Learning to Ride a Bike

Saturday I got an email asking if I could teach an adult how to ride a bike.  Here is the email: 



I found your name on League of American Bicyclists. I am a 28-year-old man who doesn’t know how to ride a bike, but, I bought one… now its time to learn….. I hope! 


Very interested in lessons tomorrow morning, Sunday June 20th in Kenosha/Racine/Milwaukee around 8am-2pm (anytime in there).  But even if we cannot learn so quickly, and you are free another day. I’d love to have an instructor. 


Thanks and let me know if you are interested, 




The fact that Warren, a person who did not ride a bike, found me on the League of American Cyclists League Certified Instructors list let me know he had done his homework and was serious.  It turned out I was free Sunday as my wife and daughter were up north for a wedding and would not be back until early afternoon.  So Warren and I scheduled to meet at noon by my house. 

I live on a nice quiet circular street, and the houses in the middle of the Circle have a big round central common area served by an alley with a slight downhill.  I thought this would be perfect as it is free from traffic and the slight hill would allow us to leverage gravity to get Warren pedaling. Warren arrived right on time with a used Schwinn mountain bike in his Prius. He did not have a helmet, so I loaned him one of mine. I don’t wear a helmet all the time, but I do believe people just learning to ride, young or old, really should wear one.  If you think you might fall or be involved in a crash when you ride, by all means protect your brain! 

I asked Warren how he grew up without learning to ride, “I remember my mother trying to teach me once and it did not go well.  Then roller blades came along and I was happy with that.  I just never tried to ride a bike again.”  That he could roller blade let me know Warren did not have any balance or physical issues that might make it harder to learn to ride.  Warren then told me he had looked up how to ride on the internet and read that you need to turn into the direction you begin to tip. Armed with the knowledge gleaned from the internet, he went to a big parking lot Saturday to give it a try on his own. 

After a couple of frustrating hours, he said he was completely unable to stay on the bike for more than a few seconds, so he decided to find an instructor. 

I have taught adults how to ride before, and I use the same technique as I do when I teach a child how to ride a bike. I begin by lowering the seat so the person can put both feet flat on the ground while seated in the saddle and take off the pedals. This allows the person to scoot and learn the balance of coasting without requiring someone to run along side and hold them up.  

Since Warren’s Schwinn had a suspension seat post that would not go down that far, we used my Electra Amsterdam. The Electra’s Flat foot  geometry also made it unnecessary to remove the pedals. We tried it and Warren could scoot with them on. 

With the seat down, the Electra geometry allowed Warren to put his feet flat on the ground and scoot the bike even with the pedals on. This allows a person to learn the balance required to stay upright and saves the teachers back running along side holding the student up.

After the first couple sketchy attempts, Warren said "See, I told you." I encouraged him just to keep trying on the small downhill alley. He had a good a good attitude and kept at it on that little hill. Try to scoot down. walk back up, repeat. In the background you can see I brought my hoopty tandem along in case we needed that to give Warren the feel of riding. But I saw progress in less than 20 minutes as he scooted down the hill, so we never used the tandem.

After he was able to scoot and coast for 10-20 seconds at a time, I introduced pedaling. We begin by getting the pedal for the dominant leg in the ready position. This allows quick and easy starts and is something most people do when riding without thinking.Drive foot on the pedal, push/scoot with the other foot.

Drive foot on the pedal, push/scoot with the other foot.

Pedaling was not quite as easy as scooting, but there were no injuries since we he was going nice and slow.

Within about an hour of arriving for the lesson, Warren was pedaling around. He was pretty wobbly and ran into a few garbage cans, but he could pedal his way around for 30 seconds at a time without putting his feet down. Warren was super pleased and surprised with his speedy improvement. "I didn't think I would be at this point until lesson #4" he exclaimed after a particularly long stint pedaling. We worked on this for a while and I gradually raised the seat an inch or two at a time until it was at the right height. The key to learing anything is going one step at a time. Get some success and then move on to the next level.

90 minutes after he arrived, I thought Warren needed a larger area than the shared center alley to ride. I felt he was making quick progress, but he was limited by the confined center area so we moved out onto the road around the circle. Elliott Circle is a very low traffic volume street and quite safe. I rode next to Warren the whole time. He seemed to want to head toward the parked cars, so I told him something I learned mountain biking: Look where you want to go, not at what you don't want to run into. That advice seemed to help. He was pretty amazed and asked me what time it was. When I told him it was 1:21pm he said incredulously, "So after only an hour and a half I am now riding a bike in the street!"

After Warren got a bit more confident on the Electra, learned to use the coaster brake and could make it around the circle a couple times in a row without putting his foot down, we transferred him to his bike. He started back in the center alley, scooting and coasting, but after only a few attempts, he was pedaling the mountain bike.

My father called while I was watching Warren practice. As I wished my dad happy Fathers Day, Warren road up the alley past me and started to go out onto the Elliott Cricle. "Hey," I said to my dad, "my student just headed out into the street without me!" My dad and I agreed to cut our conversation short and I quickly followed after Warren. He was doing great, not quite ready for the Tour de France, but 2 hours after he arrived, he was riding in the street on the bike he brought with him. "You wanna take a picture of me smiling" he asked with a big grin on his face.

I rode with Warren for another 30 minutes or so.  I gave him some more instructions on braking, shifting, and some suggestions for things to try when he practiced riding on his own in the future.  Warren confessed to me he was going to Mexico over the 4th of July to visit a female friend, and she suggested that they go on a bike ride when he gets there. That had been the final straw that prompted him to really learn to ride a bike.  He was so pleased with his progress that he offered to pay me for the lesson.  I told him it was my pleasure. All I wanted in return was a photo of him from Mexico, hopefully riding a bike in a Ciclovia. If I get that photo, I will post it here.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

18 thoughts on “Learning to Ride a Bike

  1. Pingback: Learning to Ride – Community Powered Cycling

  2. Pingback: Bikeleague.org Blog » Blog Archive » Anatomy of an adult bike-riding lesson

  3. Dave – what a great story! You must feel very proud to have helped get someone out and having fun on a bicycle. The step-by-step record of your lesson with Warren should be really valuable for others, too.

  4. That is a great story. I’m surprised to see how quickly an adult can learn to ride. My wife and I learned to unicycle about a year ago, and it took me a week of riding everyday for several hours and my wife several weeks of riding approximately every other day for 30 minutes to an hour — at the end of which, we could ride shakily, but not mount or dismount elegantly. As children typically require several days (or more) to learn to ride a bicycle, I wasn’t sure at the time if learning to unicycle was equally or more difficult than learning to ride a bicycle. Apparently, learning to ride a unicycle really is much harder. Of course, you also seem like a great instructor.

  5. Geez Dave, I’m all verklempt. Seriously! What a great story. You’ve earned a piece of cake, you good citizen.

    Hats off to Warren, too — I hope he has tons of fun biking with his friend in Mexico.

  6. Of all the hours and hours and hours I’ve spent either riding or working on bikes, I’ve never thought about this – How to teach an adult to ride a bike. I’ve just always taken it for granted, but it seems there are those who have never learned.

    Good job to both you and Warren!

  7. And it’s also great that both of you pursued this in the way you did. I’d imagine most adults who never learned would let their pride get in the way of doing something most take for granted. Anyone — no matter the age — should be allowed the opportunity to learn the joy of riding a bike.

  8. Thanks everybody for all the nice comments. Special thanks to Warren for letting me document the whole thing. There are other cities in which some group of instructors offer a classes like this for adults on a regular basis. It is probably a resource Milwaukee should offer as well.

  9. Thanks again, Dave.

    I went out for more yesterday and picked it right up again. Now its just a matter of practice, practice, practice.

    Dave was WONDERFUL! I bought the bike on Saturday, an went to an old wal-mart parking lot and said “Ok, I can do this, just, do it”. I failed. 90 minutes of pain, sweat, embarrassment and frustration. I finally did the last 30 minutes with a hand on the wall of the old wal-mart building, the other hand on the handlebar, and pedaling. That works, but, I couldn’t tear myself from the wall. So, I went home that night, found the website, emailed a bunch of instructors at about 4pm on a Saturday looking for lessons Sunday morning (like a crazy person) and when I woke up at 1030am on Sunday (after getting back from Saturday night at 430am!), I had an email saying “Lets do it!”, so I was at Dave’s at noon… 😉

    The BEST for me was starting out just coasting, and learning the balance. Remembering only one thing “Turn the bike in the way in which you are falling” We probably coasted 100 feet down a gentle hill 15 times, with 5-10% improvement each attempt. Then, I just grabbed a pedal and boom – I was biking! It was crazy thrilling and especially satisfying after years of ‘sour grapes’ and an unsuccessful Saturday at wal-mart.

    Dave was great as a teacher, he didn’t over-teach, and he just gave me one thing to think about at a time, and once that was mastered, we moved on.

    The coasting by FAR was the most developmental and basic, but it taught balance, turns, stopping…. the propulsion of the pedaling was just secondary at that point.

    I have MUCH to learn, but, I have the abilities to go for a casual ride with Olivia in Mexico City over 4th of July, and we can spend our time riding instead of teaching… even if she will giggle a bit… Im OK with that

    Thanks Dave!!

  10. It makes me proud :):):):) The following and saying pedal, push the foot forward and pedal…The old days….. The trick also is balancing once you are perched on the seat and the toes barely touching… So The Great Teacher got him low and flat footed and walking the bike — helps get a feel for the balcance — fantastic tip. Also I noted the styl of bike — easy in/out. The other type is hop down and out and that throws the body all over the place….The main item is the lower seat, flat foot work, easy out feeling the balance == confidence. The attitude was there from Argentina ( that is another storey ), but am glad that he is learning and that he CAN do it. Keep the bike simple ( I would have started him with a simple push/pedal ( no gears, for one easily can “strip” them )

    But is is nice to see the change of facial expressions and read on his progress. Never be embarressed as to what happens. Keep the Iodine and bandades ready for knees and elbows :):):)

    Someone who is proud :):) he knows :):):)

  11. You have NO idea how glad I was to see this article. I am 61 and bought my first 10 speed 4 years ago. I was afraid it was going to be a ‘permanent’ coat rack until I saw your article. All it takes is the first pioneer. Good cycling!

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