For most children, learning how to ride a bike is a rite of passage. And you could say teaching them to ride is the same for us parents.
It’s one of those skills that, even if we no longer ride or even own a bike, we are almost obligated to pass on. Probably like hunting or gathering food was passed down through the generations in prehistoric times.
Children gain so much from learning to ride, it’s good for exercise, physical coordination and also mental health. And the freedom that comes from being able to ride a bike as a child is like no other.
Bikes were a huge part of growing up for me. I remember from an early age being strapped into mum’s bike to visit friends. As I got older I would ride to school and then after school I’d head back out to ride some more. I also joined the local cycling club and raced road bikes for a couple of seasons.
Last year I bought myself a mountain bike after 15 years without one. My son had already learnt to ride at this point, and we’ve had so much fun riding together.
Just last weekend we strapped our bikes to the car, threw our camping gear in the back and went away on a little adventure in Hertfordshire.
So how do you impart this knowledge to your children and help them master two wheels?
Start Learning to Ride
The main thing to remember when teaching your child to ride is that it’s easiest when they’re ready. And this will be different for every child. Most of the time this is between the ages of 3-5. At this age they’re more likely to have the coordination and concentration to do what it takes to learn to ride. After 5, children also become a lot more cautious and this might stop them feeling comfortable on a bike.
Find Space to Learn
To get started you’ll need space. A wide flat open space where there aren’t too many obstacles like play equipment, garden beds and people. Tennis courts can be a good option.
Although riding on grass might be appealing to give them a soft landing, it’s harder to ride on and often less smooth, so the bike will be harder to control. If you’re worried about them doing damage to themselves buy some knee and elbow pads. You can pick these up for under £10 on Amazon, they’ll also come in handy when they want to learn to skateboard!
Bike Safety First
On the topic of safety, it should go without saying that your child should always wear a properly fitting helmet. My son also now insists on wearing gloves. I think this is partly because I wear gloves, but it’s saved his hands on more than one occasion when he’s taken a corner too fast.
Riding’s All About Balance
We took the approach of getting Sebastian on a balance bike when he was quite young. Having one of these taught him how to balance on two wheels, steer and stop himself – a skill that he’s still working on much to my despair. So, when it came time for him to step up to a pedal bike he was halfway there.
To help the transition, when we bought his first proper bike, I took the pedals off. As with everything to do with children there are lots of opinions, but this worked for us. He got used to the larger frame and riding position and also started to use his hand brakes.
Once your child is ready, you’ve found a space, and you have the right size bike with pedals on you’re all set.
Steps to Ride a Bike
Step 1. Stand at one end of the open space with your legs either side of the rear wheel and their feet on the pedals and let them feel what happens to the bike as they turn the handlebars, moving their weight from side to side. Although most of the time they’ll do it instinctively, lean the bike over far enough so they drop their foot to the ground. This will be useful when they need to stop.
Step 2. Let them push off with the pedal, while keeping them steady with your hands on their back. It’s much better to support your child’s body than it is to hold the bike, especially the handlebars, as they need to get used to how the bike moves with their weight. Also bending over to hold onto the seat is a killer for your back.
Step 3. With some momentum they should now be riding. Focus, and looking ahead is the biggest challenge now. There is a big tendency to not look where they’re going. It’s also quite common for kids to pedal the wrong way sometimes.
Step 4. You might need to help them stop for a little while, but after that get them to practice stopping with their brakes. You can help them get the feel for brakes by pulling them on while wheeling the bike. Too hard and it can throw them off, too soft and they don’t slow down.
From this point it’s just about repetition and positive reinforcement. I still remember the grin on my son’s face the first time he took off on his own. It changed when he face-planted into the tennis court fence, but he recovered quickly and got back on.
If they don’t pick it up straight away, just keep giving them the opportunity to try, if they start to get distressed then they may not be ready, or they just need a break.
Which Bike for a Child?
When spending money on a bike the compromise will often be between weight and price. A lighter bike is generally easier to ride, but will usually be more expensive. Some newer bikes also have better geometry which makes them easier to ride. As nice as it is to buy a shiny new bike for their very first bike (and I love shiny new bikes), you can find some great bikes second hand too. Sebastian is now on his third, second-hand bike. If you do buy second hand get it serviced at a local bike shop just to check everything is running correctly and it’s safe.
A great alternative to buying a bike outright is The Bike Club. They allow you to pay for a bike monthly and exchange it as your child grows.
If you use the code ‘CHERUBS1’ at checkout you’ll get 1 month hire for free.
Get Yourself a Bike
I’ve had so much fun riding with Sebastian and it can be a real encouragement for your kids to see you riding too. If you don’t already have a bike one way to get a new one is through the Cycle to Work Scheme. This scheme can save you 25-39% on a new bike.
Get the Right Size Bike
I see so many kids struggling on a bike that’s the wrong size for them. The correct size and correctly setup bike for you child will mean:
- When they’re standing over the bike there is a 1-3inch clearance
- When seated, the balls of their feet touch the ground on both sides, ideally not flat footed.
- With their foot on the pedal in the 6 o’clock position their knee will be a little bit bent.
- When they are holding the handlebars, their arms are mostly straight out in front with a small bend at the elbow. This might vary a little with preference and bike style but I’d suggest starting them off more upright to begin with. The handlebars should also be far enough away that it doesn’t hit their body when they turn.
Get Bike Tools
Even if you had the bike set up correctly at your bike shop it’s handy to have some tools so you can adjust the bike as your child grows of if things become loose.
I’d recommend having: