Ready to Launch

So, for much of the past year I have, on and off, been helping a group of adults with learning disabilities get cycling. They’ve been learning how to ride a bike, and I’ve been learning a fair bit too. I’ve learned that there are many ways to get a bike into motion and everybody has to find the one that works for them, and I’ve also learned that people with learning difficulties get very quickly put in boxes and the one marked ‘will never be able to ride a bike’ appears to be a particularly common one, often on the flimsiest of evidence.

Some of them – including those who, we were told, ‘simply didn’t have the balance’ to ride a bike – have taken to it like ducks to water, needing little more than a bit of scooting along on a bike with its pedals removed before they were off and away with huge grins on their faces. Others, it’s fair to say have needed a bit more time before they could make the transition from scooting to pedalling, but have got there in the end. We’ve even managed a few group rides along the cycle paths and parks (and pavements – there’s no way they’re ready to tackle even the quietest road) and it’s been great fun.

And then there’s Stephen

I’ve been teaching Stephen to ride a bike now practically all year. We have inched forward. He can balance a bike and scoot it along. He can scoot with one foot on the pedal. He can get the pedal up to the prescribed position and press down to set the bike in motion. He can do this without looking at his feet (fatal for a bike’s balance). He can even find the second pedal with his foot ready for that crucial second pedal stroke. And then, the problem is he’s so tentative, that when he does actually pedal with his second foot, he generally does so backwards. And this is where we have got stuck.

Yesterday, I was beginning to despair. We could not get past that second pedal stroke. There’s no way to break down riding a bike any more than we had already done, practising each individual bit. We had reached the point where either he would get the hang of it, or I would destroy what precious little confidence he had built up. I really didn’t know what to do.

Finally, randomly, I found myself saying ‘pedal like a boss!’ just as he launched the bike forward. I have no idea why I said it, nor why that combination of words did it (indeed it turns out he thought I was saying ‘like a box’), but as long as I said ‘like a boss!’ just at the crucial point, then his foot would find that pedal in time and press it down in the right direction. He even shot forward at one point so fast he almost collided with me (I have to walk backwards in front of him if he’s to look ahead rather down at the ground). OK, so we haven’t quite reached the point where he’s pedalling away independently, but he has definitely ridden a bike, if only for a few yards.

Unfortunately, on Monday we head off to the US, and I won’t be back with Stephen until the new year. By then, perhaps, he may have forgotten everything we’ve learned these past few months. Still, I’m hopeful that now that I know the magic words, we will eventually see him cycle off, if not into the sunset, then at least in a straight line. And then I’ll need to work out how to teach him how to stop…

18 Responses to Ready to Launch

  1. Try Stephen on a fixed wheel bike?

  2. Stephen’s story is absolutely enchanting. Thank you!

  3. john gibson says:

    A lovely story.

  4. Michael says:

    Great story.

  5. Viviane says:

    Thank you for your story, and for spending time with Stephen and his friends. As a mother of two “intellectually deficient” adult boys, I found myself laughing as you describe the slow steps to learning and gaining confidence. I have noticed that kids who first learned to ride a dandy horse (draisienne) have no problem at all riding a bike, so it seems that the issue is the pedals…

  6. disgruntled says:

    Thanks for the kind words …
    @tryingtothrive – ha! A fixie would certainly stop him pedalling backwards but I don’t know what it would do for his confidence!
    @Viviane – I’ve definitely noticed that about kids who use dandy horses (we call them balance bikes here, but I prefer your term). I never realised how complicated pedalling was until I tried to teach someone to do it.

  7. Charles says:

    What a great thing to be doing. I have a profoundly autistic son aged 24 who likes to cycle and scooter. He has a terrible problem with brakes, does not see the point in them, and drives his careers mad by escaping when they are not looking, once by riding down a flight of steps at speed.

  8. ballsofwool says:

    To be continued…”Brake like a boss!”

  9. disgruntled says:

    @Charles – yes, my godson who has autism once escaped on his little sister’s barbie bike. He now rides on the back of his mum’s tandem.
    @ballsofwool – I shall try it. “brakes to stop!” is our current go to phrase (rather than feet to stop …)

  10. Andy in Germany says:

    Training people with special support needs is what I’m being trained to do, so it is good to see someone else teaching people with disabilities to ride. At the place I was working last year we had a client with extreme autism who we were teaching to ride a tricycle but no bicycles.

    I was thinking today about how you could isolate the pedalling problem. I wondered about an exercise bike so Stephen doesn’t need to worry about tipping off, or some way of supporting the saddle. Stabilisers could be a help but you have the same problem with the client relying on them too much and losing confidence all over again when the stabilisers are removed.

    Either way, well done for not listening to the “They just can’t do it” chorus. We get that a lot as well. Many people either make assumptions or don’t see beyond the disability. People with disabilities are often gifted and very capable in many ways.

    Please keep us posted on how things go when you get back.

    • disgruntled says:

      We thought about an exercise bike, just to practise finding the pedals – but he can pedal a trike no problem, it’s just putting it all together that he struggles with. And having people support the saddle has got him into bad habits of putting both feet on the pedals before the bike is in motion.

      We’ll get there…

  11. Oh, that just moved me to tears! What a lovely story of achievement, for everyone involved. And what a lesson to us all; Pedal Like a Boss! 😉

  12. Richard Emerson says:

    This is a brilliant story — thank you!! 😀

  13. disgruntled says:

    thanks to everyone for their appreciation of this! I really didn’t think that much of it, because it’s basically just an hour of my time and usually quite fun. Definitely worth doing though

  14. […] this spring. Not only that but it arrived just as I had an afternoon to kill in Bigtown between coaxing Stephen into riding a bike (still working on it …) and the Bigtown Cycle Campaign […]

  15. […] of the many great things about the Buddies, is that, stick them on a trike or their newly acquired side-by-side pedal go kart (I hesitate to […]

  16. […] a number of you have asked how Stephen has been getting on with his bike riding endeavours. I have to confess that we’ve failed to get him pedalling on two wheels, although he’s […]

  17. […] – for those wondering – Stephen came too, but on a trike and he had an absolute whale of a […]

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