Cycling is one of those skills which are best learned when you are young. Somehow, the ability to maintain your balance and the instinctive sense of what adjustments your body and your bike need to make are easier to learn when you are still a child.
Cycling is also a fun social and family activity, it gives your kids a sense of freedom and independence, allows them more commuting options in the future and is one of those physical activities which they can continue to do as they grow old. As many individuals age, they find that they can continue to exercise by cycling even after they have to give up jogging and other more intensive impact sports.
What’s the Right Age?
Most children can learn to ride a 2 wheeled bicycle between the ages of 3 and 6. Much however, depends on your child. A taller, more physically confident child might be ready to learn at 3, but a more timid, smaller child might only be ready to start at 6. Whatever, the age, don’t force the experience. Wait until your child starts to show signs of greater independence and an interest in learning to ride like “the big kids”.
Choosing a Bike
Choose a bike that is the right size for your child. Although children grow quite quickly, bicycles are not quite like clothes – buying one size up doesn’t actually mean that you can double the effective use of them. They are more like shoes – get the right size and your kids will be off and running, but the wrong size and they’ll just never get worn.
Go to a reputable bike shop and get them to measure and fit your child for a bike. Don’t be tempted to buy a bike with a frame which is too small, remember, when they really start to ride, they won’t be putting both feet flat on the floor when they are sitting on the seat.
Good Brakes are Important
Pay attention to the brakes on the bike. Most young children aren’t able to exert a lot of strength in their hands, and if the brakes are stiffer, they might not be able to use them effectively.
Check that the brakes handles are correctly sized for a child’s hand. Some bikes may come with “adult” sized brakes fitted on the handles. These won’t be easy for your kids to use as they will have to stretch their fingers out too far just to reach the brake levers and they won’t have the strength to squeeze them together effectively. Consider getting a bike with either coaster or drum brakes as an option.
Before you start riding, find a safe place to teach your child in. A crowded park with lots of other more experienced cyclists and rollerbladers will be too intimidating an environment. Practicing near elderly people, very young children and people with pets will also mean that you might run the risk of accidentally injuring another road user. Try to choose a big open space with an even surface. Empty basketball courts, or even community centre open spaces are a good choice.
Buy a helmet and insist that your children wear them. Be a good role model and always wear a helmet yourself. A helmet can protect your child from a concussion or a more serious injury. As falls are quite common when first learning how to ride a bike, this is important. Think about getting knee pads, elbow guards and gloves so that your kids are protected from scrapes.
Learning to Ride
There are many approaches to learning how to ride. Everything from rolling your child down the nearest gentle slope and praying for the best, to buy all sorts of specialized training equipment. Whichever way you choose, here are some of the basic steps and principles which you need to take.
• Mounting, Dismounting and Braking
Start by teaching your child to mount, dismount and brake. These are the 3 things they need to do whenever they use a bike. Being able to do these things confidently gives your child a better sense of control and confidence.
• Balance and Momentum
The heart of being a good cyclist lies not in pedaling form and technique, but in balance and managing momentum. Even before you learn how to ride, you need to learn how to balance. Just as you need to be able to stand before you can walk, in cycling, you need to be able to balance before you can ride.
There are all sorts of ways to do this. They range from rolling your kids down a gentle slope, removing the pedals of the bike and teaching your kids to coast and steer, leaning over and doing the push and run or buying a special stick or handle which you attach to your child’s bike so that you can keep the momentum up for them and correct them when they become too unbalance.
• Learning to Pedal
Once your kids are able to balance and steer under momentum, they are ready to pedal and complete the ride experience. There are however, 2 things you need to remember, it takes strength to pedal. So if your children are smaller, you might have to either ensure that you get a lighter bike (this tends to be more expensive), or you might want to make sure they develop some pedal strength.
Whilst most coaches will strongly advise against the use of stabilisers on a bike because they don’t allow your kids to learn to balance correctly, they can be useful in training your kids up for pedaling. The alternative is to allow your kids to coast until they grow a little taller and bigger and have the strength to pedal.
Whilst learning to ride is important, teaching your kids to be aware on the road is even more important. Talk to them about traffic, show them where it’s safe to ride and tell them to dismount at traffic crossings. Teach them how to identify different types of vehicles and pedestrians as well as types of movements and behaviours they can expect to encounter.