How to Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike
Call me old-fashioned, but I still think a new bike is just about the best holiday or birthday present a child could ever hope for. It's big, it's shiny, and it opens up a world of new possibilities. Independence, exhilaration, and exploration are now just pedal strokes away. The only catch is that passage into this brave new world is often preceded by a steep learning curve. Indeed, learning to ride a bike is a big step in a child's life — not to mention the parents'.
To help reduce the number of scraped knees and tearful blowouts, here are some tips and tricks to make the transition from tricycle-pedaling toddler to bike-riding boy or girl easier for all parties concerned.
First off, it's important to accurately gauge readiness, says Emily Furia, author of the Big Book of Bicycling and a senior editor at Bicycling Magazine. "There's no perfect or mandatory age for a kid to learn, so look for signs of readiness," explains Furia. "Asking questions about bikes, expressing a desire to ride with you, and making comments that trikes are for babies are all signs that it's probably time for a two-wheeler."
This can happen as early as 3 years old and as late as 6, adds Tim Blumenthal, president of the advocacy organization People For Bikes. "The key is to never force the issue," advises Blumenthal. "If your kid seems uncomfortable at all, come back another day. You want riding bikes to be fun, and not create a negative psychological block."
Furia recommends starting with a balance bike. "These types of bikes have a low seat and no pedals, which helps kids learn balance while allowing them to put their feet on the ground as needed," she explains. "It tends to make for an easier transition to a standard two-wheeler than training wheels will."
When it comes time for the standard two-wheeler, it's important to find the right learning location. Blumenthal prefers a slightly downhill stretch of low-cut grass. "Ideally it's downhill for about 50 yards, then flattens out and goes back uphill," he says. "It also really helps if it's a quiet environment without a lot of other distractions. If you are at a busy park where there are kites and Frisbees flying around, it'll be easy for your child to lose focus."
Now remove the training wheels and lower the saddle so your child can put her feet flat on the ground when seated. (It can also be helpful to remove the pedals, but this isn't mandatory.) Also make sure to properly strap on your child's helmet so that it rests level on their head, and tuck in shoelaces and any other items that could snag while riding. "Stop about midway up the hill and hold the bike while your child gets on," says Furia. The bike should be facing downhill. "Have them put both feet on the ground when you let go of the bike. Then tell your child to lift his feet about an inch off the ground and coast down the hill, reminding them that they can put their feet down if they feel scared."
Once your child is comfortable coasting and doesn't have to put their feet down, put the pedals back on the bike if you've removed them. Now have them practice coasting down the hill with both feet on the pedals. When they are comfortable with that, try some easy pedaling. You can also raise the saddle and move to flat ground to practice turning, braking, and starting from a standstill.
Through all this remember to never hold on to the back of the saddle or run alongside them, adds Blumenthal. "It's distracting and if they fall it can erode trust."
Finally, remember that it's never a good idea to buy a bike that your child can grow into. "It's tempting to try to squeeze a few more months or years out of your investment," says Furia. "But a bike that's too large will be harder to control, increasing your kid's chances of crashing."
Have you taught a child to ride? What lessons did you learn?
— Jason Sumner, Bicycling Reporter
An avid cyclist, Jason has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 2000. He’s covered the Tour de France, two Olympic Games, and numerous international cycling events. He’s also thrown himself into the fray from time to time, penning first-person accounts of adventures in British Columbia, Costa Rica, Peru, and Brazil, among others.