First off, let me apologize for the delay in getting out this week’s column.
I got hit with a bit of the winter-time crud, which is not a pleasant experience, but it’s also somewhat reassuring to be dealing with the normal travails of seasonal health issues, rather than those that ruined my summer and fall last year. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, eh?
Anyway, I am finally switching gears after a long, and unfortunately necessary, string of doping-related articles to answering questions that have popped up in my mailbox these past few weeks.
I’m going to start with something that couldn’t be further from tales of the dope-addled professional: my favorite, a topic near and dear to my heart, namely kids.
I have been a cyclist and racer for most of my adult life, but I am embarrassed to admit that I was 13 before I could even ride a bike. It was not for lack of trying, but I recall being scared to death when my father took the training wheels off my bike when I was six or so and then I pretty much abandoned the things for six or seven years after that.
I am not writing to expose an embarrassing memory, but to ask how a reasonable parent might be able to make learning to ride a bike easier for my own son. I am not in a rush, but my wife and I just had our first child in January. Yeah, it’s still early, but I do want to get him on a bike as soon as is reasonable and I don’t have the childhood memories that would just let me teach him from experience.
How old do kids need to be to ride and how do you get them riding safely? What about racing?
Finally, if we were to stay in our current house, I would be nervous about letting my son ride to school, which involves a trip across a busy, busy road in our neighborhood.
Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Congratulations on becoming a dad. To quote a past employer when I told him that my wife, Diana, was pregnant and that we were expecting our first child the following summer, “kinda makes the rest of this @#$% seem unimportant, doesn’t it Mr. Pelkey?” Truer words were never spoken and I welcome you to the sappy pappy club. I wish you, your wife and your new son the best.
I love this question for a lot of reasons. First, I think I was nine or so before I got started riding, which I think is still way too late in life. Second, I’ve run across fully grown adults who had never learned to ride and I’ve help at least two of them get started.
I had the same question come up when our two kids, Philip and Annika, hit riding age and I did a lot of trial and error in that effort. Some things I got right, some things I would do differently.
When our son, Philip, started riding, our friend Portia Masterson, the owner of the old “Self Propulsion” bike shop in Golden, Colorado, was adamant about not using training wheels. I ignored her advice. I wanted Philip to ride and I wanted him to ride soon, without fear or trouble. So, thinking I knew better than Portia, I went ahead and got a nice little bike with that extra set of wheels on the back. He took to it like a fish to water.
Then it took me what seemed like forever to break him of his reliance on the things. Then I repeated the same mistake with Annika and got the same result. Portia, you were right. I was wrong.
If you’re a parent who made the mistake I did and started the kids out on training wheels, there are a couple of ways to wean them off of those things. Most training wheels are height adjustable and you can gradually move them up, so that the contact point is not always level with that of the bicycle’s rear wheel. That encourages the little rider to make frequent adjustments to balance things out, since they naturally want to be on an upright bike and they start to learn to rely on the bike’s momentum and the accompanying gyroscopic effect of the wheels to stay upright, instead of the false security of the training wheels.
That worked a little for us, but if you ask Annika how she learned to ride a bike, her standard answer is “Dad lied to me.”
I finally took off her training wheels and for about half an hour one morning I held on to the bike and ran alongside to reassure her that she wouldn’t fall down. “I got ya, I got ya, I got ya ….” Then, I stepped away. She rode off, made a turn and suddenly saw me standing at the side of our cul de sac.
She was shocked, but she kept on riding. She hasn’t stopped since. (Nor has she stopped giving me grief over the lie.)
A question of balance
In retrospect, I would do things a lot differently. I would have taken Portia’s advice to heart and never taken up training wheels. I would have also started both kids much earlier, probably around the time they started to walk.
I don’t use this column as a vehicle for product endorsements, but I do have to make a recommendation, which I unfortunately did not follow. Don’t opt for a tricycle and don’t get a bike with training wheels. Instead, start looking around for one of those cool little wooden “balance bikes” for the little guy to use in about 18 to 20 months.
These things don’t have pedals and are powered solely by the kid kicking his or her feet on the ground in a manner quite similar to the original Laufmaschine (“walking machine” in German), the world’s first real bicycle, purportedly invented by Baron Karl Drais Von Sauerbronn in 1817. (For those of you who still buy into the Leonardo da Vinci bicycle legend, it’s been shown to be a more contemporary fraud.) Like the Baron, a little one will naturally begin to lift his feet off the ground when the momentum is such that the thing will stay upright on its own.
I’ve seen these priced anywhere from $70 all the way up to $300 for the really fancy German-made versions. The design, though, is really simple and it would be a relatively easy project to take on if you have a wood shop at home.*
For one thing, if you end up building your own – and you do have time, John – it would make a pretty cool family heirloom.
Obviously, the number safety one rule is to get a decent helmet that fits properly. You may have to buy several over the years, but it’s a good investment. We made a habit of sharing and trading helmets with other families when our kids outgrew theirs.
There will be setbacks and there may be scuffed hands and knees, but kids are pretty tough and they are natural athletes. Have fun with it.
The daily commute
Once they are up and about and fully able to ride, then you get the real worry, namely when and where to let them ride on their own. I used to think the sleepy little college town where we live was a perfect place to let kids ride … until they were old enough to ride on their own. Then I suddenly saw the streets as a war zone, filled with inattentive and/or insane drivers in way-too-big cars and trucks and with no regard for anyone but themselves. I can only imagine how those who live in larger cities feel.
Mostly to allay my own fears, I made a point of riding with my kids when they rode to school. We, too, have a busy street between our house and their daily destination. It was easy for me, because I rode to law school every day and their school was on the way.
Eventually, though, you have to let them go off on their own. It’s a matter of trust and it instills confidence in the kids, but it’s admittedly nerve-wracking. One thing you might want to check in on is an organization devoted to that very question, the National Center for Safe Routes to School.
Odds are, though, you’ll never get over worrying when they’re off on their own. Nor should you.
My opinion on kids’ racing – or participation in any sport – is pretty short: wait and see if they’re interested. As an old roadie, I would love to see my kids compete, but I have been reluctant to push too hard to get them into it. As you might imagine, my kids have access to an array of bikes. Indeed, at 17, Philip is now 6-foot-3, so he’s just an inch shorter than me. That means he has full access to all of my bikes. He does dabble in it, too, but his sport is cross-country ski racing. Annika? She’s a figure skater and a volleyball player. The bikes are there if they want them, though.
I like the approach Davis Phinney took with his kids. He offered them opportunities in all kinds of sports. I remember visiting his house many years ago and the back yard was pretty much a playground with all sorts of toys, games and equipment available for the kids. His young son seemed to be completely enamored with soccer at the time and we joked about how the offspring of two Olympic cycling stars may never become a bike racer. Davis seemed cool with it and said he would never pressure his kids into taking up his own sport.
“If they want to, though,” he said, “we’ll certainly give them all the help they want.”
I guess Taylor reached that decision in his own time, eh?
If you want to provide your son with the opportunity to try it out, you can always organize a kids’ event in conjunction with a local bike race. Being a tall guy, who loved time trials and road races, I was personally never a big fan of racing criteriums, but those relatively short and closed courses offer a terrific opportunity for kids of all ages to test their legs in a fairly safe environment.
Even little two- and three-year-olds scooting around on those little balance bikes can make for a great one- or two-lap event. Besides, they’re cute as hell then and the promoter may be more than willing to give you the chance to help set that up. (I’d sure prefer watching little kids on wooden bikes over a bunch of guys my age riding $10,000 carbon wonders and getting amped over finishing on the podium in the masters’ 50-55 category.)
Have fun, John and, once again, congratulations on the new arrival. You’re in for an exciting ride.
* P.S. – My friend Andy Shen at NYVeloCity.com sent me a note this afternoon. He built his own balance bike and did a mighty fine job of it, too. Click on the link or the picture below to see the product of his labors.
The Explainer is now a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at [email protected]. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
Follow me on Twitter: @Charles_Pelkey