What is the best way to teach an adult to cycle?

Sustainable transport cannot be separated from sustainable cities. Nor sustainable cities from sustainable lives. Here is a small project from Sweden that takes as its goal to teach people how to balance and move safely around on a bike. But who in Sweden cannot climb on a cycle without a thought and toddle off? Well, among others immigrant women coming from Africa and the Middle East who find themselves living in this very different culture in which they are free to cycle like everyone else. This modest project is a shining example of how we can move toward sustainability: it is perspicacious, generous, practical, responsible and the sort of thing that can be replicated easily at low cost and to great effect in your community. Sustainability is made up of many small things done together in new and softer ways. Let’s listen to what Ian Fiddies has to say on their project.

- By Ian Fiddies, Club Global, Gothenburg, Sweden

For the past six months Club Global, a small NGO in Sweden has been working on a project called “Cycling for everyone”. As the name suggests the aim of the project has been to encourage more people to cycle. The difference with this project has been the two target groups, people who don’t know how to cycle, and people who don’t know how to teach people who don’t know how to cycle to cycle. The most interesting part has been that all of us working with the project fell into the second target group. None of us knew what the best way to teach an adult to cycle is.

I still can’t answer that question with 100% confidence. The reason I’m not 100% sure that our method is the best comes from discussions I’ve had after writing the book and I’m going to have to wait for the snow to melt before I can try out some new ideas.

During the project 40 students have learnt to cycle, we failed with one and didn’t have time to get a few late starters past the first stages but we have proven that we have developed a teaching method that works. Not only have we developed a method that works, we have documented the method and presented it in a, hopefully, easily read and inspiring text book for budding cycle teachers. Download the pdf here and try it out, it’s a lot of fun. I’m not going to go into the actual method here but rather look at the process of developing our method.

Somehow I feel this process of learning we have gone through developing this teaching method has very strong parallels with the wider process of creating vigorous, sustainable cities. We all want the best urban environment possible but none of us really knows the best way to get there. Just because you don’t know how to do something doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it, or that it doesn’t need to be done. At the same time the thing you didn’t know how to do, when done, will always leave you thinking it could have been done better. A lot like city planning or pretty much anything else one doesn’t know how to do for that matter.

The process begins when a need is recognised. In our case it was discovering that many people, especially women, who have migrated from Africa and the middle east have never cycled. They don’t know how to.

The next stage is to look at how this newly discovered need is being met at present. We found that locally there was no established help to to teach adults cycling but that there had been previous similar projects and that in Holland there were established projects. We were not in totally new territory. There was useful knowledge to be collected out there somewhere.

Stage three is to study the state of knowledge. It’s amazing what you can find on the internet. There are lots of different methods to teach adults to cycle, often quiet contradictory. Each method was also described as the best method. (Our own method is unique because it isn’t the best method.) Thoroughly confused I set off to Holland to speak with someone with experience. Then to England to speak to someone else. All the time refining the questions being asked but never quite asking the right questions. Still the research gave us some understanding and insight into the problems.

A small scale trial was the next obvious stage. Five women who couldn’t cycle, five bikes, that we discovered were a bit too big for the job in hand, two instructors who weren’t sure what to do, were all gathered together on a school yard for two weeks intensive cycle training. Everybody involved learnt a lot in these two weeks and we left behind four competent cyclists and one who needed a bit more practise. It was here I discovered that I was also included in our first target group as well, people who don’t know how to cycle. I can cycle without thinking about it, and I hadn’t, thought about it that is. All that tramping round Europe talking to people and it didn’t even occur to me to do the obvious. Cycle with thinking, not without.

By this stage we’re gaining confidence and its time for a larger trial. With several groups, and smaller bikes we held 22 cycle lessons a week for six weeks. All the time our teaching method evolved and improved and we got people cycling quicker and found that we needed to physically support them less and less. Too much physical support we discovered is actually bad.

The sixth stage was to record what we had leant and compile it in a book so hopefully others could continue where we left off. At this point I’m feeling quite proud of myself. That is before I start to realise that we could have done it better.

At the time of writing we don’t have funding to continue the project into 2011 so the need for established cycle courses is still there. We have a documented method that meets the need so we have come a bit farther down the road. And as for finding the best way to teach an adult to cycle, probably not. Already before publishing our cycle teachers guide I’ve had feedback that makes me want to try things a bit differently. I hope this book can still be useful to many, don’t follow it too rigidly. Take it for what it is, experience. But having said that the method we arrived does work, in fact it works quiet well. What I really want though is for lots of people to try it out, get out there and start teaching new cyclists. After all teaching someone to cycle isn’t really that hard. Then write to me and tell me what the best way to do it is.

Ian Fiddies. ianfiddies@hotmail.com and +46 (0)739 24 23 41
Gothenburg, Sweden
25th January 2011

Again: To freely download the pdf for their “Cycling for Everyone” manual click here

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About the author

Ian Fiddies on Ian Fiddies:
I’m an Englishman who’s been living in Sweden for the past twenty years. If anybody asks me what I do I usually reply that I’m an environmental activist but that covers a multitude of sins without actually saying very much. My real interest is in how cities work. For many years I was a travelling busker, moving from town to town playing Celtic folk music and watching people. Later I studied Human Geography at Gothenburg’s University in Sweden and that got me totally hooked on cities and how they function. A large part of my free time is spent as a traffic activist in my local Friends of the Earth group. I love walking and giving lectures.

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One response to “What is the best way to teach an adult to cycle?

  1. I have not done this successfully, having failed to get my wife back onto her own bike, thanks to her severe hesitancy. She had not been on one since she was an adolescent. I found a compromise: I bought a used tandem and she agreed to stay (naturally) stiff on the stoker position, while I did the steering, stopping, and balancing for both of us. This worked for a couple short trips around our house for a few years until we had ‘an accident’ last August that resulted in her falling on brick pavers and bangin up her knee. She is swearing it off for the time being. We are in our late 60s.

    I know that adults just think too much, and that is what makes it more difficult. They are less intuitive.

    I found the manual’s mention of things that cycling ISN’T at the beginning to be negative, introducing just what one is trying not to introduce.

    Balancing is the big thing. And I have realized over the years, that turning a bike is a kind of controlled fall, using the steering to start a fall in the direction of the turn, by turning the handlebars in the opposite direction, and then ensuring that the steering is turned back and follows the “fall” until the end of the turn, when the wheel must be turned an extra measure to stop the “fall.”

    Now, I realize that the word “fall” is itself a fear word, but thinking of turning — and correcting a lean when one doesn’t want to turn — is the central cause of the fear. And I feel that using the word ‘fall’ is more useful than using the phrase, “don’t fear . . . ” this or that.

    The bike’s front fork is designed with the curl near the wheel so that a turn of the handlebar causes the centre of gravity to shift, important both to correcting an unintended fall, and to start an intended one.

    For what it’s worth.

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