Learning to ride a bike at 61 raises some concerns: will I be publicly humiliated? How hard will it be? My head will have a helmet, but what about the rest of me?
Drawn to the forests, mountains, and ocean waters of the Pacific Northwest, I’ve lived a reasonably active life since my arrival in Seattle 22 years ago. Biking, however, has not been part of me outdoor profile.When my wife and long-time sea kayaking partner had to stop paddling because of leg pain, I thought that biking would make up in land miles what we were giving up in nautical ones (she has no problems pedaling). But that meant learning to ride, something I’d avoided for countless years out of fear and ignorance. I had always wanted to ride, but my wife’s situation clinched it: spending time together out of doors was too precious to lose. Recalling a conversation I had some years back with a woman who had learned to ride as an adult with Cycle University, I signed up for three 90-minute one-on-one lessons.
My instructor, Colin Gibson, a tall, trim athlete with an impressive racing record, immediately put me at ease with his infectious good cheer. After some discussion about my experience (zero) and goals (ride a bike without falling) Colin started the process with a bike fitting: making sure that the bike I would train on was the right size and configuration for my body type. Riding a poorly fitted bike means using more energy than necessary, and could lead to injury.
Moving outdoors (in public view!) it was time for the basics: starting and stopping a bike. What’s natural for experienced riders turns out to require some conscious coordination for newbies. Body posture, brakes, and pedal position need to work together seamlessly to start the bike moving, and to bring it to a stop without falling. It seemed like a daunting proposition at first, but with Colin carefully scrutinizing my attempts and following on foot closely enough to prevent mishaps, I eventually was able to move the bike a short distance and bring it to a safe stop. No prizes for elegance that day, but none of the passersby seemed to care or notice. Whew!
About a week later, Colin had us at a shoreline park in West Seattle, where there was ample space to build on the previous week’s lesson and add to my (limited) skill set. The park wasn’t within view of the street, so that bit of anxiety was alleviated. After a review of start and stop basics, it was time to master turning the bike. Apparently the world is lacking in bike pathways that move in a straight line forever; one must learn to turn the bike occasionally. Moving the bike a longer distance felt great, but up ahead was a chain link fence that meant a turn was necessary. The first two attempts were less than successful. Nothing serious happened; but people would have stared had anybody been around. After getting the low down from Colin on what I was doing right and what I needed to change, I gave it a go. Sure enough it worked, the bike arcing to the left and then heading back to my starting point. Turning again, I went towards the fence once more and made another left. It seemed I could go on this way for a while when Colin reminded me that I should learn to perform a right turn as well. I saw the logic in that, and went on to do so.
Next up was attempting to move the bike in a figure eight pattern. Seemed easy enough, but that maneuver eluded me that day. I had better luck when Colin suggested using some nearby speed bumps to practice the proper body and pedal positions when encountering a bump in the road. Not a bad day, overall.
This was it, the final lesson, and time to ride a bike on a trail along with pedestrians and other cyclists. Colin chose the Alki Trail in West Seattle, a long, mostly flat pathway that offered some grand views of Puget Sound and the Seattle skyline. After a quick review, we were on the trail, Colin following closely enough for me to hear his cautions, suggestions, and encouragement. It soon became clear that biking requires your full attention. The trail seemed to be full of nothing but tricky obstacles: people walking their dogs, cyclists of all abilities, children emerging from parked cars, joggers wearing ear buds (with their backs to me!), Scuba divers prepping their gear, stop signs, and active driveways. Colin, ever vigilant, coached me along, and I learned to use my brakes to adjust my speed and call out as I passed (mostly) on the left. We rounded Duwamish Head, at the northern tip of West Seattle, and continued on for a total of three miles before stopping to rest and admire the view. My body told me I’d just done something new, but I was elated. On the ride back the trail was just as busy, but what I remember most was the sun shining, the water sparkling, and a refreshing wind.
It’s been a month since the last lesson, and my wife and I are on our bikes routinely, going farther with each ride.
I’ve discovered that there are many adults who’ve never learned to ride, and multiple approaches to teaching them. The advantages of group lessons are cost and camaraderie. For me, the one-on-one method was the best for my learning style. Choose a method that suits you, learn to ride, and commit to improving by riding. When taking lessons remember to wear clothing that’s comfortable but not too loose, and bring a full water bottle. I found visualization helped me prepare for a lesson. Learning to ride as an adult won’t be as hard as you think, people will admire the effort, and you’ll be too happy to mind a little soreness.
On your left!