Making a memory with your child’s first bike
There is nothing quite like the joy a child feels when he first learns to ride a bicycle. I remember the first time I tried to ride. The bike was a clunky contraption that my uncles had put together from spare parts; it was so heavy I could hardly turn the pedals. Luckily, Dad bought me a “real” bicycle and I was pedaling in no time. That feeling of accomplishment when a child learns to ride has been a treasured memory for generations.
Whether you buy new or recycle a good used bike, it is important that it is not too big or complicated for your child’s age, or so poorly made it is hard to ride. Begin with a visit to the local bicycle shop. A qualified mechanic can advise you what to look for and what size bicycle your child will need. At the big-box retailers, kids’ bikes sell at cut-rate prices, but “you get what you pay for” definitely applies. Most bikes from the toy department are poor quality and not designed to last. Usually, bicycles are assembled by untrained personnel, and there will be no offer of advice or service after the sale. The Internet is a great place for research and, maybe, finding a good price on one of the better brands, but again, the service element is missing, and the bike will need assembly.
Bicycle shop bikes are considered sports equipment, not a toy. As such, it should fit the client no matter the age, be dependable, safe and a pleasure to use. Advice on proper handling, maintenance, safety equipment such as helmets, plus ongoing service are all part of the bike shop experience. Better brands of bicycles are manufactured to higher tolerances, are lighter, stronger and made to take the rough use a young rider may put it through.
The first step is to choose a bike that fits the child. Children’s bikes are sized by wheel diameter: 12-inch, 16-inch, 20-inch and 24-inch. The rider should be able to comfortably straddle the top bar with feet flat on the ground. Only the balls of his feet should be touching the ground when he sits on the seat. He should never be scrunched up with knees hitting the handlebars, or leaning so far forward that turning the bars is difficult. Stick to coaster brakes until your child’s hands are bigger and strong enough for hand brakes. It can be tempting to buy a bike he will “grow into,” but the American Academy of Pediatrics advises strongly against the idea. The risk of injury increases significantly if the child, because of his age, lacks the coordination and strength to control an oversized bicycle. Helmets should be standard equipment also, according to the AAP.
Starting your novice rider with training wheels can help him practice pedaling and braking, but they do not teach the essential skill of balancing. Try raising the training wheels a little at a time over the course of a week or two until the child learns to balance on his own, then remove them. Another idea is to start with a pedal-less balance bike for children age two to five. Sitting on a balance bike, kids run along until they have enough speed to lift their feet and coast for a short distance. There is a very cute YouTube video of tiny tots actually racing on balance bikes at a BMX track. By the time they are old enough for a 16-inch or 20-inch bike, the connection between momentum and balance is automatic. All that is left to learn is pedaling and braking for success on his first conventional bicycle.
For the first practice session, find a grassy spot with a gentle slope. Lower the seat to the lowest position. Teach braking before you teach pedaling. From the top of the slope, let the child glide slowly down the hill just a short distance, sitting on the seat, feet on the pedals but not pedaling, and then apply the brakes. Follow and catch him a few times until he gets the hang of leaning to put one foot on the ground while leaving the other on the pedal as the bike rolls to a stop. Repeat until he is confident in being able to stop and not fall. Now add pedaling – pedal a short distance and stop, then longer distances as his confidence increases. After a few days of riding, raise the seat to the proper height: the knee should be bent just a bit at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
So, there you have it – your youngster is now a bike rider, ready for adventures in a wider world. As the saying goes, once you learn you never forget. As an adult, he will remember the thrill of that first ride, racing through the neighborhood with friends, the breeze on his cheek that swept away the summer heat.
Cyd LaBonte is co-owner of Bicycle Doctor, along with her husband, Robert LaBonte. She can be reached at 670-0761 or go to www.springfieldbicycledoctor.com .