How to Ride a Bike

Posted by on May 17, 2017


There are as many ways to bike as there are people rolling around on two wheels. Maybe you can’t afford or just don’t want a car, maybe you want exercise, maybe (like me) you’ve found out that your commute to work is actually faster on a bike. The community of people who bike is vast, diverse — and I firmly believe it has a place for anyone who wants to be a part of it.

So, here are suggestions of what you should do if:

You don’t know how to ride a bike, but want to learn

First of all, listen: PLENTY of people never learn how to ride a bike as a kid. It happens all the time: who grew up in bike-unfriendly neighborhoods, who couldn’t afford a bike, who were discouraged from being active because of gender, who were just never interested. The woman who I think of as a cycling mentor, Siobhan Dolan, didn’t learn how to ride a bike until she was thirty — and now she is a badass leader in the cycling community who also runs a popular bike clothing Instagram. You got this.

Obviously, feel all of your feelings about this, but if embarrassment is what’s keeping you off the bike, resist! Learning curves are steep and hard, but they end. I highly recommend taking one of the great affordable adult classes at the Santa Monica Bike Center and CICLE in Eagle Rock, which also offers need-based scholarships and bike rentals; BikeSGV offers free classes.

You can also learn to ride a bike on your own or with the help of some friends. First, take the pedals off of your bike and lower your seat down so you can push yourself along the ground with your feet. (Have you seen those kids’ pushy bikes? You’re making an adult-size version of that.) Pedals are VERY easy to take off, and volunteers at places like Bike Kitchen and Bikerowave can help teach you how in a snap. Practice pushing yourself around until you feel comfortable balancing. If you’re doing this in public (like at the park), this might be where your embarrassment starts. FIGHT IT! Bring friends, have fun, make it a party. Or, if that’s not you, go early in the morning or at night when there aren’t as many people there to gawk. Still, remember: you’re doing something cool as hell, and you should be proud of it.

Once you feel comfortable rolling around and balancing, put those pedals back on and see what it feels like to push yourself with those, maybe in a grassy field at the park or somewhere similarly soft, in case you fall over. A friend can help you here by holding the back of your bike seat to steady you if you need it while you get the hang of the pedals. Tell your friend to hold the back of your seat, NOT your back or shoulder, so that you can’t feel if they’re holding you up or not. Often, once you get the hang of balancing and how it feels to be on a bike, you just need the confidence to trust yourself to stay balanced with your feet on the pedals.

And most of all, DON’T get discouraged! Biking is a wacky, unnatural-feeling thing to do at first. EVERY bike bro you see doing cavalier tricks in spandex has felt like this before, too. The only way you’ll feel comfortable biking is to bike more!

You know how to ride a bike, but you don’t feel comfortable biking on the street

Again, this is a VERY valid way to feel! The street is scary and dangerous! But you can make it your own.

First, read up on your rights. Know the basic rules that govern bike behavior. What lane should you be in, and when? Can you turn left at a light? Can you EVER bike on the sidewalk? LA DOT has a helpful summary, but different cities sometimes have different rules, so look up the city you live in, too, if it’s not LA.

Then, find routes to your routine spots that make you feel comfortable. The way that you go when you drive or take the bus or walk will be different from the best way to bike. Use apps like Google Maps, Strava, or Map My Ride to find the most bike-friendly way to get where you need to go. Frequently, detours off of main streets can help you find bike lanes, roads with sharrows (those pictures of bikes painted on street lanes), or just less car traffic to worry about. If you have a regular way to work, the store, school, etc., getting familiar with the roads and traffic patterns will help you feel more confident and be more aware.

Finally, find your group. As soon as I started biking with a group of people, I started feeling way more confident biking everywhere! It’s a way to feel protected and to learn safe, effective riding by example. Whether your group is a commuter bike train, a bike club, or just some friends you ride down the bike path with on weekends, it definitely helps you feel less alone.

You bike casually but want to start training more intensively

Well, hello there, and welcome to Club Spandex! It feels great here. You want to ride fast, go far, and have fun. This is the best part of biking for me. You see places you’d never see in a car, at distances you could never go on foot. Plus the power I feel from the self-sufficiency and physical strength cycling gives me seeps over into all areas of my life.

However, it’s not always roses and lollipops. Try to NEVER get discouraged about your level, strength, or ability. It’s amazing to decide to train and get stronger and faster on the bike, and some healthy competition with yourself and others can get you to places you never even imagined you’d be. That’s something to be proud of.

To start your training, set some goals. Do you want to feel comfortable riding 50 miles? 100 miles? Do you want to be able to ride up to the top of mountains? How about the Griffith Observatory? Do you want to participate in AIDS LifeCycle, Climate Ride, or another multi-day fundraiser? Do you want to be the Jonathan Gold of cycling, and bike to every restaurant along Pico Boulevard? There’s room for all sorts of goals here. Key, though, is to actually care about it.

With those goals in your heart, push yourself! Do things that challenge you. If you don’t finish, the worst thing that happened is you didn’t do it — the same that would happen if you didn’t try at all. There are frequently training rides for riders of all levels around the city, especially if you’re training for a specific event (like AIDS LifeCycle). Go to them! The people who put these rides on are there to help you succeed.

You might find yourself wanting to invest in your cycling. Unfortunately, bike stuff tends to be expensive. You don’t need to be decked out in top-of-the-line kits and matching all-carbon everything to ride seriously. A good chamois (AKA padded bike shorts) will REALLY help your buns out, especially if you’re going on rides longer than 30 miles. Clipless pedals (AKA those pedals that clip onto special bike shoes) were essential in my own cycling, although not everyone uses them. They help you pull UP as well as pushing down on your pedals, meaning you’re immediately using twice as much of your leg’s force. Plus, the stiff sole was a lot easier on my foot, since I have super-high arches and get plantar fasciitis. You also might find yourself outgrowing the bike you use to commute or ride shorter distances. If you decide to buy a more intense bike, take the time to get measured first, so that you know what sizing you should look for in a bike, and to get your bike fit once you get it. Again, it’s an investment, but if you’ll be biking long distances, it’s well worth it to prevent future injury and pain/discomfort.

All riding is good riding! Be proud of yourself — whether you ride two miles to work or 50 miles up a mountain for fun! We’re all on the same team here. I can’t wait to see you out on the road soon!