Learning to ride a bike is one of life’s big milestones, something parent and child will remember forever. Kids these days are learning to ride younger than ever. I was 5 when I got my first bike and 6 when I took off my stabilisers (which was a scary experience), but that was before the advent of balance bikes. These days kids can be pedalling independently (without stabilisers) as young as 3 years old! Of course not all kids will take to cycling so easily, so here are a few tips to get them started.
Start them cycling early
If you want to get your child on the trails before they’re big enough to ride independently, try the Kids Ride Shotgun frame seat or the Thule RideAlong Mini handlebar seat for younger kids (from 9 months!). Seats like these should give them a flavour of what it feels like to ride and get them enthusiastic about getting their own bike.
Remove any barriers to your child starting to cycle
If they can’t get up the hills easily, try something like the TowWhee cycle tow rope. This can take the pain away from the climbs (for your child, not for you!). This means they can enjoy the descents and get a positive cycling experience.
Ensure the bike is the correct size
If using a balance bike, kids should be able to have their feet flat on the ground, with a slight bend in the knee. This will mean they can stride properly and lean the bike from side to side.
If your little one is using a pedal bike, the saddle needs to be slightly higher than when using a balance bike. For timid riders they may want the comfort of having a slightly lower saddle, so they can reach the ground with the balls of their feet. For more confident riders, they can get away with touching the ground with the tip toes. They can slide forwards off the saddle when they wish to stop. Having the saddle a bit taller means riders don’t bend their knee too much at the top of the pedal stroke.
Check your little one can reach the handlebars comfortably, with a slight bend in the elbow and their torso leaning slightly forwards. Don’t be tempted to get a bike that’s too big for your child as both the saddle height and reach will be too much of a stretch, and won’t give your child confidence.
Keep the saddle in the optimum position by adjusting the height every month or two as your child gets taller.
Teach your child the “cycling” rules of the road
Try to use bike paths where possible. Wait at pedestrian crossings, traffic lights etc. If crossing a road, teach your child to make eye contact with the driver to ensure they’ve been seen.
Keep the bike maintained regularly
Even an expensive bike will need to be maintained. Cheaper bikes will usually need to be maintained more often, but here are a few items to check regularly:
- Check the brakes are working properly and smoothly, the cables are not frayed and brake pads are not worn. The brake pads should hit the wheel rim squarely in the centre and should not rub the tyre.
- Are the tyres pumped up properly? Inflated tyres are less likely to get punctures and will roll more easily, reducing effort.
- Lubricate the chain every few weeks or after every wet ride. This will keep rust at bay and prevent premature wear.
- Check the steering, wheel bearings and pedal bearings are running freely, without any grinding noise. If there is any knocking or gritty sounds, the bearings may need to be serviced.
Wear a cycle helmet
Helmets are a must and your child shouldn’t start cycling without one. Kids can fall on the most basic of cycle paths and wearing a helmet will ensure a small crash doesn’t knock their confidence. Ensure the helmet fits properly and does not tilt off the back or sides of the head. Choose a helmet with good coverage to the back and sides of the head, and with an adjustable rear and chin strap. You should wear your own helmet too, as the old saying goes: monkey see monkey do.
How do you know when your child is ready to go from a balance bike to a pedal bike?
If your little one has a balance bike, how do you know when it’s time to move onto the next step and start pedalling. How do you know you don’t buy a shiny new bike only to find out they still want to ride the balance bike? Kids are usually ready to begin pedalling if they have:
- Mastered steering and are able to complete sweeping turns, tight turns without jackknifing.
- Comfortable braking and can slow and stop in a controlled manner (if the balance bike has brakes fitted)
- Able to glide with feet up for extended periods of time
- Big enough for pedal bike. As pedal bikes need to allow enough ground clearance for the pedals, the saddle is normally much taller than with a balance bike. As mentioned above, kids need to be able to reach the ground with their feet and if the saddle is still too high, you may need to wait a bit longer.
- Strong enough for pedal bike. Since pedal bikes have the added weight of the drivetrain (usually 1kg/ 2lbs+) it’s important to consider if your little one will have sufficient strength to handle it. This is compounded by the fact that pedal bikes usually have a taller center of gravity making it feel less stable.
Do not fit pedals just because they their friend has them, or if you want to get them riding by a certain age. If they move to pedalling too quickly and have a fall, it may knock their confidence.
How do you teach a child to ride a bike without stabilisers (A.K.A training wheels)?
The best way to teach a child to ride is using a balance bike first. This means that little ones know how to balance before progressing to pedalling. Balancing is the more difficult skill to master and if they can glide their bike comfortably, there is no urgency to using the pedals. If your child is balancing and can glide along comfortably, learning to pedal should be relatively simple.
- Ensure their new pedal bike fits properly (see above). Or in the case of the LittleBig bike, fit the pedal attachment and raise the handlebars and saddle if needed. They should be able to touch the ground with the balls of their feet. Don’t be tempted to lower the saddle too much as this can make it difficult to pedal.
- Check the brakes are working properly and your child can reach the levers. Tell them which lever operates each wheel, or in the USA, how to use the back pedal brake. Most kids will instinctively try to stop with their feet but if the saddle is too high they may not be able to slow down properly. If your child is already using a balance bike with brakes, they will already be one step ahead!
- Choose an area with no obstacles, parked cars, lamp-posts etc.
- Give a gentle push. The pedal bike will be a little heavier than the balance bike so they may need some help to get started.
- Don’t hold the handlebars. Hold their shoulders instead or under their armpits or nudge the back of the saddle. This makes sure you don’t interfere with the steering or handling of the bike.
- Gradually let go for a moment at a time and help guide their body in the required direction. Ask your child to weave slightly from side to side, gradually making larger sweeping turns.
- Make sure they keep looking ahead, the bike usually follows where you look.
- To start off on their own, first set their stronger foot to the 2 o’ clock position, this is where there is most leverage.
- Tell them to lean forwards slightly and push down on the pedal. You can give a slight nudge to get started, but within a few tries your little one should get the hang of it.
How do I teach my scared child to ride a bike?
Some kids take to riding a bike like a duck to water, and others need more coaxing. If your child is not a particularly confident cyclist, you may wish to take the following extra steps:
- Lower the saddle right down so your child feels close to the ground making them feel safer.
- Wear knee and elbow pads which can give an added feeling of security.
- Choose thick clothes such as denim jeans and thick, sturdy shoes.
- As always, wear a helmet, but you may want to go one step further and try a full face helmet like the Bell Sanction.
- Try to find dry soft grass which isn’t as intimidating as tarmac or concrete.
- Introduce the feeling of riding on a hard surface gradually by riding back and forth over a level footpath.
- Give them plenty of encouragement!
Keep on riding until your little one is comfortable starting off, pedalling, turning and braking. Obviously there will be continuous progression in future but be sure to cherish this milestone moment.