Can You Forget How To Ride A Bike: How to start riding a bike again?


Many people who are returning to cycling after a long break wonder if they can forget how to ride a bike. In fact, many of my friends and family ask me this whenever I drag them out to join me in my hobby. As a doctor and cyclist, I thought it would be interesting to take a more detailed and scientific look into the question of “can actually forget how to ride a bike”, and what steps you can do to make your return to cycling as easy as possible

You can forget how to ride a bike, however, it would require a long time away from riding or an injury to the brain for this to occur. In reality, most people who think they have forgotten how to ride a bike simply need to reactivate the procedural pathways their brain formed when they first learned to cycle.

So, we’ve established that it is technically possible to forget how to ride a bike. But if that’s the case why do we keep using the phrase “it’s just like riding a bike”? Throughout the rest of this article, I take a look at the way our brains learn skills such as cycling and why this means it is so hard to forget how to do them. In the final section, I’ll also take a look at the steps you can take if you are returning to a bike after a long break.

Can you forget how to ride a bike?

Many people think that riding a bike is down to a “muscle memory”. While this is close to the truth, it is not exactly right.

A chart showing the different ways our brain stores memories and examples of each type

As humans, our brain forms and recalls memories as we need them. It stores these memories into short and long-term areas. Activities like riding a bike start as a short-term memory but eventually are categorized as a long-term one. These long-term memories are stored in our declarative memory or procedural memory, two completely different areas that work independently of each other (as shown by the studies done in the 1950s on Henry Gustav Molaison).

Declarative memory is the area where we remember facts and events. For example when we remember the date of a friend’s birthday or recall the time we spent at their party.

Riding a bike sits in the other section, called procedural memory. This is more of an “implicit” memory store. It helps us to learn and remember how things work and learn new actions and skills. For example playing the piano, walking, or riding a bike.

Procedural memories take the longest to form, using a “punishment and reward” system in your brain to develop new signaling pathways between different areas of the brain itself. Each time you practice or use the skill you have learned, the pathways you form will be strengthened.

In the example of riding a bike, as you successfully stay balanced, your brain rewards you and encourages the actions you are doing, however, if you fall off the bike, your brain tries not to act in that way again. Building up pathways that caused the good outcome and breaking down pathways that caused the bad one.

This is why when you know how to ride a bike, you no longer have to think about it (even though it is actually a very complex process). You no longer need to concentrate heavily on the task of riding a bike and your mind is free to think about other things, this is because your brain has already built signaling pathways that take over from your “conscious” mind.

The way we form these memories is the reason that children can learn to ride a bike or learn a new language much faster than adults. Their brains are still being fully formed and so they can build pathways much more easily.

On a more positive note, while these memories and pathways take a longer time to form than other types of memory, it also means that they often last the longest and are the most resistant to being forgotten or lost over time. For example, someone suffering from dementia is more likely to forget someone’s name than forget how to dance.

Take a look at this very interesting video from “Smarter Everyday” where he shows you the power of procedural memory by learning to ride a bike backwards.

Why did I forget how to ride a bike?

So, we’ve established that riding a bike is a procedural memory, and as such is very resistant to being forgotten or lost, then why do some people feel like they’ve forgotten how to ride a bike?

Your brain only has a certain amount of information it can store at any one time, and so it has to constantly get rid of any signaling pathways that it is no longer using.

Most people spend enough time riding a bike throughout their life that these pathways never break down, and you won’t forget to ride a bike. However in some cases, for example, if you did not ride much as a child, or it has been a very long time since you last rode a bike, these pathways may have been broken down.

Luckily the body realizes that there are some skills we may need to use every so often, and as such if you try cycling again, then your brain will recognize that these connections used to be much stronger and will reform them much more quickly. Helping you to “re-learn” the skill much faster the second time around.

Forgetting to ride a bike after a stroke or amnesia

In a more extreme example, some people may lose the ability to ride a bike after any form of trauma to the brain (for example a traumatic accident or stroke). In these cases, many of the pathways in the brain can be damaged and may result in you having to learn many procedural skills all over again.

Even following a traumatic brain injury, your procedural memory store is the least likely areato become damaged. . This is because these memories are stored in a very central part of the brain and thus are well protected from trauma (the basal ganglia).

This is the same area that is damaged when someone is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and is the reason why someone with Parkinson’s will have issues with their movement.

The downside of this is that if any memory loss does occur in these areas, other factors such as losing the ability to feel the position of certain body parts or having certain areas be paralyzed can make relearning them much more difficult.

Luckily, there is now a huge range of adapted bicycles available to help people meet any extra needs they may have. For example, adult tricycles or hand-peddled bikes are now quite mainstream. In fact, riding a bike may well be encouraged by your doctor or physiotherapist as part of your rehabilitation process. (please make sure to check with a medical professional before taking part in any new form of exercise regime).

How do I start riding a bike again?

So, it’s been a while since you’ve last ridden a bike, and you want to know the best way to activate those cycling pathways again. Most people will feel confident enough to “take the leap” and jump right back on a bike, however, others might want to build themselves up to this stage first. If that is the case there are a few steps I’d recommend taking.

Reacquaint yourself with the bike and make some adjustments

First of all, reacquaint yourself with the bike. Also, make sure to check where the gear shifters and brakes are.

After this, try lowering the saddle as low as it will go, this allows your feet to touch the floor at all times and can help you to feel a bit more reassured as you start cycling again.

Try some simple balancing exercises

Before you even get on the bike, find yourself a large, wide-open space. Preferably somewhere with a soft landing like a grassy field.

If this isn’t nearby, then try a quiet car park. It’s also important to look for somewhere with level ground that isn’t too hilly.

Start yourself with some basic balancing exercising (for example standing on one leg), these will help to get yourself in the mindset for riding a bike, especially if it has been a while since you last went out.

Getting used to the bike

Now it’s time to get on the bike. With the saddle in its lower position, you should be able to walk yourself along (Flintstones style). This is what I’d recommend doing first to help you get a feel for the bike and become a little more comfortable.

Once you’re feeling ready, you can then progress to the next step up which is gliding on the bike. Almost think of this as pushing off from the floor as if you were on a skateboard. Both feet can still be low enough to stop you if you need to quickly come to a halt, but this helps to work on your balance.

Off you go

After you’ve mastered this last step, there’s nothing else left to do but take the leap and try cycling properly.

Even if you’re still feeling confident after this, make sure you are able to make hand signals, etc before taking your bike out on the road.

Overall

While the saying “it’s like riding a bike” is nearly true, it is possible to forget how to ride a bike. Luckily your body is able to learn skills, particularly skills such as cycling, much more quickly the second time. By using some of the simple steps above, you can have yourself back out on the road in no time at all.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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