The first post in this series answered common objections an adult might have when told he could learn to ride a bicycle. Now we move on to to the next step, learning to balance.
When I taught myself to ride, I made things hard. My pride, which is both a strength and a failing, prevented me from researching how to learn, and I just got on the bike, and after ten minutes working up the nerve, pushed off and began to pedal. This was the wrong approach. It worked because I was too stubborn and too determined, but since it was December 23 I straddled my bike, the fact that I began to move and stayed upright was a Christmas miracle.
What I should have done, and what I recommend to you, is to use a wrench and carefully remove the pedals. (If you prefer and your bike shop is willing they can take them off for you.) Lower the seat on the bike to the point that when you straddle it your feet barely touch the ground and you are comfortable.
Now, “comfort” is a relative term. Riding a bike isn’t a difficult activity, but it is an activity. Even a recumbent bike, the kind that look like a recliner on wheels, is a human powered machines. And the bike itself is going to take getting used to, because your position on your bike isn’t like siting on a sofa. So while your bike shouldn’t cause pain, you might experience some discomfort at first from the novelty of your posture.
If you’ve purchased your bike from a bike shop, they’ve probably already adjusted it to so it “fits” you, or sold you a bike of about the right size. If you didn’t purchase your bike from a shop, or had a bike-riding friend adjust it for you, check this simple point: can you reach the brakes and shifters on the bars easily, without straining? Look at the photo to the right. You can see I’m stretching a little too much. You will probably want a little more bend in your elbows. You might be less upright than I am – in my case its due to my bad back. Bike fit is a complicated subject with many differing approaches and opinions, and I don’t want to give advise on fitting a bike other than the minimum required to get you riding.
Back to your pedal-less bike. What you’ve done by removing the pedals is turned your bike into a device for developing your sense of balance. Even relatively fit people can have this ability underdeveloped. And for some people like the very sedentary or the super-obese, balance can be a big challenge. Riding a bike will help develop this sense. And we start here.
Now that you have your bike set up, its time to play. Find a place with a hard surface, and if possible a slight downward slope. You don’t want a steep up or down grade for this training. A secluded location is nice if you are uncomfortable having other people see you coasting on your pedal-less bike. For its coasting you are going to do. Straddle the bike, and give a push with one of your feet to set you coasting. Pick up your feet and roll. If you wobble, that’s OK. Remember your feet are close enough to the ground you can put a foot down any time you feel like you are going to fall.
As you coast, practice using the brakes. When you brake expect the bike to stop suddenly, like a car does when the brakes are applied quickly. Get used to the feeling of the bike stopping. Again, you have your feet to stop you from falling.
You will discover the bike wants to remain upright when its in motion. And after a few minutes of this you will begin to develop a sense of how to remain upright on the bike. Some people pick up on it right away, and some people will need more time coasting. Keep doing it until you feel you are comfortable. Be prepared to feel tired when you are done, as you will be working small muscles that you probably don’t otherwise work.
While you’ve worked your sense of balance, you’ve also gotten used to sitting on a bike. You’ve learned where your brakes are, gotten used to holding the handlebars, felt the seat under you…. you’ve started the process of teaching your body what riding a bike is like. Regardless of how well you have your bike fitted, its an odd feeling getting into this machine for the first time, and now you’ve done it without having the additional stress of riding.
As I mentioned above, I didn’t know about removing the pedals and just got on and rode. That first ride was a mile and ended with a crash. My second ride basically followed the advice I’ve listed in this post, except I left the pedals on. I took the bike to a field near my home, lowered the seat, and spent an hour coasting. Since this was the dead of the Pennsylvania winter, the ground was frozen solid and free of snow. Had I known better, this is what I would have done the first time. It might have saved me a hole in my jeans, a skinned knee, and a walk back to my house with the chain off my bike.
In our next post, get ready to ride….