Learning to ride
The journey to independent riding isn’t necessarily as smooth and direct as the textbooks suggest. Simon Vincett charts the meandering course of reality.
Recently I had the pleasure of riding with my boy through the park on his first outing without training wheels. I couldn’t get the smile off my face to watch him feeling the flow and the freedom.
I realise that a part of my happiness was relief. It felt like this accomplishment was a long time coming and it wasn’t a smooth ride to get to here. As a riding family, our son’s riding wasn’t just for play. We had places to go, and at nearly six years old he was getting a bit too big and heavy for the trailer behind my bike. The tag-along was okay for path travel but a bit unsteady for road going. With training wheels on his bike he was constantly hampered by the myriad obstacles of the footpath and unstable—a little too much speed around a corner and over he went. The local shops would be closed before we got there and a meltdown was almost inevitable by the time we got home, by me at least.
Yes, we got stuck at the stage of training wheels. Those pernicious props that take care of balance for you. What seductive promise they hold. What a curtailed version of riding they deliver.
I had foolishly once declared that my child would never use training wheels. Instead he would make a textbook transition from balance bike to pedalling independently—at a precociously early age, of course.
We would shortly be riding the bike paths on the weekends, I imagined, exploring all those side tracks I’d never taken. Soon enough we’d have mountain bikes, swooping along singletrack and getting out backcountry—nothing too epic of course.
Forgive an impatient father for his dreams of a second childhood.
So, our boy had a balance bike as a toddler, and he took to that. ‘Right on track,’ I thought.
Eagerly, we gave him a pedal bike at three, and with this bike the lure of training wheels crept into our lives. At first they weren’t fitted because I took off the pedals so he could use the new bike like the balance bike. The new bike had a hand brake and becoming familiar with braking was enough to concentrate on.
Soon (perhaps too soon) I fitted the pedals, ready to move on to the next stage. They weren’t welcome. The ease of using feet to push along was familiar now and the pedals just made it difficult. Riding only happened when an adult was there to provide stability.
The pedals came off again, went back on for another try and came off again. Boy, this bike riding thing seemed like a lot of fussing and not much fun. Fearing an outright rejection of riding, I relented and fitted the training wheels and the long period of training-wheel inertia set in.
To be fair, there was still plenty of learning going on during the training wheel phase, and plenty of skills to be mastered. It’s not bad for them to be slowed down by training wheels when the child hasn’t mastered checking driveways and stopping if necessary. But as I saw his skills develop and watched in frustration how the training wheels limited the flowing freedom of riding, I struggled to contain my impatience.
When the first pedal bike became too small it was replaced with a bigger one but the training wheels seemed a fixture now. I experimented with raising the training wheels and then watched in dismay as he just leaned wider, now used to the support. How did the balancing instinct disappear? Did the balance bike teach nothing after all?
I took the training wheels off, provoking tears and protests. I cajoled, we tried. There wasn’t enough wobble room on the footpath. The back-pedal brake prevented getting into power position for starting off. It was all too hard. I retreated carefully away from rebellion again. The training wheels went back on. Riding remained limited. My dreams mouldered. I tried not to guess the ages of kids in other families I saw riding around.
Approaching six years old, he was too big for the trailer, too destabilising on the tag-along and in need of a bigger bike. I seized the opportunity. The next bike would have no training wheels and there would be a proper program of learning to ride.
His birthday arrived; the bike was unwrapped and the lack of training wheels accepted, with a little trepidation. The riding program commenced and progress was rapid. Freewheeling down a small grassy slope quickly progressed to zooming down a big grassy slope. The pedals, removed for the start of the process, were replaced. Now he was pedalling across the grassy flat at the bottom of the slope, converting momentum into progression. That was session one. My head was spinning. My dreams were reawakening.
Session two, same place, next day: started with pedals attached. No problem. Now he could pedal further on the flat grass and even start off again with a steadying hand under the saddle. A short session but entirely positive.
Session three, next weekend: once down the big hill and just kept riding, meandering all over the park until he decided to stop. My grin threatened to split my face. I ran over and started him off again. “It’s faster on the path,” I suggested. He tried the path. He wobbled but corrected instinctively and was quickly into the distance. I ran to start him off again. He rode, I ran, and ran and ran. Next time I need to bring my bike!
The next day, Sunday, we headed out for our first family ride. The footpath from our house was a bit narrower and trickier than the path we’d practiced on. With a few tumbles we made it to the park. Here our fledgling rider took flight along the paths, gaining capability and confidence as I watched, riding along behind. He even rang his bell when passing pedestrians. My chest swelled with pride and my head swam with happiness.
We had been on the right track all along. He had learned balance from the balance bike, learned braking from the riding with training wheels and learned road craft from travelling in the tag-along. All that was needed was the right technique in the right location and practice. As well as a bit of patience from dad.
There are lots of techniques to teach your child to ride. We used: http://bikesatwork.com.au/learn2ride/
Sheldon Brown is always worth reading for anything bike related http://www.sheldonbrown.com/teachride.html
Find help near you with Austcycle http://www.austcycle.com.au/
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