The cultural anthropology of getting on a bicycle


I can tell where you grew up by watching you get on a bicycle.

Well, sort of.

In my limited experience, I've observed two distinct ways of getting on a bicycle. The first is what I'll call the Chinese method, since it's the dominant technique in China, Taiwan, and Japan, as far as I can tell. To get on a bicycle using the Chinese method, stand to the side of the bicycle (let's say, the left side) with both hands on the handlebars in the normal riding position. Put the left pedal at the bottom of its stroke and place your left foot on it. Now ride the bicycle like a scooter, pushing off with your right foot, until you pick up some speed. While coasting forward, swing your right leg over the back of the bicycle and place your right foot upon the right pedal (which is at the top of its stroke). Sit down and begin pedaling.

The second method I will call the U.S. method since it is the dominant technique in the States. To get on a bicycle using this method, straddle the bicycle with both hands on the handlebars in the normal riding position, placing one foot on the ground and the other foot on its corresponding pedal at the top of its stroke. Simultaneously push forward with the ground foot and put all your weight on the pedal foot (driving it forward). This will get you coasting very slowly. Use this time to take the foot that was on the ground and place it on its corresponding pedal (which by now has reached the top of its stroke). Sit down and begin pedaling.

Each of these methods has its own drawbacks. The U.S. method requires you to be able to maintain your balance on a bicycle at very low speeds and then get your ground foot into position quickly before you run out of momentum. (This is particularly tricky when you have to strap or clip your foot into place.) On the other hand, the Chinese method requires you to shift your weight while balancing on a single foot. That bit is my downfall. When all my weight gets on that one foot, I start wobbling and can't quite finish the move.

Now, using this method to determine where someone learned to ride a bicycle is not foolproof, of course. Some of my childhood friends who grew up in the United States to Taiwanese parents use the Chinese method.

During my brief travels in Europe, I neglected to take note of how the locals got on their bicycles. Maybe there's a European way of getting on a bicycle?

Comments (53)
  1. Ian says:

    The dominant "European" way, as observed in the UK and Benelux, is what you describe as the "Chinese" method.

    I’ve seen both used, and I think the US method is replacing the older method, especially with a lot of the newer "performance" bikes.

  2. BryanK says:

    Hmm…  I grew up (and learned to ride a bicycle) in Michigan, and use a modified version of the Chinese method.

    I stand on the left side of the bicycle with my hands on the handlebars, just as in the Chinese method.  But the left pedal is not at the bottom of its stroke; it’s at the middle of its stroke (closest to the front of the bicycle, so I’m not pedaling backwards and going nowhere when I get to the next step).

    When I stand up on that pedal, it (of course) moves to the bottom of its stroke and propels the bicycle forward; this way, I don’t have to gain momentum by using the bicycle as a scooter (pushing with my right foot).  Once my right leg swings over the seat, though, the rest of the operation is just like the Chinese method.

  3. IcemanK says:

    The "Chinese" method is also prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. So perhaps it is not so much a Chinese method as an Asian method.

  4. André says:

    In Brazil, more specifically in Sao Paulo city, it’s much more common to see elders riding bicycles the "Chinese" way, while the youngsters are more used to ride them the "US" way. As a child I was taught to ride bicycles the "US" way, and I found it very strange when I "discovered" that there was another way to ride them…

  5. JS says:

    I don’t like the Chinese method because I’m always afraid that I’ll misjudge the leg-swing and end up catching my leg on a part of the bike, losing my balance and falling down in the process.

  6. Carlos says:

    I learnt both methods but which I use depends on the bicycle.  On a classic bike with a "sit up and beg" riding position I’ll use the "Chinese" method, but on a more racing-style bike with a high saddle I can’t get my leg over the saddle, so I use the "US" way.  FWIW, I’m British.

  7. Nish says:

    What you defined as the Chinese method is what I’d have called the Indian method :-)

    It’s how most people in India get on a bike.

  8. michaele says:

    I use both, and I’ve seen both living in Europe and the U.S.  Which I use generally depends on how much crap I am carrying on my back.  If I have a backpack, I generally straddle first – much easier to balance.

  9. Robin Message says:

    I use both, but I prefer the US method. Also, with regular traffic lights, you have to use the US method to start off again (unless you want to get run over from behind when you wobble), so that’s my prefered one, but only from practice I guess.

  10. Bruce Boughton says:

    I’m from the UK and I use the Chinese way!  I don’t think it’s a geographical thing, so much as a familial thing.  You do it the way your parents showed you.

  11. Living in the UK, I’ve noticed much more of the "US method", especially among adults. Some children seem to prefer the "Chinese method", since it’s generally regarded as being more skillful.

    Personally, I usually use the US method, but sometimes use a variant of the Chinese method where I start with my left foot on the left pedal at a little past its highest position, so that the bike has got some momentum already by the time I get my right foot on the right pedal.

    I always mount my bicycle left-foot-first.

  12. Geoffrey says:

    I grew up in Beijing, and mounting a bike in the "Chinese" way was the hardest part of learning to ride a bike. I can’t remember for sure but I might have learned to ride first with the "US" mounting, and learned the "Chinese" mounting only after I knew how to balance myself on a bike. You weren’t considered knowing how to ride a bike until you do the "Chinese" mounting.

    Also there were daring kids who could ride a very tall bike (28") by sticking their right foot through the frame from the left side, like a jockey riding a horse on one side without sitting down. Now that’s impossible with the "US" mounting!

  13. Leo Petr says:

    I grew up in the Latvia SSR and use the American method. Damn commies! I bet they also stole motherhood and apple pie from the good ol’ US of A.:P

  14. Nankingness says:

    As BryanK mentioned, put the left pedal in the position at 9 to 10 o’clock position and step on it to gain starting momentum is quite common in Chinese mainland. Also there are two variations for how to put your another foot into position. One is the way Raymond mentioned from back to swing the right leg above back and then sit on seat and put the right foot onto right pedal. Another way is raise your right leg in front of your body and move it across the connecting bar between handlebar and seat. There is a type of bicycle that has a curved connecting bar that is quite easy to move your foot to cross it. Also the later way is easy to learn, since to gain the balance when you swing your another leg from behind is a little bit tricky.

  15. John says:

    How about differences men/women?  I use the U.S. method, like most women.

  16. NBC says:

    well i don’t which one i’m using but i just sit on my bike and start pedaling with my right foot upon the right pedal (which is at the top of its stroke)

  17. Dave Goodman says:

    Interesting. I’ve also noticed "gender" differences in bicycles. Here in the US, males ride male bikes, which have a horizontal bar between the seat and the steering column. Female bikes have no such bar. When I was in Tokyo, it appeared that all the bikes were "girl" bikes without the bar. (That bar can be painful if you accidentally slip forward onto it.)

    I wonder if China has both types of bikes like us, or only one type like Japan.

  18. Peter says:

    I’ve used both, but I’m less comfortable with the Chinese method since the advent of clipped pedals. Either you’re not clipped in or you’re balancing on an unstable surface.

    There’s also the "bike messenger" method, in which you stand on the left and swing the right leg forward over the handlebars. Of course the preferred bike messenger method is not to get off at all and just do a track stand.

  19. Serge Wautier says:

    I confirm the ‘Chinese’ method is widely used in Europe. 2 conmments though:

    1. Even though people use it, it’s not the way they learned (We learn the US way. Then switch to Chinese when we grow up).

    2. Ladies won’t use the Chinese method! Especially since ladies’ bikes frames don’t require to raise the leg so high to get the other way around.

  20. Mihai says:

    In Romania I have seen/used mostly "the US method."

    But there are small differences. A "lady bike" does not have a bar, so the right leg does not come over the back, is going directly to the pedal. But doing this means "you do it like a girl" (and also requires a "girl bike")

    But on ocasions people will use "the Chinese way" when having to carry heavy loads. Or (as Serge noted) when you are old.

  21. David says:

    I also grew up in Michigan and I always use the modified "Chinese" method that BrianK describes. Perhaps this method should be named the "Chinese-Michigan" method.

  22. bramster says:

    I shrink in terror at the thought of a mass-start bicycle race starting with the Chinese Method.

    Kung Fu Bike Racer!

  23. me says:

    I apparently use the Chinese method, but I’m the least Chinese person I know.

  24. Ben says:

    I find this to be a very funny discussion since I happen to use both methods to when I bike.

    If I am starting a trip, I usually use the swing-the-leg method.  If I am stopped at an intersection, I don’t bother to dismount and just straddle the bike until the light turns green.

    I think I was taught the straddle method while growing up.  But I like the graceful movement involved in the swing-the-leg approach.

  25. Will says:

    I was raised in Michigan to Taiwanese parents, and I use the US method. I disagree that to the renaming of the Chinese method to the "Chinese-Michigan" method. Everybody I knew in Michigan used the US method besides my parents and my parent’s chinese friends. I had similarly come to the same conclusion as this blog during my childhood, except that I called the "chinese" way, the "old-people" way.

  26. Brian says:

    I like to come running at it and leap on from behind.  I mount horses the same way.  Getting the bike to balance on two wheels can be a little tricky at times.

  27. Moz says:

    And of course on a tall bike the Chinese way is the only option. Unless you have legs a couple of metres longer than average, anyway. I use both methods, but rarely with any kind of scooting from the grounded foot – the foot that’s on a pedal always starts at towards the top of the stroke and I just press down while lifting the ground foot.

    I note that most people are strongly handed when mounting a bike – they’ll wheel the bike from one side and always mount from that side if they can.

  28. gid says:

    There’re two other less frequently used Chinese methods that deserve mention.

    Most Chinese bicycles have a seat in the back, mounted above the rear wheel and maybe half a foot lower than the rider’s seat. People use it to carry stuff, like a bag of rice, a propane tank (for cooking), your girlfriend, your kid, etc. So you start off by sitting on this rear seat, and putting your hands on the handle bars in the normal riding position. Now, propel yourself and the bicyle forward by pushing off the ground with your feet, or if you legs/feet are long enough, just start pedaling. Once your reach a certain speed, put your feet on the pedals, and pull yourself up to the regular rider’s seat. I call this method "the Chinese bitch-seat method", not applicable if you’re in a medium-to-long skirt or low-hanging pants.

    And then there’s the "bicycle thief/ball crusher method". You stand to the side of the bicycle (let’s say, the left side) with both hands on the handle bars in the normal riding position, then just run forward, pushing the bicyle. Once you reach a certain speed, jump off the ground while still holding the handle bars, shift your weight to the center of the bicyle, split your legs, and slam down onto the seat. And if you’re skillful/lucky, your feet just falls into the pedals and you can start pedaling immediately. Despite its name, it’s almost impossible to crush your testis using this method.

  29. Ander says:

    Having lived in Michigan my whole life, I also use BryanK’s method. I think there’s something to this suggested Chinese-Michigan style.

  30. piyo says:

    How about the scooter method where you put your right foot on the left petal, kick off with your left foot, then place your left foot on the center of the crank while you swing over your right leg? Do you want your stability during scooting or during transitioning?

  31. Mark W says:

    I grew up in Hong Kong and learn to ride in the "American" method.  Later on you see other kids doing this neat trick and I started to learn the "Chinese" method.  Now my 11 year old is doing it too.

    I also think the reasoning for the "Chinese" method is when you carry a huge load the scooting helps you start the bike.  Also when the bike is close to the delivery point you are ready to dismount quicker.

    Also I have seen this once: there was a very tall cyclist on a road bike and when he stops he crosses his right leg around the handle bars!

  32. NBC says:

    and which style is this one using ?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDEUcRRHnac

  33. Joel says:

    I’m in Australia – and growing up I always used the US method.

  34. Jayakrishnan K says:

    Used to use the mentioned Chinese method always. At least most of us here in India do. :-).

    Sometime in high school I figured out how to get on and off a bicycle by swinging your leg over the handle bars, something that required quite a bit of balance and timing to do. Most people catch on to getting on with a couple of tries. But getting off was way more difficult (and more accident prone).

    After practising a lot (and a lot of falls) in private, I perfected that technique. Used to leave a lot of amazed faces behind :-).

    Its 15 years since I have ridden a bicycle. I had assumed that once learned, one never forgets how to ride a cycle; but after watching my father (at 65 yrs) trying to ride a cycle and failing (he had ridden a cycle all the way through high-school), I scratched that assumption.

    Then there was the no hands on handle bars challenge at high school, where we had to ride all the way to a pre-defined location steering merely by your body weight. Not reccomended, highly accident prone; but in high school it was the challenge that mattered :-)

  35. DavidL says:

    I live in Sweden and use the American method for getting on, as do most others here (I think – or am I some kind of bicultural freak?). Then I use the Chinese method in reverse for getting off, unless I’m just stopping temporarily at a red light. That is, I stop pedalling, swing my right leg over the back of the bike and then use the handle brake to come to almost a full stop. When the speed is low enough, I put my right foot on the ground behind my left and get off in walking speed.

    However, I think that most of my countrymen use the American method in reverse when getting off. How do Chinese get off their bikes?

  36. Brian McDaniel says:

    I grew up in Texas and use the "Chinese-Michigan" method, but only if there is enough room. If I am starting out in cramped quarters (garage, bike racks), I’ll use the US method.

    Incidentally, I’ll also use the Chinese method to dismount, i.e. as I glide to a stop, swing one leg over the bike so that I am balancing on one pedal.

  37. Austin Donnelly says:

    There’s also a class distinction between how people pedal their bikes.  The "butcher boy" way uses the heels on the pedals, with toes pointing outwards.  The more upmarket way of peddaling uses toes on the pedals, feet pointing straight along the direction of travel, and "ankling" to extend the push.

  38. Chris Becke says:

    Um, the chinese method is the dominant method for anyone who uses a bike for a form of transport – rather than recreational sport.

    The difference being, the american method is good for mounting a bike froma  stopped position.

    The chinese method can be used to smoothly mount a bike from a walk. You can – with a bit of practice & depending on the peddle – step while stepping forward with the left foot on the left peddle, the stepping motion converted into your pushoff with the right foot.

    Now, if my helmet was not yet on, then it would be convinient to straddle the bike first to hold it stable, apply th ehelmet with both hands, then push off american style.

    I think that the mounting style has more to do with the riders sense of balance (bad riders will stick with american mounting), purpose (riders in a hurry will use chinese style to get going faster) and encumberance (riders who need to use both hands to attach (for e.g. a helmet) will use american style).

  39. Dave Harris says:

    I suspect gearing makes a difference. With the US method, you are trying to start from stationary by pushing at the pedals. If you are in a high gear this is very hard; you can’t transfer speed quickly enough through the gearing, so you travel slowly for a while and don’t get much gyroscope effect, so you wobble. In low gear, it’s a lot easier. With the Chinese method, the gearing issue doesn’t arise because you get your initial speed scooter-style, by running.

    I’m pretty sure I learnt to ride on a bike with 1 gear, and that gear is a compromise which is a bit too high for easy starting, hence I learned the Chinese/scooter method. Modern bikes have 18+ gears; if you learned on one of them you probably use the US method.

    It’s still worth knowing the scooter method in case you stop in the wrong gear. (At least, if you have a bike that doesn’t like changing gears when the pedals aren’t turning.) I find it takes a conscious effort to remember to change down when stopping to make starting easier.

  40. Dotan says:

    A thought that occurred to me is that the method you use might have something to do with the rider’s height relative to the bike’s height. Sounds to me that the "American" method (which is what I used when I rode a bike) is easier if you have longer legs (or a lower bike); the "Chinese/Indian/Michigan" method sounds like it’d require more agility and dedication (if you’ve got a bike, why run?)

  41. I’m Dutch so learned to cycle at 4 or something, and this is how I do it.

    I normally mount the bike by swinging my leg over the rear. This is the "normal" way for men to mount the bicycle (Women use woman bikes and have an easier job).

    To start the bike from starting position I normally position the right pedal at about 11 O’clock and push of in 1st gear, in the meantime getting onto the saddle. I then place my left foot on the paddle someway.

    If I’m in a hurry I either use the left foot on paddle, right foot push, or I run, and while the bike is rolling put the left foot on the paddle and swing the right one.

    When standing still for a trafic light I put my left foot of the paddle and put it on the ground (still sitting on the bicycle). The pedal again at about 11 O’clock. When the light turns green I then put myself straight and push the right pedal simultaneously. I then put my left leg on the pedal.

    Mainly things go rather automatic though. I’m not really conciously looking at how I pedal. The balance issue is just a matter of driving too slow. If you have enough speed, balance is easy and you can train yourself to ride without hands.

  42. This is interesting. Sorry for the long comment. I will cross post it on my blog.

    There were no children’s bike when I was growing up in rural China in the 70’s. Since bike was such a valued possession of the household, and most family just had one, letting you learn to bike is sort of milestone in your childhood. That means you are old enough and competent enough that your parents trust you can handle it with care.

    The first step in the precess is to learn to scoot on the bike, almost always on the left paddle. In Chinese, I call it 遛车子. At this point most likely you are not tall enough to even get on the seat by yourself yet. This step takes days or weeks, depending on the child.

    The second step, as Geoffrey mentioned in his comment, is to stick your right foot through the frame, under the horizontal bar between the seat and the vertical bar below the handlebar in the front, and pedal away. This requires a lot of balancing skills and finesse, as your center of gravity is on the left side of the bike constantly, swing up and down as you go forward. This is the only way to "ride" the bike at this point, as you are not tall enough to ride on the seat yet. We can it 掏腿骑. Remember there were no children’s bike then.

    Usually when you are tall enough to be able to sit on the seat and still reach the pedal, your balancing skill is such that you can swing your right leg over the back to get on, or raise your right leg in front of your body and move it across the horizontal bar. In general, the later method is preferred by girls, as it can be considered ungraceful to spread and swing your leg over the back. That also depends on if you carry groceries or other things on the seat in the back. Sometimes people mount two baskets, one on each side, on the side of the back seat. That will force you to get on from the front.

    A lot of times adult carry their small child on the bike. The child sits on the horizontal bar, holding his/her hands on the handlebar. You can buy an optional seat that can be mounted on the horizontal bar, close to the handle bar, to make the small child more comfortable.

    But that is not all. You can put a child in the front and still carry something or somebody in the back seat. If you carry a person in the back, the person has to run and hop on the seat after you are safely in motion. For a girl or woman on the back seat, she needs to sit sideways, as again it can be considered ungraceful to ride on the back seat with your legs spread on each side. Woman rides on a donkey the same way.

    As kids getting bigger, sometimes they get on the bike the American way, as it has certain rugged and manly aura to it.

    I am sure things are different now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the traditional way is used in more remote or poor areas.

  43. Funny. Being a child I’ve biked a lot. And used each method by turns. It depended on the road conditions, my tiredness and so on.

    BTW: I often swing my right leg over the *front* of the bicycle. I’m from Russia. :)

  44. There's Always One says:

    Let’s see…  Straddle the bike with both feet on the ground, then open the choke a little bit, pull the clutch in and thumb the starter.

    Then, shift into first….

    *ducks*

    Oh, bicycles.  Yeah, those slow things along the side of the road.

  45. Ed in Florida says:

    Would one would call my style of straddling the bike first then stepping on whatever pedal is in the right position "inefficient" or "awkward"?

  46. Raghu says:

    FWIW, riding the cycle with a foot through the frame is called "Monkey pedalling" in India.

    It is adopted mostly by kids whose feet wont reach down to the pedal if they are sitting on the seat.

  47. peterchen says:

    Paul de Vrieze: Thank you, I though I was the odd one out.

    But now I can report another one using the "Dutch method" :)

  48. Norman Diamond says:

    Sorry I’m not reading most of the comments before responding to this one.

    In Japan maybe 90% of the models (counting designs of models) and 98% of bicycles (counting actual units) are what the US would call the female variety.  I’ve never seen anyone swing a leg over the back of the bicycle to get on one of these.

  49. Michael J. says:

    I don’t know about other countries, but folding bikes were very popular in Russia in late 70-ies and 80-ies. I could not find a picture of specific Russian models of that time, but this wikipedia article gives an idea: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folding_bicycle

    So it is not a male or a female bike, it is universal, and one get get on and off using either style. All styles discussed above are/were used in Russia by cyclists.

  50. Mike Perry says:

    Those who’d like to read about how the bike first came to Asia, particularly China, might want to get a copy of Across Asia on a Bicycle.

    It was written in the early 1890s by two US students just out of college who biked around the world, at that time the longest continuous journey ever made. Their two bikes were apparently the first of the hundreds of millions of bikes now in China today. It’s a fascinating tale.You can get more details at:

    http://www.inklingbooks.com/page4/adventure.html

    Although I don’t remember them mentioning which way they mounted their bikes.

  51. Drizzt says:

    I got lost along the way with all those comments.

    However, in Italy there are two methods:

    1) Hold the bike; get your left leg at the left side of the bike and the right leg at the right side, no matter how; start pushing over the pedals.

    2) So called "Alla bersagliera": standing on a side of the bike, take the handle bars in the normal riding position; run fast; jump on the bike; go. You can see an example here http://www.fortunecity.com/meltingpot/angola/650/bersgliera.zip. Apart from this particular clip being from a comic movie, that was a popular way of bike mounting a lot of years ago.

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