Teaching kids to ride

The next Cadel could be running around in your backyard right now. All you need to do is get them on to two wheels. Here’s how.

Kids mucking about on bikes, one of those recurring images of carefree childhood, can lead us grown-ups to sometimes forget that riding a bike isn’t actually an innate ability. Learning how to ride a bike is nurture, not nature, but once mastered becomes a life-long and life-enhancing skill.

A consistent concept that every learn-to-cycle professional keeps coming back to is to ensure kids retain “fun” as a key takeaway from the learning process. With this in mind, and also taking the learner’s age into account, cycling training experts say the very first encounter for the very young cyclist-in-training should keep “having-fun” front of mind. A first encounter could even be as simple as holding a bike, ringing its bell, and walking along with it.

“The best learning occurs when the information and the message relates to the level of ability and understanding of the subject,” says Gareth Watkins, the general manager of AustCycle, a Sydney-based nationally accredited cycling training organisation, which is a joint venture between Cycling Australia and the Amy Gillett Foundation. “With a younger learner, you may need to make smaller steps in how you introduce things, or make each step an easy next level.”

The initial “gently-gently” approach has all to do with quelling any tentativeness or even outright fear that a child may be feeling towards a piece of equipment that they may have absolutely no experience with. But getting over any barriers based on fear is something that Watkins says is actually easier when dealing with a child than with a grown-up – and it’s not just because they’re closer to the ground.

“Children don’t seem to think about risk and fear the same way that adults do – they’re more willing to have a go, to get in there and make mistakes,” he says. Watkins says when starting or re-introducing an adult to cycling, he has found that “there will be a lot more processing of scenarios … you know, ‘if I fall off it’s going to hurt’ sort of thing, than if they’re a kid.” He says it’s plain that kids are better listeners “because they’re not thinking ‘I could fall off’. It’s still fun.”

And although every parent will be primarily concerned to keep their child from coming to harm, most experts take a dim view of training wheels. In the end, these are deemed to have more of a negative effect and are said to reinforce bad balance habits.

Wilcare Services is contracted to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development as the provider of accredited training for school based cycling education, and trains instructors for the Victorian school Bike Ed program. Wilcare has also trained Sydney City Council park rangers and the security department of the University of Sydney’s bicycle patrol teams.

The director of Wilcare, Steve Taylor, knows that apprehension based on unfamiliarity is something that needs to be first assessed and then addressed with every young cycling learner. “Some people (and not just kids) don’t even know how to pick a bike up off the ground,” he says. “Even walking the bike, holding the handlebars and walking beside it, may seem intuitive to some people but seem completely alien to others.”

To get a quick idea of the training starting point he will need to take with a young learner, Taylor firstly gets them to walk beside their bike and find out what they know about the things attached to the handlebar. “For example, I want to get them familiar with the amount of pressure they need to apply to be able to pull on the brakes,” he says, which he first tries while they are walking next to the bike. “What tends to happen with kids unfamiliar with brakes is they take a death grip to it and squeeze the handle as tightly as possible. Of course when they get on the bike and try to stop, slamming on the brakes can make them come off – and then it’s not fun anymore.”

Once the learner can apply the brakes smoothly and not abruptly, it’s time to sit on the bike (with the budding cyclist now knowing that the brake will keep the machine from going anywhere). Beforehand, the saddle should be lowered right down, so that the learner’s feet can easily reach the ground. “Even get them to rock from one foot to the other,” Taylor says. “Then they will know ‘Hey, I can stop this bike from falling over’.”

Having gained confidence that they have some control over their ride – ‘I can stop it falling sideways, and I can stop it going forward or back’ – the next big step is to apply controlled forward movement (and with the early introduction to the brake, when they learn to move they will already know how to stop). Moving forward can be as simple as just “walking” while on the seat.

“For the young kids, this is where those little pedal-less bikes are quite useful, the ones you just push with your feet” says Taylor, although he says the same principles apply for many age groups. “This is the tried-and-tested way; you lower the seat, take the pedals off, and just get the individual to scoot around.”

Taylor however tweaks the “tried-and-tested” by leaving the pedals on. He contends that the basic fundamentals include not only balancing and steering, but pedalling as well – and if the pedals aren’t there, the student can’t “have a go” once the other two fundamentals are achieved (a learner who is confident about scooting along can even try resting their feet on the pedals). Having pedals in place also means the learner will naturally take a wider and more stable stance on the bike.

A bicycle is dynamically stable, not statically so. Uprightness on a two-wheeled vehicle relies on movement, which the learner will have discovered by pushing forward with both feet on the ground, “especially because they can feel the movement you’re showing them is working”, Taylor says.

The next step is to get the idea of pedalling into the scenario, however many kids will naturally be concerned about taking both feet off the ground. The trick here is to maintain a practical approach, that the learner can “feel” working, such as their “movement-equals-stability” experience.

People tend to be “pre-set” with the notion that a fall towards one side requires a correction to be made towards the opposite side, Taylor says. “The intuition of a newcomer learning how to ride is that if they start to lean towards one direction, they should counteract that by either leaning their body in the opposite direction or steering that way.”

The secret is to give a practical demonstration. “Take a bike with no-one on it, and if you lean it to one side they will see the handlebars turn ‘into’ the fall. It’s just following physics. So you can show them that the bike itself knows what to do.”

For the learner to really “get” the lesson however, the old method of holding on to the back of the saddle is recommended. “Just grab the back of their seat and walk along with them. This will help reinforce the logic of what’s happening under them with the bike,” Taylor says. “And keep reinforcing the correct action. It will eventually ‘click’ with them, especially as they will feel that what you’re showing them is actually working.”

Finding out about what the pedals do is greatly aided by adopting the “power position” before pushing ahead. Basically this is getting the right pedal up to about “2 o’clock” (if looking at their right side). A push from the right foot sets them off, and then it’s “one pedal stroke, brake, left foot down, one pedal stroke, brake, left foot down,” Taylor says. Doing this time and again drives home the fact that the rider can control the machine with what they already know. “I find myself repeating ‘pedal, pedal, pedal’. They need your encouragement, but the encouragement this momentum itself brings really reinforces the lesson of balance. Keeping the forward motion happening will really reassure the rider.”

From here on, our young cyclist just has to keep practicing and really hone the basic skills that they have just acquired. That said, however, it is from this moment on that AustCycle’s Gareth Watkins says requires attention and reinforcement – and is the essential part of cycling “curriculum” that not just puts kids on bikes, but keeps them there.

“If you just do a few sessions, and the child develops a certain understanding – and they can ride and stay on a bike – they may have acquired a skill but may still lack a proficiency in that skill,” he says. “There’s of course a danger in this. A kid may become confident they can do something, and can ride in certain safe environments, but it’s a technique that has been learned, not a consistent application or proficiency in that skill – and this has the potential to lead to misadventure or injury.”

Watkins cites emergency braking as an example, and the scenario of a real or even perceived danger that triggers the “death grip” response, which can just kick-in should correct training not be ingrained in the young rider. A resulting flip over the handlebars will certainly be a negative experience for any child.

The assumption under the law is that once you are 12 years old, you should be able to get off the footpath and ride safely on the roads. “We need to be able to make sure our kids have the best skills to take to those roads in the future,” Watkins says. “It’s all about acquiring the required skills, confidence – and safety wisdom – to be able to ride in these environments.”

For this reason, he encourages parents to keep reinforcing early lessons, or to seek help from cycling training instructors, to make sure the learning-to-ride experience becomes a deep-seated and lifelong skill set.


Cycling: Step by step

• Have them walk beside the bike and learn the brakes.

• Lower the seat right down, have them straddle the bike with both feet on the ground, then have them walk along while seated. Reinforce the braking action. Take the pedals off if they’re in the way.

• Encourage a scooting forward motion, and show them how balancing is easier when coasting along. They can even try temporarily lifting both feet off the ground. If you’ve left the pedals on (or put them back now), they can even try putting their feet up on them while rolling along. Hold the back of the saddle if balancing is not quite mastered yet.

• Demonstrate the “power position” to start moving, then have them push down on right pedal, brake, left foot down – repeat often. After gaining some confidence, encourage more pedal strokes and even bring the left foot into action. Be ready to hold saddle if need be.

• Don’t expect the whole experience to be stumble-free, and be prepared to linger at one level of achievement for longer if needed. Be ready to cheerlead, but also to coerce and comfort.


This first appeared in Australian Cyclist magazine