About cycling

Learning to ride

Basic skills¹

The basic skills to learn first are:

¹ This topic has been based on information contained within Cyclecraft - the complete guide to safe and enjoyable cycling for adults and children, written by John Franklin. For more information, the reader should refer to this book. It can be purchased online or ordered through bookstores.

How to hold the handlebars

Straight handlebars

Straight handlebars normally only have one or two positions where you can put your hands. Grip the handlebars firmly, but not too tightly and place your fingers over the brakes, so that you are ready to apply them if you need to.

Holding straight handlebars

Holding straight handlebars

Dropped handlebars

There are four ways to hold drop handlebars. Practice them all and make sure you can move between the positions easily.

Holding dropped handlebars

This is the normal position to use in traffic. From this position you can reach the brake levers easily and by sitting up you can see everything happening around you.

Holding dropped handlebars

This position can be used when there are no hazards. From this position it is easy to slip your hands to the brakes when needed.

Holding dropped handlebars

This position reduces wind resistance and is useful when you want to ride fast or are cycling against a strong headwind.

Holding dropped handlebars

This position can relieve pressure on the hands, but it is generally not recommended because you don't have quick access to the brake levers. The position should only be used by experienced cyclists on quiet roads when there are no hazards.

Stopping and braking

Most bicycles have two brakes, one at the front and the other at the back. The recommended way to stop is to apply both brakes firmly but not too quickly.

Each of the brakes has a different effect so you should practice braking so you get to know how the brakes work on your bicycle.

Practise the following exercises running with the bicycle next to you.

Right (front) brake

  1. Stand to the left of the bicycle and hold the handlebars with both hands over the brake levers.
  2. Angle your bicycle slightly in towards you (this will stop the pedal of the bicycle hitting your leg).
  3. Run forward with the bicycle for a few metres.
  4. Apply the right (front) brake.

The bicycle should stop very quickly, but the rear wheel may jump off the ground.

Brake control practice exercise

Brake control practice exercise

Left (rear) brake

  1. Repeat steps 1-3 above.
  2. Apply the left (rear) brake.

The bicycle should stop more slowly with both wheels on the ground.

Both brakes

  1. Repeat steps 1-3 above.
  2. Apply both brakes.

The bicycle should stop quickly with both wheels on the ground.

Controlling the stop

  1. Repeat the above exercise a few times but vary how quickly and firmly you pull the brake levers.

Work out how much to squeeze the brakes to make the bicycle stop quickly, but without skidding.

If you apply the brakes too firmly you may go over the handlebars.

Getting on and off the bicycle without help

Getting on

  1. To get on the bicycle, stand to the left of the bicycle.
  2. Hold the handlebars with both hands and pull the brake levers.
Getting on the bicycle

Getting on the bicycle

  1. If your bicycle has a low top tube - step your right leg over the tube. If your bicycle has a high top tube - swing your right leg over the seat. Leaning your bike towards you makes it easier to get on.
  2. Continue to hold the handlebars and brakes, keep your left foot on the ground and put your right foot on the pedal.
  3. Move the right pedal backwards with your foot (counter-clockwise) until it is slightly forward of its highest position (the 2 o'clock position).
  4. Keeping your left foot on the ground and the right foot on the pedal, sit on the seat. You will find it easier to keep stable in this position if your bicycle is leaning a little to the left. This position also means that if you get onto the bike by the roadside you will be leaning away from traffic.
Foot position

Foot position

Start off position

Start off position

Getting off

  1. Pull the brake levers and keep them on until you are off the bicycle.
  2. When the bicycle is stationary, put your left foot on the ground (you may have to lean to the left to do this) then slide forward off the seat.
  3. Swing your right leg over the bicycle seat or step over the bicycle.

Beginning to pedal

Before getting on the bicycle you should make sure it is in a low gear (if it has gears). You can do this by lifting the back wheel off the ground and manually turning the pedals as you move the gear levers.

Once you are on the bicycle and sitting in the seat, you should check your right foot is slightly forward of its highest position.

To start pedalling you will need to release the brakes (but keep your fingers over the brakes), then push down on the pedal with your right foot.


Practice balance in a large, clear, flat area.

  • A helper should hold the back of the bicycle for you, either by the seat post or by a carrier, if one is fitted, or
  • The helper can also hold the cyclist around the waist.

This will allow you to control the handlebars and brakes but will help stop the bicycle and prevent falls.

As you gain competence, the helper should loosen the hold on the bicycle and then gradually move their hand away altogether. The following tips may help.

  • A couple of strong pushes on the pedals to start with will get the bicycle going and will help make balancing easier.
  • Fix your eyes on a distant point (try not to look down).
  • Don't worry about steering a straight line initially.
  • If you start to tilt to the left, steer left slightly - if tilting to the right, steer right.
  • Try to keep your body relaxed.

Cycling in a straight line

Cycling in a straight line is helped by pedalling smoothly. To practice cycling in a straight line you should try to follow a marked straight line on the ground. Good cyclists will wobble less than 2.5 centimetres.

Steering the bicycle

It is important to be able to steer the bicycle very accurately, as you will need to avoid stones and potholes. Practice by marking two lines on the ground with chalk and cycling between the lines repeatedly, making sure that neither your front or rear wheel touches the lines. The lines should be no wider than 15 centimetres apart.

Learning to steer the bike exercise

Learning to steer the bike exercise

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Last updated: 24 April 2013