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!
Stabilisers are often used as a prelude to cycling, but they only teach pedalling motion, and don’t allow your child to learn that one thing that is needed in order to ride a bike safely and successfully: balance. It can feel scary, removing the stabilisers, but it’s better to do it sooner rather than later.
The right setting
Often, people struggle to learn to ride because they are worried about bumping into the things around them. A narrow alleyway is no good for learning – there is no wobble space. An open field is good, though grass is not always the best choice (despite being soft in case of falling) as it absorbs momentum and makes it much harder to get going. A hard-standing area such as a tennis court or basketball court is perfect for beginners.
Learners can also take a while to get going because they feel they should be riding in a straight line, and ‘wobbles’ feel like failure. Encourage riding in any direction to begin with – the control will come later.
Get rid of the pedals
What does it mean to be able to ride a bike? Is it pedalling? Well, no: freewheeling still counts as riding. Pedals can actually be a distraction from what is actually the only essential ingredient in being able to ride: balance. Turn your kids’ bike into a balance bike 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 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.
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 parent to hold onto the bicycle to prevent the rider from falling. 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. If you do need to give support, hold the child, not the bike.
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 can take 20 minutes or more of gliding practice to reach that magic ten seconds – don’t be tempted to go to pedals too soon. Keep going, varying the methods of riding if possible (stride and glide, frog hops, ‘One, two, three, four, lift your feet up off the floor’ etc). A push can be helpful if the rider is becoming frustrated.
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 rider to stride and glide again, then start pedalling when they’ve gained enough momentum. Encourage them to look ahead rather than down. They might need a supporting hand on the back as they find the pedals.
SECOND replace one pedal at a time and teach them how to set it properly. 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 will take a while for them to learn how hard they must push in order to gain enough momentum to get going. A supporting hand on the back and a little push can help (don’t be tempted to hold the saddle, though!)
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.