How to Ride a Bike
Dedicated to those who have learned to ride a bike late in life and to those who are still trying
My parents got my current bike for me as a birthday present when I turned sixteen. I love riding it - I feel fast and free and light. I rode it all around Georgia Tech in college. I used it to commute to my first job after graduating. And in recent years, I’ve tweaked it to accommodate becoming a parent: installing a motorized front wheel, adding lights and panniers and a trailer mount, and this past weekend, building a device to use my bike to tow another bike.
I like riding now, but I had a really hard time when I was first learning. It seems like many people do. But why is it so hard? And what can we do to make it better?
In this issue I’ll share some general thoughts about bicycles and culture and on why it’s hard to learn to ride a bike; then, I’ll share a technique I’ve used to help my kids and friends learn to ride.
Bicycles are a microcosm of human progress and development and culture. Bike development coincides with the rise of mass-consumer goods, interchangeable parts, and iteration-driven design. Bikes drove the adoption of paved roads. The memory of a lost bike prompted Herman Mankiewicz to write Citizen Kane. Susan B. Anthony believed that bicycling did “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”, and bicycles can still be a powerful class signifier. Bicycles are a liberating partnership between people and machines, so Apple Computers were “bicycles for the mind”. We build bicycle expressways and bicycle elevators. We sing about bicycles. We even teach computers to sing about bicycles and robots to ride bicycles.
But also, bicycles are full of contradictions and counter-intuitive qualities. They’re such a simple machine, but if you think you know why a bike stays upright, you’re probably wrong. Bikes don't move the way we expect them to, and many people can’t even draw bicycles accurately. A 2006 study found that “When their understanding of the basics of bicycle design was assessed objectively, people were found to make frequent and serious mistakes…The results demonstrate that most people’s conceptual understanding of this familiar, everyday object is sketchy and shallow, even for information that is frequently encountered and easily perceived…”
Bike riding is a skill that, famously, is never forgotten once learned. But I’m fairly confident that most people who know how to ride a bike don’t actually understand why they’re able to ride a bike. In engineering, we regularly make use of new discoveries long before we figure out why they work (e.g, the cat's whisker detector before the discovery of the transistor), and you’ll likely still take a Tylenol for a headache even though we’re still not certain why acetaminophen works. However, we are bound to encounter complex problems any time we believe we understand something simply because we’re able to use it. And if we don’t understand it, how can we hope to teach it?
[Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard] Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.” [source]
Why it’s hard to learn to ride a bike
There’s a popular myth that learning to ride a bike is mostly about confidence - that kids are scared because they don’t believe they’ll be able to do it, and if we just push them harder to “suck it up” they’ll eventually realize they can do it:
A young girl is riding a bike with training wheels.
Her father approaches. “It’s time to take those training wheels off!”
The daughter cries. The training wheels come off anyway.
The daughter now sits anxiously on a bike with no training wheels.
The father pushes her down the street. The daughter grips the handlebars and cries “Don’t let go!”
The daughter suddenly realizes that the father is gone – that he has let go without her realizing it – and that she’s riding a bike all by herself!
Lots of people were taught to ride a bike this way. I was too. It took a long time and I crashed a lot, sometimes out of spite when I noticed my parent had let go. And in spite of that, I still couldn’t ride on my own. It wasn’t that I just needed to realize I didn’t need the magic feather after all – it was that this technique wasn’t actually exposing me to the core skills I needed to develop to be able to ride a bike.
Bikes and Birds
One thing that stuck with me when I read David McCullough’s book about the Wright Brothers was how much time Orville and Wilbur spent studying bird flight - and specifically, how much a bird’s flight depended on how they changed the profile of their wing and tail feathers. The Wright Brothers considered this the key unsolved problem in flight and spent years practicing with models and gliders to build effective control systems before they ever attempted to fly a powered airplane.
The Wright Brothers were bicycle retailers before they were aviation entrepreneurs. I wonder if that experience contributed to their insights about flying, because successful bike riding is also primarily a problem of control and not of power or balance. Unlike tricycles, bicycles must be countersteered, and this counterintuitive movement plays a key role in keeping the bike balanced. This brief video illustrates these steering differences between bicycles and tricycles well:
Until a rider builds intuition about countersteering, they will often find themselves moving in the opposite direction of where they intended to go. This can be catastrophic when trying to steer away from an obstacle.
This is also why training wheels can make it harder to learn to ride a bike: they convert a bicycle into a tricycle and eliminate the need to countersteer. They may still serve a valuable purpose - for example, cultivating a love of riding a bike and a desire to learn to ride on two wheels, or just enabling a whole family to go on a ride together when one child cannot yet ride - but as with swimming with pool floats or paper training a pet dog, training wheels can cultivate habits that a rider will need to unlearn in order to progress.
Learning to ride a bike
I’ve used this technique to assist my two kids (and one coworker) in learning to ride a bike, so use your judgement about whether that makes me believable. I’m not sure it’s fair to call this approach “teaching” – it’s more about “creating an environment where someone can learn”, like Montessori on wheels.
The way I see it, for a person to learn to ride a bike, they must build intuition about how to control it. To learn to control a bike, the rider needs to learn how to accept the feedback the bike offers. To accept that feedback requires taking a risk, since that the feedback may come in the form of crashing, so people are more likely to take risks if they know they won’t fail catastrophically and don’t feel like they’re embarrassing themselves in public. This technique is based around first teaching the rider to not fail catastrophically; then, giving them a chance to learn steering and counter steering; and finally, learning to peddle in order to keep moving indefinitely.
I’ve long thought this would be a great in-school entrepreneurship opportunity for a kid: “Learn to ride a bike, $10; learn to teach someone to ride a bike, $50”.
A large, smooth, flat riding surface with few obstacles or hazards and some degree of privacy. A gentle slope is very helpful, but only if it slopes toward something safe like a patch of lawn and not a busy street. The parking lots of suburban office parks are ideal. My driveway slopes down into my back yard, so I used that.
A multi-speed bike that has been previously damaged. It’s heartbreaking to damage a brand new bike while trying to learn to ride it. Multispeed is useful in being able to keep a bike in low gear when learning to peddle up hills and in being able to brake using handlebar controls. I bought two used seven speed bikes with twenty inch wheels on Craigslist for ~$100 each. You may want to consider removing the pedals for steps 1 & 2; remember that the left-side pedal is reverse-threaded. It’s helpful to start with the seat low enough that the rider can just barely place their feet on the ground and to raise it slowly as they build confidence.
Wear grubby jeans and closed toe shoes; you probably won’t get scraped on the ground, but you feet may hit the ground at odd angles, and you might bang your knees against a pedal.
Step 1: Learn how to not ride a bike
Objective: learn how to walk a bike and to mount and dismount it without getting hurt. By the end of this step, the rider should feel 70% confident that they can get on and off a bike on their own at any time and that it won’t roll away from them or roll away with them on it.
Practice walking next to a bike with two hands on the handlebars or one hand on the handlebars and one on the seat.
Practice using the brakes to slow or stop the bike’s movement.
Practice getting on and off of the bike - climbing over the bike and raising it up; holding it up and placing one leg over it, all while controlling the bike with the brakes.
Practice making an A with legs protruding out diagonally toward the ground on each side of the bike. Try falling sideways and landing on one leg.
Practice dropping the bike and letting it fall underneath you.
Step 2: Learn how to ride a bike
Objective: build intuition about how a bike moves and how to countersteer. By the end of this step, the rider should generally feel like they can steer a bike to go where they want it to.
Mount the bike and give a gentle push forward to start rolling. Hold legs out in an A shape while moving. Use the brakes to stop, or put a foot on the ground; let the bike drop to catch yourself if necessary. Repeat, and attempt to roll further each time.
Try making a gentle turn. If the turn doesn’t work as expected, try a quick intentional countersteer. Experiment with leaning and notice how that impacts your turn.
Start at the top of a gentle slope and coast down to the bottom. Practice using the brakes to stop. Experiment with making gentle S curves. See if you can make a U-turn and coast to a stop, then use the breaks to hold yourself still. Try to turn in a circle. Be sure to use the brakes to avoid rolling backwards.
Keep practicing until you feel pretty comfortable pushing and steering the bike indefinitely. This can take as little as fifteen minutes or can go on for months. Don’t rush it, and find ways to make it fun - the rider will start to feel what it’s like to ride a bike.
Step 3: Learn how to not stop riding a bike
Objective: incorporate pedaling. By the end of this step, the rider should feel comfortable pedaling and steering a bike indefinitely.
If you took off the bike’s pedals earlier, this is the time to put them back on. Make sure you put the correct pedal on the correct side of the bike.
Start at the top of a gentle slope and push forward as usual. Repeat the exercises from step 2, but lift feet up to rest on the bike pedals. Try pedaling backwards to see how pedaling changes the balance of the bike.
On a flat surface, push the bike to start it moving, then put feet on the pedals, then practice peddling gently to keep moving forward.
Try riding down hill, then making a U-turn and peddling to go further up-hill. Try peddling in circles
On a flat surface, try pushing down on a pedal to get the bike moving forward.
By this point, a rider knows barely enough to stay on top of a bike by riding, but is stable enough that they can start to learn from their experiences as they ride.
Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll get back to talking about expensive mistakes with batteries.
 I’m increasingly convinced that this is true of all human endeavors.
 Atlanta has a remarkable population of predator birds.
 Hi, K.R!