Bicycle Network: Skill Up
Learning to ride for adults
“It’s as easy as riding a bike,” they say. “You’ll never forget.” But what if you never learned? Lil Boyce, who found balance on two wheels at the ripe age of 25, shares her experience.
If, like me, you skipped the childhood passage from trike to training wheels, then you’ll know how terrifyingly impossible cycling seems to the uninitiated adult.
Seven years ago, I couldn’t ride and couldn’t imagine beginning. Friends would promise to teach me in an afternoon. From experience, I knew they were planning to put me on a bike and push me downhill. I also knew that I’d end up in a heap somewhere on that slope, with even less confidence than before.
But, as I found, learning to ride isn’t impossible and it’s not even terribly complicated. It’s not just for the super-fit or coordinated (I’m neither of those) and it doesn’t require special bravery.
Here’s how I did it.
The right bike
As I remember it, when my friends would send me downhill to my fate, it was on a racing bike built for a six-foot-five man.
Happily, when I finally learned, it was on a simple model fitted to my size – and delivered by Santa. Santa (or Simon, then my boyfriend and now my husband) had put serious thought into his choice. A hybrid, it let me sit almost upright. It was also cheap, so it didn’t matter too much whether I discarded or upgraded my new toy. With my own bike, I could practice whenever and for as long as I needed.
But finding a starter bike could be the most difficult thing a learner does. While at three you might have favoured a bike with spangles on the handlebars, at the adult end of the showroom the choice is bewildering. My local dealer Kathy recommends a “very basic recreational mountain bike”. Not a professional off-road bike – just a simple bike with fat tyres for stability.
Cyclists sometimes bring adult learners into Kathy’s shop, the Melbourne Bicycle Centre in Prahran. Seeing a bike fitted to their friends, they often insist the seat is too low. Yet the textbook height for a seasoned cyclist will ensure a learner “falls off and never gets back on again,” says Kathy. “They’ve got to feel safe.”
I began with my seat low enough that my feet could touch the ground quickly. My upright handlebars were easy to reach. And basic, flat pedals kept things simple. Also essential: a helmet and a comfortable saddle.
Once I had a bike, I was busting to get going. But, to avoid ever feeling out of control on a runaway bike, I first needed to know how to stop. In a quiet corner of a park I found some gently sloping grass. With the seat so low that both my feet were flat on the ground, I ignored the pedals and walked the bike down the slope. In control and feeling relaxed, I started experimenting with the brakes, gently squeezing the left and then the right, to get used to the way they worked.
Getting confident, I lifted my feet off the ground, for a moment at first, then in longer bursts. Still keeping clear of the pedals, I first wobbled, and then coasted down the slope. After repeated trips down the slope I was braking and starting to steer. I began to go a little faster, making balancing easier.
Balance was miraculous. And once I’d begun to feel it, I tried putting my feet on the pedals, one at a time. Then I was off.
Going further with friends
I didn’t go far after that first day’s triumph. I kept walking back to a little-used bike path on that same gentle slope. When I did venture further, it was with kind friends.
I was lucky to have Simon, then 33, first as teacher and then cycling buddy. “I learned to ride a bike when I was three years’ old,” he said, “which meant I had no recollection of it ever being difficult.” Yet, after helping me learn with empathy, patience and “lowish expectations”, Simon was surprised at how little stress was involved – “for both parties”.
I’ve since been able to return the favour to a friend who hadn’t cycled since childhood and needed an encouraging companion. That was rewarding, but also challenging. If you suspect your friends aren’t up to such a challenge, check out your local Bicycle User Group.
My learning experience was without terror, but not without incident. At first, my preferred braking method was to butt the nearest stationary object. In the park, the only harm this did was to attract bewildered stares, and hoots from more outgoing passers-by who’d also shout, “Your seat’s too low!”. I just smiled and waved. As a new rider, I coasted into one unfamiliar situation after another. It worked best when I laughed off the occasional bruised knee and ego.
I knew riding as much as possible would help me improve faster. So, I was keen to commute but I felt unprepared for traffic. Simon’s advice: “First learn to signal with your hands, steer clear of tram tracks and stick to daylight for now.”
I consulted maps for off-road paths and quieter streets, and allowed time to take the long way home. I also packed a small tool kit, after asking friends to show me how to fix a puncture.
From Coburg to the Costa Brava
Soon, I was riding 11km to work. Six months on, I dragged a bunch of friends along the Lilydale–Warburton rail trail. A year later, I was alone on a Spanish rail trail between the Pyrenees and the Costa Brava. There I met fellow cyclist Isabel and asked her to take my picture. Disposable camera in hand, she made a good show of framing my special memory.
But the developed pics showed she’d got it all wrong. She’d chosen a spectacular backdrop of sunflowers, and captured me grinning from ear to ear. But she’d left out the bike. She was thinking picturesque. But I’d just wanted proof of something I’d never imagined possible – I’d become a cyclist.