In the picture above, children in Cambodia ride an adult-sized bicycle. They may not be on a bike that fits or have helmets, their tires are worn and the bike is poorly spray painted, but they’re having fun. To many children in Asia, a bicycle is a two-wheeled vehicle that moves them from one place to another, to be enjoyed with friends and siblings on adventures and exploits. Helmets are optional and they rarely get a bike in their size.
Growing up, I rode a bicycle that my brother was given by an aunt who’s kid had used it after getting it from someone else’s kid. By the time it got to me, the bike was a little bit rusty, had a fair number of dents, and had more colors than the rainbow, but it gave me a sense of freedom I didn’t otherwise have access to. It gave me the opportunity to offer to run errands and meet up for a chat with friends in my neighborhood. I was born and raised in Singapore, and because my parents both worked full-time, my father was excited to teach me and my brother to learn to ride bikes. I cannot quite remember what he did, but in the years of learning from and teaching kids how to ride, I am pretty sure that my father, like the many loving parents I have seen, made some of the following common mistakes:
- Don’t hold your child’s seat, let them learn balance
Many parents try to help kids to learn to ride by holding on to the back of their seats and telling their children to pedal. This makes them unable to feel their own balancing point and it will take them longer to learn to ride.
Being on a bicycle is all about balance. Let your child learn to feel the bicycle as an extension of themselves. It’s alright for them to fall when they’re only 25 inches off the ground. That’s much easier to recover from than learning to balance when they’re 6 ft tall and about to fall.
A child that’s been given time and space to learn the balance between their bodies and bicycles will learn to steer the slender vehicle with their hips, rather than with the handlebars. This is something I am still trying to unlearn and have crashed several times copying someone else’s sharp turns without using my hips.
- Don’t give your child a starting push, let them learn to begin cycling naturally
Last week, we held bike rodeo for youths at a school. Many children, aged between 9 and 15, almost fell as they tried to kick off and put their feet on the pedals of their bikes.
When we as parents get our children used to having that starting push, we let them never learn to start off. It works the same in life – let them learn to crawl, then walk. No person ever stuck to crawling around because no one helped them walk. Don’t get them used to getting a headstart with your efforts because when you’re not around, they’ll be lost.
Rather, show them how to rotate the pedal on the side of their master foot till it’s 3/4s way up, then with hands on the brakes so the bike isn’t sliding forward or backwards, press down on the pedal and release the brakes and the bike will move forward and the other foot can join in pedaling.
- Don’t stinge on your child’s bike. If it’s too heavy for them to lift, it’s not their bike.
If you’re a cyclist yourself and you want your kid to ride with you, you can’t spend a thousand dollars on your bike, but fifty dollars on theirs. In all likelihood, the bicycle they’re on will be less agile and heavier than they can manage, with brakes, handlebars and cranks they can’t quite manage. And when you say to them: “Come on, get up, you can do it!”, you’re not being encouraging, you’re just being mean. They may try again and again, but they’ll have an inaccurate judgement of their abilities and strength.
Rather, invest in good children’s bikes if you want them to love cycling. Riding a bicycle that doesn’t fit them increases the risk of them falling and developing poor riding habits.
In the course of teaching kids and adults to ride, we often meet people who are taken aback when their bikes are finally adjusted for them. At the right size and height, the changes can feel so liberating it’s disconcerting. So start your kids off right.
It’s true, keeping kids on bikes that fit them can be pricey, but that’s why Spokes started the Family Bike Collective, a project where we maintain and service all our member bikes including flats. When our members outgrow their bikes, we’ll buy them back for 50% credit in store and members pay just $75 to upsize to the next bike. If you’d like to know more, check out spokes.bike.
- Get them used to helmets, but find the right kind.
Overtime we have a kids rodeo, there’s that kid who will refuse to put on a helmet. They think it’s too heavy or they’ve been clipped under their chins before. Here’s how to begin getting a helmet on your kid:
– make sure it fits. Get them to shake their heads as though they’re saying no, and nod their heads as though they’re saying yes. Their helmet should fit their heads snugly with no wobble. Look for helmets that can be tightened and loosened to avoid having to buy a new one when their heads grow.
– if you have a kid that’s occasionally in a trailer, make sure the backs of their helmets are flat. Avoid the sporty looking ones and aerodynamism surely has no use in a trailer behind your bicycle. Keep those sporty helmets for when they don’t get a trailer anymore.
– find a helmet that’s light. Some brands are lighter than others, the lighter, the more likely your kid will forget they even have a helmet on their heads.
– Magnetic clasps are magical. They make it almost impossible for a kid to be clipped under their chins and develop that aversion to helmets.
- Get them used to handbrakes
Many of the kids we help tend to try and stop their moving bicycles by putting their feet down. This often comes from learning to ride on balance bikes without handbrakes, so keep an eye out for balance bikes that have handbrakes.
The bottom line is if a child tries to stop with their feet in the face of an emergency, they’re unlikely to succeed and an accident will happen.
- Fit your child to their bike
This means looking out for the following:
– Have your child stand over the top tube of the bike. He/she should be able to lift it at least two inches off the ground.
– On a down pedal while sitting on the saddle, the leg should be almost fully extended but not straightened for maximum power.
– Have them comfortably reaching for the handlebars. Some kids are more flexible than others but not everyone needs a road bike and to be bent low. A comfortable kid will ride further, longer.
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