (and some flat grassy/wooded areas, but I feel like those are for later), and am pretty embarassed/anxious about learning this in public. (It should be noted that I'm a plus-size female as well, which adds to my layer of anxiousness for being a novice in public.)

How do I pick a bike for a complete and total beginner? What do I look for? How do I learn what is needed vs what is a rip-off? Am I better off going second hand for a beginner bike? How do I determine if a bike is in good shape? Will I have to buy tools for repairs? Do I need stabilisers? Is there any way I can (please) avoid stabilisers? What do I wear? What kind of helmet do I need? What about those weird bicycle hand signals? Where's the best place to practice? What, exactly, do I practice?

I've been reading up on this for a while, but nothing really seems to make sense. And I'm suffering from a little bit of information overload. (There are so many gear reviews, that I don't even know if I'd ever need.) Before I buy something, I want to have a rough idea of what I should be doing. At the moment I don't have any real reference of what, exactly, it's like to ride a bike. Not even a tricycle. Assume I am an alien from a planet where these strange wheeled devices don't exist.

I'd like to someday be proficient enough with this bicycle stuff that I can use one as a main means of transportation, and also ride long distances for fun. Like on proper roads with cars, and maybe to other cities, or to go off into the wild. Is this a reasonable goal? Or is it the kind of thing you can only do after years and years of bike riding?

Here's hoping I haven't missed the boat on cycling.
posted by Vrai to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Scooting, not pedalling is your way in the early days (no training wheels required).
posted by unliteral at 6:43 PM on June 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

A stationary bike takes the balance and road safety factors out of the equation and just lets you feel what it's like to pedal. If you have access to one at a gym for example, you might try it, for confidence building if nothing else.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 6:56 PM on June 25, 2017

I can't speak to the How to Pick question - although I've liked the Trek city bikes they keep discontinuing, and if you could find a used Chelsea 9, you might love it as much as I (and many others) do.

As far as how to learn, I agree about the scooting, not pedaling thing that unliteral said. Drop the seat till your feet are firmly on the ground and your knees a bit bent, take the pedals off (ask the bike shop for help/instructions/tools), and scoot around like a you're three years old someplace you feel somewhat private and comfortable for a while, ideally having some very gently sloping places where you can practice picking your feet up for longer and longer stretches of time and letting gravity help. Like with swimming/floating, eventually your body gets the hang of things and you'll be comfortable with how the whole thing works and feels and you can put the pedals back on and continue to push with your feet like a scooter for a while and then move on to sometimes bringing them up to the pedals. When you're more comfortable there, start raising your seat bit by bit.

Also consider getting a tricycle. Many adults use them for various reasons. Kate Davies leaps to mind, but I've seen others.

You haven't missed the boat. (Fun fact: John Cleese also learned to ride a bike for the first time as an adult.) Enjoy!
posted by you must supply a verb at 6:58 PM on June 25, 2017

Shit. Sorry. Didn't read closely enough, but since you're in the UK - see if you can find a Trek Navigator T10 (hoping this link doesn't die too soon...) I love love love mine.
posted by you must supply a verb at 7:02 PM on June 25, 2017

Was just about to post that link from Bicycling that unilateral did. (Definitely don't use stabilisers/training wheels. I'm pretty sure they held me back from learning to ride for several years.) Learning to balance before you deal with pedaling is the key here. Here's another version of the same learning process.

You might do better to ease off on the reading and shopping for a while and see what in-person resources you have available in your area. Many places have classes for adults to learn to ride bicycles (check out these smiling faces from one near me!). It's definitely not too late, and you don't need to give up on learning to balance and ride a bicycle at 30 when it's doable at any age! Another example here. One more.

Check with your local bike shops and bicycle advocacy organizations to see who's offering classes and when. They might not even require that you bring a bicycle with you -- it's hard to make a knowledgeable bike purchase when you aren't ready to test-ride it yet, so classes for adult learners often provide loaner bikes. They'll take care of the pedals-off/pedals-on part, too. Maybe here or here? Everybody's got to learn sometime, and finding a group of people doing the same thing is a good way to build confidence.

Have a great time learning! One cheering thing in all those stories is how little time it takes to get the hang of it.
posted by asperity at 7:19 PM on June 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I did this! I learned to ride a bike at 28. Like asperity suggested, I took an 'adult learn to ride' class via my local bicycle coalition. That got me 50% of the way there (I am bad at learning physical skills), so I borrowed an old beater bike from someone and practiced on my own. (I never used stabilizers.) After getting the very basics down, it took me a couple more months of practicing to learn finesse - navigating obstacles, stopping smoothly, riding up hills - but I am very comfortable on a bike now. Empty parking lots are great places to practice. Wear a helmet.
posted by mellifluous at 7:40 PM on June 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I taught myself when I was 23. At the time I had a mountain bike because I lived in a mountain town, but for you I'd recommend a hybrid. I wouldn't get anything new right now. I have a 15 year old Trek and it's just fine for riding around town. A Very Serious Bike is not going to be comfortable or enjoyable to learn on. Just look in your local classified ads, or garage sales, and buy a hybrid for around $100 or so. You can see if the brakes work without needing to get on it just by pushing it forward and squeezing the brake levers on the handlebars. I'd take it to a bike shop to see if it needs to be tuned up (replace any rusty bolts, change the chain, brake pads, things like that). Ask your friends for a recommendation for a shop or check reviews online.

Anyway, I took the mountain bike onto a flat expanse of short grass (baseball field) and just tried over and over until it clicked. I fell a bunch but it was on grass at a very minimal speed so the worst that happened was that I got grass stains on my clothes. Once it clicked and I was able to balance instinctively, it was easy to stay upright. Then I moved on to large parking lots (church lots during weekdays are good, or schools on weekends). Then lightly traveled flat roads. Then lightly traveled roads with hills.

You don't have to splurge on bike clothes yet, and anyway your clothing size is likely going to change when you start riding a lot. At first I'd wear long pants that are close fitting like leggings or yoga wear. Those won't impede the motion of your legs and they'll protect your legs from potential scrapes (and sun). I didn't wear a helmet on grass but I did get one for the parking lot.

Don't worry too much about all this. 8 year olds don't obsess over articles and YouTube videos and reviews. :) Just buy something with two wheels, that's not too expensive, and you will figure it out. If you like it, you can always upgrade later.
posted by AFABulous at 8:14 PM on June 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here is what I did when in my 30s I realized I had completely forgotten how to ride a bike.

First I read reviews of every bike place around that rented bikes and picked the one with the most reviews meantioning how friendly people were. Then I went there and said "Hi, I haven't ridden in a long time, don't know what I'm doing, and would like to rent a bike this weekend. What do you recommend?"

This ended being vital because I had no idea how to properly set the seat height, or what the tire pressure should be, or any little thing that you pick up with bike ownership. I got a bike fit to my body for a weekend which made everything so much easier.

I wouldn't recommend doing what I did next (try to learn on a busy bike path) but what I did the next week, slowly ride back and forth in an empty parking lot in the morning. There wasn't much I could run into, there wasn't any witness, and within a few hours I could easily bike along the bike path with confidence. Within the next two years I started biking to work, completed a biking camping trip (with a driver supporting us!) and finally did a metric century.

I've since moved and it's no longer practical to bike around, but every few months I clean it, put air in the tires, and ride around for fun. It's a nice skill to have, best luck!
posted by lepus at 8:16 PM on June 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Note - the bike I linked above was a higher end model in 2002 but it's not worth much now. But that's what you should get, something older that was medium-to-high quality. (A really fast way to tell if one bike is higher quality than the other is to pick them up. The lighter one is almost certainly better quality.)
posted by AFABulous at 8:19 PM on June 25, 2017

I'd like to someday be proficient enough with this bicycle stuff that I can use one as a main means of transportation, and also ride long distances for fun. Like on proper roads with cars, and maybe to other cities, or to go off into the wild. Is this a reasonable goal? Or is it the kind of thing you can only do after years and years of bike riding?

Yup. Try:


once you've got the basics down.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:24 PM on June 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Used is fine, but from a proper local bike shop or bike coop that can guarantee it's in good condition. New is fine, but from a proper local bike shop or bike coop rather than a low-quality department store bike put together by an untrained sales clerk.

I'd suggest (after googling 'glasgow bike coop') the glasgow bike station - they sell used bikes in good condition, train first-time riders for 20-25£/hour.
65 Haugh Road, Glasgow, G3 8TX and also at 509 Victoria Road, Glasgow, G42 8BH.

or rentals and training at :

Whether you are new to cycling or haven’t been on a bike in years our private one 2 one lessons could help you. Our cycle coach can teach you how to ride a bike, help you improve your skills and gain confidence to enable you to cycle with ease. Lessons are charged at £15 per hour and can be booked by calling x-x-x or by emailing victoria@x-x-x - £15/hour
Bike coops and bike advocacy groups also teach intro bike maintenance classes so you can learn the basic skills like lubing and adjusting your chain, adjusting your brakes, and changing the tubes in tires when you're five miles from home. (And walk you through the minimal tool kit you'll want on the road.) They also have advanced tools and technician-coaches that can help you with advanced stuff.

Here are a couple women-friendly bike shops and the bike coops and advocacy folk can point you at others.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:39 PM on June 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is absolutely a reasonable goal. I learned to ride a bike when I was 20, and I was riding on quieter streets and going longish distances on bike paths within weeks--and bikes have been my primary transportation for the 9 years since then. I did not use stabilisers or any devices besides the bike itself.

Sheldon Brown's website has some good articles covering basic techniques and issues of fit and mechanics. Check out the beginners section and read "Starting and Stopping", "Braking and Turning", and "Gear Shifting" to start. These give a clear overview of the basic techniques of getting on and off a bike and controlling it while in motion, along with an explanation of why the techniques are what they are. These helped considerably when I was getting started. You can wear whatever clothes you normally wear (plus a helmet--just pick out a helmet at a bike shop. Any of them is fine as long as it fits on your head.).

A secondhand bike is fine, but buy it from a reputable bike shop rather than an individual. That way you can trust that it will be in good working order and you won't have to inspect it yourself--and the staff can help you pick one that fits you and suits your needs.

Since you're buying a bike in good condition, you won't need many (or possibly any) tools at first. The only maintenance you will need to do for a while is keeping the tires inflated. You should check the pressure and top them up every few weeks--underinflated tires are more prone to flats and require more effort to pedal. You may want to buy a pump, or there may be a bike shop near you that will allow you to use their compressor for free. If you buy a pump, get one with a pressure gauge built in. Your tires will have a recommended pressure range stamped on the sidewall.

Finally, don't worry about the hand signals until you're comfortable riding. It takes a little practice to be able to throw your hands around without affecting your balance. It's not a terribly hard skill to develop, but it's easier if you leave it aside at first. What you need to practice first is: getting moving on the bike from a dead stop, riding in a straight line, turning the bike, and coming to a stop.
posted by egregious theorem at 11:22 PM on June 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Lots of great advice here. When I learned at 26, the biggest factor of my success was setting a time limit on practice. 20 minutes every day. So some days, I'd be doing well at the end and finish feeling good about things. I know that had I not, I probably would have ended each session after falling and that's no way to build confidence.

I also practiced on an unused tennis court. Unlike parking lots, I never had to worry that a car might show up. Also it was far from the street so fewer people could see me.

I bike commute every day now. It can be done. I have faith in you.
posted by advicepig at 7:20 AM on June 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Man, I feel you on the information overload. So much bro-ey gearhead info out there dominating the forums who assume of course you already know how to ride a bike because "everybody" learned as a kid so now you can get into pissing contests over how many fewer grams your bike weighs compared to everybody else's and component crap that's just not relevant to where you are right now. I knew how to ride a bike when I bought my first adult bike and I still found the available online information obnoxious and unhelpful, so you have my sympathies for that.

My husband learned how to ride a bike in the space of a few weeks when he was 37, with weekly classes from our local bike school and some practice in-between lessons; I'm the borderline-size woman transportation cycling enthusiast who cheered him on. :] Susan's instructions for teaching yourself are exactly how she taught my husband, and he wasn't the oldest person in his class! Basically, the first thing you practice and learn is how to balance on a bike, and how steering plays into that. Once you know how to do that, *then* you put the pedals back on the bike and add that aspect into your learning.

And yes, you'll completely avoid stabilisers doing this; stabilisers actually *impede* your ability to learn how to balance and make the learning process take longer. Many kids in my neighborhood who are learning how to ride now never had them on their bikes; they started with balance bikes with no pedals before moving to grown-up bikes with pedals.

Once you've learned how to ride a bike well enough in a safe area separate from cars [grassy lawn, empty parking lot, one with a gentle slope is ideal], then you can take a class on riding in traffic; many towns and cities offer them through their rec departments.

When you buy or borrow a bike for learning, three things matter:
- the seat should be able to go low enough that when you're on it, you can put your feet flat enough on the ground that you'll feel comfortable "catching" yourself while you're learning.
- the cross bar in the middle should be low enough that when you're standing over it, it's not hitting you in the crotch when you jump off the seat. As a petite woman, I prefer "step-through" bikes for this aspect alone.
- make sure you can remove [and put back on] the pedals.

I disagree with AFABulous on their final point [though I agree with all of their other points]: a lighter bike weight is only a determinant of a "good bike" for advanced road racers and tourers, and I would recommend against that kind of bike for you while you're still a true beginner. Those kinds of bikes are designed for speed; they're going to be more difficult to learn how to balance on, and the lighter they are, the more overpriced they're going to be for what you need. For you right now, the only thing a lighter weight bike is going to do is make it slightly easier to carry up and down stairs if you need to. You're probably going to be looking at "city" bikes and hybrids as a learner; wider tires than roadies, lower middle bars if any, and the best quality of these will be heavier because they'll be made of steel rather than aluminum to resist rusting when you inevitably have to park them somewhere unsheltered in a rainstorm. [Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of money up front, though; buy a "good-enough" middle-of-the-road quality bike to learn on, and then as you get better, you'll develop more of a feeling for what suits you in a bike you're willing to spend more for.] But in all likelihood, your first bike is going to weigh in right around the 14-15 kg mark, so the number just doesn't matter; it's how comfortable you feel on it.

The meetup group sebastienballard mentioned has a list of women-friendly bike shops in Glasgow on their discussion board - they sound like a potentially good resource.

In sum: your long-term goals are completely reasonable, and I wish you great joy in meeting them. Welcome to biking!
posted by Pandora Kouti at 7:44 AM on June 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would recommend a step through, as they are more comfortable to get on and off for tubby short people like me. They are also easier to bail off if you're falling sideways. If you want to use it as your main form of transport, get mudguards and a rear rack, preferably made for that model of bike, as I find the add-ons to be more flimsy and rattley.

I think the Electra Townie would suit your needs, unless your area is very, very hilly. The pedals are further forward and the seat lower, so you can put your feet flat on the ground whenever you want. I met someone who learnt on one as an adult. She had balance issues, but loved riding the townie, as it wasn't scary. It won't go particularly fast, and you might have trouble standing up to get extra power up steep hills (though it is geared pretty low, so you will eventually get there!). If you live in a place with serious topography, an electric bike is a good option, but they've got some pretty hefty pricetags (cheaper than a car though).
posted by kjs4 at 5:59 PM on June 26, 2017

One way to get a feeling for the balance required is to go roll down a gentle grassy hill. Adjust your seat so you can put your feet down flat, get to the top of the hill [which should be almost flat enough to not be a hill, no sledding hills wanted] and push off a bit. You won't have to think about the pedaling, just getting an idea of how it feels to balance and what it feels like to lose said balance. After you're confident with that, put your feet up on the pedals while you roll down the hill. Then start pedaling. Try a little more of a hill. Etc.

Years ago one of our friend's kids was totally unable to get the hang of it in the usual manner of riding around on the sidewalk or parking lot. An afternoon of rolling down a hill off Wirth Parkway and she was good to go.
posted by chazlarson at 8:24 PM on June 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

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