Is it the bike or me?
December 24, 2020 10:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering taking up biking but I'm tired of falling off. I'm trying to figure out whether the issue is the bike itself or if there's something I can do.

I learned how to ride a bike as a child and enjoyed it, but I've always had a hard time staying upright and I fall off a lot. After a minor injury about ten years ago I gave up and said I'm just not good at riding. But now I'm considering trying again.

I'm wondering though if part of the problem might be that I've never had a bike that fits me. I'm barely five feet tall and the bike always feels like it's too tall, even my first "adult" bike I got as a teen. I have one I got for free in my basement right now but I know it has the same problem. I always adjust the bike so that the seat is as low as possible, but I don't have a lot of bike knowledge.

Is there a way to improve my balance on a bike without sacrificing my skin to the pavement? Yoga, exercises, etc? Or should I just get on the thing and ride and try to stay upright? I mostly seem to fall off when I hit bad pavement or difficult/tight spaces.

Or is there a way to determine if the bike is at least part of the problem? I googled for bikes for short people and the ones I found were all like $500. That's a lot to spend to find out I'm still going to fall off. If there's a way to make the free bike work I'd like to try it.

More info that might be helpful: I'm plus size so a child's bike is unlikely to be workable, and I'd be riding on pavement. There are a couple local bike shops in the area but obviously COVID makes that complicated.
posted by possibilityleft to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
When you say you fall off, exactly how? Does the bike start leaning, and then over you go? If that's the case, steer into the fall. Yes this means you will now be going in a different direction, so it's good to practice this first in a wide open area.

Are you sure you're going fast enough? Bikes are stable at speed, and get trickier to control the slower you go.

If the bicycle is not the right size for you, it could certainly aggravate any issues, but once you get the hang of it you should be able to ride without falling off even if the size is wrong. While you're learning it's helpful to do it on a bike that's too small so you can comfortably put both feet on the ground without getting off the saddle.
posted by phliar at 11:05 AM on December 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Maybe a recumbent bike would work for you. They sit much lower to the ground and you can always easily put your feet on the ground. Many years ago, I broke my arm (not on a bike) and became fearful of falling off my bike. I got a recumbent, The riding position was nearly upright and my feet were always within inches of the ground. I was very fat and the recumbent's wide seat was much more comfortable than a standard skinny bike seat. I only fell once but I was able to get my feet down and roll sideways slowly without injury. They arr rather pricy but sometimes you can find them used.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:07 AM on December 24, 2020

Like phliar, on preview, I would really like to know how you are falling off. Do you feel you are unable to control your bike on rough pavement/tight areas?

Have someone help you with a very rudimentary bike fit. Normally I would suggest you go to a bike shop to do this - they'll generally do it as a courtesy - but as you noted, COVID makes this complicated. Have someone you trust hold your shoulders while you mount the bike in your normal position, but without actually trying to ride the bike. Pedal backwards (so you don't ride away) and see where your knees are at different parts of the stroke. At the bottom of the stroke (for each leg), your knees should be very slightly bent - somewhere in the 20-30 degree area is generally reasonable. Generally, this doesn't occur with the seat at the lowest position; if it did, I would expect the bike is too large. Such a bike would also have too much "reach", which would both make it tiring to use and difficult to steer. This isn't anywhere near a full fit, but it's a good starting point.

As a further off possibility, I would check your bike's headset adjustment. A loose headset will make the bike oversteer and have very touchy steering (and will damage the bike). It's also really common in infrequently maintained bikes. Again, normally a bike shop would check this for you. You can do so by holding your bike front wheel in between your legs with you facing the bike. You can then hold down the bike breaks and attempt to rock the bike back and forth. If you feel like the front of the bike where the handlebar meets the frame of the bike is moving back and forth, the headset is possibly loose. I would not recommend trying to adjust your bike's headset without some mechanical experience with the bike - you can easily destroy the headset, and that's an expensive repair. However, checking if it is adjusted correctly is relatively easy.
posted by saeculorum at 11:13 AM on December 24, 2020

There are adult tricycles.
posted by LaBellaStella at 11:40 AM on December 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

As a very short person I also found bike riding rather harrowing, and it was years before I experienced a properly fit bike and realized it didn't have to be so hard. Being able to easily put a foot down on the ground, the distance from handlebars to seat, etc. So I definitely agree that getting a frame that's the right size and having it fit to you properly will help.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:43 AM on December 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

Aside from height, another thing to possibly check out is the different styles of bicycle. I had a lot of trouble riding bikes as an adult even though I used to bike around a lot as a kid. Then, I realized that as a kid, I only ever had a BMX-style bike and as an adult I had only ridden 10-speeds/road bikes. Basically, I only really successfully rode bikes where you sit pretty upright rather than kinda hunched over. So, after consulting with some more bike-savvy friends, I got myself a cruiser-style bike (similar to this one) off of Craigslist and after only a little bit of practice, I was able to bike pretty normally.
posted by mhum at 12:07 PM on December 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Our instinct is often to slow down drastically on a bad patch of road, causing us to lose the stability that naturally comes from the angular momentum of spinning wheels. It is a good idea to slow down before entering a rough area if you’re already moving pretty fast, but it’s really important to maintain enough speed to let the bike handle the roughness. That urge to hit the brakes when we start getting jostled and feeling the handlebar deflect is hard to resist, but it’s usually what causes us to fall over in situations like that.

When it comes to navigating really tight spots, it may just be better to dismount and walk the bike past obstacles rather than try to make sharp turns at very low speeds.

It’s very possible that your bike was the wrong size for you, which is difficult to get right when a lot of manufacturers only make S, M, L frame sizes. You can get a ballpark idea what size frame would best suit you from online calculators like this. It’s also possible that a different type of bike would be better for you. For example, city bikes are inherently more stable than road bikes because they have a lower center of gravity, longer wheelbase, and other differences having to do with frame geometry.
posted by theory at 12:15 PM on December 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm shorter than you and I really like 1970s boys' road bikes. The proportions are perfect for me, and that makes a big difference. I never fell off a larger bike, but the geometry was definitely off and it felt all kinds of wrong. Dropping the seat way down often exacerbates the problem too. There honestly arent many good bike options for the 5' and under crowd.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 12:16 PM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would suggest considering a recumbent tricycle. Recumbents have actual room to sit, and tricycles don't require the same level of balance (which is also really nice going slow up hills!).
posted by aniola at 12:38 PM on December 24, 2020

I’m 5’0” and I feel you! You might be able to rent a bike sized for you and try it out, or just take a bike for a test ride. Check out Liv bikes, they come in XS and supposedly the geometry is better for women. It’s a precarious feeling being so high up that any mistake is a matter of falling over and not just ungracefully dismounting.
posted by HotToddy at 12:47 PM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't think you should rule out children's/teen/youth bikes just because you're plus-size. I don't know exactly how big you are but I don't think the frame of a child's bike is going to crumple under the weight of even a very large adult. The wheels will go out of true faster and you might break a spoke or two. But you could break the wheels on about 15 used kids' bikes for the price of one recumbent or decent trike.
posted by mskyle at 12:55 PM on December 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

If the bike is too big it will definitely be harder to balance and if the wheels are too big then it'll make things like making turns harder as well. I'd think a kid's bike would be strong enough to handle the weight of an adult but you may need to get stronger brakes to make sure there's sufficient stopping power.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:56 PM on December 24, 2020

Nthing a request for follow-up about what is happening in a fall. Slower speeds are nonintuitively less stable. Keeping your hips pointed forward is the best way to stay upright and rubber side down.

I would urge you to stick with two wheel standard geometry bikes, not trikes or recumbent. Those are not easier to ride. Recumbents rely on the rider keeping their hips straight to steer, and trikes will steer all over the place if you are on anything less than perfectly level ground. You should look at cruiser bikes that allow you to sit straight up, and put a flat foot on the ground. A combo coaster/hand brake should give you plenty of braking power.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 12:59 PM on December 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

If the handlebars are too high compared to the seat it might be throwing off your center of gravity in relation to the bike's and making you imbalanced, which could certainly lead to a fall of you're not used to riding. You want your weight somewhat on the handlebars, which gives more control when turning and better front wheel traction.
posted by ananci at 1:19 PM on December 24, 2020

Basic fitting for conventional bikes: The seat should be adjusted so that when the ball of your foot is on the pedal, your knee has a slight bend in it like this. You should also be able to stand over the frame with at least an inch of clearance like this. Those photos come from this article which, on a quick skim, looks like a decent overview.

Reaching the ground: Some frames are designed so the rider can reach the ground. Some aren't, because the geometry is optimized for other things. Most bike manufacturers, as you seem to have discovered, do a pretty bad job of designing bikes for shorter people - they tweak the frame geometry a bit, but don't bother switching to smaller wheels or shorter cranks. That means the seat can only go so low and the handlebars are usually higher relative to the seat than they would be on the same model in a larger size.

Bikes that are better for reaching the ground: Besides the few framebuilders who design bikes specifically for shorter people, you might look into:
- Recumbents - mentioned above; they're incredibly comfortable; cheaper ones can be found on craigslist; and recumbent trikes are more stable than upright trikes if you want to completely eliminate the need to balance. I ride recumbent trikes; they're awesome. (of course, you'll be hard pressed to buy a recumbent, let alone a trike, for less than $500 even secondhand, and figuring out what kind of recumbent is right for you is a whole other research project)
- Crank Forward a.k.a. Flat Foot bikes - They place the seat lower and further back relative to the pedals in an arrangement that's about halfway to a recumbent so riders can more easily get their feet flat on the ground, but the basic geometry and handling remain quite similar to a regular upright bike. The Electra Townie is the best known budget option; RANS makes higher-end ones. Day6 and the (no longer made, but often found on craigslist) Giant Revive are "semi-recumbents" with an even more extreme down-and-back shift to the seat.
- Folding Bikes - pretty good option; most folding bikes have small wheels and an enormous range of seat adjustment. Basic ones are often cheap, especially secondhand, but may not have the best handling characteristics (usually a "twitchy" feel to the steering). High-end ones from makers like Brompton, Bike Friday, and possibly even Tern are known for handling a lot more like full-size bikes. Bike Fridays on craigslist are starting to get more affordable, and they're really high-quality bikes.
- Kids Bikes again - many bikes made for kids are low quality... which, for bike manufacturers, means cheap, heavy materials. Heavy materials means they can actually be quite durable! Wheels may be less so, but there's overlap between kids bike wheel sizes and BMX wheel sizes, and BMX components are built to withstand a lot of abuse. They're also one of the few places you see short crankarms (photo shows traditional length of 170-175mm, but much shorter cranks can be found on kids, BMX, and some other specialty bikes) which allow builders to make frames that sit much closer to the ground without the pedals hitting the pavement.

How to practice balancing on a bike: In case you haven't heard this advice already, I'll repeat it here: The way to develop a good sense of balance on a bike is to lower the seat until you can get your feet flat on the ground, take the pedals off, and push yourself around. Get really confident in your ability to steer before you put the pedals back on.

Good luck, and I hope you find a way to bike that works for you!

P.S.: What kind of riding do you want to do? Just for fun? Focus on exercise/fitness? Commuting? Something else?

P.P.S.: Bike Collectives can be a great resource for affordable bikes, and they are sometimes more flexible than conventional bike shops in working with people to meet unusual requirements in creative ways (e.g. finding some strong BMX wheels to swap onto a kids bike). Your Bike Collective May Vary.
posted by sibilatorix at 1:42 PM on December 24, 2020 [7 favorites]

I mostly seem to fall off when I hit bad pavement or difficult/tight spaces.

I'm also plus-sized and picked up biking in my early 30s (I hadn't ridden at all since I was 16). I ride primarily for fun and transportation. This happened to me when I first started, too. For me, it was because when I approached something that looked tricky to me (like sketchy pavement or a narrow pass) I'd sorta freeze up, resulting in either significantly slowing my pedaling or stopping pedaling entirely.

The thing about bikes is that they only stay upright if you keep pedaling. Once I learned that it's actually safest to keep pedaling at my normal pace and proceed confidently forward, I stopped falling off.

Of course you'll want to be alert to any actual obstacles, and quickly but thoughtfully make the decision whether to ride across the bad pavement or around it, or whether to pass through the narrow space or dismount and walk through/around it.

That in-the-moment decision-making is what makes me (and others I've helped start biking) freeze, stop, and fall. You develop the ability to make those decisions faster by just... having to make them. I assume it's similar for driving, but I don't drive. I recommend lots of practice in relatively safe areas, like car-free paths or wide open lots.
posted by rhiannonstone at 2:52 PM on December 24, 2020 [8 favorites]

The seat height may be a factor, too.

"As low as it will go" may in fact be the right height for you, but in that case, it means your bike is probably a smidge too large overall for you, and that makes it harder to feel comfortable riding it. Or it might be too low for you, which means your legs aren't getting to use their full power and mechanical advantage, making it hard to pedal with confidence and control -- and it's also pretty hard on your knees over time.

A professional bike fitting is one option, though it's both expensive and probably inadvisable if your area has high COVID numbers. If you're going to try another bike, the shop (even a used bike collective-type shop) will help make sure you get one that fits you. But you can also just experiment with raising the seat a little more and going out to your safe practice spot and seeing if it changes things for you.
posted by rhiannonstone at 2:58 PM on December 24, 2020

Have you learned the correct way to start and stop on a bicycle? I've cycled for transportation since I was in my early 20s but reading this article five years into my bicycle commuting really changed my perception of how to set a bike up correctly: Starting and Stopping, by Sheldon Brown. It has a convenient embedded video that will help you as well. Before reading this article I would start more or less as I had when I rode bikes as a kid: sit on the saddle, push with one foot to get momentum going, and then I was off. But that style isn't super safe and leads you to adjust your bike so it's easy to mount/dismount (lower saddle with foot touching the ground while seated), rather than optimizing it for riding (saddle adjusted so your knee is only slightly bent at the lowest point on a pedal rotation). Fuller leg extension lets you go faster with less effort, and speed increases stability. It's a small thing that most of us never learn formally, but it made a huge difference in my confidence and ability to start my bike in basically any conditions, including going up steep hills or on rocky trails.

Sheldon Brown has a wealth of information on bicycle fit and other topics if you really want to get into it. But I'd suggest just dusting off that old bike, bringing along a set of hex wrenches to make adjustments, and riding it on a quiet, flattish street to get a feel for it, while practicing those starts and stops. If you can stand over the top tube, and you can reach the handlebars while you're on the saddle without feeling like you're straining something, that bike will likely work. Good luck!
posted by kdar at 3:18 PM on December 24, 2020 [8 favorites]

Yeah, a really key piece of information: when you have the seat all the way down, can you have your butt on it and touch the ground at all? If not, that bike is too big for you. You don’t need a formal bike fitting to figure this out. You should be able to straddle the seat and be balanced.

There are also bikes where your feet can be flat on the ground when you’re sitting on it, but that’s about style of bike, not just where the seat is.

Bike shops are open and bike sales have been brisk. I’d suggest calling your local shop. Also, don’t rule out kids’ bikes. Bikes are sturdy!
posted by bluedaisy at 3:18 PM on December 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice above!

If you want to buy a bike, I'd go new - you will get much better advice. Is there a woman-owned bike shop local to you? That's where I wound up getting a bike that fit me; they try to stock brands and models that cover those of us on the shorter end of the height spectrum.

I've taken a few minor spills in the situations you mentioned. If I think it's gonna be too dicey for me, I just get off and walk the bike. Not a big deal! Better to get there in one piece, even if it takes a little longer.
posted by invokeuse at 3:52 PM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

It is much easier to balance on a bike that is too small for you than one that is too large. Nthing the call to try a kid's bike that lets you sit upright. Consider trying one that is just a bit to small, as long as you can get your knees in comfortably under the handlebars.

Consider a mountain bike which is lower to the ground than some other types. It also should have wider tires. You want wider tires for stability. Wider tires and a lower centre of gravity are good. The lower to the ground the less tippy the bike will be. A mountain bike will also be sturdier which will help since you are above skinny kid weight.

Somewhere along the line bikes went from "how kids get around" to status ten speeds for people that want to race. You don't need a bike where you have to hunch over for speed and in fact they are more dangerous because you can see more when you are not leaning forward. Those bikes work better when going fast which is not a good idea for someone who fears toppling.

But be aware that a short, slow going mountain bike may not be optimal for traffic. You'll be less visible and not able to move at the same speed as cars, and maybe even not as fast as the cars expect.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:28 PM on December 24, 2020

I see a few recommendations for smaller bikes but stay away from bikes with small wheels - they're “twitchy” and you don’t get the benefit of gyroscopic stability that full sized bikes have.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:09 PM on December 24, 2020

The "gyroscopic stability" arguments in here are weird; it's the angle of the fork doing the stabilizing work, not the negligible weight of spinning wheels, but it's true that shorter forks lead to twitchier bikes. I sympathize with your problem though, and adult bike geometries for short people aren't spectacular, but you do have choices.

First off, sell or give away your free basement bike. The most important thing about bike fitting is "do you feel happy and comfortable on this bike", and from the sound of it your basement bike isn't doing that for you - the fact that you're still unhappy with it despite setting the seat "as low as possible" tells me that this frame is at least two sizes too large for you. You will never need to bottom out a seatpost on a bike that fits properly, and if you're bottoming out the seatpost on this frame and it's still too high, there's no way you're not also leaned way too far forward to be comfortable, and that is a very uncomfortable and unstable posture. There's a bike for you out there, but this isn't it.

If you have the means, I would consider buying or borrowing a second-hand bike closer to your size - as per the advice above, look for something cruiser-like, that lets you sit close to upright and keep your feet on the ground when you're stopped that looks to be in reasonably good condition - and trying it out to get comfortable with it for a few weeks or months and then selling it once you're comfortable with the idea of cycling.

Once that's done, and you're comfortable with cycling and have a decent idea of bike sizing, buy the nicest bike you can afford in a style that makes you happy.
posted by mhoye at 5:41 AM on December 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone! I kind of posted this on a whim and didn't expect so many responses! From the responses I am sure the bike (and every bike I've ever had) is too big -- I can never touch the ground when on the seat. But you guys also offered a lot of tips for finding a good one, and even possibly cheap, so that's great!

To answer a couple of questions - this is for fun/exercise - my wife and my BFF both love biking as a fun amateur hobby and I'd love to go out with them.

A few people mentioned freezing up at difficult places possibly being the cause of falling off -- from the description it seems likely. So once I get on a bike again I will keep that in mind, and the confidence of knowing how to start/stop and how to feel secure on the thing will almost definitely help.

Thank you.<3
posted by possibilityleft at 2:29 PM on December 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

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