Bicycles are the ultimate freedom machine. You don’t need fuel, registration or a licence. You can hop gutters, cut across parks, through alleyways and along footpaths. Yes, the law requires you to wear a helmet in many jurisdictions now, but that’s a small price to pay, not to mention a sensible way to keep your brains inside your skull.
They say cycling is the most energy efficient form of transport. If you don’t believe that, try putting a muesli bar and a bottle of water in your car’s fuel tank and see how far you get. Seriously though, it’s a great way to travel to local destinations, it’s cheap and it can keep you fit while getting you to where you need to go.
If you’re a parent, you probably want to see your kids outside and active. Cycling is an obvious solution; bikes are a timeless classic for one simple reason: kids love them. But there are all kinds of considerations.
Which bike is best?
A common mistake parents make is to provide a bicycle that’s too large and heavy for their child in the belief that “they’ll grow into it”. Yes, they probably will… eventually. But not before they’ve experienced a whole lot of frustration, fallen several times from what feels like a great height and developed an “I can’t do it” complex. Consequence? A bike that languishes in the garage forever.
A child learning to ride should be able to stand flat-footed on the ground without the bike’s seat reaching their crotch—a gap of several centimetres is about right. They should be able to reach the handlebars without leaning forward.
A balance bike is a great way to learn the basics without having to worry about pedals, chains and sprockets. Kids as young as 18 months can ride these. If you’re a particularly hipster parent you’ll no doubt be attracted to the wooden version, but there are also more conventional looking steel or aluminium balance bikes available, some of which come with a pedal and chain kit that can be attached when the child is ready to take it to the next level.
The other option, of course, is to use training wheels on a pedal bike. If your child has ridden a pedal tricycle for some time the transition to a two-wheeler should be easy. The sneaky thing to do is, over a period of several weeks, slowly raise the height of the training wheels so that the child is forced to spend more and more time balancing on two wheels only. Eventually the training wheels can be taken off altogether.
Some kids have the attitude and ability to jump on a bike confidently and ride away without assistance after only a few times up and down the footpath with mum or dad providing a steadying hand. Other kids are naturally more cautious but their confidence will grow if they’re provided with the right support and training aids.
Once a child is riding confidently the seat can be raised—a little bit at a time over several weeks if the child is resistant—so that the knee is only slightly bent at the bottom of each pedal stroke. When buying a bike, make sure the tubing underneath the seat is long enough to allow this kind of adjustment.
Kids tend to be rough on bikes, running them into walls, dropping them on the driveway, leaving them in the rain. Do your best to teach them to look after their things, but also be smart and avoid the temptation to buy them a mini version of your dream bike with all the bells and whistles (I’m talking to you, dads!). Think light, strong, simple, practical.
What about safety gear?
A helmet is a must. Make sure the helmet fits your child’s head properly, neither perched on top because it’s too small or sliding back or forwards because it’s too large. Do up the chin-strap snugly and evenly on each side so that the helmet is just above the eyebrows. Beware of second-hand helmets: even if they’re not visibly cracked the effectiveness of the safety foam lining may have been compromised by a history of crashes or rough treatment.
Sturdy closed in shoes are best. There’s a risk that inexperienced feet can get tangled up in the pedals and chain. And flip-flops or sandals are easily broken or lost while riding.
Elbow and knee pads? That’s probably overkill. Knee pads in particular may interfere with the pedalling motion. Leave the body armour for the BMX or mountain-bike competition circuit. If you’re worried about scrapes and bumps and the weather is right, dress your child in thicker fabrics, long pants and long sleeves. But, realistically, learn to accept that learning to ride a bike will inevitably involve some tears and band-aids.
Where should we ride?
While we’re on safety, here are some warnings about higher risk riding locations:
- Loose gravel or sand – most cyclists will find this difficult, let alone a beginner. Avoid. A well-packed gravel road, however, is fine for a confident rider on thicker, knobbly tyres.
- Hills – going up any kind of incline is hard for beginners. Going down runs the risk of losing control and having a nasty crash. Start on the flat and gradually introduce hills as skills, strength and confidence increase.
- Vehicular roads – if a small child is required to hold an adult’s hand to cross the road, they certainly shouldn’t be riding a bike on one. Obvious. But if you live on a particularly quiet street or cul-de-sac you might decide kids can ride on the road under close supervision.
The best place for kids to ride is along a dedicated bike path where it’s flat, the surface is smooth and the cars are far away. It’s also likely to be a place that’s more scenic and where the whole family can ride and enjoy a picnic. The kids will still need to learn to watch out for other path users—pedestrians, cyclists, dogs—which is good safety training. Alternatives are empty sporting facilities such as concrete-surfaced basketball or tennis courts, or empty industrial area carparks on weekends. Ordinary footpaths alongside roads may also be suitable, depending on the proximity of vehicle traffic, hills and the quality of the path. As children grow, you might be comfortable allowing them to use dedicated bike lanes on public roads. But there are plenty of adults who see this as far too risky, even for themselves.
Get out there!
The idea is to balance the risk against your child’s ability. Cycling is a metaphor for life: yes, there are dangers, but every course of action involves risk. With careful mentoring and quality time spent together learning to ride, your child will grow up with happy memories, sensible boundaries as well as the confidence that they can take on life’s challenges.