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perfect ride

I drove my first car at age 12 in an open, hard-packed snowy field. After a couple of hours, I could go forward, clutch in and out, use the first two gears at low speed, go around cones and even drive back.

While the rear-wheel drive '77 VW Kombi was a great deal of fun at the time, three years later it would take many more hours beside an instructor before being able to drive a car safely and legally.

So why does everyone believe, from age 5 and up, that they know how to ride a bike properly? Sure, once you get the hang of it, keeping balance while going in straight line with no obstacles and no traffic around is not a hard task. But is it really enough to say you know how to ride a bike adeptly?

No way. Like driving a car, riding a bike takes specific skills. Most parents aren't equipped to teach their kids the fundamentals of bike handling. Think of techniques such as proper posture on the bike and weight distribution, hand position on the handlebars, pre-emptive shifting and braking modulation, effective use of signalling and peripheral vision, and so many other bits and pieces that make for a safe ride.

Unlike driving, where basic training is mandatory and skills are tested at some point to get a licence, there is no such thing for biking. Most people have no idea where to actually learn those skills. Many live with their fears and shy away from saddling up, particularly in the urban environment.

Here are two experiences I've tried that yield skill learning and fun:

Visit a bike park, a place often packed with kids riding BMXs. I spent quite a bit of time at one in Markham, Ont., called JoyRide 150. The indoor facility covers more than 9,200 square metres, is filled with obstacles of all kinds and offers instruction and rental bikes. You learn to create stability by properly positioning your centre of gravity and using arms and legs to anticipate seen or unseen obstacles. Once through short-loop pump tracks several times using the right techniques, you will be ready for most things road terrain has to throw at you.

The second is to ride on an indoor velodrome, an oval cycling track with steep banks usually made of wooden planks for indoor facilities. The new Mattamy National Cycling Centre in Milton, Ont., makes this type of experience more accessible. The track's learn-to-ride-the-track programs will safely push you out of your comfort zone and teach great biking skills. The rental bikes there won't have gears or brakes; they will not have free-wheel, either. Managing your cadence – how fast you're pedalling – will be a must, and that is one of the many transferable skills that will do you wonders on the road, trail or path.

Next time you want to saddle up, don't assume you know how to actually ride a bike.

Learn first.

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