Learning to ride a bicycle is one of life’s milestones, a white-knuckle introduction to mobile independence. It’s a rite-of-passage thing, exciting yet potentially terrifying at the same time. By Carlton Reid.
When you analyse all the component parts that go into the ability to cycle you realise how near impossible it is. Yet billions of cyclists around the globe manage it, without giving it a second’s thought. Learning to ride is a leap into the unknown, a magical mastery of control that, done right, can be a genuinely wonderful experience for the successful student.
It’s a skill that parents – especially cycling parents – are proud to pass on, especially if they’re looking to create a ride companion. But balancing on tubes slung between two rotating wheels for the first time is not easy and there’s a lot of pressure on kids to master bicycling basics quickly. Parents can find the teaching experience stressful – and often back-breaking.
There’s an easy way to learn how to cycle, and it involves no special tricks, and no teaching whatsoever. Not from anxious adults anyway. Children teach themselves.
In fact, at a tender age, children learn best by trial and error rather than formal instruction.
The actual technique of cycling is to use small body weight shifts and micro-movements of the handlebars to lean ever so slightly into and out of micro-turns. Like walking, it’s a collection of continuous small falls counterbalanced by continuous controlled recoveries. Try explaining that to a five year old.
Most children will quickly teach themselves to cycle, if you use the top-secret ‘scoot-weeeeeeee-balance’ method.*
* It’s not top secret at all, it’s tried and tested, but it’s still not mainstream knowledge.
The traditional method of teaching a child to cycle – if we ignore the Spartan-like approach of rolling the learner child down a hillside and hoping for the best – is to run alongside, controlling the steering. This may work. Eventually. The pic on the left shows this method (it’s not good for the parent’s back, and, oy, that helmet’s not fitted correctly!).
Better is to hold by the shoulders only, allowing the child to lean and steer (and crash into the parent’s legs). In Scandanavia, parents use a stick. Not to beat the slow learner, but taped to the child’s saddle or rammed between the seat stays. This does the same trick as the shoulder holding and is better for the parent’s back.
Sometimes these sticks are ‘invented’ and sold commercially, with anodised finishes, padded handles and proper bolts. Also commercially available – albeit only on the internet from single product resellers – is a ‘teaching vest’. This has a handle by the child’s shoulder blades and requires a running parent to hold on to the handle.
Neither product is necessary.
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.
Or maybe you’d prefer to start with a trike? These are more stable than pavement bikes with stabilisers. Most trikes for tots are front-wheel drive ie no freewheel. Some pavement bikes have ‘fixed’ wheels ie no freewheel.
Children should not learn to ride on two wheels with such bikes, the learner bike must have the ability to pedal backwards without engaging propulsion. Bikes fitted with back-pedal ‘coaster’ brakes – rare as hen’s teeth in the UK, normal in much of the rest of the world – are easier to stop by a child because legs are stronger than little hands. And many children’s bikes, sadly, have poor hand-lever brakes. But coaster brakes offer very limited freewheeling before the brake kicks in.
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.
Do. Not. Use. Stabilisers.
Whether your child’s bike has handlebar lever brakes or back-pedal coaster brakes, it’s sensible to teach the rudiments of braking before balancing. But don’t go overboard, your child will have enough to think about in these early stages. For the first few independent, parent-free runs your child takes, you’re going to be close by, able to stop the child by grabbing them before they grind to a halt or, in extremis, rushing ahead, standing in front and stopping them by the handlebars. Naturally, the more you are able to leave the child to their own devices the better. Each child is different in the amount of physical support they may need.
Once the child is able to balance, steer and turn it’s time to ram home the message about braking, especially as shoe leather is so expensive. Spend some time doing ‘emergency stops’ until braking becomes second nature. Explain also about gradual braking, and the use of front and rear brakes at the same time, pointing out the pitfalls of using front or rear brakes on their own (think faceplants and skids). Bikes fitted with coaster brakes, for instance, can be skidded very easily. This is excellent fun for the confident child but can be downright scary for the timid child.
If children go straight from tricycles to bicycles, missing out on stabilisers, most will be able to start their two wheeler education from about the age of three and a half, although five is probably optimal. By the age of five most children can balance pretty darn well and they just need a nudge to pick up balancing while on two wheels skills.
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.
The biggest impetus for learning to ride is the example of a sibling or a friend: encourage friendships with precocious pedallers.
Here’s the key to the whole experience of getting your sprog to cycle unaided: start with a smaller-than-you’d-think bike or the child’s bike with the seat post lower than they’re used to.
If your child’s bike is still too big, borrow a smaller bike from another family.
The learner bike should be one the child can straddle comfortably, both feet flat on the ground. Remove the pedals, and even the cranks if you wish. (Removing the pedals disables the back pedal brake function on a coaster brake equipped bike).
Alternatively, use one of the ‘Hobby Horse’ style balance training bicycles, not equipped with cranks or pedals. These were first made out of plywood but can now be found with lightweight aluminium frames and front suspension forks. These ‘running bikes’ don’t generally have brakes, feet do the braking. They are expensive – especially when you consider that for an older child they may only be required for an hour! – but you can imagine the wooden ones being handed down as family heirlooms. If you are going to purchase such a bike, give to the child at an early age. At three and a half it’ll take some weeks or months before the child gets to the feet in the air, weeeeee stage. This is normal and fine.
Whether own bike made small or built-for-the-job running bike, you want a bike that your child can really sit on. Many children faced with such pedal-free bikes don’t sit fully on the saddle, preferring to do what comes more naturally: they run with them, bum in almost zero contact with the saddle. Encourage the child to sit. The easiest way to do this without going purple in the face is to make up some games involving the child taking his or her feet off the ground while scooting forward, forcing the bum on to the saddle. This leads to the next stage…
Praise your child for each longer and longer scoot. Scooting involves your child taking larger and larger steps (bum firm on saddle, remember), using their feet to restore balance as they propel themselves forward. Some children ‘get’ this method almost instantly and progress to long weeeee’s within minutes. Other children, probably the majority, take some time to get to this letting go stage. Keep the ‘training sessions’ short and fun filled. Don’t make them training sessions at all. Go to a local petting zoo or take an outing to the park, just use the running bike as an aid to walking when there…
Once the child has mastered short scoots, and the intervals between the foot downs get slightly longer, speed will increase naturally. It needs to. It’s tough to balance a bike at 3mph, much easier at 6mph.
Encourage longer stretches of feet-up coasting, perhaps with small items, or chalk lines, placed on the ground to mark where feet have been raised and then touched back down. Children quickly work out how to keep the coasting bike upright with micro-movements on the handlebars – twitching in the direction of the fall – but without the physics lecture.
As the coasting prowess improves, the child should be able to push from the ground and scoot for long distances with feet in the air (grinning and shouting ‘weeeeeee’ is a normal part of this stage). Hesitant children will raise their feet only slightly, readying for the stabilising foot-down. More confident children lean back, legs almost level with handlebars, and really go for it!
Learning to cycle is nine-tenths controlled balance, pedalling is merely a means of propulsion to keep the balancing act going.
Children, and parents, often fixate on pedalling too early in the process of learning to cycle. By removing the pedals, and using a small bike, easily straddled, a huge mental block is also removed.
Once you’re at the fast, fearless ‘weeeeeee’ stage, you’re almost home and dry. The child is, in fact, balancing. Some can balance at very low speeds, a sign they’ve really nailed the technique.
Introduce slight downhills. Speed and coasting distances will increase, sometimes dramatically. Your child has cracked it. Now, finesse their technique. Set up ‘slow races’ between you and your child. Take off your pedals too. See who can go the slowest before touching down. Low speed balancing is required for stopping and starting the bike and – later – for ‘track stands’, an excellent trick to learn at an early age.
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.
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!”)
At this point you may have to run with a younger child, lightly touching their shoulders, pleading, nicely, for some sort of spinning action. Older children needs less encouragement, they know they must pedal and do so because they’ve cracked the balance part of the equation.
It’s tempting to hold on to the saddle or handlebars of a learner child, but this is be detrimental to their learning and, just like with the use of stabilisers, doesn’t allow the child to take control of his or her own balance. It’s also bad for your back.
Cycling in a straight line for some distance without a helping hand is a major achievement for a young child. Their next major achievement, albeit not so exciting, is to start and stop unaided, but they must also master cornering. Life isn’t all dead straight railway paths.
Most children, given a big enough training zone, will suss cornering swiftly after they’ve mastered balancing. Making wide, smooth turns is a simple matter of making slightly larger micro-movements on the handlebars, looking slowly and incrementally in the direction you wish to turn, and making slight centre-of-gravity weight displacements. Hard to explain, easy to do, so let the child work it out for themselves. A large, empty school playground or traffic free cul-de-sac are good places to learn cornering.
Start with large circles. As the child gets more confident ask for tighter turns, both to the left and right. Cones or stones can be made into chicanes. Tighter corners require tighter turns, teaching the child to lean further over to steer, an advanced technique that comes with practice. Keeping the pedal on the inside of the turn raised will lead to less spills.
Once the child is adept at pedalling, can balance at speed, and can turn corners without tumbling, it’s time to raise the child’s saddle so the pedalling action is more efficient. It’s no longer necessary for both feet to be flat on the ground when straddling a bike, in fact this is positively detrimental. As a rule of thumb, one foot should be able to touch the ground – on tippy-toe – when the child is sat on the saddle. Efficient pedalling requires just slightly flexed knees. Nudge up the seatpost in small increments day by day until the right saddle height is reached.
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.
The choice of learning area is important. Tarmac allows the child to speed along, aiding balance, but tarmac is not soft. Grass is soft, better to fall on, but sometimes it’s too soft, too slippy, hindering forward progress.
Whichever surface you choose, make sure the learning area is free of obstacles – real or perceived – in a very wide arc.
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.
Children have a tendency to look at the person teaching them to ride, leading to falls. Looking at the ground is also a common cause for learner crashes. Ask learners to eyeball an object in the near distance, straight ahead, and to focus on that instead of looking around. When balance has been achieved, gradually introduce the concept that steering on a bike is often accomplished by looking, gently, towards the direction you want to travel.
THE FINAL WORD
As a cycling parent you clearly want your offspring to follow in your wheel tracks as soon as possible. Don’t let this blind you to their actual affinity for unaided two wheeling. Some children are proficient pedallers soon after they’ve learnt to walk, others can still be wobbly at age nine or above. Every child is different. It’s very difficult – and probably counter-productive – to push cycling on a child who’s not ready or not willing.
Hopefully they’ll have a lifetime of cycling ahead of them, it’s best not to hot-house. Here are two truisms: patience is a virtue and practice makes perfect.
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.
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.