Not all the articles in this blog will be about photography although they will all contain photographs. This article about cycling (another passion of mine) includes pictures I took of cyclists riding around the part of London I live in. You can view more of these and other photographs in the Cycling and Cyclists gallery.
For many of us cycling is second nature. It was something we learnt as a child and when we jump on a bicycle, even if we only do it once a year, it is something we never forget. But do we remember the process of learning to ride a bicycle? I was once privileged to work as a cycle instructor training people to ride bicycles. This article reflects upon my experiences from that time and outlines the basic steps for teaching someone to start cycling.
Learning to fly
As a cycle instructor the most magical moments usually came when I was teaching an adult to ride a bicycle for the first time. For some reason they had missed out on the chance as a child and now they wanted to make up for it. There was one young man I recall training who was in this position; as a child he had been driven everywhere with limited independence. Or there was the sixty year old woman who had recently retired; she was now catching up on all the things she had missed out on earlier in life.
First of all you are going to practice setting off. Right now your trainee won’t need to know how to balance so you will take hold of the handlebars to hold the bicycle upright. Your trainee should sit on the bike and hold the handlebars with their fingers covering the brake levers (this last bit is very important). One foot will be on the ground and the other should already be on a pedal, at about the two o’clock for maximum leverage. You are going to practice pushing down on the pedal and picking up the other one as it comes around. For the first few goes your trainee can look down to see what they are doing but gradually they should begin to look up and where they are planning to cycle.
The second step (usually combined with the setting off) is learning how to stop safely and under control. Most new cyclists imagine they are going to fall off and this can make it difficult for them to be able to start riding independently. If they can feel that they can bring the bike to a safe stop under their own control then they are more likely to be able to set off on their own. You should still be holding the handlebars but now you will need to walk backwards as they set off; your trainee will set off for a short distance then, when they want to stop, squeeze the brakes gently and set one foot down on the ground once the bike has stopped. Practice this and the setting off process until your trainee is able to pick up the second pedal, ride forward, squeeze the brakes, stop and put one foot down again.
Once they have got the hang of setting off and stopping the bicycle now they are ready to move on to balancing.
Bicycles don’t stay upright because of gyroscopic forces. They stay upright because they are constantly wobbling! The bicycle is falling all the time; what stops it from hitting the ground is that it is constantly steering into the fall to bring it upright again. This is why a bicycle will fall over if its wheels get caught in a tram line for example; there is not enough room to steer into the falls. For experienced cyclists the constant steering is barely noticeable; as a new cyclist it is going to be more exaggerated until they get the hang of it. Which is why you need a large space!
To start with you have spent your time holding onto the handlebars and walking backwards as your trainee gets used to setting off and stopping. Now you need to hold on to the saddle or the seat post so that the trainee can take control of the steering. Make sure they set off in the same way that you practised earlier. Walk behind them, holding until you get the sense that they can stay upright on their own.
Some of their early journeys may be very short but gradually they will get it. At some point they will set off and come to a stop a little distance away. They will look back to see where you are. Nowhere near them. You will have let go and they did it all on their own! That’s when it becomes magical! With a bit more practice they will be able to ride the bicycle unaided and control where it goes. It was about this point when my one of my trainees (the young man) turned to me and said, “It’s just like flying!”
That feeling never leaves you. I had a conversation with my brother not so long back. He told me that he had been out cycling the country lanes near where he lives. It was a gloriously sunny day and he was just freewheeling down one particular hill when all of a sudden he just let out a whoop of joy. Like my trainee before he was experiencing the delight of his own velocity!
A version of this article first appeared in June 2018