Experience Plus!

Bicycle Tours Since 1972

Experience Plus - Bicycle Tours since 1972

How to teach a child to ride a bicycle

by rich - Wednesday, August 25, 2010 bicycle-advocacy

One popular lunchtime topic around the office here at ExperiencePlus! is “my first bike ride.” Rick told the story of his first day on a bike a couple months ago in our newsletter. There’s nothing like that first taste of freedom; everyone remembers it, however wobbly. It’s the moment when you begin to get a sense of the immense possibilities for adventure that exist in the world, as you ride away from Mom or Dad’s anxious hands and point your front wheel where you want to go.

Just a few days ago, I got the chance to experience that moment again, from the parental perspective this time, as my four-year-old son Simon took to two wheels for the first time. Remarkably, there were no skinned knees or frustrations; thanks to a lot of preparations and a properly sized bike, he just started pedaling away. It doesn’t always go as smoothly as it did for Simon, but it can if you have the right equipment, preparation and setting.

Motivation

First of all, nobody can make an uninterested child love cycling. Most kids need no help with motivation, especially if (like Simon) they’re trying to keep up with an older sibling who’s already riding. But if your child is apathetic, or worse, afraid of the bike, forcing the issue will jeopardize your chance to share the joy of cycling in the future. In such cases, I recommend using a towed third wheel bike like the Burley Piccolo or the Adams Trail-A-Bike to ease them into cycling gently. Build their interest by forming an association between bikes and things they enjoy, such as time spent with you, or fun destinations like the local playground or ice cream shop. When they start to look forward to bike rides, it’s time to consider reintroducing the two-wheeler.

Equipment

Everyone falls down when they’re learning to ride. So gloves and kneepads aren’t a bad idea, and of course a properly fitted helmet is essential. But there’s one other critical, frequently overlooked piece of safety equipment that must be sized properly – the bike itself.

During the years I spent working in bike shops, I saw a lot of parents doom their children to a rough start by buying bikes sized for them “to grow into”. Now that I’m a parent, a part of me understands not wanting to buy a bike that will be too small in just a couple months. But in learning to ride a bicycle, there is no other factor more important than bike fit. Your son or daughter will pay in flesh for skipping the smaller size.

Simon wanted to learn to ride last fall at three and a half, but the bikes we had were too big. I humored him and tried anyway, but he learned quickly that he was not in control, and his demeanor was very tentative and fearful. After a week or so, he gave up and went back to the tricycle.

Six months later, his legs were long enough to pass a critical threshold: he could sit in the saddle and touch both feet flat on the ground. Until your child’s legs are long enough, or their bike small enough, for them to stand flatfoot while sitting on the saddle, any attempt at learning to ride is probably not worth the aggravation. Being able to touch the ground firmly on both sides gives them the ability to regain control when they start to fall, and that gives them the confidence to explore their limits and try things they might not believe they can do.

So a properly sized bike is essential, but it’s not enough by itself. This next step was very unpopular with Simon, but it was one of the key ingredients in his success.

Preparation

Once you’ve got a bike that fits, take the pedals off and let them push the bike around like an old-fashioned “draisine” (demonstrated by the Victorian gentleman on the old ExperiencePlus! logo to the right). This gives them a chance to spend time on the bike, getting a feel for balance and steering while limiting their top speed to safe levels.

Be careful, though: if, like many children’s bikes, their bike is only equipped with coaster brakes – which work by backpedaling and aren’t usable when the pedals are removed – this may not be safe in all settings. Even if the bike has handbrakes, many children lack the hand strength to stop themselves. So safety depends on the terrain – draisine-style riding is only safe on relatively flat, car-free terrain where the bike can’t get away from them on hills.

In Simon’s case, his draisine period was frustrating because he was trying to keep up with his big brother Calvin. At first, he was hapless and clumsy, and slower than he would have been on foot – but the desire to keep up was a strong motivator, and before long, he was kicking himself along efficiently and even coasting a little. It looked like time to put the pedals back on.

(Of course, there is another aspect of Simon’s preparation that I’m not dwelling on here: he knew how to pedal. Pedaling is not instinctive, and all kids need some time to master the motion on a tricycle, a bike with training wheels, behind a parent on a trailer-cycle, or all of the above.)

Putting it All Together

If you’ve arrived at this point, you have a child, properly helmeted and fitted to their bike and probably raring to go. Find a spacious grassy or dirt area, flat or gently sloped down to a safe flat space. Give the kid a quick checklist: kick off to get the bike rolling, pay attention to steering and balance, then start pedaling when they feel ready. (Make sure they understand how to use the brakes, too!) It’s a good idea to be ready to catch them, but try to let them have the freedom to figure out for themselves the difference between riding and falling.

Troubleshooting

If your child is still having trouble, there are a few possible culprits. Velocity, or the lack of it, is the most likely cause. Balancing a bike requires a certain amount of speed – the gyroscopic forces produced by the wheels are what help us balance, and they don’t start to kick in until you’re moving considerably faster than a walking pace. If there’s a speed problem, it might be a slow surface (lush grass with insufficient incline, for example). Try a little steeper hill, or a little firmer surface. It might also be low tire pressure, which can produce a lot of resistance and even jerk the handlebars around if the tires are flat enough. It may even be a problem of gearing, which is especially common with very young riders who don’t have the strength to get the bike rolling fast enough in the relatively big gears many kids’ bikes have.

If it doesn’t seem to be a speed problem, it might be a damaged bike that pulls to the side (from a seemingly minor encounter with the family car, for example). But most likely is that the child is simply not yet confident enough to make the leap. If that’s the case, it might make sense to try some more draisine time, or give them a chance to return to the relative safety of trike or training wheels.

Every Child is Different

Some children, especially older learners or those with strong legs from a long training wheel period, might not really need to pass through the draisine stage to achieve two-wheeled stability. (My older son learned at 5, and we never bothered taking his pedals off – though he did take longer to learn, and fell down more.) Others might not get it easily even with the draisine technique. The important thing to remember, as a parent, is that your role is that of a supportive assistant. Let them decide how important this goal is to them, and help them reach it at their pace.

Once they do start riding comfortably, there’s a whole slew of new trouble ahead as you teach them about being safe around cars, other cyclists, dogs, wet or sandy pavement, hills…. But there’s time for that. For now, share the excitement of their newfound skill and freedom. It’s a rare child that doesn’t feel ten feet tall after conquering the fearsome beast with two wheels, and even more rare is the parent unmoved by the mixture of pride, elation and terror you feel the first time you watch your progeny totter away towards freedom and responsibility on a bicycle.

rich - Rich Young is a cyclist, bike mechanic and ExperiencePlus! programmer who has been with the company since the late 90's. He has written on various topics in previous newsletters. If you have a question about our bike fleet or our web site, Rich is a great person to ask: rich@experienceplus.com.