It's easy as riding a bike. I want to believe!
September 19, 2007 10:12 AM   Subscribe

At the relatively old age of 29, I've decided to relearn* how to ride a bike. Bicycle, that is. What are the unspoken (ha!) rules and things I should know?

I'm looking for answers along the line of when to ride on the street, when to ride on the curb, where to lock the bike up and how, what not to wear and how best to carry stuff, braking tips, biking ettiquette, etc. These are all things that don't seem to be written down anywhere, but everybody pretty much picks up with experience. Except me, of course. I'd like to NOT learn the hard way! Please help me.

Picture of my bike is here: visible.
Other helpful background info: I am a small girl (5' tall, but I haven't even figured out how to adjust the damn seat yet!), I live in semi-sketchy part of Oakland, and *I knew how to ride a bike for about a month when I was six, but then my parents took it away and I was never able to ride again. Otherwise, I'm normal, active (lots of other sports in the mix), and happy (except for the bike part. But I don't want to hear "your parents took your bike away, us MeFites think you need to go straight to therapy!")

With your help, I hope to be out there confidently biking along soon! Thanks!
posted by iamkimiam to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (36 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I had about as much as biking experience as you (I learned at 6 and once I knew I could stay up, I quit doing it) and I picked it up pretty quickly again in high school. In fact, I picked it up by renting a bike and riding it across the Golden Gate Bridge, which was a pretty moronic thing to do.

My advice to you is to make sure you lock the front wheel as well as the frame if you have one of those front wheels that comes off easily. And you can get a ticket for biking drunk.
posted by crinklebat at 10:23 AM on September 19, 2007

Ride in the street almost all the time. Ride on the sidewalk almost never. Get lights. Avoid riding in the "door" area of parked cars- drivers coming up behind you can easily see you and maneuver around you, while people opening their car doors are generally not paying attention at all. Oakland streets are often crappy and full of potholes; pay attention to the surface. Use your front brake. Learn hand signals and use them, even if you feel like a total dork. Lock your bike up where there's lots of people to see it- use a good u-lock through the frame and back tire. It's nice to also have a cable lock for front tires in especially sketchy places, or for all-day lockups. Read lots of Sheldon Brown. It's OK to ride as slow as you want. You are allowed to be in traffic- don't let drivers intimidate you. If you do feel intimidated, go ahead and pull over and let the idiot pass you. Expect Oakland drivers to do the strangest an most dangerous things at all times. Don't assume they see you unless you have made eye contact.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:25 AM on September 19, 2007

Wear a helmet. I spilled the other day and mine saved me from some nasty head injuries. In fact, I'll probably need to replace it.
posted by jquinby at 10:27 AM on September 19, 2007

1) Wear a helmet
2) You always ride with vehicular traffic (same side of the road going the same direction), runners and other pedestrians should be going against traffic.
3) Never ride on the curb/sidewalk on normal streets. Don't ride on highways, expressways
4) Get a loud bike bell that can be rung at an instant without moving your hands too much
5) Stay 4 ft. from cars parked on the side of the road to avoid getting doored, but also pay attention to who, if any body is inside the upcoming cars.
posted by zackola at 10:30 AM on September 19, 2007

To adjust the seat you need to loosen the nut (or maybe allen screw) on that metal collar right where the seat post goes into the green tube of the bike's frame. This will allow you to move the post up and down to the position you want it in, after which you'll re-tighten the nut.

Conventional Wisdom dictates that you should position the seat such that you can just barely touch your toes to the ground when you're sitting on it. For a beginner, it might be a good idea to put it a bit lower until you get more comfortable with your balance.

And on preview: Yes, wear a helmet.
posted by contraption at 10:30 AM on September 19, 2007

Also: where to find or download bike maps for Oakland on this page.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:33 AM on September 19, 2007

Aside from the obvious safety concerns, speed is your friend when learning to ride anything where balance is key.

Also, the hairier the traffic situation, the more you should exercise your right to use a full lane of traffic. Don't be intimidated toward a risky situation by drivers who don't want you in front of them.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:36 AM on September 19, 2007

If you're wearing long pants, you might need to hike up the cuff on your right leg to keep your pants from catching in the gears. If you want to pass a biker in front of you, be sure to call out "passing on your left," and be aware that others may try to pass you this way (they often do so fairly quickly, especially if you're just beginning).
posted by SBMike at 10:44 AM on September 19, 2007

If you begin wandering too far away from home, it would probably be a good idea to make sure you know how to fix a flat tire.
posted by jaimev at 10:45 AM on September 19, 2007

And for bare minimum maintenance, be sure to pump your tires and oil your chain (WD-40 works well) regularly.
posted by SBMike at 10:47 AM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

keeping you tires in good shape and properly inflated is the best way to prevent getting flat tires, also, WD-40 is not generally recommended as a chain lube these days, any bike shop will sell you a decent, cheap chain lube.

As for riding around Oakland, drivers are sketchy as all hell, so I've found that a good offense is the best defense, i.e. stay focused on what's going on around you and ride with a bit of energy, not to say that you need to be super fast at all times, but be prepared to react and respond at all times.

also, that's a super cute bike, good luck and have a blast, riding bikes in the bay area is the best...
posted by garethspor at 11:00 AM on September 19, 2007

The best thing for me when I started riding a bike again (after about a 15 year hiatus) was to go on two or three city rides with my friends who biked more regularly. It's easier to get a feel for it when you're following someone. Two things I have learned recently: fully inflated tires and the right seat height make a HUGE difference. And always assume that you're invisible, because half the time you will be to drivers.
posted by slowfasthazel at 11:01 AM on September 19, 2007

jquinty - I think you're supposed to replace your helmet any time it's in an accident. Even if you can't see any damage, the helmet's not guaranteed to save you a second time.
posted by amtho at 11:07 AM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't ride on the sidewalk. Your risk of getting hit by a car is something like 8x as great, not to mention it is slower, less convenient, and (depending on local laws) illegal unless you dismount at every intersection.

When riding on the street, if you have a choice between inconveniencing a motorist by forcing him to change lanes, and permitting him to sideswipe you in the same lane, inconvenience him. Very few drivers are sufficiently psychopathic that they'll ram you square-on, but many have sufficiently poor judgment that they'll sideswipe you.

Don't ride in the "door zone" of parked cars. If you ride at night, get a headlight and taillight. If you want the ultimate reference on bike commuting, pick up the book Effective Cycling.

There are other learning-to-ride threads on AskMe—you might look those up.
posted by adamrice at 11:09 AM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

amtho - am definitely going to replace soon as I get my arm out of the splint and sling. Orthopedist tomorrow! Huzzah!

posted by jquinby at 11:11 AM on September 19, 2007

I took up city cycling at the age of 29 too. It's well worth doing. Nice bike btw!

Best thing I did was - I got my experienced cyclist buddy to go out with me on the first two or three trips I did - along my regular routes. Watching what he was doing helped a lot (it also helped that he's a competent cyclist). I was learning to drive around the same time, and I found that learning to deal with full on city traffic on a bicycle was a similar learning experience, and something I did need to take seriously - just learning how buses, taxis, trucks etc behave.

Also, and I'll probably be burnt as a witch for this, but I don't wear a helmet . I do wear a high vis jacket though. Being seen is half the battle.
posted by tiny crocodile at 11:13 AM on September 19, 2007

Has your bike been checked out by a mechanic? It looks shiny and nice in the picture, but that doesn't mean it's safe. If you bought it from a shop, they should've adjusted the seat height for you, so I'm guessing not. If not, consider taking it in to a local bike shop for a once-over. A basic tune-up shouldn't be more than $50, and will ensure that your cables are tight, brake pads are good, chain and other bits are lubed, wheels are true, etc.

Your bike doesn't have lights. Get some and turn them on when dusk approaches. Red on the back, white on the front... for urban riding, the front one doesn't really need to illuminate the roadway so much as make you visible to oncoming traffic. Consider multiple-LED lights that offer flashing/strobing options, as they will be both more visible and last longer on a battery. You'll probably want to remove these lights whenever you lock up, by the way. Most just slide into a mounting.

What do you want to be carrying? I use a rear rack with collapsible metal baskets attached (like these) and am pretty happy. They're great for groceries, library books, etc., and conveniently fold up and out of the way when not in use. A bungie net can be convenient when you want to strap down a box, bag or something to the top of your rack.

On preview, lots of good advice. Wear a helmet. Make eye contact with drivers. Ride on the street most of the time, generally behaving as a car would, but know that you can bail and become a "pedestrian" if things get too hairy. I guess above all, be predictable -- if cars know what to expect, in terms of lane-changing, stopping, turning, etc, they're much less likely to hit you by accident (or, sadly, on purpose sometimes). If you're really worried about visibility, since it sounds like Oakland drivers may not pay as much attention to cyclists as they should, consider wearing a lightweight safety orange vest type thing.

If you're not into your neighborhood, get that way. Find local destinations that you can bike to with relative ease -- maybe a 3 mile radius? -- like friends' places, grocery stores, restaurants, bars, etc and frequent them, to get comfortable on your new mode of transport.

Oakland looks to be a decent place for cycling, at least in terms of civic commitment and facilities. Use those resources, and local cycling-oriented sites to improve your experience. Have fun!
posted by mumkin at 11:14 AM on September 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

Read this book. It's a great guide to the things you might not otherwise think about when riding (for example, keeping track of potholes on your normal routes, watching out for concrete waves). On top of it, it presents the different theories of bike riding (yes, there are different theories of bike riding that are defended by some with near Mac vs. PC vigor) without taking sides.
posted by drezdn at 11:14 AM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Helmet. I see what happens when people don't wear them. You don't want that.

Balance your use of front and rear brakes. The front brake provides more stopping power but can send you over the handlebars when used too aggressively.
posted by itstheclamsname at 11:33 AM on September 19, 2007

Wear gloves when you ride. Cycling gloves come in many styles, from $10 to $40, but anything is better than none. Like a helmet, when the time comes (and it will eventually) you will be thankful you had them on.
posted by pgoes at 11:39 AM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Urban Bikers' Tips & Tricks is a great book for the beginner. It's got answers to most of answers and more. You can get a taste of it at the author's site.

Safe Bicycling in Chicagoland has tips that apply to any metropolitan area. Especially good to know is where to ride in traffic. Some more on that. One point I'd like to emphasize: When stopped at an intersection, stay to the left of the right lane, so cars turning right can get by you. If they don't turn right, they'll at least have seen you. Get in front of them and move to the right as you cross the intersection.

I wouldn't bother with a bell. Use your voice instead.
Helmet yes, lights yes, headphones no.

Before you ride in heavy traffic, practice stopping, starting, shifting, and looking behind you without swerving until you can do these without thought or hesitation. If the last one is too tricky for now, invest in a mirror.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:41 AM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you can make it across the Bay on a Saturday, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offers Urban Bike Training. The first session doesn't require a bike.
posted by moonlet at 12:17 PM on September 19, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! So many great ideas and helpful suggestions!
posted by iamkimiam at 12:24 PM on September 19, 2007

I can't stress enough the need to be assertive in traffic. Often if I'm feeling crowded by a car, rather than moving to the right and into the door zone, I'll move left. Almost always the driver gets nervous and backs off, giving me more room.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 12:36 PM on September 19, 2007

The biggest effects I see on enjoyment for inexperienced adult riders are:

- proper fit. (1) Make sure the seat is at the proper height. With the pedal all the way at the bottom of the stroke (6 o'clock) the seat should be at the height that your heel can rest on the pedal with your leg straight. When you pedal, put the ball of your foot on the center of the pedal. You will have a slightly bent knee at the bottom of the stroke. If the seat is too low, your knees will probably hurt. If the seat is too high, you'll feel on tippy-toes and your hips will rock as you pedal. (2) The handlebar grips should be well above the top of the seat, probably at least 4". The more upright, the more comfortable the bike will feel to ride. A bike shop can help you adjust this. (3) Finally, with seat and handlebars in position, holding the handlbars should feel natural. If you're straining to reach the bars, you feel too stretched, then the frame is too long for you. This is a very common problem for petite women particularly. A bike shop can help by replacing the support for your handlebars (the "stem", it's called), if the distance isn't too much.

- maintenance: keep your tires inflated to the number of psi on the side of the tires. Invest 15$ in a bike pump. Soft tires cause flats and make it harder to pedal.

The best bike skill you can learn is to ride a stright line. Many riders weave side to side as they pedal, which makes travel on mixed-use bike paths or roads with cars hazardous. Draw a chalk line on the road and try to stay on it. It's harder than it looks! It does take a bit of practice to get, but it will give you a lot more confidence on the bike.

The second best skill is to ride with your head up. Don't watch your front tire! Your eyes and ears are your most important protection on a bike. You'll find that it's much easier for you to see other people, cars, etc... than it is for them to see you. A helmet is a good idea as a last resort for when things go wrong, but it's not a magic amulet that will protect you from harm.

Most important, have fun. The best bike to ride is the one you have.
posted by bonehead at 12:40 PM on September 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Do not use WD-40 on a chain. It will clean the helpful oil off, leaving it poorly lubricated.
posted by toastchee at 1:09 PM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

seconding hydrophonic, and also see the BikeSense manual from British Columbia. There are vital traffic safety skills that the majority of recreational bikers never learn because they are taught how to bike on suburban streets and sidwalks as children, rather than how to ride in traffic, which is not as scary as it sounds.

For example, and to reiterate:
Never ever ever pass a car on the right if there is any chance that car could make a right turn. Position yourself at intersections so that cars that want to make a right turn can do so without cutting in front of you.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:40 PM on September 19, 2007

If you're riding with traffic, and another cyclist is riding against traffic towards you, make them pass you on the outside, between you and the traffic. They can easily see the passing cars coming up behind you; you can't. Keep your eyes front and pull to the right, a little closer to the curb or parked cars.

And of course if you're riding against traffic as is occasionally unavoidable and someone's riding towards you, do the right thing and pass outside them so they don't have to ride blindly out into the traffic.
posted by nicwolff at 2:13 PM on September 19, 2007

Hmm, didn't realize WD-40 was so harmful, but after checking a few sites, it does indeed seem that I gave some bad advice. Sorry about that, and thanks to those of you that pointed it out. I'll definitely look into alternatives for my own bike.
posted by SBMike at 2:47 PM on September 19, 2007

Just about anything described as a lubricating oil will work fine on bike chains---I know people that use motor oil. Personally, I use Phil's lube, because I have a big can of it.

If you're looking for something that won't mark pantlegs (much) look into some of the wax-based products like Finish Line or Pedro's Wax (at bike shops). They're quite expensive for what you get, IMO, and have to be reoiled after rain.
posted by bonehead at 2:59 PM on September 19, 2007

Carry some minimal tools with you: a box wrench to get the wheels off, tire levers, a patch kit, maybe a pump. Here's my collection, it fits in the front pocket of my backpack.

Make friends with the helpful guys at Montano Velo on Piedmont, they can assist you in adjusting everything for a comfortable ride.

Get one of the ride/walk maps that oneirodynia linked to, they have street grade marked so you can avoid the steep parts of town.

Use the Caltrans bike shuttle ($1!) if you need to cross the bay during commute hours. Don't get on the front car of a BART train with your bike. AC Transit is dead to you, now that you have a faster, cheaper, and more reliable mode of transport.

That's a sweet bike. Took me a second to get the lolcat tag. =)
posted by migurski at 3:06 PM on September 19, 2007

I just started riding a bike two weeks ago after not being on one for ten years, but from my reading I'll give a reason for the sidewalk advice:

Don't ride on the sidewalk. Your risk of getting hit by a car is something like 8x as great, not to mention it is slower, less convenient, and (depending on local laws) illegal unless you dismount at every intersection.
and etc...

The 8x hit rate is because you shoot into intersections through the pedestrian crossing but at bicycle speeds, which suggests the rational precaution to me of not shooting through the pedestrian crossing at bicycle speeds.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:29 PM on September 19, 2007

I'm sorry to say this, but I think your handlebars are too wide and and too far from the seat for someone 5' tall. I also think that seat is going to make you very uncomfortable until your legs get strong enough so that you can perch on your seat rather than sit down on it with your full weight. Your bike is very heavy as a whole and in all of its parts, and was manufactured to such loose tolerances that it will not do a very good job of transforming the force exerted by your muscles into forward motion.

However, I don't think you should get anything better until you are sure you like riding a bike well enough to keep doing it. If you do, and that is your initial bike, you may well feel like you're flying when you get a good one.

I do think you should get a better seat and a more appropriate set of handlebars before riding that bike much farther than up and down the block.
posted by jamjam at 5:27 PM on September 19, 2007

It looks like you've already received lots of good advice so I hope what I say isn't too repetitive.

Your bike has a chain guard but you still want to be a bit cautious about getting something caught in there. Try to avoid shoes with long, floppy laces. And you can get a little elastic/velcro thing at a bike shop (or sew your own) to wear around your cuff to keep it out of the chain, depending on what style pants you wear. Admittedly it's a bit dorky looking.

Learn how to fix a flat tire (ask a bike-friend or at a shop to help). If you ride much you'll get a flat at some point. I carry an extra tube, patch kit, and pump with me.

I usually ride on the street, outside of certain circumstances, but if you ride on a sidewalk don't be too aggressive, watch out for pedestrians, and approach any intersection where a car may be turning with caution because they are less likely to pay attention if you're on the sidewalk. Even on the street it's always good to play it safe and be ready to stop if a car suddenly cuts you off to turn or turns out in front of you.

NEVER EVER wear headphones, listen to an iPod, talk on the cellphone (saw that today!). If you need to make a call or answer a call pull over at a safe spot and get out of the way of traffic. You need all your senses about you and your ears need to be able to hear things that you can't see.

Bike shorts/pants aren't for everyone but they definitely are more comfortable to ride in. Mountain bike shorts are a good choice if you don't want to jump right to spandex. They look basically like normal shorts but they have a liner, often with padding at your crotch. I'm not sure if women would wear that style with underwear. Bright colors are a good idea (hypocritical, since I almost always wear black). A helmet, of course. And sunscreen.
posted by 6550 at 7:37 PM on September 19, 2007

Others have said it, I will repeat it: Helmet! You ain't gonna bike no more if your brainpan hits the pavement hard enough and you didn't have that lovely, brightly-colored Snell or ANSI-approved helmet on your head.

Additionally, I'd get a rear-view mirror, either on the handlebars or helmet (bike shop can advise). Looking in the mirror while keeping your balance, watching cars around, etc. takes getting used to, but it's amazing how some cars can sneak up on you. Dang, I hate that! So I ride with a mirror on my handlebars.

I can't recall if anyone mentioned this, but ride with Attitude. Be confident (but not cocky), act like you've been riding for years. And act like you're on a vehicle that is supposed to be on the road/street -- because you are, and your bike IS a vehicle that should be on the road, not the sidewalk.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 7:50 PM on September 19, 2007

What is your long term goal? A lot of people are content cruising around the neighborhood never exceeding 20km/h. Others want to go!

Regardless.. The best way to learn the very very basics of actually balancing and riding:
  1. Start in a safe area, obviously, like the track of an unused sports field.
  2. Stand on the left side of your bike, hands on handle bar grips.
  3. Place left foot on left peddle with left peddle at the bottom of it's travel.
  4. Kick along with your right foot, like a scooter or a skateboard.
This will give you a good feel for steering and balance without the whole 'omg I'm going to fall' problem.

Try to use a rear rack or backpack/messanger bag. Hanging stuff from the handlebars can be pretty dangerous for a beginner. The weight of the load, and the way it shifts around, interferes with steering. This is true for front baskets too, but they aren't as bad as hanging bags.

Use an easy gear and spin fast. Beginners always think they should be pushing the peddles around with all their strength, much better for knees, acceleration, and endurance, to spin at 90+ RPM whenever possible.
Of course it doesn't look like you have many gears to play with..

Keeping tires inflated makes a big difference in how much work you have to do. If you feel like it was a really hard slog on a given day, odds are the tires need a fill. Pressure drops slowly though, so people often let it go too far before they notice.

The best bike is the bike you have, of course, but if you didn't already have one.. Small riders should have very light bikes. You want to be able to manhandle it, so to speak. Carry it up stairs, drag yourself up curbs and out of traffic at intersections..
posted by Chuckles at 11:08 PM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

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