Teaching an adult to ride a bicycle

As the Bike Fed’s La Crosse Ambassador I have had the opportunity to work with many businesses in southwestern Wisconsin teaching classes on bicycle commuting, rules of the road, on-bike classes, and pedestrian skills. One of the wellness coordinators that I have been working with asked me if I would be willing to teach one of their employees to ride a bike.

Although I have taught my two daughters to ride I had never had the experience of teaching this skill to an adult. Rolling through my mind was the memory of running after a bike with each of my daughters. I can remember hearing each of them screaming, “I can’t do this…” Neither of them picked it up painlessly.

Of course, I accepted the challenge. I sent the following video to Jennifer, my new student.

It was really only a couple of steps:

  1. Lower the seat all the way and remove the pedals
  2. Start on the top of a small grassy slope. Release the brakes and coast down the slope with your feet touching the ground. Repeat ten times or more.
  3. Put the pedals back on. Start at the top of the slope. Holding the brakes, put one foot on a pedal in the ready position, let go of the brakes and coast. Repeat ten times or more.
  4. Put the second foot on the pedal and begin pedaling down the slope. Repeat.
  5. Take the bike to a flat grassy surface and start pedaling.
  6. Take the bike to a vacant parking lot and start pedaling.

Jennifer was thrilled. She had grown up in the Bronx and had never learned to ride a bike. I asked my friend Matthew Christian, to help find a bike that Jennifer could use for learning to ride. He has many bikes donated to his bike shop, Logan Works, a bike shop where kids learn to be active, bike maintenance, and bike skills.

Matthew found a bike and we got started. Jennifer was all smiles. We met on a ninety-seven degree evening. She was a little hesitant to let go of the brakes. Who wouldn’t be? Her first ride down the hill was fantastic. She had the sense of balance immediately; she was a natural. After fifty minutes, I thought we were ready to put the pedals on, but Jennifer said she was pretty hot and we agreed to try again a week later.
I sent her a video of her riding progress that evening. I am not sure who was more excited. The images below are actually videos, not photographs. Click the images below to play the videos.

The next week, we met with a bike that fit a little bit better. It was ten degrees cooler and the riding went quickly. A few trips down the hill and we were ready to put the pedals back on. Click the image below to play the video.

Just as we were attaching the pedals, Jennifer’s husband arrived. He was excited to be included. Pedaling came quickly and after three runs down the hill, Jennifer wanted to try riding on the flat surface. She quickly got the feel of pushing down and after three runs across the grassy surface was ready for a road ride. We finished our riding session on a bike friendly shared path. Two hours later, Jennifer had learned to ride a bike.

After viewing the second video, Jennifer said,” I still have the smile on my face.”

This adventure was pretty thrilling for both of us. I don’t remember this exact same feeling when my girls learned to ride their bikes. Maybe it’s because they are thirteen and eighteen and the memories have faded, but I think it is more likely that it is because my girls expected they would learn to ride their bikes and Jennifer didn’t. She may have thought she would continue through life without ever knowing the joy of riding and now she has earned a new kind of freedom. Welcome to Wisconsin bicycling Jennifer!

To all of you experienced riders, if you ever have a chance to help someone learn to ride who has missed the opportunity earlier in life, give it a try; it is a thrill!

Note: A couple years ago I had the similar pleasure of teaching Warren to ride a bicycle. I used the same technique, but in a quiet alley rather than on a grassy slope as Carolyn did. Warren has since done a triathlon! -Dave Schlabowske You can read about teaching Warren in this blog post.

Warren with the seat down all the way on our Electra Amsterdam. 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.

About Carolyn Dvorak, Southwest Region Director

Carolyn lives in La Crosse with her husband and two daughters. She has loved riding a bicycle throughout her life. She enjoys working in the La Crosse area helping to create great places to bicycle.

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