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How can I teach an 18 year old girl to ride a bicycle again after she has stopped riding at the age of 7 due to crashing into a tennis net and getting scared about cycling. She's 1.6 m (Approx 5' 3"). She's scared of getting on the bike and is scared of falling off. Finds it hard to balance.

How can I also get her over the fear of crashing on a bicycle?

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    I think the same kind of question was already asked, I gave an answer here : bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/39179/… – Boris Jul 8 '16 at 14:46
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    I disagree its a duplicate, as this case fear is major impediment to learning and the student needs very careful management, so the way to approach this is how to get past the fear, not how to teach someone to ride. (the linked question where the op appeared to not have a major fear problem) – mattnz Jul 8 '16 at 20:22
  • So this question is about building confidence to try, and not a physical difficulty with balancing. Does this young lady have balancing difficulties while walking or running ? Vote to leave open, its not a dupe of the "how to push off" question. – Criggie Jul 8 '16 at 23:07
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    Possible duplicate of How can I teach my capable 20-something friend to ride a bike? – Nuі Jul 9 '16 at 5:36
  • I think Nui's dupe addresses this from a bicycle point of view. I'm not sure whether techniques to minimise injury would be helpful in this exact case, but I am a fan of that "reduce the fear by learning to deal with the situation" approach. – Móż Jul 9 '16 at 7:09
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This is a relatively unusual situation. Your young lady has passed the age of invincibility where kids will try things with less fear of consequences.

Q1 Does she have hearing issues or balance issues? If yes, then there may be a medical cause. If she can walk and run fine, then she can ride a bike.

Q2 What kind of bike was she riding a decade ago? I suspect it was a girly ride like this: enter image description here or maybe a smaller 12 or 16" version.

How she's 18, and this is probably unappealing. So explore rides that look as far from this as possible.

I'd probably recommend trying with a MTB style bike, even if you have to borrow one. Full suspension is not required, but front suspension will make the ride more comfortable, different to her old bike, again changing the perception. Yes, I know suspension will be slower than non-suspension, but that's not the goal here.

Later on you both can explore other kinds of bikes. Perhaps a 650b road bike if thats what she wants, or a rigid hybrid commuter.

Q3 Confidence - both of you just wear a helmet - a nice new one not a hand-me-down and not a rock climbing hardhat, not a baseball/football/sportsball helmet. Get it from a LBS and make sure it fits properly and is comfortable. She'll have something to say about colour, let her have her choice of helmet. I suspect she wasn't wearing a helmet a decade ago on the tennis court, another point of difference.

Another related thought - DON'T go overboard on kneepads and elbow and wrist pads and gloves etc. This sounds like a good idea, but it reinforces a perception of risk. Just ignore it unless she brings up the idea.

Q4 Where will you ride? To begin with, try an off-road bike path, either sealed or dirt/shingle.

Q5 What is your method? I'd start by showing off modern brakes and how much better they are than the old rim polishers of yore. At 7 she would have had minimal hand strength (ie too little to use the hand brakes properly) and a back-pedal brake needs planning to use. So play about with brakes while not riding.

Then scooter about a flat area (ideally anything that is not a sports court ) and definitely not near a net or chainlink fence.

Q6 Why do you want her riding? Is it to get places and be independent of parents for transport? Is it to get to and from school/work? That may help give a goal.

Q7 There are other types of bike too - you might build more traction and confidence by using a tandem or some other kind of multi-rider bike.

Also an adult trike might be a solution, but I wouldn't buy one to try... check if you can borrow one and see if it helps.

Q8 I expect you will need to lead by example. Try and have a goal to work towards, and you


Things to avoid:

Don't expect her to go fast, or to have much endurance.

I'd be staying away from all roads at the moment. Even empty ones.

Stay clear of any significant grades and heights. You want flat land, or a very minimal slope to help get going. Nothing above 2~3% gradient.

Totally don't talk about training wheels - In her perception that's "something for babies" so just don't go there.

Surfaces that are irregular may be a bad idea too - significant loose gravel or mud would be best avoided. Loose/dry sand is a terrible power sap, so is no fun.

Avoid motorised bikes - she has to build the confidence and ability before adding anything like this.

Trail Gators - She's too big for any tagalong bike.


Places to try

I don't know where you are, but here are some example locations in my city, which could be good sites for trying. You may have similar spots in your area, local research is required.

  • Westburn Terrace - its a sealed street network which is inside a council park. There are no cars on those roads, but it has wiggles, road signs and intersections, a railroad crossing and a bridge.
  • A park - specifically a grassed park. This makes pedalling harder, but there's a perception of "softer landing" Another advantage is there may be gentle slopes landscaped into the surface. This will help to get going without pedalling, like a stride/balance bike.

  • A doubletrack like Bottle Lake Forest. This is an undulating area with no rise over ~3 metres, but its quiet and great for rides with the kids. No vehicles. The gravel is firm and compacted as well.

  • A beach - where the sand is damp and firm, but not saturated. You'll want to push the bike over any dunes to the firmer areas. Also, wash the bikes well after being anywhere near salt air.

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I would go for the same way I taught my kids to ride. Take the pedals off and let her scoot around until she gets comfortable with the balancing part. Put the seat low enough so that she can touch flat footed. This will allow her to gain confidence and not worry about falling. Once the fear is gone, the rest should come reasonably quickly.

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    +1: Depending on the student, I would go as far as pulling the cranks off, especially if there is no guard on the chain ring. Too someone already scared the chain ring teeth can be quite 'threatening', and one minor scratch gives them another thing to fear. – mattnz Jul 8 '16 at 20:26
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You ask a couple of questions. Lets work through them ...

How can I teach an 18 year old girl to ride a bicycle again

From what you say it seems she already knows how to ride.

... she has stopped riding at the age of 7 due to crashing into a tennis net and getting scared about cycling. ... She's scared of getting on the bike and is scared of falling off. Finds it hard to balance.

As you say later, this is fear.

Fear causes muscles to tighten and causes us to panic. Naturally it is hard to balance.

How can I also get her over the fear of crashing on a bicycle?

You cannot get her over her fear. Only she can do that.

When people hurt themselves falling off a horse, a bike, crashing a car, in the gym, people frequently say "the best thing you can do is get back on straight away". This is from common folk knowledge that predates modern science, that the longer we leave a fear to develop the harder it is to overcome. Modern science tells us that this is because as we replay the fear-inducing event, we reinforce the significance, the effects, and the fear.

Your friend has had this fear for more than half of her life. It is a significant challenge for her to overcome. Nobody else can do it for her. And the more someone else reminds her, by trying to help overcome it, the more she is reminded of it and the more it is reinforced.

So let's ask a different question.

How can she overcome her fear?

She needs a safe place to work on her cycling, and safe and comfortable equipment. Focusing on a soft place to fall off is completely counter-productive. She just needs a reasonably smooth, wide, flat area such as a paved park (maybe a paved school play ground) so she can wobble and pedal and gain confidence. Don't ride beside or anywhere near her. While you may want to help, it gives her one more problem to worry about.

The safe and comfortable equipment could be a bike such as a dutch shopping bike, or a beach cruiser. It doesn't have to be light, just stable. Confidence inspiring.

It will help her to build her confidence to feel free of any pressure. This includes time pressure, pressure from other people, or even from herself.

Overcoming her fear is like a project (I use this example because you're a software person). In any project, it is helpful, some would say essential, to have a vision of the outcome. So it will help her if she can develop a positive vision of riding her bike confidently. And then keep this vision in mind every time she gets on her bike.

Seeing herself riding through a park, or whizzing down a gentle hill, laughing like crazy. Or maybe just smiling to herself. Whatever works for her. Doing this kind of visualization just before sleep can also be very powerful.

What can you do?

Be supportive, in many ways

  • Help her to find a safe physical environment for practice.

  • Give her a safe emotional environment, meaning no pressure. But show empathy and understanding of her emotional state.

  • Helping with her bike, if she wants that (maybe she wants, like many people, to "do it herself").

  • Going on her rides with her. Remember to keep your distance. Just turning up for the ride at an agreed time is enough pressure. If she says that she is not going, then be OK with that. Whatever happens, it's her ride.

  • If she does crash, be positive. If she knows what caused it, ask for a positive she has learned. If you know what caused it, explain without blame and then ask what positive thing she can get from it. Encourage her to return to her positive vision, and ride a bit more to end on a positive.

  • If she's getting tired then stop. Like when skiing, never have that "one last go". That's when accidents happen. because you and she have already mentally stopped.

These things can take a long time to overcome. But sometimes the breakthrough can come quickly. Beware of becoming overconfident and trying to achieve too much too fast. Remember, she has spent more than half her life being afraid of cycling.

Even if she seems confident, that fear will be lurking there for many years. Anytime she has another crash, her internal voice will be saying "see, you are right to be afraid". That internal voice is coming from a part of her that wants her to be safe. She has to convince that part that all those motivations she has are important to her growth and wellbeing.

(This answer was written by me, then revised in conjunction with my wife :-)

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