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Learning to ride

7 July, 2014

The journey to independent riding isn’t necessarily as smooth and direct as the textbooks suggest. Simon Vincett charts the meandering course of reality.

Photo by Simon Vincett

Photo by Simon Vincett

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.

Photo by Simon Vincett

Photo by Simon Vincett

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:

Sheldon Brown is always worth reading for anything bike related

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Barta permalink
    9 July, 2014 9:17 pm

    Our two boys learnt to ride despite training wheels. The transition was dependent on their willingness to make the change. It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy.

    I convinced my brother to ‘learn’ from his and our mistakes – DON’T EVER USE TRAINING WHEELS – for his third child. As a result, the speed of learning and the transition from balance bike was rapid and seamless for his youngest child.

    My more-than-strong recommendation to anyone and everyone is NEVER USE TRAINING WHEELS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE. They are designed for lazy parenting – fewer bikes to purchase and speedier to get up and going. Good parenting directs your child to learn about balance (yes, you lean into corners when you turn…a concept that is impossible on training wheels) and using appropriate size equipment is far more effective. Bikes come in a range of sizes for good reason – 12″ wheels, 16″ wheels, 20″ wheels, 24″ wheels, 26″ wheels…and now even 27.5″ and 29″. Take advantage of the range, don’t just pick two.

    You don’t buy hiking boots for your kids when they can’t walk. You don’t buy clothes three sizes too big because “they will grow into them”.

    p.s. You don’t need to buy new bikes all the time – buying and selling secondhand is far more economical. My eldest son’s first 20″ wheel ‘kids’ bmx cost us $50; we sold it 2.5 years later for $56. Even if you make a ‘financial loss’, the pain is far less when dealing in second-hand and you have the ‘fuzzy-warm-factor’ knowing that someone else is in your footsteps. There are plenty of kids bikes out there that have barely been ridden because their parents don’t ride…go find them and use them as they were intended!!!

  2. 10 July, 2014 10:07 am

    Our kid learned when he was three, mostly on his own. Here is what happened, – a reprint from the Natural Parenting Magazine.
    Longbottom, J.C. 2009. Cycling with children: ten tips for making cycling safe and fun for kids. Nurture: quarterly journal of Natural Parenting Melbourne. (links to Google Docs)

  3. Rachel permalink
    10 July, 2014 8:58 pm

    My two loved their balance bikes and I expected the transition to pedal bikes to occur early (ie at age 3), and in only one session. While I do know a child for whom this was true, it is also true he is an athletically gifted child. My first outgrew the balance bike at 4 and we bought him a 12inch. Not only did he not learn in one session, he didnt want to use it at all! I was very frustrated and worried he would ‘never’ learn. I borrowed another balanace bike from a friend with a higher seat post and he used that for 6 months til he outgrew that too. Then we had a few months where I suggested/cajoled/pleaded with him regularly to give the pedal bike a go but he would never do it for more than 5 mins. Finally, I realised I needed to back off, that it was unlikely that he would ‘never’ learn but that he would do it when he was ready and he didnt need me hassling him in the meantime. Within a few months, at age 4y10m, it finally clicked and he never looked back. He rides the 2 kms home from school 3 times a week with ease and once a week to school (uphill most of the way).

    It was a relief when it finally happened but I never ever considered training wheels because I knew then that he would lose his sense of balance.

    My second, much less cautious than his older brother (and desperate to keep up), decided around his third birthday that he was ready to try the pedal bike (we had to get the seat post shortened!), and 6 months later he was riding confidently. It came very slowly, with regular 5 minute sessions, and in the 6 months since we have been slowly increasing the distances as his leg strength, confidence and handling skills improved. At first I walked next to him, and he would walk the bike up or down even the gentlest slopes. Then I would help push him up steeper inclines and he would delight in making me run to keep up on the downhills. I can no longer keep up, even on the flats, and we now ride together. He has just turned 4.

    It has been a DELIGHT watching them both take flight and seeing the joy they get from riding. We are planning some longer expeditions over the next few years and, eventually, some touring. But my message is this: let them develop at their own speed, according to their own personalities. Keep suggesting and encouraging but know that they will get there in the end, and they will get there faster and more easily WITHOUT TRAINING WHEELS!

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