Learning to bike as a grown-up — reader advice please

A friend and sometimes commenter here recently sent a note asking for help and encouragement. She never learned to ride a bike as a kid and wants to learn how now, but she’s getting frustrated. I have a few thoughts, but this is outside our own experience, so I’m hoping some of our readers who either learned or struggled to re-learn how to ride as adults can offer her some advice and encouragement.

Starhillgirl writes:

“I don’t know how to ride a bike. I was given a (mountain?) bike (with a detachable shopping basket!) by a friend. I am disheartened/discouraged after a couple tries riding. Also, my (forgive me) vulva hurts – even now, two days after riding last.

The friend who gave me the bike and the friend whose long, slightly sloped driveway I am practicing on have talked about my poor girl parts and are speculating on a “cruiser” seat.  Is that worth while?  In all honesty, it is uncomfortable enough right now that I cringe just thinking about it.  Like if I sit wrong, right now on the couch, it hurts.  Not like anyone is dying, but enough to make me wince.  I don’t think I am a total wimp…am I broken?

Anyway, do you have ideas?  For ease of learning to ride?  For what to do about the seat issue?  For some magic spell?  I spend all this time telling parents from my school that there is no silver bullet with regard to dealing with children — they just have to do the work.  And here I find myself grasping at straws, trying to find the One Thing that will make me a bike rider without any work….

Which is all to say, I know that I have to keep on keeping on.  But maybe it doesn’t have to hurt so much while I do?”

My thoughts for starhillgirl were the following:

1) How is your seat set? You want it set very very low, just like little kids need when they start to ride. You want to be able to put your feet firmly on the ground.

2) Working on a sloped driveway is great, as long as it’s not so steep you go too fast and get scared. Don’t think about pedaling, just try lifting your feet and putting them down to stop, and work on balancing down the driveway.

3) Work on starting and stopping as an independent skill. Particularly stopping — pushing off for a short distance, lifting your feet, and then firmly planting both feet on the ground. If you know you can stop without hurting yourself, you’ll have the confidence to take more risks, the risks you need to take in order to learn to ride.

4) Regarding the seat, I wish I had a specific seat to recommend. Women generally need wider seats, and most seats are sized for men’s skinny butts. There are seats that have a cutout for your vulva. This is a really common question, so hopefully a friendly bike shop, or perhaps one of our readers, may have a specific recommendation.

5) Learning to ride a bike will actually take work. But it’s worth it!

6) Check out this post over at lovely bicycle. She may not offer an exact solution to your pain issues, but at least you’ll know you aren’t alone.

7) This bike riding school is near us, in Davis Square, Somerville MA. We see Susan, the teacher, out with her determined adult students on the bike path, and they always make me smile. Susan can’t help starhillgirl, who lives far away, but she might be able to help some local readers in a similar situation.

And now it’s your turn. Have any of you learned or relearned to ride in adulthood? Can you offer encouragement or suggestions? An approach that worked for you when learning to ride? Recommend a low-cost comfy (or at least less torturous) saddle?

About Nathan

Nathan lives in North Cambridge, MA with his wife and two kids, and prefers never to be in cars if he can avoid it. Nathan thinks parenting is way more fun when you don't have to worry about car seats.
This entry was posted in Biking, Going and staying carfree, Problems and issues. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Learning to bike as a grown-up — reader advice please

  1. A few ideas. First, get the saddle low. Tilting the nose down should relieve some of the uncomfortable pressure. Correct saddle position can be worked out later after the basics are mastered.

    If at all possible, remove the pedals. Practice coasting by “running” the bike, or going down slight inclines, and lifting her feet.

    Get used to using the brakes. If she doesn’t have a bike mechanic friend, bring it to a bike shop and get them adjusted.

    Once all that is second nature. put the pedals back on. Practice starting and stopping.

    Finally, raise the saddle and work out the tilt. Or replace it if it’s still uncomfortable. HTH.

  2. Papabybike says:

    What I’ve heard the easiest way to learn as an adult is as follows:
    The easiest way is to split the learning into parts, balance, turning, braking and pedaling.
    Start with balance like a kid using a balance bike, remove the pedals and lower the seat till you can touch the ground flatfooted. Kids don’t learn immediately so have patience with yourself and don’t rush. When taking the pedals off Remember the left pedal is reverse threaded so with both pedals you turn the wrench towards the back of the bike for both pedals.
    Start by coasting downhill till you’re comfortable with basic balancing.
    Once you’re comfortable, raise the seat a little, keep coasting downhill and practice gentle turns. The natural tendency is to turn aggressively so be aware that turning on a bike is a little steering and mostly body positioning. When you’re comfortable on a bike, you often steer with your hips and not the handlebars. Keep raising the seat little by little as you rely on your feet less for balance.

    Practice braking by feathering the brakes and coming to a gentle stop. Remember that most of the braking power comes from the front brake. When you’re beginning, its natural to grab the brake too hard so begin with trying to come to a gentle stop before coming to quicker and shorter stops.
    After getting used to the brakes, you should be able to go to a flat area like an empty parking lot and put the pedals back on. The pedals are usually marked with a r and l. Work on pedaling, braking and turning in the parking lot or some other safe area.

    As far as saddles go, when my wife was getting into riding, she wanted a comfort saddle with a cutout. After she got up above two miles or so, she went to a more traditional saddle. As you’re starting cycling, be aware that your ability will change pretty quickly so your comfort and position that will be comfortable will change pretty quickly. A good bike shop will help with adjustments, a bad bike shop will try to sell you a new bike. If a bike shop makes you uncomfortable, look at some others.

  3. dr2chase says:

    Good advice above, also consider raising the handlebars and/or bringing them in closer. If you’re sufficiently upright, you’re sitting on your butt, not your parts.

    • Erin B says:

      I would say see if you can find North Road style or upright style handlebars:
      I got mine for $15 +$5 to install. They will really help with your posture and weight bearing. I have also found that as a girl, sometimes have the saddle tipped very slightly up is better. I also find that firm saddles are better than squishy regardless of the seat width. That Lovely Bicycle article and all the comments really is great.

      This may be a sort of back handed helpful, but it is easier to learn with the saddle low so you can put your feet down if you panic, but long term, you may find that hard on your knees once you are biking tens of blocks.

      I agree with learning to balance with the pedals off.

  4. Dawn says:

    I learned hwo to ride when I was 9 by breaking it up into sections. I spent a lot of time holding onto poles or the back of my dads truck while balancing so I could get steady ont he bike. I also played with the pedals a lot this way while staying stationary. I think it took me a few months before I was comfortable having my dad push me. He only did it a couple times before I got the hang of it! As for the soreness-it happens to me everytime I get on a bike after having not ridden for awhile. I simply get used to it again-oh, and it’s a lot worse when it’s that time of the month.

    Good luck and I hope you persist to doing it!

  5. When I hopped back into bike riding as an adult, I was given a bike with a saddle that was too narrow, like Dorea said. The seat was actually fitting inside my butt bones, pushing them outwards and placing lots of pressure on all my ladybits and inner thighs. So I want to stress that if you have wide sit bones, or even normal sit bones, many saddles are made for men’s narrow butts (and they call them “one size fits all.” ANNOYING) so you might want to look into something a bit wider. Good luck!

  6. Kari Pederson says:

    I learned to ride 3 years ago (I’m 32) and I did it by getting an Electra (really excellent for adult learners because of geometry, but I had to upgrade to a Bianchi Milano when my skills improved). I also had the seat down low in the beginning, like everyone is saying. I agree with the other people here about breaking it down into parts, but for me the scariest part was the balancing. Once I got a hang of that I was able to start and stop (I had biked a tiny bit as a kid, though, so I wasn’t coming to it totally cold) pretty easily. I’m short, and it was hard for me to learn how to jump into the saddle once I raised my seat to a proper height, but now I have no problems and i do it without thinking. I also found a big parking lot to ride in. This is key! I really, really, really wouldn’t use a driveway to learn to ride a bike! First of all, you don’t want to be fast at first because you don’t want to go too fast that you can’t control the bike. It’s really better to use a flat surface free of obstacles (like an empty lot or parking lot) so that you can control your speed. Once you start pedaling you will be able to go fast enough to balance very easily– it doesn’t take much to make a bicycle work. :) You don’t need that incline to get you going– in fact, in may be why you are hurting your lady parts, especially if the speed is making you afraid and you stop suddenly. I did that a couple of times on hills when I was starting.

    Just like everyone else I would suggest getting a big, cushy upright saddle to begin with. They are wide in the back and often have springs, and when you sit on it you feel like you’re sitting on a chair (my Electra had a seat like this). If your bike isn’t upright, I would suggest adjusting it to make it an upright bike, or *gasp* getting an upright bike. I did go through a couple bikes when I was learning because the first bike I had (from a friend, like you) wasn’t appropriate for an adult to learn on. Really, Electras are truly excellent for learning, and they can be found for cheap on craigslist. They’re not very good bikes for real riding (the geometry will eventually hurt your knees if you ride longer than 4 or 5 miles or everyday) but they are not really designed for real riding. They’re fun bikes. And everything about them makes learning easier.

    Unlike other people have suggested, I didn’t take off my pedals– I’m not sure that’s really necessary. I just held my legs out a bit, and scooted, then coasted, then scooted. I had my seat down pretty far so it was easy for me to put my feet on the ground if I lost my balance. Then, when I had been doing my scooting/coasting thing long enough, I just put my feet on the pedals and started pedaling! If you take your pedals off, then you have to put your pedals back on before you can try pedaling.

    It’s also very important to be patient with yourself! It took me at least 3 months of biking everyday to feel really truly comfortable in the saddle, and now I commute 7 miles to work everyday! It IS worth it. Not only do you get exercise, but if you’re carfree (I am too!) it frees you from the tyranny of bus schedules. And there are so many ways to cart your kids around by bike, too.

    GOOD LUCK! It’s so much fun once you get into it. I’m so happy I finally learned to ride a bike.

  7. Kari Pederson says:

    Oh! I wanted to add that another great bike to learn on is an old Schwinn step-through Varsity or Collegiate. You can find them EVERYWHERE for super cheap. They’re steel, they’re cheap, they’re dependable and comfortable. And later, one of your kids can ride it! Plus, they are upright. I’d really discourage learning on a traditional mountain bike or road bike because the geometry encourages you to bend over the handlebars, and it’s hard to feel in control in that position unless you have experience. I really hope your bike doesn’t have drop-down handlebars, because they are tricky for adult learners. If it does, and you don’t want to get another bike to learn on, at least get swept back handlebars put on the mountain bike. :) Good luck!

  8. Caitlin says:

    It’s not a how-to, but this award-winning essay by a dear friend who learned to bike as an adult (because her dad died before he could teach her) is a lovely ode to both bikes and families, subjects dear to this blog!

  9. sara says:

    LOVED this article in the NYTimes last year about a class teaching adults to ride bikes:

  10. cycler says:

    I’ll gang on with everyone else who suggests lowering the seat a ton. And I personally would prefer a big flat open area to a sloped narrow driveway, but that’s a preference.

    Raising/ changing the handlebars would be my #1 suggestion for improving the comfort of the saddle, as the more upright you are, the more your weight will be on your seat bones. I’d definitely do that before you start collecting saddles.
    Like skiing, you actually are more stable when you’re going faster, but if you’re like me (I learned to Ski in my 30′s) that’s easier said than done.

  11. Mark says:

    I’ve no real advice on how to learn to ride – but most suggestions above seem sensible. And start slow: going slow on a bike is actually harder than going fast. Speed helps with balance. I will chime in on the saddle issues, again, no real advice but just know you’re not alone, neither is your sex. On a new saddle I often find one or other leg will go numb, and if I’m particularly unlucky, my ‘manly bits’ will too! I’ve no idea how it compares to girly bits (obviously!) but pins and needles down there – not so much fun.

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