Friday, 7 August 2015

Learning to cycle as an adult: from complete n00b to daily commuter

Here in Australia, it seems that most people acquired two skills in childhood that I never did. One of these is riding a bicycle. When I was about eight years old, my parents did actually buy me one, but being the indoor sort of child that I was, I never developed an interest in it and never learned to use it.

Fast-forward a few decades, and I’ve been looking for ways to boost my level of daily physical activity as part of a plan to lose weight and keep it off. I’ve always walked a lot, and at various points in the past have regularly walked the 5 kilometres each way to and from work. But walking as commuting takes the better part of two hours out of my day and I wondered if cycling would give me a similar energy burn but without taking up so much time. The first challenge, though, was to figure out whether I’d be able to ride a bike.

My first conundrum was that I was hesitant to go out and buy a bike when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to learn to ride it. But how to learn to ride a bike without a bike?

Fortunately I had access to a simple and obvious solution: my city (Brisbane) has a public bike-hire scheme (CityCycle). For a small subscription fee, you can access a fleet of bicycles available from racks stationed throughout the inner city. The success of the scheme overall is debatable, but it was a perfect fit for my purpose.

As for actually learning to ride, of course I turned to the Internet. Reading the experiences of other adult learners suggested separating out “riding a bike” into a set of discrete skills. The most fundamental of these was balancing on the bike while in motion. So, following the advice I gleaned online, I set myself the goal of balancing on a CityCycle while it rolled down a grassy slope in a park, using the bike’s brakes—and my feet—to stop it at the end of the slope. Advice I’d read also suggested removing the pedals from the bike while practicing this specific skill, but obviously that wasn’t an option for me!

I also considered lessons from a cycling coach. More on this later.

26 April — Lesson 1

So one Sunday afternoon, I spent an hour in a nearby park with a hired CityCycle. I adjusted its seat down as far as it would go, then I would walk the bike to the top of a slope, climb on, and just coast down the slope while attempting to remain upright. The first few attempts had me rolling only a few metres before I’d lose balance or confidence and put a foot down to prevent a fall. However, I was very surprised at how quickly I learned to balance on the bike. At the end of the hour (and some twenty or more coasts of about 50 metres), I was still scared, but had no trouble riding the whole way down the slope with both my feet off the ground. This was a major confidence boost for me. I don’t have a good sense of balance, and I had assumed that balancing was going to be the biggest obstacle I faced. With that concern out of the way, I felt much more certain that this whole riding-a-bicycle idea was actually feasible.

The other surprise for me was how the brakes operated. For some reason, I instinctively expected that if I pulled on the brake lever fitted to the left handlebar, the bike would veer left, and vice versa for the lever on the right handlebar. Of course, that’s not true and doesn’t reflect what I knew even then to be mechanically true of the bike, but it was an unconscious expectation nonetheless. To this day, three months and 600 kilometres later, I still have to fight this instinct occasionally. I wonder if this somehow distantly relates to my very earliest driving experiences being with a tracked vehicle with differential braking? (A Caterpillar D2, for the record).

9 May — Lesson 2

Two weeks later, at a different park, I again hired a CityCycle with the intention of adding steering and propulsion to the mixture, still confining myself to areas thick with grass.

Pedalling turned out to be a non-issue; and in retrospect, I now know that apart from cushioning any potential falls, the thick grass also served the very useful purpose of preventing me from building up too much speed too quickly.

Steering was a little more difficult for me to get the hang of. Initially, I had a very strong tendency to over-steer. It took quite some trial-and-error to determine that most of the turn needed to come from shifting my balance to one side or the other, with only small, gentle inputs from the handlebars. Initially, I think I expected the bike to steer more like a car. I liked discovering that it steers more like an aeroplane.

This week, I also experimented with the gears (on CityCycles, a three-speed, hub-geared arrangement with a twist shifter) but found little value in them. Indeed, I could feel so little difference between the gears that I had to enquire via social media whether “1” was the low gear (as in a car) or whether it was the other way around! (Yes, “1” is low, for anyone else wondering) I also learned that, unlike a car, shifting down gears does not provide a braking force. Another instinct that I still occasionally fight.

I spent an hour that day pedalling along the grass, describing long, lazy figures-of-eight. By the end of it, I could essentially ride a bike, even if my directional control was not wonderful.

So, for any other adult novices reading this: that’s two hours from zero to basic competence.

16 May — Lesson 3

The following weekend, I decided to attempt a real ride along a bike path. There’s a 5-km round-trip stretch of path that I knew quite well from doing weekly fun-runs on it (ParkRun). I knew it to be flat, wide along most of its distance, and not too busy. And my familiarity meant that I could remove finding my way from the cognitive load. I set out, slowly and tentatively.

It wasn’t hard to complete the 5 km, but it was a pretty nerve-racking experience for me, especially when sharing the path with other cyclists and pedestrians. It was during this ride that I discovered that the phenomenon of target fixation applies to cycling: that worrying about an obstacle like a pole or bollard would tend to make me steer directly for it.  I had to learn to disconnect my attention from such hazards and focus on where I wanted the bike to go rather than where I didn’t want it to go.

By the end of week three, I now knew that I was physically capable of staying on a bike and making a powered, controlled ride of approximately the distance I would need to cover to ride to or from work.

16 May — My first bike

By now, I was already researching what kind of bike I might like to buy. The criteria I had come up with included:

  • Upright riding position: I wanted a bike that emphasised comfort over speed, and the upright position suggested greater comfort than being hunched over the handlebars, as well as better safety due to better visibility.
  • Platform pedals: I wanted to be able to put a foot down quickly to avert a fall without having to disengage from any kind of retention mechanism.
  • Step-through (“ladies”) frame: And if I were to fall, I wanted to minimise the chances of getting entangled in or injured by the frame.
  • Hub gears and twist shifter: Hub gears seemed more robust and needing less maintenance than derailleurs. And the twist shifter seemed easier to use while keeping both hands firmly on the handlebars. Actually, I initially wondered if I’d need or want gears at all, but fortunately, friends convinced me that they were a must-have.
  • Pretty! I wanted a bike that had some character and which reflected my own aesthetic sense. As I see it, too many bikes lack any kind of style, or are actually (and perhaps deliberately) ugly.  
  • Cheap: Despite the promising experiments, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on what was still an unproven concept. I hoped I would be able to spend less than $300 or so.
Something like the Papillionaire Sommer looked ideal, but at around $800, was a bit more than I planned to spend.

As it happened, the day of my third test ride, an advertisement by Reid Cycles appeared in my Facebook feed, promoting a deep discount on a bicycle that matched my criteria very closely. The only way that the Reid Vintage Ladies 7-Speed Classic diverged from my wish list was in its gearing: it has a derailleur and a thumb shifter. Still, a discount of over $100 off the list price brought the bike down to $200. Trading off that one feature for such a good price seemed acceptable to me, so I went straight to the Reid store in Fortitude Valley to buy one. I’ll review the bike and purchase experience separately in another post (update: here it is), but for now, I’ll say that overall, I’m very, very happy with this bike.

24 May — Test ride

This Sunday, I set out early in the morning to ride to my workplace and back, to confirm the route and my ability to ride it. I’m extremely fortunate to have a bike path that takes me from a few hundred metres away from my front door right to across the street from my office!

I have a terrible sense of direction, but Google Maps does a great job of indicating bike paths and other cycling infrastructure, so I found the way without too much trouble. I was also pleasantly surprised at how easy the ride was almost along its entire length. I only encountered two hills on the way to work and two (different) hills on the way home that required me to dismount and push the bike maybe a hundred metres or so each time.

I was set.

24 May — Coaching

Early on, I had considered hiring a cycle coach to teach me to ride, but in practice, it proved hard to find a coach at short notice with a schedule that worked in with my already very full one. By the time I’d successfully engaged a coach, there was a two-week wait before my lesson. When I booked it, I assumed that I’d still be learning to balance by then, but instead, I’d already taught myself to ride from the Internet, had bought my own bike, and had even ridden it all the way to work and back!

Nevertheless, I did buy an hour’s coaching with one of the trainers from CycleAway, and it did prove useful. I’ll admit that I was nervous at first, wondering if I’d be judged for buying something other than a “serious” road bike, or for wanting nothing more from cycling than to commute to and from work. But this proved completely unfounded. What I liked straight away was that the trainer listened to my choices and my use case, and then worked with me to optimise for them.

Specific useful advice I took from the session included how to progressively adjust the bicycle to my height, better riding posture to maximise comfort and control for a cruiser-style bike like mine, and (much) better braking technique. These are things that I would have been unlikely to have discovered on my own, so the session was definitely worth it.

25 May to now — Commuting and more

This is almost an anti-climax to this story. The next day, Monday, I rode to work instead of taking the train. And I did the same on Tuesday. And I’ve done the same practically every day since then. The only exceptions have been a couple of days that would have required a night ride home before I was comfortable doing that, and a couple of days where I needed to wear a suit and didn't want to cycle in that.

It hasn’t all been lovely, though. The absolute worst thing about learning to ride has been the behaviour of other cyclists. During the first few weeks of commuting, I was a lot slower than any other rider on the bike path, and when making my way up hills, a lot wobblier. During those weeks, I was verbally abused or physically menaced by other riders approximately one day in every two. Usually the menacing took the form of tailgating (do cyclists use that term?), cutting me off after overtaking me or on the inside of the curve while going around bends, or—in one incident—actually running me off the path. I wonder how many would-be cycle commuters have been turned off the idea forever after experiences like these?

Against that, there have been lovely cyclists, who offered words of encouragement and support after witnessing two of the worst such incidents, or who stopped and offered me assistance one day as I walked my bike home with a flat tyre. Those folks have been one of the best things about learning to ride.

But anyway, I’ve stayed with it, and I now do the ride to and from work in about half the time it took me at first.

The scope of my cycling has crept a little too! I bought this bike with the sole intention of riding it only to work and back. However, it wasn’t long before I started using it to replace the car for other trips of under 10km or so, where I would have been the only passenger and where I wasn’t to be carrying large or heavy cargo.

My total outlay to start cycling was about $440:

CityCycle membership for learning to ride $30
Helmet (compulsory in my state1) $10
Bicycle Queensland membership (for included insurance2) $90
Bicycle $200
Lights/lock/pump kit $20
Coaching session $90
Total: $440

Against that, I save about $36 per week in public transport fares, so after two months, I’m getting close to recouping my initial outlay. I’ll be revenue-netural in a few more weeks!


 The future

Even now, I’m not sure that I’d say that I like cycling. That is, it’s not something I would choose to do for its own sake (“It's a lovely day! I think I’ll go for a ride!”) However, I do know that I like it more than I like catching buses or trains. And I like it more than driving a car under most circumstances. And it does deliver the physical activity I was looking for without taking any more time out of my day than my commute by train did.

I commute in the clothes I work in. My workplace actually has showers and change facilities for cyclists, but I’m not comfortable with the idea of using them. That seems to be OK right now in the winter, but it might force me back onto the trains once Brisbane summer hits and brings with it heat, humidity, and rain. If that’s the case, I hope I’ll be able to overcome inertia and switch back to cycling as temperatures drop again.

I originally saw the bike I chose as an entry-level option and a stepping stone to something else. But now, I’m not so sure: it seems such a perfect fit for my use case! Sure, I’ll buy a few accessories like better lights, better tyres, and a better saddle, but I get the feeling I’ll be keeping this bike for a while.

1 Actually, CityCycle makes shared helmets available with some hire bikes. But ewwwwww... 

2  Bicycle Queensland is the state’s bicycle advocacy organisation. Membership includes public liability insurance for bodily injury and property damage. I think you’d be insane to ride in public without insurance of this kind. 


  1. Really cool! Sorry about the other riders, they sound like they suck. I got honked at a lot when I first learned to drive. Hopefully they get over their bad attitude.

    1. Thank you! And yeah, it seems that there's a certain category of person who won't put up with folks less proficient than them getting in their way. They might be memorable, but thankfully they're not the majority :)

  2. The tailgating thing: another name for it is drafting.

    They aren't doing it to intimidate you, they are using it to get a "free" ride where you break the slipstream for them and reduce their effort required. It is a common thing in cycling, and there are a whole lot of strategies around it used in the racing scene.

    I used to find it quite irritating and intimidating, but if the guy behind you looks like an experienced cyclist you are very unlikely to have them crash into the back of you. If it does still spook you, maybe hanging an "L" plate off your saddle will help discourage them. These days it doesn't bother me so much... except when the guy getting the free ride won't take a turn at the front to return the favour ;-)

    Does this help?

    1. Thanks John; I really do prefer to think the best of people, and this reply lets me do that :)