The day I met my wife, we went on our first bike ride together. Almost twenty years later, our love for biking together continues. There were a couple bumps in the road along the way, though, which came in the form of our two favorite girls in the world. When they were babies, we did not get to ride together much but, since then, we have been diligent about finding ways to spin our wheels together which has born in our daughters a distinct love for biking.
When we first introduced the girls to biking, we began with a bike trailer, the Doodlebug from Trek. I highly recommend it, but there are other less expensive alternatives out there, as well. Many offer different recommendations for when to start your kids in a bike trailer. But, most recommendations are based on the ability of your child to comfortably hold their head up with a helmet on. Some sources recommend 12 months while others recommend 18 months. I felt that our kids were ready at 12 months, but I have to admit that I probably rushed it a little. From the time they were 12 months until they were 3½, we had them in the trailer. We also did a bike mounted child seat from about 1–2 years of age. After that, we started them on a trail-a-bike.
Again, our trail-a-bikes were Treks, but there are less expensive alternatives available. We tested many of them, though, and none were anywhere near as stable as the Trek Mt. Trains. At 3½ , it was a slow-go and we didn’t get much help from our girls. As they learned, it was very much like a tandem and their little legs started adding power to the system. Occasionally, when we would hear the freewheel clicking, we would yell back to keep peddling. After all, we would remind them “this isn’t a free ride!”
At this time, they were also ready to share some of the responsibility of getting ready for the ride. While Mom and Dad get the bikes ready, the girls collect the water bottles, helmets, etc. Family bike rides takes some preparation. In the beginning, it was more work to get them involved in that preparation but, in time, they actually became helpful. Now, getting ready is a fun family project.
By the time the girls were able to ride without training wheels, we started them on rail-trail rides. Here is where it became important to pay attention to their motivation. As with all sports, it is my belief that one should start a child with short spurts of activity. We started by doing a half-mile on a rail trail. They loved it, but it only took us a few minutes. When we were finished, the girls wanted to keep going, but I told them we would come back and do it another time. If you start off by riding for too long, you go home with a crying child whose last memory of biking is now a bad one. We built up slowly and the only bad memories that my girls ever had were the memories of dad making them finish their bike ride before they were ready. This takes determination from the parents, though. After all, the prep time of loading up the bikes and going to the trailhead generally takes longer than the ride itself.
At some point, if you’re paying attention, you will realize that their rides are approaching critical mass and your child is going about as far as they are able. When I got to that point, I started telling my girls how many miles we were going. We would then make a habit of going that many miles. From time to time, I would tell them that Mommy and Daddy do more miles than that when we go out by ourselves. I wasn’t saying this to challenge them or to be antagonistic. Rather, I simply wanted them to know how far Mommy and Daddy ride together. Eventually, I piqued their curiosity and they wanted to know what it was like to go further. We made goals and I strategically planned for our trips to have a destination as a halfway point. For example, there is a really pretty bridge about 5 miles out from one of our regular trailheads. When the girls were ready for 10 miles, we went to that trailhead and, on the way, I told them about this great bridge that we should try to get to. I was a little worried that they would make it there, but struggle on the way back. However, it was just the opposite. We found that it was harder to get there, because it was new territory and seemed like a long ride. On the way back, the territory was familiar, and they went a lot faster. Your mileage may vary.
Our next challenge has been longer rides with significant hills. It is very important to be able to assess your child’s motivation when preparing to tackle hills. Hills can be very discouraging. A hill that looks small to an adult can look and feel like a mountain to a child. With that in mind, work up to hills slowly. Give them lots of little hills that they can conquer. Every time they are successful with a hill climb, it can be a positive experience. If it is too difficult, or if they fail, it may take the wind out of their sails if they are not highly motivated. As they get better, and as you tackle bigger hills, consider a geared bike to help them climb more efficiently.
Dress for Success
The first order of business should be to buy a helmet that fits properly. Check your state regulations to see when a child needs to have a helmet. In PA, children under 12 are required by law to wear a helmet when riding a bike. I recommend that everyone wear a helmet. As parents, we can set this example by wearing a helmet on every ride. Beyond a helmet, every other article of clothing is personal preference. Shoes should be comfortable and snug on the feet. I would not recommend anything that would fall off easily and/or cause safety issues (ie. flip-flops). Younger children may benefit from knee and elbow pads if they are prone to falling a lot. They may also enjoy having them as a “safety blanket”. Lastly, if and when you start putting on the big miles, consider outfitting your children with biking shorts with a chamois in order to reduce saddle soreness.
As children grow, it is difficult to keep them on a properly fitting bike without breaking the bank. A good rule of thumb is that you should err on the side of smaller. It is tempting to buy a bike that is too big because they will obviously grow into it soon. Unfortunately, this is like teaching a sixteen year old how to drive a tractor-trailer as opposed to a compact car. A child will struggle more with a bike that is too big and unwieldy. A bike that is too small is not optimal either, but they will be able to handle it, so it will not intimidate them. A child should be able to touch the ground with both feet while their bottom is on the seat.
One does not need to be a mechanic to do the basics of bike maintenance. Start each ride by checking your tire pressure. A tire gauge is the best way to do this, but a pump with a gauge should suffice. Recommended tire pressure is on the side of the tire. The lower end of the spectrum will add a little suspension and traction to the ride while higher pressure will allow the tires to roll faster and prevent pinch flats. From time to time, it is a good idea to check all bolts and lube the chain. I prefer a wax-lube like White Lightning , but any good chain lube will be fine. I recommend against messy oils and WD-40 (WD-40 is not a lubricant and should not be used as one). Also check the brakes before every ride.
When you are ready to go, here are some things to remember:
- Have fun.
- Be safe.
- Be encouraging.
- Remember that the ride is for your kids, not the other way around.
- Use age appropriate equipment for your kids.
- Gauge your kids’ motivation and let it be your guide to ride length.
- Always wear a helmet.
- When the kids are of age, have them help prepare for the ride.
- Finish the ride before they are ready to go home.
- Take small steps for success.
- Do basic maintenance to make sure that the bikes are safe.
- Have fun.
- Be safe.