“How old is he???”
This is the term that I am often greeted with when I’m out on the bike with my young boy. At the moment, the answer is 4, however it doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was responding with “one”.
We’ve all seen the photos and videos online of young kids who seem to have mastered bicycle riding at a young age. Are they getting coaching? Are they the future prodigies of what seems to be the never ending conveyer belt of GB’s cycling team?
I’m not so sure. Perhaps the answer in some isolated cases is yes, however, between you and me the secret lies in the wonders of modern bike technology, choosing the correct equipment and some positive encouragement for your child.
As a child, I was put on a bike at what was considered a young age of 5 years old. I spent some time riding around on stabilisers until one day, unbeknown to me, the stabilisers were taken off. My parents prayed to the gods of balance that their son would stay upright in the hope of avoiding a one way ticket to A&E. It was quite some gamble, however, luckily for my parents (and me!) it turned out ok and I managed to stay on the bike without too much in the way of balance problems. These days, there is a much safer option which doesn’t rely on such a gamble.
Before we carry on, I need to tell you this article is based on my experiences as a parent. I am not a qualified bike coach, nor do I believe that there is a set way to get your kids into cycling. This article is about my experience and what worked for me and my child and everything I’ve used is available new or second hand so there is not need to break the bank, or be wasteful.
Believe it or not, although you may look at a bike like this and think to yourself, “What an absolute waste of money”, stick with me!
The idea here is to simply get your child used to sitting on a bike. This will probably be the first time they have sat on something which resembles a bike with their feet now split and being used to scoot forwards and backwards. These bikes allow your child to sit centrally on the bike but not really have to balance. Playing on these types of bikes indoors will boost confidence levels and get your child used to the position of the bike. At this point, confidence is everything and the more practice the better – some people I know have one of these inside and outside!
Age 2-3 Time to progress.
Ok, so with any luck, your kids are now darting around on the plastic bike and if they are anything like mine, starting to fall off it as the plastic wheels offer next to no grip. It’s now time to get a proper balance bike. I was lucky enough to pick one up second hand for a bargain price. I hadn’t really done much research on them but it seemed like a good deal and I quite liked the look of the bike in question. It was an Early Rider Lite.
The Early Rider Lite is super lightweight and has a really low (height adjustable) seat which means your child’s centre of gravity is nice and low which is great for the balance and confidence. Putting your child on a bike like this really offers you and your child more freedom to do more and go further.
After some time on the early rider, I felt that my boy was in need of something a bit bigger and more robust. I found this Wiggins Pau balance bike on Facebook Market place. The frame is long and low which offers greater stability both on and off road. With wider riser handlebars, fatter tyres and a powerful rear V brake, this balance bike really was a game changer. We started to explore much more challenging terrain including riding the local dirt jumps and pump tracks. Top tip: don’t be afraid to adjust the tyre pressures! If you are riding off road, it’s better to let some air out of the tyres. This will give your child more grip, more comfort and above all, more confidence. For urban environments increasing the tyre pressure will allow the bike to roll faster. This in turn makes it easier for them to roll and balance.
Learning to pedal
To us, pedalling is a simple task. Just sit on the seat and turn your legs. It’s always worth remembering that your child in venturing into the unknown so knowing how to actually pedal will certainly help. At the beginning of lockdown, I bought my son a little pedal go cart. The reasoning behind this was that he could learn how to pedal without having to focus on his balance. The car was a success, he loved it and would pedal around most days on it and I think that this really helped when he sat on a bike for the first time. He knew that pedals going forward equalled propulsion.
12” first Pedal bike-Age 3+
Once my boy had banked a bunch of KM’s on his balance bike, gliding along freely over a mixture of terrains, it was now about the right time to hit the pedals.
Resist the temptation to fit stabilisers as it may undo lots of the skills that they have learnt. Although stabilisers allow the bike to balance upright and for your child to pedal, it doesn’t really do anything for their development. Secondly, stabilisers prohibit the natural lean angle that your child will create when trying to turn the bike-a fundamental skill learnt on the balance bike. Don’t forget, all kids learn at their own pace. Don’t force them to do something they might not feel comfortable doing, after all, cycling is meant to be fun so if they are not quite ready, you could move back to the balance bike, or run alongside them to help them keep their balance until they are ready to roam free.
I bought a used Specialized Hotrock 12” bike for £40. It was a pink ‘girls’ bike but suited us just fine. The bike was reliable and only ever needed very basic maintenance. Strangely, these bikes are deceivingly heavy and over engineered (I was able to ride it) however this did mean there was little to no chance of it getting damaged. The bike comes as standard with a front cantilever brake and also fitted with a rear coaster brake. The idea of the coaster brake is that if you backpedal, it applies a brake in the rear hub and slows you down. My boy found this quite off putting so I modified the rear hub to remove the coaster brake. This meant that he was able to freewheel much easier than before and progressed much faster. There are guides online about how to remove the coaster brake however I must stress, do so at your own risk as they are not really meant to be removed. If in doubt, consult a professional. I recently sold the bike for £35 so as value for money goes, it was unbeatable.
14-16” wheels and beyond: my top 3 picks
By the age of 4, I think it’s fair to say that my boy had outgrown the 12” Specialized Hotrock. Time for an upgrade! Most kids by the age of 4 will now fit a 14” or 16” wheel bike. The bigger wheels offer more comfort, more stability and usually a bit more speed. You will now find that there are lots of brands out there offering suitable bikes with varying levels of spec and of course varying price points.
The Early Rider Belter & Seeker can be bought in both 14” & 16” wheel sizes. They come with powerful front and rear V-brakes, standard size bottom bracket and headset sizing and a choice of tyres. Not only are these bikes well built and fully serviceable with easy parts availability, but they’re also very light with brilliant geometry.
Lightweight, well priced and loads of colour options to boot. Front and rear v brakes make light work of stopping duties. Patented crank system which lessens the distance between the pedals. This makes for a more comfortable and natural riding position.
Suitable for 4.5 to 7 year old riders, the SKØG really is three bikes in one – replacing a separate balance bike, and two conventional 14” and 16” bikes. A UK designed and based company who offer a 3 year warranty, even for the second owner.
Can my child learn but without buying so many bikes?
Thankfully, the answer is yes! You are able to to buy size adaptable bikes which grow with your child. Although I have no experience with them, I have read many really positive reviews about them. Check out Black mountain cycles, a UK brand whose bikes are designed and assembled in Monmouthshire.
My Top 5 essentials:
Safety: It’s inevitable, your child will fall when you are riding a bike. That’s why it’s so important that they wear a helmet. Instil the necessity for a helmet from a young age and it will become second nature to them to always wear one. For me, a helmet with a peak was preferable over the skateboard style helmet because it will keep their face off the floor if they have a fall.
Gloves: Normally the first thing to hit the ground if they fall is their hands. Wearing gloves will stop 90% of any potential grazing and also offer more grip control when their grips are damp or muddy.
Food and drink: You will be amazed at how hard the kids will work. Always keep your kids hydrated and topped up with some sugar when needed.
Backpack with reins: having reins on a backpack is an absolute must if you’re riding on pavements near roads. It also allows you to control their speed going downhills if you’re riding next to them.
Washing machine: Be prepared for your machine to take a hammering!
So that’s it, hopefully sharing my experiences has been helpful and if you’re new to cycling it will give you some confidence to get started. Above all, bike riding is about freedom and enjoyment and having the chance to see your young ones enjoy the sport from a young age is simply magical.
Don’t forget, its easy to add all of your family’s bikes onto your Pedal Cover policy. To do so, you can log into your account here.