I forgot how to cycle: What it's like learning to ride a bike as an adult

After a couple of wobbly incidents on a bike, it was time to get some professional help
I forgot how to cycle: What it's like learning to ride a bike as an adult

The first thing you should do is get a bike that's the right size for your height.  Picture: Greg Murphy

You know the phrase, ‘like riding a bike’? It means you have a skill that, once learned, you can never forget. It is also a lie, I have discovered. By the age of 30, I had firmly established that I had forgotten how to cycle. 

As a child, I could cycle a bike. I grew up in a housing estate in Cork’s northside in the 90s, so there were plenty of children my age around to play with and no one batted an eye if I borrowed a school friend’s brother’s bike for a few hours to race up and down the hill or just pedal lazily along a footpath.

I never used a bike to travel to or from school, college, work or just to get into town. Anywhere I wanted to go within the city was rarely more than half an hour away by foot. The hills of Cork city gave me calves of steel and kept me relatively fit and it never occurred to me that I should cycle anywhere instead.

When I was in my 20s, my boyfriend and I went to London one weekend and he suggested we rent bikes in Hyde Park. I assumed I’d have no problems in the saddle. After all, what’s more like riding a bike than riding a bike? I was very wrong. 

Seconds after setting off I was careening down a gentle slope that suddenly seemed like the view from atop a rollercoaster. In a panic, I struggled to steer the bike and completely forgot that it came with brakes. In my path was a panicking group of tourists who jumped out of the way just in time. I skidded to a stop, turned around, and wheeled the bike back to the rack from whence it came.

A few years later, we were in Lanzarote and again, my boyfriend floated the idea of renting bikes. He was a little hesitant to suggest it again but I agreed to try once more. The man renting them was obviously chuckling as I set off. I was wobbling and struggled to stay within the bike lane. Soon, even parked cars seemed in danger. I dismounted but I insisted we carry on, so my boyfriend cycled slowly as I shamefully walked the bicycle beside me, the pedal occasionally whacking me in the shin as punishment. Never again, I vowed.

And so, you can see why he laughed when I told him an editor asked if I wanted to try out an electric bike on the hills of the northside. And he laughed a little more hysterically when, after I told her why I couldn’t do it, she suggested I get lessons and write about learning to ride a bike as an adult. When I told my family, they requested we video the whole thing, if possible, assuming I’d fall constantly. I can’t blame them really, it seemed even Frank Spencer would have fewer mishaps on a bicycle than I would.

That is how I came to find myself in an almost-empty Tramore Valley Park one windy Thursday afternoon to meet a woman who promised to help me find my balance and find my confidence as a cyclist. Ruth Herman of Wild Atlantic Sports (wildatlanticsports.com) offers adult cycling lessons (yup, I don’t know they were a thing either) and she told me not to be nervous ahead of our first lesson. “It’ll be fun!” she emailed me, optimistically. I had my doubts. I was relieved, though, by the location of our first lesson: I was less likely to bump into anyone I know on the southside.

I had borrowed a bike from The Bike Shed in Dennehy’s Cross (thebikeshed.ie), which rents bicycles as well as selling a range of new and second-hand bikes. Owner Cillian Read asked for my height so he could pick out a few bikes to suit me. This sounded like a solution already: I’m 5’3” and both bikes I rented as an adult felt like they were too big for me. Once, I saw my niece’s bike in their house and thought ‘that’s more like it’. She’s 11.

When I collect the bike, Jerry from The Bike Shed helps me pick the best and most comfortable option, a blue bike that feels just right. We chat about the lessons I’m getting and, wondering about my balance, he asks if I’d ever skated or used a scooter growing up. When I tell him I could actually cycle once upon a time, he smiles and says I’ll pick it up again in no time. Jerry is convinced that, post-lessons, I’ll be cycling everywhere with ease. With my track record, I feel nothing but doubt.

I met Ruth for my first lesson in the park and she is proactive from the start. She adjusts the saddle and shows me how to ‘scoot’ along on the bike, walking my feet to propel myself. She says it’s a great way to gain your balance and I’m astonished to find myself cycling somewhat normally within 10 minutes of meeting her. Even Ruth is impressed, though she credits much of that to my childhood cycling skills. She says most adults take a little longer to find their balance and cycle steadily. 

She gives me pointers on braking, turning corners, and how not to crash into things (don’t look at it or you’ll definitely cycle right into it). We bring our bikes on a range of routes around a quiet part of the park, navigating various hazards and obstacles, namely children, dogs, and small orange cones that Ruth produces to test my braking skills. By the end of our time together that day, she suggests we meet somewhere more challenging for our second lesson: a real road.

Two weeks later, I find Ruth waiting for me in a car park (yes, I’m aware how shady our rendezvous points sound) and we move into a nearby cul de sac. I learn how to pass by a parked car, leaving room for an opening door just in case. We cycle up and down the road, avoiding potholes and speed bumps, watching for cars and practicing one-handed steering. While I initially wonder about learning what seems like a ‘look mom, no hands’ trick, it is actually quite handy (sorry) for signalling when turning on a road, an essential thing to know as a cyclist.

We move to another area, a looped road around a quiet green. I practice signalling and Ruth gives me advice on how to check behind me for cars without wobbling all over the road. She shows me how to use the bike’s gears properly (my dad once fell off a bike because he didn’t know how its gears worked, clearly my cycling talents are inherited) and we enjoy a chat while we cycle around. A gorgeous golden retriever even potters out from one of the houses to sit in the road and test our maneuvering abilities.

Ruth says she has seen many adults struggle to cycle despite learning the skill as children because they never kept it up as they got older. Jerry in The Bike Shed too noted an obvious fall off in cycling as children become teenagers, particularly among girls. Rather than being a dormant skill waiting to be called upon, cycling should be seen as a muscle in need of regular exercising and should be encouraged among teens and adults alike.

After lesson number two, I signed up for Cork’s bike share scheme so I can dip in and out of cycling as I travel through the city. It’s only a small step but it’s the first of many in ensuring I never forget how to cycle again.

  • Wild Atlantic Sports’ ‘Learn to Cycle’ classes are designed to help adults who never learned to ride a bike. Both one-to-one lessons and six-week classes are available. See wildatlanticsports.com for more information.

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