Want to get your partner on a bike? Or are you a little bit wobbly, and need a refresher? New or returning riders don’t have to do it alone; there’s plenty of help to get the bike rolling. Melissa Cranenburgh reports.
It’s almost Darwinian. In the evolution of the average Australian suburbanite, bike riding comes a close fourth – after crawling, walking and pushing a pedal-less trike. That’s when the nascent bike rider emerges, wobbling alarmingly around the local park. A harried parent running behind, hanging desperately onto the back of the seat. Two twig-like training wheels poking delicately from the larger rear wheel, as
the young tenderfoot pedals towards childhood freedom.
But that wasn’t my experience. A child of the bike-riding 80s, friends all rode bikes (and, yes, we did think Nicole Kidman was the coolest thing in BMX Bandits). But, being a short kid, it was easier for me to just hop aboard the handlebars or dink on the back than to try and balance by myself on my taller friends’ much-too-big bikes.
Time passed. And so did childhood. But my zest for bike riding would come. Just a little later in the evolutionary scheme. In my late 20s, a friend pointed me towards a bike riding course in my local area. I wasn’t the best student. My ever-patient teacher watched me throw myself down a slope in the park several times, wobbling to a stop when I reached the bottom. Towards the end of the session, just as I could feel my teacher beginning to despair, I found it. Balance. I was euphoric. I spent the week practising daily in the park. I rode to my next class. And I haven’t really stopped riding since.
We might be in the minority, but there are still many adults who didn’t learn to ride as a child. Or who learnt so long ago, things – bikes, their bodies, their confidence levels – have changed. These people don’t have to go it alone. Bike riding is a skill, and sometimes the best course of action is to get a little help from the experts.
Ask the experts
Physiotherapist and bike-skills trainer Rosy Strong has been running the CycleWise road skills classes in Melbourne inner-north for about three years. Although the classes were aimed at raising bike riders’ confidence on the road, Strong also heard from people who had never learnt how to ride, but were keen to give it a go. Rather than turn them away, she decided to offer classes geared for beginners.
The resulting, aptly named, Learn2Ride course was surprisingly popular. While Strong’s clients came from diverse backgrounds, the majority were women and tended to fall into two broad age groups: young adults in their early 20s and 30s, or older women in their 50s and 60s. “Some weren’t allowed to ride a bike as a child due to fearful parents, some tried but didn’t pick it up as quickly as other kids, and some simply missed the opportunity,” Strong explains.
Although she recounts particular success stories with her younger clients, Strong – herself 32 – seems most impressed by people taking up riding when they’re much older. “I’ve also had several women my mother’s age and would have to say that deciding you’re going to learn to ride at 65 takes guts. But I’ve now taught several over-60s and am convinced that with persistence and self-belief, anyone can learn to ride.”
Like Strong, Louise Bricknell – who, with business partner Justin Riedy, runs Bike Beyond in the Melbourne suburbs of Carnegie and Hawthorn – has found her Foundation Skills classes have attracted older, often female, clients. While some have never learnt to ride, others may have left their single-speed circa 1970-something rusting in the shed for 40 years. In the meantime, bikes have changed. And, as Bricknell wryly notes, “Modern bikes have 50 gears instead of one.”
Bricknell has come up with some creative ideas to get her older clients back onto the bike. “[There was] a woman of about 65 who hadn’t ridden for 50 years; she had no idea how a modern bike worked. So we got a tandem and put her on the back and road along the Beach Road bike path. Her basic balance came back very quickly.”
She loved it, and is now the proud owner of “a little hybrid bike” that Riedy helped her choose. She knows how to fix her own punctures. And she has picked up one of the most important skills for older riders: how to start and stop without falling. These may seem like small victories. But as Bricknell points out, even getting on and off the bike – angling it towards you rather than holding it upright – can be a challenge for those who have never been shown how.
AusCycle accredited trainer Geoff Gilchrist offers classes on the mid-north coast of NSW – from Grafton to Port Macquarie – customising lessons to offer one-on-one for raw beginners and group classes for more confident riders. Gilchrist has seen his clients go from barely being able to ride in a straight line, to capably navigating traffic. And it’s this latter skill he feels beginner riders need the most. “Expect that traffic hasn’t seen you,” Gilchrist says. “You’re pretty much invisible. If everyone can take that away from a cycling course, they’re halfway there.”
Try this at home
If you can’t access a bike course, here’s one way to get started. It’s a method used by some bike educators to help adults – or children – to get their balance quickly, and without the fear of falling off.
It’s best to try this on a bike that fits you. You don’t need to buy a bike straight away – perhaps borrow one from a similarly-sized friend. If the bike has a cross bar (also called a top tube), make sure there are at least a few centimetres between your groin and the bar. This will save a painful lesson later on.
Ask someone who’s familiar with bikes to help you remove the pedals (simple tip: right pedal unscrews anti-clockwise, left pedal clockwise). Push the bike seat right down, so that when you sit on the bike, your feet can rest comfortably on the ground.
Now, you’re going to need a decent slope to roll down, so perhaps head down to your local park. Somewhere grassy to begin with, to soften any falls (although a harder surface will give you more roll). With your seat right down and the pedals off, you can put your feet down at any time. Keep practising until you feel confident you can lift your feet off the ground.
When you’ve gotten your balance and can coast comfortably, it’s time to put the pedals back on. Now as you whizz down, pedal, pedal, pedal . . . and keep on going. Soon enough, you won’t want to stop.
Anthony Tofello, 23, photographic assistant
When he was a child, Anthony Tofello caught a tram to primary school; high school was a short bus trip away. Bike riding wasn’t on the agenda.
But lately, with the growing popularity of cycling and a bunch of friends into racing fixed-wheel bikes, Tofello had begun to feel like it was time to hop aboard his first two wheeler.
So he started practising, trying to ride up and down the backyard. “[It was] kind of weird to start with, because I’d never done it before,” Tofello recalls. But when he discovered Rosy Strong’s Learn2Ride course a few months ago, things just clicked. “The one thing Rosy said was just strengthen my core muscles. And then I had no problems [with my] centre of gravity,” he says. “Once I got going I picked everything up really quickly.”
Although he only learnt to ride in May, Tofello is already riding on the roads – albeit short trips for now. And there are skills he’s keen to master. “I still have trouble signalling, and can’t stand up and pedal.” Ultimately, he would like to be able to compete with his fixie friends, in local urban bike races.
Tofello is enthusiastic about his newfound skill. He’s found riding is a convenient form of transport. It’s a good way to get fit. It’s got a low carbon footprint. It’s a lot of things. But, mainly, it’s fun. So his advice, for others – especially men – who may be reluctant to admit they want to learn something new. “Just swallow your pride, and do it.” Then, practise. “Practise is what makes it – I’ve been practising, once a day at least.”
Beginners’ skills courses around Australia
Contact: 0410 623 957
Course: Group and individual skills sessions available
New South Wales
Geoff Gilchrist Cycle School
Provider: Geoff Gilchrist, AusCycle accredited trainer
Where: Mid-north coast of NSW; Grafton to Port Macquarie
Contact: (02) 6653 4822; 0435 524 951; firstname.lastname@example.org
Course: Individual classes for beginners (Cost $60 an hour.)
Where: Brisbane, Ipswich, the Gold Coast
Provider: Robert Kearney
Course: Road riding skills courses available.
Where: 12 McDougall Street, Milton
Contact: (07) 3367 2488; email@example.com
Course: A four-hour skills course followed by a four-week road and fitness course.
Provider: Louise Bricknell, Justin Riedy
Where: Hawthorn, Carnegie
firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; 0429 668 487
Course: Foundation Skills for beginner or returning cyclists. (Cost $85 for two hours.)
Where: Brunswick, Northcote, Melbourne CBD
Provider: Rosy Strong
Contact: 0406 765 727; firstname.lastname@example.org
Course: Learn2Ride individual classes in Brunswick. (Cost $150 for course, concession available.)
Contact: (08) 8168 9999
Course: Two-hour personally tailored sessions (Cost: Bicycle SA members, $120 non-members per session)
Contact: (03) 6273 4463; email@example.com
Course: Learn to Ride course for adults.
Contact: (08) 9328 3422, firstname.lastname@example.org
Course: Offers programs for various skill levels