Time for a more useful and practical blog post. I’m sure I’ll get back to something more self-centred and ranty soon!
I don’t think anyone can dispute that learning to ride a bike a vital skill anyone should try and pick up in their life. While most of us will never be Chris Hoy or Victoria Pendleton, or even a lycra-clad weekend warrior, but being able to get around on two wheels can give so many benefits and pleasures. Like with many things in life, the earlier to learn to do it, the easier it is to master. So trying to get your kids to learn how to ride as soon as they can is always a good thing to do.
Trying to balance on a bike for the first time can be a scary experience.
How can anything perched on two skinny in-line wheels possibly stay upright?
How on earth do I stay on and not fall off, and isn’t it going to hurt a lot?
Even for the most fearless four year old, these questions will be whizzing through their mind, so they need convincing that balancing isn’t that hard and you can usually prevent yourself from falling badly quite easily. Of course the older the child is the more they’ll rationalise things, and that fear can be even greater. Also, the bigger the child, the bigger the fall when it goes wrong, so the heightened fear isn’t misplaced.
Trying to get a child to feel confident enough to get on a bike and overcome the initial fear can be a challenge and all children are different. My first child was pretty fearless, and had no trouble getting on a bike. Whereas my second child is far more wary and it was a real struggle to even to get them to sit on a stationary bike with their feet on the ground.
Getting them used sitting on a wheeled machine.
The vast majority of kids would have spent many hours in a pram and then a push-chair, so should be used to being moved around on wheels. But sitting on something far more exposed, like that first tricycle, can be a big step so needs to be encouraged as soon as possible. So as soon as they are big enough, try and get them a little tricycle that they can be pushed around on. With this they’ll pick up the basics of steering and will gradually get the hang of pedalling. However, these little tricycles can be quite hard for little legs to cycle, so don’t expect much. Just get them used to moving around on wheels, where they have some element of control.
For the uninitiated, balance bikes are very simple small bikes that don’t have pedals and are powered by the child pushing it along with the feet on the ground, or by gravity. Often they are made out of wood, but some are made of metal and look more like conventional bikes. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter what design they are, as long as the child likes the design and they are happy sitting on it is the main thing. When I was a child many moons ago, these things didn’t exist, but they are one of those very simple inventions (if you can even call them that, as the very earliest bikes were essentially balance bikes) that would have helped me a lot back then.
Balance bikes are a great way to start riding, and I really recommend going down this route. Get your child one as soon as they are big enough for one, and just get them to sit on it with their feet on the ground to start with. My youngest was too scared to even try that, as they saw anything with just two wheels as unstable so impossible to keep upright. No amount of persuading them that with their feet down they couldn’t fall over. So it was a bit of a waiting game with him, and they barely touched their balance bike.
However, the theory is good with balance bikes, so get your child on them as soon as you can, and they’ll be soon pushing themselves along quite happily. As they build their confidence up, they’ll gradually get longer strides in and even start free wheeling down slopes. Before they realise, they’ll be balancing quite proficiently as they roll along. They’ll have done is without any sudden step up from a stabilised bike to a two-wheeler. They’ll also gain the understanding that it’s easier to balance the faster you go.
Avoiding the stabiliser stage
While both my kids did start off on a proper bike with stabilisers, I found them more of a hindrance than a benefit to learning. The only thing they were any use with was to gain confidence in pedalling without having to worry about balancing. If your child has gone through the balance bike stage then they should be close to be balancing well anyway, so stabilisers shouldn’t be needed.
The problem with stabilisers is that they distort how a bike behaves. When you steer on a bike you need to lean into the corner, even if it is very slight at slow speeds. Whereas when you steer on a stabilised bike, you stay upright and often lean outwards, much like a car. The other problem is that the rider often just rests on one of the stabilised wheels and makes no attempts to balance, so stays a bit lopsided.
Removing the pedals
So your child is ready to move on from the balance bike, or hasn’t even started with one, and has now got a proper bike to ride. They need to get the hang of balancing on this bigger newer bike, but those pedals are quite intimidating, and pushing away isn’t easy. So to get around this, remove the pedals from the bike. Just unscrew them from the cranks, remembering they often often reverse-threaded (i.e. turn clockwise to undo). Also lower the seat so they can get both feet comfortably on the ground. This now turns the bike into a bigger balance bike. This method can also be used for adults trying to learn to ride for the first time.
So we’ve now got a pedal-less bike which can be propelled by pushing along by feet on the ground. It’s worth getting rider familiar with the brakes before they really try moving much on it. If they know they can stop and put their feet down to save themselves from toppling over, then it helps build confidence. The next thing to do is find somewhere with a slight decline. This will allow them to get a rolling start, and makes it much easier to get some speed up to gain enough to balance with. It’ll be worth holding the child to start with, to help push them away. They’ll soon start rolling with their feet off the ground and balancing. They’ll know they can always put their feet down if they feel like they are toppling over, so can feel more confident. Keep doing this until they seem to be in control, and even steering a bit if they’ve got the space. You can also raise the seat back up a little bit, so their feet are more at semi-tiptoe level rather than flat on the ground.
Putting the pedals back on
One the child has got the hang of whizzing along the on the bike without pedals, you can put the pedals back on. But don’t expect them to be able to push off from a standstill from the off, as this is the trickiest part to learn. Again, find the space where there’s a decline, and get them to do a rolling start down the slope (again, holding as they build up speed if required), but this time with their feet on the pedals. Try and get them to pedal to propel themselves along once they’re moving. It helps if the road levels off, so they get the hang of really pedalling themselves, rather than relying on gravity.
Eventually, they’ll be happily riding along and getting the hang of steering. Once they feel confident with that, then they’ll be finally ready to practice pushing away from a standstill with the pedals. You may have to show them the technique on your bike, as young children often don’t realise you need the pedal at the top on the stroke to push down on. It might be also worth gently holding them as they try at the beginning as the push-away can get quite wobbly and off-putting for them.
Before long your child will be riding, and hopefully would have done so without taking any confidence knocking falls. Otherwise, you could always take this approach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaqxIXs_mn4