How to teach a beginner to ride a bike
Summer is a great time to get your kids out and riding their bikes. This is the method I use to teach complete beginners how to ride – it’s remarkably effective and typically gets the rider going within half an hour. It works for adults, too.
Disclaimer: even with this method, it can be difficult to teach your own kid how to ride! If you would like an impartial, professional, experienced adult to help, please get in touch.
Ditch the stabilisers!
What does it mean to be able to ride a bike? Is it pedalling? Well no, if someone freewheeling is still riding a bike. In fact, pedals can be a distraction from what is actually the only essential ingredient in being able to ride: balance. Often, parents will begin with stabilisers as a prelude to cycling, in hope of preventing their child from hurting themselves by falling. It’s a false picture of safety, as balance will have to be learned eventually, and better to teach it sooner rather than later.
Steer into the lean
Balance is a strange concept to teach. Staying upright on two wheels is not instinctive; in order to learn balance the falling instinct needs to be re-wired. If the bike falls one way, the instinct is to steer away from the lean. But to keep balance, the rider must steer in the same direction that the bike is leaning. So if the bike leans to the right, steer to the right. If it leans to the left, steer to the left.
It’s tempting as a teacher or a parent to hold onto the bicycle to prevent the rider from falling – this is a natural instinct to try to prevent them from hurting themselves. But by doing this, all you are teaching is for them to rely on you, not on themselves. Allow them to do it themselves from the beginning.
Get rid of the pedals
Balance bikes are a terrific invention. They are fast, fun, give independence and empowerment to the rider, and teach balance quickly and safely. The key thing about balance bikes is that they don’t have pedals – the rider makes the bike move by pushing with their feet along the ground. Regular bikes can easily be turned into balance bikes, just by removing the pedals. A pedal spanner or regular 15mm spanner is all that’s needed. Just remember the left pedal is reverse threaded, so rotate to the right to unscrew.
Lower the saddle
The greatest barrier to someone learning to ride a bike is fear of falling. Remove that fear and you’ll be amazed at how fast they progress. Make sure the saddle is low enough that the rider can sit comfortably on it with their feet flat on the floor and their knees bent. This removes the fear – they are unlikely to fall, as they can just put their feet down. To begin with, it might mean they tend to not sit on the saddle – don’t raise it though, persevere and encourage them to sit.
Stride and glide
A bicycle will only balance if it has momentum; the faster you go, the easier it is. Encourage the rider to push along with their feet with giant steps, eventually lifting their feet from the floor and gliding along for as long as possible. Pushing with two feet together (“hopping like a frog”) can be another effective way to gain momentum, and will aid them in keeping their bottom on the saddle.
The ten-second challenge
If the rider can glide along with their feet in the air for ten or more seconds, they are ready for pedals. Count slowly out loud, and always encourage – it will take time to reach that magic ten seconds.
There are a couple of options with pedalling, depending on the size/age and capability of the rider.
FIRST once the pedals have been replaced (make sure the correct pedal is on the correct side – they will always be marked with R or L) ask the ride to stride and glide again, then once the glide has started, put the feet on the pedals and go. If they can glide for ten seconds they will have plenty of time to find the pedals with their feet before losing momentum. Encourage them to look ahead rather than down.
SECOND replace one pedal at a time and teach them to properly set it. 1. brakes on. 2. raise pedal to set position (in line with the bottom part of the frame, roughly at 2 o’ clock). 3. look up, brakes off, push, glide. Try to achieve a glide of five seconds with just the one pedal. Important: the push should come from the foot on the pedal, not the foot on the ground. 4. replace other pedal and repeat exactly the same process, starting to pedal after the glide.
It sounds obvious, but the language you use can have a major impact on the success of the lesson. For example, if the rider can glide for five seconds, say, “Well done! Halfway there!” If they pedal three times then stop, say, “Brilliant! Next time let’s do four pedals!”
Good luck! Teaching anyone to ride a bike, no matter how old, is incredibly rewarding. And remember professional help is at hand if you are struggling – feel free to get in touch.