For the past year (2011–2012), I’ve been teaching myself to ride a bicycle. My goal is transportation; I’d like to be able to ride at least a mile or two without burning gasoline.
I would not have been able to do this by myself without YouTube. You can learn about any bicycle-related topic you’re interested in; all you have to do is find the right video (or videos).
I’m 28 as I write this; I was 26 or 27 when I started (I don’t remember which month it was). How didn’t I know how to ride a bike already?
I had a bike as a kid, with training wheels. My parents wanted to take the training wheels off. I objected on the quite reasonable grounds that the bike stayed upright just fine with the training wheels, so why did they want to make it capable of falling over?
So they gave me an ultimatum: Either we take the training wheels off, or we put the bike away and you don’t ride it again until you change your mind. Guess which one I chose.
(More recently, I found out that there’s a right and a wrong way to use training wheels. What you’re supposed to do is raise them up, a little bit at a time, so that eventually they’re nowhere near the ground, by which point the child doesn’t need them anymore and might not even notice if you take them off. That’s not what my parents did, so I never learned to ride without training wheels.)
Step 1: How to not fall over
I learned the following technique from this video.
Use a pedal wrench (or other suitably long 15-mm wrench) to take the pedals off of the bicycle.
Keep track of which pedal is left and which is right (some will have stickers, but not all): they’re threaded differently, so you want to be sure you put each one back on on the correct side.
For children, you can actually buy bicycles that don’t have pedals—just two wheels, a handlebar, a seat, and a frame. When they outgrow it is when you buy them a “real” bicycle.
Lower the seat until you can sit on the seat with the bike straight upright and your feet flat on the ground.
If you can’t lower the seat far enough, get a smaller bike, at least for training purposes. You probably know someone you can borrow one from, and that’ll work—you should only need it for a few minutes to an hour.
Go to a flat, level surface, preferably paved.
Get on the bike, standing with your butt on the seat, your feet flat on the ground, and your hands on the handlebars.
Look straight ahead, at the horizon. You will naturally go where you’re looking. If you look at the handlebars, you will fall over. If you look straight ahead (or otherwise where you want to go), you will go, more or less stably, toward that point.
This goes for obstacles, too, by the way: Don’t look at the obstacle, or you’ll crash into it, as this rider demonstrates. Instead, look next to it. Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go.
Push yourself forward using your feet. The faster the better—the faster you’re going, the more your bike will want to stay upright. When you want to stop, use your feet to stop. (You will want to wear shoes for this.)
Roll forward as long as you can with your feet up off the ground—not too high, just not touching the ground. Keep trying to roll farther and farther on each kick.
This simple process trains you to keep the bike balanced.
Once you’ve got this down, put the pedals back on and readjust your seat.
Adjusting the seat
There are three aspects to seat adjustment, which you should determine for yourself in the following order:
- Height: The big one.
- Forward position: The seat has two parallel rails underneath it. If you loosen the nuts that hold the seat to the seat post, you can move the seat forward or rearward.
- Attitude: Whether the seat points up, down, or straight ahead. Start with the seat level.
If you have someplace where you can do the one-foot-on-the-curb thing that I describe under starting without being at risk of getting creamed by traffic, that’d be a good way to try out different seat configurations. If you try it by getting fully on the bike, it’ll probably fall over, and there’s no way to test the fit of a configuration without being on the bike.
The ideal, but somewhat expensive, way would be to buy a trainer, which is a stand on which you suspend the rear wheel so that you can get fully on the bike without falling over and pedal without going anywhere. (A bicycle mounted in a trainer is effectively an exercise bike.)
Just as with the pedals off, there is a certain ideal height for the seat with the pedals on for every rider.
The tests for seat height, of which there are two, are both concerned with a pedal that is bottomed out, which is not to say facing straight down. By “bottomed out”, I mean that the foot that is on that pedal—assuming that the rider is sitting on the seat, which is not actually necessary to ride (you’ve almost certainly seen people ride while standing before)—is as extended as it will ever be during the pedal cycle. When the pedal is at any other position, the leg, more specifically the knee, will be less extended, more flexed.
Your seat should be both:
- Low enough that the sole of your foot (or shoe) fully contacts the surface of the bottomed-out pedal. If your foot is just barely touching the pedal, or loses contact entirely, the seat is too high.
- High enough that your leg on a bottomed-out pedal is almost fully extended. If your knee extends to a lock, the seat is too high; if the knee remains more than a tiny bit bent, the seat is too low.
This is about what your leg should look like at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
Note that the lower pedal is not quite straight down.
To adjust the height, loosen the nut (or open the quick-release lever, if you have one) on the seat tube (which is part of the bike frame), take hold of the seat, and wiggle the seat (attached to the post) up or down.
The test for forward position is straightforward: You should be able to easily sit on top of the seat, with your sit bones (inside your butt) resting on the wider part of the seat (or just on the seat, if it’s a noseless seat). The tricky part is getting that to happen while still being able to extend your legs down to push the pedals; you don’t want the act of pedaling to lever yourself off the seat.
To move the seat forward or backward, loosen the nuts on the bracket that holds the seat to the post, then thwack the front or rear of the seat until it’s slid to where you want it. The same nuts fix both position and attitude, so make sure you haven’t thrown attitude off, then tighten the nuts back up again.
Seat attitude basically comes down to personal preference. The one objective consideration in setting the attitude is that you may slide off of a pitched-forward seat, especially if it’s of the noseless variety.
I’ve read that you should start with the seat set level. That’s as good an idea as any.
The seat’s attitude is fixed by the same bracket that fixes its forward position, so the first step is likewise to loosen the nuts on that bracket. Then, take hold of the front of the seat with your hand, and use your entire forearm to pitch the seat up or down.
Starting the bicycle
The easiest way, which happens to cover about 80% of road riding, is to start in the road, next to a curb.
- Set the bike in the road, about a foot from the curb.
Stand on the curb.
I’m in the US, so this means being on the right side of the bike (and I’ll be describing this from the US perspective of driving on the right side of the road—mentally exchange “left” and “right” if necessary for your country).
Get on the bike, but keep your right foot on the curb.
Use your left foot to roll the left pedal backwards until it’s almost straight up. It should be a little bit forward of straight up.
(If you have hand brakes) Engage the rear brake.
Start pushing on the left pedal. If you’ve got the brake on, you won’t start moving yet, but that’s OK. If you have only a coaster brake, you’re now moving.
(If you have hand brakes) Release the brake. You’re now moving.
Your left pedal will bottom out. Put your right foot on its pedal.
Once you’ve done this a few dozen times, practice starting your bike without a curb. Among other cases, you’ll find this important in left-turn lanes where there’s no median.
I’ve just started practicing curb-less starts myself, but the essence of it is that you do steps 3 through 9 without sitting on the seat, so that when you’ve done step 7, you’re coasting the bike whilst standing on one foot in front of the seat. Let’s Go Ride a Bike has a good video that shows this. The tricky part then is, once you have both feet on the pedals, pushing yourself up onto the seat.
Also, riding a bike while standing in front of the seat is much easier with a step-through frame (the kind where the top tube connects to the seat tube halfway up instead of near the top).
As with starting, there’s stopping at a curb (i.e., pulling over) and stopping without a curb. The procedure is pretty similar either way.
The bigger difference is in your bicycle’s equipment. Most bicycles have front and rear brakes, controlled by hand levers, but some—particularly cruisers, which are especially common here in Huntington Beach—have only a coaster brake, which you engage by rolling the pedals backwards.
I haven’t yet used a bike with a coaster brake, so some of these steps—particularly as regard the pedals—may differ on bikes so equipped.
Begin coasting when you’re in sight of the point at which you want to stop. The distance should be roughly 100 feet (35 meters)—about the distance at which you’d start signaling a turn if you were driving.
After you stop, you’re going to plant one foot on the ground/curb. Coast with that foot high, and your other foot bottomed out.
Ostensibly, you should give the hand-down slow/stop hand signal, but nobody ever does this.
If you’re going to pull over to a curb, do it when you’re about 10 feet (3–4 meters) away.
Closer to your desired stopping point, apply the rear brake. Be gentle—you want to slow down, not skid to a not-quite-immediate stop.
If you have a front brake, then, when you want to well and truly stop, apply it.
Put out your foot. If you don’t have a front brake, this is how you will stop, but either way, you’ll end up resting on this foot.
When you’re almost stopped, lean the bike toward the foot you have sticking out. (The bike will fall over when you’re just about stopped. You want to choose which direction it’ll fall toward.)
When the bike falls over, catch yourself, and the bike, on that foot.
Seems obvious, right? You turn the handlebars, thereby turning the front wheel, and the bike moves in that direction.
That is a big part of it, but there are some nuances that you should be aware of.
First off, let’s talk about balance. The balance of a bicycle is between the amount of leftward force and the amount of rightward force. If one is greater than the other, the bicycle leans.
Let’s first look at that effect on a bicycle that isn’t moving at all.
Outside of a room filled with vacuum containing micrometrically-precise machinery, you’re not going to be able to stand a bicycle up perfectly balanced, so any bicycle that isn’t moving is going to become imbalanced and tip over.
Moreover, when the bicycle first begins to tip over (indeed, from the moment it’s no longer perfectly balanced), its center of gravity is no longer above its center of ground contact. That means that it has more weight on one side—the side it’s tipping into—than the other. That weight is what pulls it toward that side, accelerating it until it falls all the way over onto that side. Hopefully, not with you on it.
There are a lot of conflicting theories about how a bicycle that’s moving forward stays up, and it’s not terribly important anyway (“as long as it works” really does suffice for this), so I’m going to skip that and move on to balance of a bicycle that’s turning.
A bicycle in a turn has two major forces working on it:
- Centrifugal force
The effect of centrifugal force is to pull the bike in the direction that is outward from the imaginary point you’re turning around.
(Strictly speaking, centrifugal force pulls on the entire bike, without tipping it. The friction of the tires against the road slows down the outward movement of the lower part of the bike, enabling the upper part to move outward faster—thus tipping it over. If you entered the turn normally and then lost traction halfway through, then you would move outward without tipping—at least, if you weren’t leaning into the turn. Since you will be leaning into the turn, such an event would cause you to fall inward. This is exactly what happens on icy patches.)
So, in turning, you want to balance these two forces against each other.
You probably expect centrifugal force from previous life experience with it (with hula hoops, say). Indeed, the centrifugal force is inevitable and inversely proportional to turning radius. Therefore, you need to purposefully imbalance the bike opposite to centrifugal force—that is, lean into the turn.
Most of that is just practice, but here’s what I can give you for step-by-step:
Let’s say that you’re on a bicycle, riding forwards, and you’re about to come to an intersection. (For simplicity, this is a residential area, so no stoplights to worry about, and there are no drivers at the moment.) You want to turn right.
When you’re just about to enter the turn, stop pedaling with your left pedal (outside the turn) down, and your right pedal (inside the turn) up.
Keep the upper pedal at least a little bit forward of straight up, so that you can easily resume pedaling by pushing down on that pedal.
Keep your feet firmly pressed to both pedals. Any bumps will have the most effect on you wherever you are in contact with the bike, and there are exactly five such places:
- Most of your weight will keep your butt on the seat without much if any lift-off, assuming it’s adjusted properly.
- Assuming your hands are on the handlebars, you’re probably gripping them. You’ll hold onto the handlebars as a matter of course.
- Aaaand then we get to the pedals. Unless you have clips or cleats, nothing is holding your feet to them.
So you need to purposefully hold your feet to the pedals. This is easiest to do when you aren’t pedaling.
Lean slightly into the turn. How much is enough and how much is too much, you’ll just have to learn for yourself with practice.
As you lean, the handlebars will turn pretty much automatically (this is, in fact, how advanced riders turn without using the handlebars). You should both help them turn and resist against them turning too much.
Just before coming out of the turn, resume pedaling.
Pedaling in a turn will increase centrifugal force. Relax your lean to use that force to get the bike upright again.
Straighten the front wheel.
The other side of this is using a turn in one direction in order to actually turn in the other direction. This is called countersteering.
You mainly hear of it as an advanced steering technique: Starting from a forward heading, and desiring to turn (for example) right, you turn the front wheel left, use centrifugal force to tip the bike right, and then, while in that lean, turn the front wheel right to invert centrifugal force against that lean in order to make a balanced turn. I’ve never tried this. (I think it’s more common among motorcyclists.)
The other use of countersteering is to straighten out.
Let’s imagine that you have started to lean, and you don’t want to. So, you turn the front wheel in the direction in which you’re leaning. You do this to use centrifugal force to straighten yourself up. You’re now turning in the direction you leaned in, so you turn (using both forces in control this time) back the other way to get back into the heading you were going in. This is good for recovering from near-spills when you’re first getting the bike moving, but its space requirements are a good reason to steer clear of traffic until you’re proficient.
- Put front and rear lights on your bicycle. Reflectors aren’t enough. Even if your area is well-lit, lights exist both so that you can see and so that you can be seen. Don’t be this suicyclist.
- I don’t do nearly enough signaling, since I haven’t yet gotten over my habit of keeping a death grip on the handlebars. You (and I) should always signal an upcoming turn—even if you can’t see any cars in cross traffic, there might be a Prius in stealth mode behind you.
- I do very little gear changing. Honestly, if I were on a single-speed bike such as a cruiser, I probably wouldn’t miss the gears.
- Locking up your bicycle.
- Some areas require a license to ride a bicycle. Here in California, it varies by city. Check your local police department’s website, or visit the station. Don’t forget to also check any other nearby cities you may ride to or through.
As I mentioned in the tweet that started those exchanges, I would not have been able to learn to ride a bike as I’ve done without YouTube. In particular, if I hadn’t seen the video about the taking-the-pedals-off technique, I’d never have embarked on this project.
Another YouTube video worth watching (one of many) is this one on urban cycling from a Bostonian cyclist. The photo above of an inadequately lit cyclist is from the last segment in that video.