Getting kids into cycling (Part 1): As easy as riding a bike?

Being both a cyclist and the father of four young children, it’s my duty to encourage and teach my children how to ride a bike. This is not as easy as it sounds, however. I’ve successfully managed to get the two oldest ones onto two wheels, but number three still prefers her scooter and number four is still in nappies. I taught the eldest two the same way I was taught, which was by putting training wheels on their bike, letting them get used to pedalling, taking the training wheels off and then trying to get them to balance and ride independently.

Anyone who has been down this route knows that the tantrums, falls, blood and tears that accompany the process are lifelong traumatic memories, for the parents if not the children.

Given that we now have feather light carbon fibre bikes, electronic shifting and wireless heart rate, speed and GPS computers, something must have progressed in the way we teach kids how to ride. I went in search of an expert and found two¬† almost on my doorstep. Ian Watson and his partner Gay Chandler are passionate about cycling and getting kids into the recreation, transport and sport aspects of it. Ian is a deliverer in the Active After-school Communities program run by the Australian Sports Commission. This program aims to give kids in after school care programs access to a range of sporting activities in the hope of encouraging a more healthy lifestyle for these kids in the future. Gay is the junior development coach at Lidcombe Auburn Cycling Club (LACC) and is the driving force behind the club’s unique junior girls cycling team, the Pixies.

Ian and Gay have been teaching kids how to ride for years, so when I sat down with Ian and Gay for a discussion about all things related to kids and cycling, the first thing I asked them was how they teach kids to ride.

Ian: “Our number one technique is to get the child away from the parent. Our second technique is to get them in the presence of other kids who are just learning to ride or have just learnt to ride and use this peer group motivation.

When you think about it the fundamental elements of riding are really very easy: it’s simply learning to look, lean and turn and then to make the right corrections. That’s all there is. Once you’ve got that it happens instantly; they’re away and then the rest is just little things like how to start off, when to use the brakes and so on.”

They said “look, lean and turn” in unison, and they use it as a mantra when they teach. It’s a simple take away message that the kids can latch onto, repeat to themselves and then teach to their parents, who will then repeat it back to them to reinforce the message. I was surprised, however, that learning to ride a bike can now be outsourced – surely this is one of those parent/child bonding moments?

Childrens Bicycle School

Gay: “Honestly, we find it far easier to take them and teach them, as their coach, than it is to try to get a parent to teach them because a lot of the parents are afraid to let them fall; they’re afraid to let go. They’re simply exhausted by the experience of having to run along side them because they think they’ve got to literally hold them, and hold all of their weight, so therefore it’s not a pleasant experience for the parent to try to teach their children – so they simply don’t want to do it.”

Ian: “And all of the other psychological baggage that always exists between parent and child comes into play, so the parent gets in the way of their child learning”

For those of us who have taught our own kids, this will make a lot of sense. Other parents at my daughters’ school say how angelic they are when they go to their friends houses to play; I know the truth, however. Kids always seem to behave better for other people, so getting someone else to teach them riding in the same way we get school teachers to teach them maths or science is something I can get behind. So if Mum or Dad teaching the kids is an outdated notion, what about training wheels?

Gay: “Never, ever give a child a bike with training wheels because then you have to retrain them to ride properly”.

Ian: “These days there’s no excuse to have a bike with training wheels on it because you have scooters and you have balance bikes.”

Gay: “It makes the introduction of cycling much easier [when you don't have training wheels] because you don’t have to retrain them, because they’re not leaning their weight onto the training wheels.”

Ian: “When kids arrive at the Kid’s on Bikes program at the after school care they come from a broad range of experience, some of them have never ridden a bike before, but they’re a minority. The majority of them have ridden a bike before, so we ask them how many wheels their bike has – to count them on their fingers- “Four!”; and then I know I’ve got to help them unlearn the dynamic of cycling with training wheels because they lean out and turn in, and worse than that they also lean back and the dynamics of balancing the forces of pedalling and holding the handlebars is quite often reversed.”

This makes sense as well and I’m starting to get excited with this conversation because I have experts telling me that it’s not my fault, rather it’s the traditional methods that aren’t as effective as they could be. More importantly, they’re telling me that there is a solution. What I need now is details; I have two more kids to get onto two wheels, how soon do they need to start learning?

Ian: “I’m teaching kids who are as young as 4, the younger the better. I realise that they’re very young people and the one thing unifies them all is their great sense of humour – you’ve always got ot work with humour, it’s the most powerful teaching force in the universe.

I sit down in front of them on the bike and tell them that the bike is always going to be leaning one way or the other and that if you want to keep going straight you have to turn the handlebars in the direction that the bike leans. If you want to initiate a turn, it’s LOOK, LEAN, TURN. I get them to call that back, and you often get a dozen of them in a chorus: LOOK, LEAN, TURN. In the few moments you have them saying that you’re installing a program.

Then I chuck them on a bike and I take over and firstly what I do is hold onto the back of the bike under the seat and I have my hand on top of their hand on the handlebars so that they can feel my input force on the handlebars. Then I swing them around in figures of eight, being absolutely disciplined about the dynamic so they feel the sensation of the turn. I’m reverse engineering what they’ll have to do in terms of the dynamic – and you’ve got to be absolutely strict to get it perfectly right.

Kids Bike School

Now with good kids, who haven’t been contaminated by training wheels, the learning can take five to ten seconds. I’ve seen it many times, you go like this and then this and when they feel the correct balance between looking, leaning and turning they’ll often laugh; you’ll hear them laughing because of the fear. They’ll often say to me “Ooh, this is so scary” and they want to put their foot down, so I say “I’ll nail your shoe to that pedal” and they’ll laugh again and then when they start to trust the dynamic of the turn, the speed, the lean and turn of the handlebars – when that all comes right, and they trust it and they feel it, then they’ll laugh at the simple joy of cycling.

Once you’ve got that, you know you’ve won and it’s only a matter of a short time. Once they’re at that stage you know then there’s an opening happening right before your eyes and then rather than keeping them doing that, you immediately push them into the next phase: a gentle grassy slope is the best thing, and once you can feel them getting the dynamics you can shift your hands up to say the shoulders, and then the next stage when they’re starting to get even better,just a hand in the middle of the back until it’s almost nothing and then they’re on their way.

It’s so overwhelmingly satisfying to take a kid and in minutes have them riding: it’s amazing.”

So is my 6 year old too old to learn?

Ian: “It’s common for 10 and 11 years olds in primary school to not know how to ride a bike. The closer you get to the heart of Sydney the worse these problems get; kids living in appt. buildings etc. They don’t even have the opportunity to have a bike.

The bigger kids who haven’t learned to ride are a lot more intellectual, but they’re getting to the age where they’re self-conscious about not being able to ride. So I take them to somewhere a bit more private, get them riding down a hill and walking the bike back up it and I tell them they can practice this on their own without anyone else watching.”

It’s clear from talking to this couple that they have a passion for what they do and the results they can achieve. I’m looking at my two non-cycling kids in a different way now and I know to stay away from training wheels. After this interview I took the pedals, cranks and bottom bracket off of the smallest bike I had at home to make a simple balance bike for my youngest daughter (if you don’t know how to do this yourself, your local bike shop can do it for you). I told her it was like a sit down scooter and she took to it instantly. Because there were no pedals on the bike, the back pedal brake was useless, so she had to rely on the hand brakes on the bike to stop herself. According to Gay, they also prefer the hand brakes: “the children right from the beginning learn two brakes and a philosophy of gently braking with both”. When she gets a bit better with her balance and stopping, I can put the pedals back on and she can get learn to pedal for propulsion. I think I’m on the right track.

first bicycle ride

When I was a boy (now that I’ve used that phrase I have officially become my father) every kid had a bike and used it daily to get to school or to their friends houses after school. My brother and I spent our holidays and weekends riding our yellow BMX bikes around our neighbourhood, setting out after breakfast, coming home only for some banana sandwiches at lunch time, then heading out again only to return just before the street lights came on. I bring this up to add contrast to the way kids cycle these days, or more to the point the way kids don’t cycle these days. No, this is not a rant about how life used to be better and how soft modern kids are; rather, it’s an acknowledgement that the current world is vastly different to the world of thirty years ago. When I was a kid I lived in a quite Sydney suburb among families with one working parent and one car per household. The roads didn’t get busy of an afternoon until after five, and even then they didn’t get that busy. While I am sure that suburbs like this still exist, I don’t live in one; my street runs off of Sydney’s busiest streets and that traffic is a literal stones throw from my driveway.

learning to ride a bicycle

While I may sound like an over-protective parent, I simply don’t want my kids to become accident statistics and the number of cars in the streets immediately around my house makes me more than a little hesitant to let my little ones ride their bikes around the way I used to. What I do want, however, is to imbue my children with enough road sense to be able cycle commuters in the future. I bought this up with Ian and Gay and they told me that in the community where they live, there are 3 kms worth of cycle ways that pass by the local primary school and no student would have to cycle more than 1km to get to school. In a school of 375 kids, however, only about 20 rode. Ian and Gay doubled that and that is only the start of what they want to do. They actively advocate to lower the boundaries to cycling for kids.

Ian: “They [local and state governments] need cycle education back in schools and they need to work with schools to provide bicycle lockup facilities. In many planned commnities around Sydney there is no reason not to ride to school. It’s the cars that are causing the problems”.

Gay: “I don’t think there’s a lack of desire in people to ride bikes, I think there’s a lack of places for people to ride bikes and I think there would be a lot more children out there riding bikes if we could provide safe places for them to ride. Councils need to bite the bullet and provide it, and they’ll come”.

In addition to delivering the active after schools program, Ian and Gay teach riding and racing sills through the Lidcombe Auburn Cycling Club – details of which will be provided in Part 2 of this article.

If you want your child to learn to ride (or indeed, if you’d like to learn to ride yourself), contact your state bicycling association (e.g. Bicycle NSW, Bicycle Network Victoria) or your local Austcycle provider.

Read Part 2 of Getting Kids into Cycling



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David Halfpenny
About The Author

rides whenever and wherever he can; in good weather and bad, in sickness and in health...and mostly off the back of the peloton.

One Response to “Getting kids into cycling (Part 1): As easy as riding a bike?”

  1. Lars says:

    great article, i’ve only jsut got my 3 year old and 6 year old on bikes at xmas with training wheels, have a total new way to help teach them to ride when i get home today! thank you very much! i’m with you, i believe it’s a parent child important moment in life that they never forget, and will persist with teaching them :)

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