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My friend, let's call him Jack, does not know how to ride a bicycle. Jack is a fully capable 27-year-old man. His father was incarcerated during a block of his upbringing, leaving him without a skill that many of us (his friends) take for granted. In a related note, he didn't learn how to tie his shoes until he was 11. TMI, but true.

I tried once to teach him how to ride. Several years ago I piled sporting protection on his body - football shoulder pads, catchers shinguards, rollerblade elbow pads - and guided him down a gently sloping hill. He glided successfully for 50 yards and hopped running off the bike into a soft grass lawn, thinking he'd figured it all out. The second time he got on the seat he peddled head over handlebars into a fire hydrant. There was no third ride that day and there hasn't been since.

But he wants it. I've Googled "adult training wheels." I've found a set that costs more than $200. This is unreasonably expensive. The embarrassment of using training wheels is not a problem for him. Being unable to ride a bike is embarrassing enough.

Are training wheels the way to go for a guy like Jack? How else might I help him ride?

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"You can lead a horse to water..." - I don't think you can 'make' someone learn after they have grown up. E.g. learning a language - easy for a child, difficult later on in life. –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Aug 9 '11 at 22:01
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For a young child obviously the best method is saying "Don't you dare learn to ride that bike!" –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 10 '11 at 2:28
    
These are all great responses! Of course, I can't say any is the "correct answer" until this guy gets up and riding. I'll keep you posted, in question form of course. Thanks! –  SamtheBrand Aug 10 '11 at 14:12
    
@ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Maybe not make them learn, but it's certainly possible to learn as an adult. –  Chris H Oct 8 '13 at 10:34

7 Answers 7

Not to be insensitive, but I think you are over-thinking it just a little.

I'd say start with an open, grassy field - for me this would be the public park a few blocks from my house, but I don't know where you live. And ditch all of the protective gear save for a regular bicycle helmet. All of that padding is just going to make your friend more nervous, not to mention restrict his movement. Falling at low speeds on grass is not likely to cause major injury.

The fact that he jumped off the bike on attempt #1 instead of properly stopping himself with the brakes suggests that he doesn't know how to operate the brakes, he's not confident enough that squeezing the brakes will stop him (it will), or some combination of the two. Crashing into the hydrant on attempt #2 suggests the same, as well as maybe don't ride in a place with so many obstacles nearby.

Anyway, it's stopping and starting (mounting and dismounting) that are going to be the hard part, so work on starting and stopping on the grass until he's got that down. Don't let him move to the road until he can properly mount, pedal for a few revolutions, and bring the bike to a safe stop using the brakes.

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Why are the best answers at the bottom? I remember when I was being taught to ride as a child - I fell a couple of times, then got it. –  Vorac Jul 2 '13 at 8:14

I would go with the undersized bike method as Sheldon Brown recommends.

Basically, get a bike that's a bit on the small side (and has at least one brake lever) and remove the pedals (and maybe also the cranks), so that he can have his butt on the saddle (seat) and both feet firmly on the ground with knees slightly bent. That way he can run with the bike under him. You might be able to get a bike with a compact frame design (sloping top tube) and set the seat really low instead of having to actually start with an undersized bike. Starting out on a grassy surface would be a good idea, but a stretch of clear unoccupied pavement/asphalt (such as a parking lot) would work quite well, too.

At first he'll just use his legs and slowly get a feel for how the bike moves and balances, but as he goes faster he should be able to pull his feet up from the ground for a longer and longer time. When he's comfortable with how a bike balances (able to coast and steer without keeping feet on the ground), put the pedals back on the bike.

Might a good idea to have him wearing a helmet and gloves, and maybe also kneepads, but only if they don't make him more nervous. That way if there's any problems it might be less traumatic and more likely that he feels okay getting right back onto the bike. Any other protective gear would be overkill, you tend to catch yourself on your hands or hit your knees when you fall off of a bike.

After he's got the balance right, even with the pedals on, probably good to move to teaching a proper mount and dismount so that you can set the seat at the proper height. On a cruiser or dutch style bike you can probably get away with keeping your feet on the ground when the bike is stopped, but in general you should mount by grabbing the brakes, putting one pedal at a 45º angle forward and up, using the pedal to step up to get onto the seat (and to get your other foot onto the other pedal), and almost simultaneously release the brakes so that the bike starts to move forward. Dismount similarly (with brakes engaged and using one of the pedals to step off).

There's a longer list of skills he'll need to learn before riding safely on roads, but balance, steering, mounting and dismounting is a really good start.

Through all this, he needs to keep patient. The simple reality is that it takes a while because you're trying to train your body into modifying its reflexes a little (so that you steer into a fall to keep from falling to the side). If you try to think your way through balancing on a bike you'll fall over a lot because thinking is too slow, you need to retrain reflexes.

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it's implied, but make sure the brakes on the bars and not coaster-brakes. Although it'd make a good YouTube video :) –  STW Aug 9 '11 at 21:02
    
@STW: good point, made that explicit –  freiheit Aug 9 '11 at 23:04
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@STW I'd watch the crap out of that YouTube video. +1. –  abby hairboat Aug 10 '11 at 16:10

Yeah, I'd go with the undersized bike, or at least lower the seat all the way. Maybe remove the pedals. He doesn't have to be flat-footed on the ground, but should be able to push reasonably well while seated. Get him comfortable (on a smooth level surface like a parking lot) with pushing along and balancing, steering, braking, and coming to a stop. Once he's halfway good at it, run along behind him, pushing, to give him more speed and distance. Then add in pedaling after he's comfortable.

As to protective gear, a helmet for sure, just to establish the habit, but don't overemphasize the other stuff. Knee pads, eg, would be apt to get in the way and just make matters worse.

Training wheels are not a good idea, even for a kid.

If all else fails, see if you can find the Fraiser episode where Fraiser and Niles learn to ride a bike. Then tell him to do the opposite.

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And, interestingly, I'm remembering that the first bike I ever rode was a belt-drive fixie. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 10 '11 at 20:39
  • No protection.
  • Find a large empty space without distractions, like a parking lot after closing time.
  • Have the bike seat low enough that he can put both feet on the ground.
  • Push the bike around without using the pedals; coast; stop by squeezing the brakes gently. Repeat this, gradually adding speed, to develop a feel for balancing and stopping.
  • There will be a point at which it becomes logical and comfortable to add pedaling to the mix. Do so then.

The most important thing for him as a 27-year-old is to be patient. If he gets too wrapped up in the idea that he should be able to pick it up right away, it'll just take longer.

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I wouldn't treat the 27 year old any differently than a kid learning to ride a bike. I recently taught my 6 year old son how to ride a bike. We tried the smaller bike and removing the pedals but that just didn't work out so well. The bottom line is that everyone is different and the key is to find what will work for your friend.

One thing that I did made a big difference for my son was that I put on some rollerblades so that I could "stand" behind the bike and assist with starting and stopping. I would hold on to the seat as he was getting started, after a few pedals there was enough momentum to not have to intervene so much and when it came time to stop I was still right behind the seat ready to steady and offer reminders or instructions.

Being on rollerblades made a huge difference, I could assist where needed and talk where needed and there was that reassurance that there's someone there if something goes wrong.

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If I tried teaching on rollerblades I'd be the one needing assistance. And probably several bandages and a cervical collar. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 10 '11 at 16:20

I taught my 32 year old Bermese friend how to bike this Summer. It took many weeks of trying. We started on a bike ride witch goes down for 2 km. he just sat on the bike with his feet on each side and try to roll down for as long as possible. At first he could hardly do 5 feet but he got better and better each day. Then we added pedalling to the trick but he kept getting off the Trail and falling. But he got better and better with practice. Now he can go in the road and as long as he goes straight, he is ok. There is still lots to learn but he is able to bike.

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This was going to be a comment on Ryan's answer - which I endorse - but got too long (so I made it longer). I learnt at 20, on flat grass - a large garden, so know it can be done.

  • You could do with enough space to get a reasonable speed up (not fast, but fast enough to be stable - an important bit of learning).
  • Grass is good if it's reasonably even - check it out yourself first.
  • So is being able to put a foot flat down - saddle lower than normal, but not knees-to chin low.
  • A step-though frame will prevent tripping over the bike getting off, which is a needless distraction and demoralising after a first successful ride.
  • At learning speeds slightly weak (but by no means useless) brakes are no bad thing - you don't want grabby brakes when you first get to jogging speed, and on grass you'd lock the wheels, which you probably don't want to do. This may be especially true if he's gained a fear of going over the handlebars - demonstrate that full-on braking just can't throw you over.
  • If he's learning on something with gears, set them to sensibly low - not too low or his feet will come off the pedals.

I'm not a fan of learning to balance on a downhill, unless it's a slight initial downhill with a nice flat field at the bottom.

You do want a bike that's big enough - the one I bought to learn (all but the first steps) on was a little too small for me, and it was only when I replaced it with something bigger that I got really confident on rough surfaces (bad tarmac, not MTB trails) and in traffic.

Once he's over the basic, a gentle ride round flattish, smoothish forest trails will do wonders for his abilities - time and distance count for a lot when it comes to getting into the flow.

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