by Martin Prestage
Whether you were born in British Columbia, Belfast or Bolivia, most of us remember our first bicycle. Chances are it was handed down from big brother or sister, carefully repainted or polished to look 'like new', and was your pride and joy. Those early childhood memories were your first real taste of freedom, of exhilaration and adventure.
To every child, cycling is an integral part of growing up, like obtaining your first job. It represents a transition to a whole new level.
Nowadays, the array of choices facing Parents as consumers is astounding. From which style of bike to ride, which type of accessory to buy, how best to transport the bikes, the need for a helmet, and so on it goes….
As soon as a baby is old enough to crawl and walk, there will be a distinct interest in things that spin. A bicycle wheel, a spinning pedal, a greasy chain even, will have your little one poking, prodding and turning. The education has already started.
Before they are old enough to ride, consider the use of a bicycle trailer. A great number of them can support up to two children, normally with a 100lb weight limit, and convert easily into a rather wide but useful stroller. Safety features include a roll-over cage, bright colours for visibility, and a warning flag. Nice features include mesh ventilation, 5-point harnesses and strong spoked wheels.
Strictly speaking a child shouldn't be in a trailer until he or she is strong enough to support her own weight. But that doesn't stop a child from using a car seat at 2 months, so provided you can pull the extra weight, and it can be secured in tightly, your car seat makes a very comfy trailer seat converter. Once the car seat and its protection is removed, probably at about 9 months, the child should be wearing a helmet. Of course, fitting this may raise objections; the motto as with most education is to lead by example.
Trailers afford the luxury of being able to carry more, toys and goods, but do of course mean keeping a sharper eye out for traffic and narrow roads.
At 18 months, if your child is exposed to bicycles, chances are that he or she will want to sit atop and ride, regardless of how ill-fitting the bike is. Of course, constant adult supervision is required here to prevent the sometimes nasty effects of gravity! Attraction will be greater if the bicycle is a bright colour, has lots of shiny parts, a twinkling bell or pretty handlebar streamers.
Between 18 and 36 months, our new young cyclists should be trying out a trike for size. These three-wheeled machines will have pedals connected directly to the front wheel, and no hand brakes. Scary as this sounds, children of this age cannot really understand the principles behind stopping. Trikes are probably responsible for more shin bruises in two year olds than any other toy. They are however an excellent introduction to the idea behind steering.
Often the saddle needs to be put as close to the front as possible, so that little "Isabelle" can reach the pedals. This makes the trike a little "tippy", and so expect a few spills. Another alternative is to fix some wooden blocks to the pedals, but they do need to remain upright of course.
Whatever your action, keep your 2 year old on a flat piece of ground, and avoid hills or bumpy surfaces. To avoid you getting a sore back, fix up a broom handle to the back of the bike, to push it along when the going gets tough. Some trikes even have this feature built in. Encourage your child to "backpedal" instead of crashing into the nearest fence. This isn't an easy concept to explain, but will come naturally after several months riding.
At 3 your youngster is likely to be moving on from the trike stage, and will be ready for their first real bicycle. The first machine will probably have 12" wheels, (bike shops often label these as 12" bicycles!), which still isn't accurate as the dimension actually refers to the tire size. It will also have a backpedal brake and maybe one or two hand-operated brakes.
Unless you have the perfect yoga child with a natural balancing ability, this first bike will need training wheels. Called 'Stabilizers' in some locales, these wheels protrude out from both sides of the back wheel and stop the bike from tipping over. Setting up these wheels is very important for both safety reasons and to avoid child frustration.
Firstly, the back wheel of the bike should be nutted on tight without the training wheels. Then, on both sides, a small nibbed U bracket and a secondary nut secures the training wheel bracket. The nib stops the training wheel rotating under pressure. Without it, the training wheel can twist forwards or backwards, sending your child downwards!
Secondly, training wheels shouldn't touch the ground at the same time. They are 'to stabilize', not make the bike into a quad! With the bike vertical, both training wheels should be set about ¼" above the ground. This will avoid frustration caused by a lack of traction on slightly bumpy ground when the main rear wheel is lifted off the ground.
Back pedal brakes, which allow the child to put weight in a backwards motion on the pedals, are very effective. Most youngsters will soon be deliberately jumping on the pedals to cause a skid. Watch out for patches of bald tire! Hand operated brakes on kids bikes remain poorly inefficient. Levers need to be properly adjusted for finger reach, cables need to be kept clear of snags, and pads need proper adjustment.
Now at 4-6 years and on a 16" or 20" wheeled bike, getting your child off the training wheels is the next challenge. Left on them too long, and a child develops an unnatural sense of balance, especially when cornering.
The trick here is saddle height. Bring it Down. It's important that the child feels comfortable with the idea behind just two wheels, and so having a saddle low enough to allow both feet to be planted on the ground will induce that feeling.
Take off the training wheels, as well as the pedals to avoid further shin bruises, and lower the saddle so that "Isabelle" can put both feet firmly on the ground whilst seated. Ask him or her to "scoot" along, skipping forwards to propel the bike. Make sure they get moving at a reasonable pace, but remember, no hills! As the pace builds up, ask your child to lift up both feet for a few seconds, drifting forwards balanced on two wheels.
Of course, little spills will result, but reassure your child that falling is ok, that rubber side up is cool. Laugh and remain happy with them. When the child feels more comfortable with this balancing action, put the pedals back on, get them to scoot again, but this time returning their feet to the pedals before stopping. The natural reaction is to pedal forwards, and suddenly they are cycling!
Martin Prestage is a father and the Director of LIFECycle; a company dedicated to educating youth in bicycle safety throughout the Lower Mainland. www.lifecycle.ca