We often talk about getting back in the saddle as if you need the motivation to ride more, but in some cases it’s not about finding the motivation to exercise, it’s about finding the confidence to ride again. If you’ve been off your bike a while, whatever your reason may be, you may be consciously or unconsciously nervous about riding basics, and that’s completely understandable.
IT’S OKAY TO FORGET HOW TO RIDE A BIKE
How many times have you heard the old adage “It’s just like riding a bicycle. Once you learn you never forget!”? I help people learn to ride bikes and I often hear from my clients that they once knew how to ride, but have forgotten. They might know the basics of how to ride, but they can’t recall with confidence how to start, stop and steer. While it’s true that it’s hard to forget how to pedal, it’s the getting rolling and stopping that (literally can make people nervous. You might even feel this after a winter season off the bike.
STEP ONE: BIKE CHECK BY EXPERTS
First off, if your bike has been sitting in storage, pull it out and take it to your local bike shop to make sure everything is running properly. Bikes with flat tires are extremely hard to pedal and steer, and if your brakes don’t work, you’re in trouble from the get-go. Bike shops will gladly help you air up your tires and give your bike a free look-over for safety. They will advise you if you need any pressing work. Be sure to take it in well before you expect to go for your first ride in case your bike does need some repairs; at this time of year shops are pretty booked up.
While you’re at the shop, have the experts give your helmet a once-over. You might be surprised to find your helmet is older than you think.
ADJUST YOUR SEAT HEIGHT
Ask the bike shop staff to also check your seat height to make sure you feel comfortable. The optimal height for your seat is usually judged by full leg extension when pedaling. However, this means you may be farther from the ground than you’re comfortable. It’s okay to start off with your seat a bit lower until you regain your confidence. Don’t be surprised if the bike mechanics don’t think to suggest this, and don’t be shy about asking them to put the seat low enough that you can comfortably get on and off. You can always raise it later when you’re feeling more confident.
Speaking of getting on and off the bike, make a habit of squeezing at least one brake when mounting or dismounting. That way the bike can lean to one side and you can comfortably step off without the bike moving forward and backward underneath you. Often when people tip over, this is caused by the bike moving around as they attempt to mount or dismount.
FIND THE RIGHT BIKE
As you regain your biking confidence, having a bike you’re comfortable on is key. You might love your current bike, but if you don’t, consider borrowing a bike from a friend while you practice your skills. An upright bike will help you feel most comfortable and stable. Many bike rental locations offer upright bikes, and this can be well worth the investment. As you become more comfortable, you can revisit your bike and thinking about what you might like to change about your bike. Armed with that knowledge, you can talk with a bike shop expert who can walk you through your options of modifying your current bike or perhaps investing in an entirely new bike set up.
PRACTICE RIDING IN A SAFE ENVIRONMENT
Find a calm, open, flat place to practice. School running tracks and under used parking lots are usually a nice option. A very quiet road might also work, though these areas can be tricky as the surfaces aren’t even – they arc towards the curb – so they tend to be more challenging. While you might think your local bike path would be a good choice, paths are often narrow and of pedestrians, other cyclists, dogs on retractable leashes, children, and other unpredictable stressors. Your goal is to find a place that’s relaxing, free from distractions and has the smoothest pavement.
FORWARD MOTION CREATES BALANCE: LOOK FORWARD
As you start pedaling, keep your eyes up and look out. Our bodies naturally steer in the direction we’re looking so keeping your gaze down at your pedals or front wheel doesn’t work well. Look out at the world in front of you and keep your chin up. Take your time working on starts and stops. Pedaling will likely come easy, but the getting started and coming to a gentle stop are the harder parts. To help with both, put your bike in a low gear (the ones where you spin faster/it feels looser. If you’re not sure how to adjust your gears, have the shop show you and ask them to leave it in a low gear. As you come to a stop, relax and keep your feet on the pedals till you come to a complete stop. Freaking out and touching down on the ground early is the second most common way people fall down while learning to ride a bike. You wouldn’t jump out of a moving car, so why try to jump off a moving bike?
Once you get comfortable with starts and stops, move on to changing the gear shifter on your right side. These are the gears you will use most often and they make the smallest changes, so it’s easier to start on that side. You’ll need to pedal and keep the chain moving to ensure a smooth gear transition. Reminder: keep your gaze up to maintain your balance. If you feel like you’re spinning too quickly and the bike feels wobbly, shift back to a gear that gives you a feeling of more tension and less spinning. This will help you balance much better.
When you master the right side shifter, play with the left. The chain has much farther to move on this side, so you often have to hold the button or grip longer to get it to shift. If you think you shifted but hear a lot of metallic noise, you are not quite in gear. You either need to nudge your shifter more or hold it longer, depending on what type of shifter you have.
ONE HANDED RIDING
Finally, if you want to ride in the road, legally you have to signal so one-handed riding is a skill you’ll need. When all road users understand where the others are headed, the road is safer. Unpredictable riding is a recipe for a terrible accident. When you’re ready to turn, simply point boldly right or left by extending your arm confidently out. Forget anything you’ve ever heard about a bent elbow with your hand pointing to the sky – that simply doesn’t make sense and comes from the days when cars didn’t have turn signals.
If you have a lot of weight on your hands, it can be tricky to remove one to signal your turn. It’s better to slow down and regain control of your bike than to haphazardly signal your turn and risk falling over. As your approach your turn, take a breath and prepare in advance.
The real key to riding one handed is to take a breath and engage your core when you lift your hand from the handlebar, which will stabilize your body and take some of the weight from the bars. While stopped, practice exhaling sharply and making a sharp “tsst” sound with tongue against your closed teeth. You will feel your core engage. It sounds a little silly, but will help you understand the feeling of engaging your core, which will start to come naturally. Start with small lifts and work your way getting your hand further and further from the bar until you can ride with your hand straight out. This skill also comes in handy when you need to look over your shoulder to check for cars that may be coming from behind.
HEAD OUT ON THE ROAD!
With a little patience and practice, you’ll soon have the skills back to feel safe and confident on your bike, ready to conquer a summer of fun. A closed street event like Sunday Parkways or the family ride course on a supported ride is great ways to get back on the bike in a comfortable setting. See the ORbike calendar for a list of season-wide events.
And of course, if you need a little extra help, I’m always available!
Tori Bortman is ORbike’s resident bike mechanic. She is also an educator, consultant and the owner of Gracie’s Wrench. Tori’s new book, The Big Book of Cycling for Beginners, was recently published by Bicycling Magazine.
Are you ready to take the plunge reclaim your confidence? Check out Tori’s workshops and classes and sign up today.