On learning new motor skills

About four weeks ago, at the age of 31, I learned to ride a bike. This followed some six months of travelling around by tricycle:

Me on my tricycle

Me on my tricycle

Although the trike is great, and really useful for transporting shopping and other things around in its basket, sometimes it just doesn’t go very fast. Also, drunk guys walking home from the pub find it hilarious – as do my friends:

Especially Mladen...

Especially Mladen…

So anyway, last month I finally consented to undergo cycling lessons. Mostly, this involved a couple of hours in a car park after work trying to get both feet on the pedals without falling off. Eventually I managed, and then progressed to some advanced techniques, like using the gears and going round corners.

The interesting bit about learning to ride as an adult was how counterintuitive balancing on a bike turns out to be. If you feel like you’re about to topple off to the left, instinct says you should lean or steer to the right. That’s what you’d do if you were balancing on a beam or something. But on a bike, you do the opposite. Falling to the left is fixed by steering and leaning leftwards.

Apparently this is to do with physics. Imagine going round a corner on a bike. You lean into the curve, which causes the bike to accelerate round the bend (probably this is centrifugal force, but high school physics was a long time ago – it may have changed since then…). If you did the opposite, the whole thing would topple over. I found a nice explanation of some of this here.

Physics aside, the amazing thing is how quickly learning this counterintuitive rule becomes automatic. In fact, now I’ve got the hang of it, I don’t even know I’m doing it. Since most people learn to cycle as children, it must seem so much like second nature that they can’t understand how anyone wouldn’t be able to do it. Also, I definitely felt like I got better in my sleep, which is apparently pretty standard for consolidating motor skills.

I got quite excited about learning to ride, so I went and bought a shiny new bike. Then last week did a 46k ride with some friends from work. I was surprised how much fun that was, and somehow ended up agreeing to do the Action Medical Research York 100k bike ride that took place yesterday. Coincidentally, it left from right outside the psychology department – the very place I’d learned to cycle a few weeks before!

The ride was mostly enjoyable, with a few tough hills, and lots of wind on the last leg. We had good weather though, and managed to get round all 100km (actually more like 106) in 6 hours 45 minutes. I feel much more confident after cycling all that way… Here’s a photo at the finish line:

Tess, Mark and I just after finishing.

Tess, Mark and I just after finishing.

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One Response to On learning new motor skills

  1. Jenny says:

    Love it! 0 to 100 km in a couple of weeks is amazing! I never noticed the counterintuitive rule. Pure procedural memory. So there was a stage of ‘explicit learning’ before procedural memory took over for you…

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