Good intentions aren’t enough. Help new riders pedal more confidently and safely by avoiding these major instructional errors. – By Caitlin Giddings
Here at Bicycling, we maintain there are few pursuits more noble than teaching someone to ride a bike, and those early instructors—teachers, parents, the kid next door—remain the unsung heroes of the everyday cycling world.
But as honorable as it is to give a child or adult the gift of two-wheeled independence, it’s not always easy to nail it the first time. After all, for most of us, learning to ride was something we did decades ago. We’ve since forgotten a lot of the emotions and challenges along the way, and that vulnerable feeling of trying to balance for a few pedal strokes.
Here are a few things to avoid when you’re trying to teach someone to love riding as much as you do.
Start on the street
You want someone to feel completely at ease the first time they sit on a bike saddle, and unless you live in an empty cul-de-sac, the street will never be the place for that. Start your new rider in an empty parking lot, trail, or park.
This is the old-school way of teaching kids how to ride a bike, and though it can still work, it’s less effective than the current method: gliding.
You don’t need a special bike to teach the glide method—just take the pedals off an ordinary bike and lower the seat so the new cyclist can sit on the saddle with both feet on the ground. Teach them to push off with their feet and glide on the bike. Once they can safely balance for a few seconds, add the pedals back, move the seat up, and teach them to pedal.
This method is far more effective at teaching the balance necessary to ride than training wheels—which require a greater leap of faith to remove.
Sure, your ride student isn’t going to climb Sani Pass or embark on a cross-country bike tour the minute you teach them how to turn their pedals. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t start out on a bike that fits comfortably.
Find a bike they can easily stand over without making contact with the top tube and reach the handlebars without straining. No one wants to keep riding on a too-large bike that’s scary to mount and dismount.
This is the stuff of childhood trauma. Remember when your dad ran alongside your bike, swearing up and down he would never let go of the saddle, and then launched you into a lifetime of uncertainty and distrust with one resounding push? Well, I do. And I can promise you it’s not an effective tactic, particularly because the act of running alongside tends to wobble the bike and counteract any balancing technique your student should be learning.
Let them build momentum through their own pedal strokes.
You’re excited. You just taught your kid, spouse, best friend, or an unwitting stranger how to successfully pedal a bike. But pump the brakes for a minute there—this doesn’t necessarily mean you have a new ride partner, tandem stoker, or team member for next year’s Cape Epic.
Let them practice for a while at their own pace. Let them learn to slow-roll around a parking lot or around a trail. Don’t push them to ride on the road or take on more mileage than they’re prepared to.
This one is similar to “don’t pressure them to go too fast or far” but has more to do with end goals.
Once you’ve successfully got a new cyclist pedaling, don’t treat the event like it’s a training ride for bigger, more exciting bike rides. You want them to get the hang of riding a bike and possibly fall in love with it from there—not feel pressured to progress to the next level. You’re teaching someone how to ride, not molding a new cyclist in your own image.
Just enjoy the lesson for what it is: the chance to pass on a new skill and spend a little time together on bikes.
It’s easy to get frustrated when someone just isn’t picking up the valuable lessons you’re putting down, and make a quick foray into drill-sergeant territory. But being patient, upbeat, and making the process seem silly and fun can go a long way toward putting a brand-new bike rider at ease.
Learning to ride bikes shouldn’t feel like a job: It should feel like a blast, and it should always come with important motivational rewards like ice cream. In fact, depending on where you live, you can always make that your first major goal: ending the first big ride at the ice cream shop.