How to Ride a Bike
This method was developed by Susan McLucas of the Bicycle Barn and Riding School. If you learn by following these instructions, please let them know, so that they can keep our count of students up-to-date.
- Have a bike with upright handle bars and at least one hand brake. Straight bars, like mountain bikes usually have, are kind of low and make it harder to learn. Don't even consider dropped or racing bars.
- Have a bike small enough that you can get your feet flat on the ground while sitting on the seat.
- Take the pedals off (The right pedal screws off the right way, like any mayonnaise jar, but the left pedal screws off the "wrong" way. Pedals can be on tight, since they don't go on and off much, except in our teacher fleet, so you may need a special pedal wrench, which is long and thin. The flat edges of the pedal axle, that you turn to remove the pedals, are too narrow for many adjustable wrenches, but a 15mm box wrench can work. Any bike store would be happy to take pedals off for you, if you were having trouble.)
- Find a place with a nice wide paved area, ideally with a very gentle slope. If you're working alone, you'll need the slope. If you have a helper, they can just push you around a playground or empty parking lot. Don't start on a path; it's much too narrow.
- Sit on your bike and get comfy. Squeeze the brakes. You can ride them all you like. If your hill is at all serious, you'll use them all the time and that's fine.
- Sit on the seat and give a little push with your feet to get yourself going. Keep your hands on the brakes and use them whenever necessary to keep yourself going very slowly. People often laugh when they hear me telling someone to slow down; they're going so slowly already by normal standards. Going slow is so great. If anything happens, it's usually no big deal. But there is such a thing as so slow that it's really hard to get your balance. So use your judgment.
- If you have a helper, that person should just push you from your lower back, not try to help you stay up. Your feet will take care of that. They should walk at a normal pace.
- Give up any idea of going in a straight line or of deciding where the bike will go. You will wiggle at the start, even go in circles sometimes, and there's no way around it. Believe me.
- This is the key to learning to balance a bicycle: whichever way you start to lean, turn the front wheel in that same direction, even if it means going in a circle. Follow the bike wherever it wants to go. See if you can go a little stretch without putting your feet down. But when you need them, there they are to catch you.
- When you can reliably go for pretty long stretches without using your feet, put the pedals back on.
- Now, everything is different, as far as your legs are concerned. There will be no more reaching casually for the ground without getting hit by a pedal. Now you have to really remember that the pedals are there.
- Notice that if the pedals rotate toward the back of the bike, nothing happens. This is how you position the pedal to get going. Pedaling in the forward direction is what makes you go.
- If you think you'd be comfortable a little higher up, raise the seat so your heels are a little bit off the ground.
- Pull one pedal up, almost to the top. Put your foot on it and push off. Leave your second foot out to the side for the time being, like it used to be before you had pedals, only further out.
- Get your balance with that one foot on the pedal. See if you can keep it on for long stretches.
- You are still following the bike wherever it wants to go. Don't look down a lot. Mostly look out, into the glorious future.
- When you feel balanced and comfortable, try to find that second pedal with your second foot. It'll be pretty high. When you find that second pedal, just rest your foot there. Only pedal if you need more speed. Whenever possible, don't pedal, just coast.
- (You may want to raise the seat, if you can. The higher your seat is, the easier it is to get to the second pedal, but the farther away the ground is. Be sure the ball of your foot can be firmly on the ground while you're seated. Don't go any higher than that, for now.)
- You are still following the bike, but if it starts to do what you want, all the better.
- When you find that second pedal, and can pedal when you need more speed, start practicing braking. Think to yourself, as you're riding, "here are the brakes, if anything funny happens, this is what I squeeze." Reach out and touch the brake levers to get the idea into your fingers. Try to simulate emergencies for yourself and the answer is always "Stop, by squeezing."
- Hopefully the bike is starting to go where you have in mind. If not, just keep following it around the playground and it will eventually start to go where you want. Once that happens, do figure 8's or, in any case, be sure you can turn both ways.
- Be sure you can look around while riding. Eventually you want to be able to look all the way around behind you.
This is the basic way that we get people riding bicycles. Once they can get around on the bike, we go on to such things as:
- Understanding the gears and how to change them. Higher gears go farther for your same pedal stroke than low gears, that's why they're harder to pedal. The goal is to find a comfortable speed for your feet to go around.
- Learning to stand up, off the seat, for going over bumps. Do it while coasting, just adding weight to your bottom foot gently.
- Learning to take a hand off by first loosening your grip. If that works fine, remove your hand so it's just hovering right around the handlebar grip. If that works fine, take it all the way off for short periods of time. Now you can signal for upcoming turns or scratch your nose to your heart's content.
- Eventually, when you are ready, raising the seat to where your leg is almost straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke. This will require learning to get on and off the bike standing on one pedal, not sitting on the seat. Raising the seat is especially important is you start to go serious distances. If you're biking a lot still down lower than the ideal height, and your knees start to hurt, it is probably because you're too low.
- For help starting riding on roads, see your local bicycle organization. We recommend riding on paths until things begin to seem very predictable - when the bike reliably goes where you intend for it to go. This is usually a few months at least, but if you ride a lot and it comes easily to you, and you want to push yourself a bit, you might start to see what streets are like sooner than that.
Let us know of your experiences and of suggested improvements to these instructions.