Every wondered how do adults learn to ride a bike? Especially adults who have never ridden before. I was right there with you, but I learned, and I’m confident you can too.
I Am an Adult Who Can’t Ride a Bike
Or at least, I was an adult who couldn’t ride a bike. That all changed last weekend.
I feel most people who have never learned to ride a bike in childhood didn’t miss this milestone because of lack of opportunity. In the US at least, most every kid is either given a bike at some point, or can borrow one from a friend or use a city bike sharing program. No, a person doesn’t learn how to ride a bike before adult hood probably for the same reason some people never learn how to swim- it’s scary. Maybe you tried at one point and ran into something and never risked trying a bike again. Maybe you didn’t practice your balance before trying to make the pedals move so you fell over several times until you eventually gave up. Maybe you were like me, and when you moved on from a toddler tricycle to a two wheel bike you never got to the point of taking off the training wheels and you never learned how to actually use a bike yourself. But you can still learn how to do it. Here’s my story.
I Never Stopped Using Training Wheels
I pedaled away on my childhood bike, armed with training wheels, until I was about five and I outgrew the little kid’s bike that had been passed down to me. When we moved house, we left it behind, because as an inherited bike it was starting to get pretty rusty and unusable even if there wasn’t the small problem that I had hit yet another growth spurt and was about three times the size of my first bike at that point.
And then I didn’t have or try a bike until I was 18.
I felt too embarrassed to learn to ride at 8 when my siblings got bikes I could borrow/steal on occasion, because even though I had access to a bike I also knew that there would be people. People with eyes to see me. People that could see me fail over and over until I eventually learned. It just wasn’t worth the risk of dying of embarrassment to learn to ride a bike in my mind.
But it was also embarrassing to live in Northern Virginia and the Washington DC area, one of the most bike friendly cities in all of the United States, and not be able to ride a bike at all. It was also darned inconvenient because you can only go so many places with public transport and it will take a few years before I have the money to switch to car payments instead of paying off student loans.
I never really got over that embarrassment. I just eventually figured out ways to get around it once I was an adult and I became serious about finally learning how to do it. I practiced in my back yard, trying to get the hang of gliding to get my balance down. (Side note, practicing riding your bike on even a ground level deck just isn’t the best way to go about things. Even grass would be better, though I think pavement is best for learning and getting a smoother easier surface to work with even though that means it might hurt if you fall.)
Being 18 years old still wasn’t the year for me, though. I got embaressed that it was so hard for me to balance (Again, probably because I was practicing on a deck which means a very bumpy riding experience.)
Riding with The Dutch
I tried again the Spring before I was scheduled to visit Groningen, The Netherlands. I knew the Dutch are very bike focused, and I was afraid my study abroad Summer wouldn’t go too well if I couldn’t ride. I signed up for an adult learn to ride class the month before with WABA. The day of was pouring rain, but I set out to find the parking garage with the knowledge that I get lost very easily in my own little neighborhood I’ve spent my whole life in and the directions to find this mysterious parking garage were vague at best- I signed up for an Arlington class, and there are a lot of parking garages there. Eventually I did find the parking garage, barely a minute before the class started, and I waited. And waited. For an hour. And no one ever showed up. So I checked my email and realized the storm had blocked my Wi-Fi reception so I never got the message that the class was cancelled. They did offer to let me reschedule to one of the other class dates, but my only options were to sign up for a class during finals week or to go to next week’s class and skip the trip to Europe. Obviously that means I went to Europe without being able to bike at all.
Then while I was there the coordinators of the study abroad program at Hanze (Look at the photo banner! In 2018 it shows some of my fellow students!) took pity on me and tried to take some time out of their busy schedules to give me a one on one class. Being a little oversized, even for an American, of course it was mortifying that it took two big burly Dutch guys on either side of me to keep my bike upright while I tried to peddle along. It also didn’t help that I was so terrified that I think I cried the entire time, though I think that impressed them that I was so determined to learn despite being so scared it was still embarrassing to me. After that I didn’t get another bike lesson in Europe, and in fact I didn’t touch my school rental bike the rest of the Summer. I just went home and tried to forget my shame.
The next Summer I was sure would finally be my time to shine, and I tried practicing gliding in the front yard on the grass. I was able to glide for entire seconds at a time, which is not a lot to show for a whole Summer’s practice besides a sore bottom.
Taking an Adult Learn to Cycle Class
So finally, this year I decided it was time to try a class again. Earlier this week I showed up to a park I’d never even heard of before and got to work. The class was three hours long, and I showed up in shorts and a tee because it had been sweltering all week. Unfortunately, while the rest of the week had been high 80 degrees, the day of was a chilly 30 degrees. I froze. My fingers went numb. During class breaks I’d desperately text my ride back and beg them to bring a jacket and long pants with them when they returned for me. It was terrible.
Not just the weather was awful though. After the first portion of the class, where my excesss of practice in gliding and balanced really paid off, we switched to putting one pedal on. I had to stay balanced, do a tiny bit of pedaling, AND steer. I barely finished that segment on time, while the rest of the class had already moved on to gracefully tooling around the bike obstacle course.
Then the next portion of the day came where I had to use two pedals. I was able to make it go and not fall off some times. I was able to remember to use the breaks instead of jumping off the bike when I neared an obstacle. Sometimes.
Mostly what I was able to do by the end of the class was pedal upright for three seconds while releasing a screech that could rival my Mother’s tea kettle. It was kind of terrible.
But even though it was wobbly, and ugly, I was pedaling and keeping my balance. It was, technically, riding a bike.
Practice Makes Perfect
So a day later I hauled my own bike out to a commuter parking lot that I knew would be completely deserted during the day. I was able to progress from constant shrieking to the occasional squeak when I almost ran into something. By the end of my second day of riding, I could sort of steer a little and I could ride for 3 minutes straight.
I know I’ll have to practice a lot more before I feel ready to go on a ride of my own, let alone joining a group ride. But still. I have figured out how to push off the pavement and then get the second foot on the pedal without throwing off my balance and falling. I have finally moved beyond practicing gliding. It’s ugly and needs work, but I can ride a bike.
And maybe, after a month or two of practice, I’ll be a good enough success story that I can convince some of my friends to take a class and learn to ride as well. After all, once they really nail the process, they’ll never forget it. It’s just like learning to ride a bike.
Learn to Cycle as an Adult
Learning to ride a bike as an adult is physically as easy as it is for children, the main problem is that you know you could get hurt and that’s a little scary.
- practice gliding
- practice gliding with your foot on one pedal
- practice using both pedals
Again, it’s not really physically hard, it’s mostly a mental hurdle. Try to experiment different ways of learning that work for you. And, if you rode as a kid but you can’t ride as an adult, most people report it only takes about ten minutes of following this system to become fully confident and capable again. And if you are like me and never actually learned to ride, then it might take a full day’s practice or several days of hour long practice, but you can get there. You just might need the mental push of a class if you just can’t take the leap to do the full cycling on your own.