You might imagine that as a Triathlete and Dad, that my kids would have gotten an early start and by now they'd be able swimmers, riders, and runners. While my daughters have shown an increased interest in both swimming and running the last few years, cycling hasn't been something in which they've expressed a lot of interest.
Circus aside, riding a bicycle is a uniquely human experience. No other creature on earth has utilized the simple machine of wheel and axle as a means of self-propulsion. It is a conveyance that is used for a multitude of purposes: recreation, business, exploration, necessity. To my mind, knowing how to ride a bike is a life skill, on par with learning to swim, build a fire and how to cook. So yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised when my youngest daughter, suggested that she'd like to learn to ride a bike. This guide chronicles what we did to make that happen in an afternoon.
Though nearly eleven years old, my youngest child has limited experience with a bicycle. The majority of her riding was done via an "attached" bike that fastened to the seat post of my mountain bike. Although equipped with pedals, she was more passenger than rider with that contraption. She's never ridden a bike with training wheels either. Teaching her to ride meant that we were essentially starting from scratch.
What you'll need:
- A bike
- A helmet (place this on your child's head before starting)
- A few long stretches of road including flat, slightly uphill, and slightly uphill (some folks recommend a stretch of grass or dirt road in case the kid falls. IMO, a scraped knee or elbow is a "badge of honor" that comes with learning to ride). Many neighborhood streets will work just fine and are preferable to highways and interstates.
- Pedal wrench
- Allen wrench to adjust seat height
- An adult size bicycle and helmet (this is for once they're riding and you get tired of chasing them up the street on foot).
To get started, remove the pedals from the bike and lower the seat far enough that your child can place their feet flat on the ground with just a slight bend in the knees (you don't have to remove the pedals, but it does make it a bit easier for this phase). Have them practice pushing or walking the bike around in a seated position for a while. Then, using a slightly downhill stretch of road, they should try to lift their feet slightly off of the ground as they roll forward. They will probably want to look down at their feet as they do this, so remind them to look up.
Have them practice the downhill stretch several times. On the way back up, let them get a feel for riding a bike by holding onto the bottom of the seat as you push them forward (some people will place a hand on the handlebars too, but I like to use only the seat, as this gives them a sense of steering). After they've practiced a while, challenge them to try and balance for a count of "three" before having to put their feet down. This encourages them to keep trying to balance and not just mindlessly pushing the bike around with their feet. Eventually they'll get to a three count, and then they'll want to try five, ten, etc. Once they can balance for a good 8-10 seconds, they're ready for the next step.
Step 2: Put the pedals back on the bike but leave the seat in the lower position for now. Continue to practice balance, but have them try putting their feet on the pedals after they've gained some momentum. Their natural inclination will be to start pedaling, and that's fine. You'll likely discover that they are just about riding at this point. They'll ride a few feet at a time, before putting their feet down to stop. Soon they'll be able to pedal all the way down the street.
Step 3: Although they are able to coast and pedal at this point, your child may still have some trouble getting started from a standstill position, especially when they're facing a slight uphill. Have them place one foot on the pedal, and push off with the other. If they aren't successful after a couple of tries, it's perfectly fine to hold onto the bottom of the seat and help them get moving. The more they actually get to ride their bike, the more fun they'll have, and the more they'll want to try.
Step 4: Within just a few minutes, riding will start to click for them. Now is a good time to adjust the seat height a bit. You may need to move it up a bit so that their leg is just slightly bent when the pedal is in the bottom position. This is also the point where having your own bike comes in. Hop on and ride up and down the street with them for as long as they'd like. Congratulations, you now have a bike rider!
Dealing with frustration: Learning to ride a bike can be frustrating and even scary for kids. Your first goal in teaching them should be to mitigate their anxiety by staying positive. Positive praise when they balance for even just a second or two will encourage them to keep trying. Frequent reminders of how much progress they are making in a short time is also helpful for building their self-confidence. If you feel stuck on step 1 for an extended time (like an hour), take a 10 to 15 minute break. If they don't get it on the first or second day, keep trying. You are never too old to learn how to ride. Older kids may even get the hang of it faster.
A note about helmets: Having your child ride a bike without a helmet is the same as putting them in a car without a seat belt. Do you want your child to be able to make a living as an adult using both their hands AND their brains? Then have them wear a helmet. And don't give me that line "In my day, we didn't wear helmets, and I turned out just fine." For every hundred kids that didn't have a problem, there's one that did. Do you want that to be your child?
There's an expression that once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget. And this is surprisingly and pleasantly true. The muscle memory and coordination required embeds itself in the brain fairly quickly (unless you don't follow the note about helmets above). You have given your child a gift that will last the rest of their lives. As they become more proficient at riding, your adventures can begin to expand beyond the neighborhood. Have fun!