Goodwin: Nice job, so you had seven on that one.
>>> The Great Boffo cycling cartoon book set to be republished
Hold the child, not the bike. Explain that you are going to hold their back and their shoulder/upper arm. Get the child to put their feet on the pedals and check that they are ready. Encourage them to look up, let go of their brakes and pedal. Walk forwards (still holding on to them) and slowly release your grip. Stop after three to five metres.
PROTECTION Fingerless cycling gloves, called ‘track mitts’, are essential because grazing hands is the commonest injury for beginners. Wristguards and elbow and knee pads are very much optional (and, in fact, can impede learning because they’re bulky), you may feel that a helmet is not. If used, helmets should fit snugly and the straps should be done up tightly.
The method outlined in this article is the one used by REI Outdoor School instructors. It's not the only approach, and every rider proceeds at his or her own pace, but we've seen kids use it to learn to ride a bike in a single afternoon.
The ‘scoot-weeeeeeee-balance’ method is one for your child to take at their own sweet pace, radically reducing the number of falls common with other methods, a self-help confidence builder for your child. Whether learning to ride takes an hour or many weeks, it’ll be worth it in the end. You know cycling is fun so start out with that in mind. Play, don’t push.
Either left or right, it doesn’t matter. Make sure the child is comfortable on the bike and feels secure. An easy way of doing this is to get them to do a little ‘wiggle’ with the brakes on.
Lowering the seat and removing the pedals enables the child to scoot along on the bike with both feet. Use this opportunity to provide instruction on using the brakes.
Adding pedals into the equation makes it easier for a child to pick up the required speed for long-distance balance but the teacher will need to offer frequent verbal encouragement for the younger child to keep pedalling. Many children, even those adept at balancing while using the scoot method, put in too few pedal revolutions. It’s a major cause of parental stress (“Pedal! Pedal! You must pedal or you fall off!”)
SCOOT-WEEEEEEE-BALANCE Secret number one is to throw away the stabilisers (US = ‘training wheels’). ‘Pavement’ cycles, with 12inch wheels, are for tots and so there’s little harm in letting your toddler terrorise the neighbourhood on a bike fitted with stabilisers but ditch them by the age of three and a half.
The push and coast forces your child to balance momentarily.
It’s tempting to hold on to the saddle and handlebars, but you’ll be interfering with how the bike leans and responds to the rider’s weight. It’s best to stand behind the bike and child, and wedge the rear wheel between your feet and calves. Support them with your hands under the armpits, so they’ve got complete control of the bike – it’s easier on the back for you, too.
Choose a traffic-free area where a child can learn to ride safely. Find a place that is large, flat, smooth and paved. This location might be a driveway, park path, school blacktop or empty parking lot. Empty tennis or basketball courts can also work well.
Ask the child to put their foot on the front pedal, then push down hard to set off:
Focus on balance and have a “slowness race” where the last person to put their feet on the ground wins.
Once your child can coast the bike with feet up, make turns while coasting and look ahead while riding, it's time to replace the pedals on the bike. For now, keep the seat in its lowered position so your child can put both feet on the ground to stop.
To practice, have your child push off with her feet, coast for a moment, then evenly apply both hand brakes, bringing the bike to a stop. Practice this sequence at least ten times.
The biggest impetus for learning to ride is the example of a sibling or a friend: encourage friendships with precocious pedallers.
Once she can ride straight and use the brakes, she's ready for pedals.
Properly inflate the bike tires. The bicycle will roll more smoothly and your child will have an easier time coasting when bike tires are inflated to the correct pressure. Look for the recommended tire pressure printed on tire sidewalls.
STABILISERS: THE ARGUMENT FOR Despite everything rotten I’ve written about stabilisers, for some children they are a good option. Children with learning difficulties or balance problems may find that using stabilisers – even on bikes of 24inch and above – is the only way they will ever learn to cycle.
Riding a bicycle is a great physical activity for children. Once they get the hang of it, they won't even realize how much exercise they're getting.
IR: When you’re passionate about something you’re an evangelist for it, I wanted my nearest and dearest, and all children, to grow up having a great experience of cycling in the hope that some of them would want to continue cycling into adulthood and that was the trigger for setting up Islabikes. I felt I could do better than what was out there and children might enjoy cycling more.
From six onwards most children will take less than an hour to cycle independently once let loose on the scoot-weeeeee-balance method below. The parental-handlebar-steering method or pushing-saddle-from-behind-hit-and-miss method usually start with crashes, lots of them. Some children may be put off cycling altogether by such steamroller techniques, especially if there’s any shouting involved.
IR: If the child has seen someone else ride, that can really help them to understand what they’re about to do. I would say there’s a window when it’s easier to learn and I’d say that’s typically between four and six years old, if you don’t get them cycling pre-six then they seem to become more cautious about it.
Encourage the child forwards for about 10 metres using the hops.
How to teach a child to ride a bike
Learning to ride a bike is a classic rite of passage and a skill that, once acquired, is never forgotten.
Start by removing the pedals with the wrench. Note: The left pedal is removed in a clockwise rotation, while the right pedal is removed in a counterclockwise rotation. I would suggest marking left and right. That's going to make it a lot easier when you put the pedals back on the bike.
If your child has a bicycle with pedal brakes (which are brakes that engage while pedaling backward), she'll have to practice pedaling before she learns how to brake.
PEDALS Once balance has been wholly internalised, the pedals and cranks can be re-fitted to the modified bike, or the child can leave the wooden running bike behind in favour of a ‘real’ bike. It’s critical to raise the saddle back to ‘normal’ height.
Do the ‘wiggle’ (with brakes on). Holding the child as before, get them to put both feet on the pedals. Encourage them to look up. If all clear, count down from three and encourage the child to let go of the brakes and pedal forwards. Let go after a few steps, then step back to exaggerate the distance they have travelled. Shout ‘stop’ after 5 - 10 metres. Now count out the paces so they can see how far they have gone.
Take it slow and easy, and make big turns every now and then. Set up a course with cones or crackers and ride it, too. If you use crackers, see who can hit the most. (Make sure your child does.)
* It’s not top secret at all, it’s tried and tested, but it’s still not mainstream knowledge.
When you're ready to start your child on the road to self-propelled fun, REI offers a selection of bikes for kids.
Next, adjust the seat so the rider's feet are flat on the ground in a seated position.
Repeat with the opposite pedal until she's comfortable on both sides.
Childrens’ bikes with 20inch wheels, and smaller, generally come fitted with stabilisers. Children who rely heavily on stabilisers will take longer to learn to ride than those who have had a stabiliser-lite upbringing.
At this early stage in the young cyclist’s life it’s also a good idea to explain about foot positioning on the pedal. A very common mistake is for the child to pedal with the middle or even heel of the foot. The ball of the foot ie the metatarsal heads, should be over the pedal spindle. Many adult cyclists are guilty of this sin too, they make cycling look as though it’s an awful lot of effort.
If they’re ready to learn to ride, they’ll find their balance and be pedalling forward quite quickly, usually within one session of half an hour or so.
Goodwin: Hi, I'm Breen Goodwin, the education director at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. I teach children and adults how to ride a bicycle safely without the need for training wheels.