How to ride a bike

How to ride a bike

Riding a bike is probably the most difficult skill that a kid ever has to learn. It is further complicated because it isn't something that schools teach and neither is it something you can learn from a textbook. It is a well known fact that many electronic appliances are difficult to use, but at least they come with instruction manuals, whereas bikes seem to be one of the few machines that are sold without an instruction manual. It really is true that there are 10 year olds who can program computers, do calculus, or know the technicalities of nuclear power stations, but still can't ride a bike, yet their classmates of only average intelligence are zooming round the neighbourhood on two wheels. The explanation for this is that one's skill at handling a bike is not determined by intellectual ability and is not a measure of intelligence. In reality, it is a measure of physical co-ordination and control that comes with practice - providing you know what to practice.

The purpose of this short article is to act as an instruction manual for a bike. It assumes that the bike is a BMX or mountain bike fitted with hand brakes and can freewheel as they are the bikes that most kids ride today. If your kid is capable of standing up and walking and can pick up an empty drinks can and crush it then I can assure you that this technique will work for them. It may be different to methods you have used and could even contradict conventional thinking in places, but is probably the most elegant and easiest to use technique ever devised.

1. First thing first.

Stabilisers do not help teach a kid how to ride a bike. If anything they hinder the learning process and could even create a dependency that has to be unlearnt. A kid who has been riding a bike with stabilisers for 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 years is in no better position when it comes to learning to ride without stabilisers than a kid who has never ridden a bike with stabilisers. Quite often the attitude held by most parents is that if their kid's first bike is supplied with stabilisers then their kid should start riding it with the stabilisers fitted. Stabilisers are also dangerous as they give the kid a false sense of security. If a stabiliser catches on something or overhangs the edge of a kerb then their bike can overturn without warning. Therefore, if your kid's bike has stabilisers, take them off and throw them in the bin.

2. Setup.

Your kid must feel comfortable and confident on the bike they learn to ride on. If they don't feel comfortable or confident with the bike then find another one. It is essential that the bike fits the kid properly and is not too large or else it will be difficult to handle. Adjust the height of the seat so that when your kid sits on the bike they can place their feet flat on the floor with their knees slightly bent. Adjust the height and tilt of the handlebars to the position that is the most comfortable for them to hold. Check that the brakes work correctly and are easy to operate. If they are stiff or ineffective then they need adjusting and lubricating. Ensure that the tyres have plenty of tread on them and are correctly inflated. If the bike has gears then they should be set approximately midrange although the exact gear is not too critical.

3. Get the feel of the bike.

Before your kid attempts to ride the bike they must get the feeling of it without stabilisers. This is accomplished by getting them to sit on the bike and hold onto the handlebars for a period of about 10 to 20 minutes. Some kids are absolutely terrified of getting on a bike that has no stabilisers, but they don't stand a chance of being able to ride without stabilisers unless they can overcome their fear. If this is the case then the best plan is to bring the bike inside to a room with a carpeted floor and get them to sit on it whilst they watch their favourite TV programme to take their mind off things.

4. Remove the pedals.

The procedure in Section 5 is best carried out if the pedals are removed from the bike otherwise they get in the way an hit your kid's legs. Some BMXs are fitted with 3-piece cranks (why can't all kids bikes be fitted with them?) that enable the cranks to be easily removed from the bottom bracket, but most kids bikes have 1-piece cranks which means the pedals have to be removed from the crank. On most bikes the pedals are screwed into place and removed using a spanner that fits the flat surface of the spindle. The right pedal is conventionally threaded and is removed by unscrewing it anticlockwise. The left pedal is reverse threaded and is unscrewed by turning it clockwise. The threads are likely to be very tight and possibly rusted into place. If you are unable to remove the pedals then most bike shops will remove them for you.

5. Balance.

Riding a bike is a combination of balancing, pedalling, and steering simultaneously. Having to learn several things at once is difficult for many kids so start with balancing first. This requires a wide open space with a hard flat surface such as a school playground or empty car park. A hard surface is necessary as there is too much rolling resistance on grass to enable your kid to get up to sufficient speed to balance the bike. It is of utmost importance that there are no obstacles, walls, potholes, or anything else they can crash into within an approximately 10 metre radius of the bike as the fear of crashing into such obstacles will cause the kid to lose control of the bike. Have your kid sit on the bike and propel it by pushing their feet against the ground.

Initially your kid will only be able to cover a short distance before they put their feet down and the bike will have a tendency to wander about rather randomly. It is important that your kid keeps a light and relaxed grip on the handlebars and does not try to steer the bike in a straight line, but instead allow the bike to move in a straight line on its own accord. After about half an hour to an hour, your kid will be able to propel the bike over a considerable distance in a straight line without putting their feet down. They should also practice stopping the bike with the brakes.

6. Pedalling.

Now that your kid can propel the bike over a considerable distance without putting their feet down, and they can stop using the brakes, it is time for them to try riding with pedals. Re-attach the pedals to the bike by screwing the right pedal clockwise and the left pedal anticlockwise and tighten both pedals with a spanner. Show your kid that pushing the pedals forwards moves the bike and pushing the pedals backwards does not move the bike. Have your kid sit on the bike and rotate the pedals so that the right pedal is in the 2 o'clock position which is just forward of the top of the pedal stroke. This position results in a solid pedal stroke that gets the bike up to speed and avoids wobbly starts. Tell your kid to push down hard on the right pedal and when the bike moves forwards, place their left foot on the left pedal. They should now be able to propel the bike with pedals although it might take a few attempts to master this starting procedure. Being able to ride a bike with pedals will be an exhilarating feeling for your kid although initially they will be wobbly and have difficulty at riding in a straight line.

Riding will be easier if your kid keeps a light grip on the handlebars and looks straight ahead. This will help them to ride in a straight line. If they turn their head then their arms and shoulders will also turn causing the bike to swerve. Your kid should also practice stopping the bike using the brakes until they can stop without losing balance or skidding. Another useful exercise is slow riding by trying to ride the bike as slowly as they possibly can without losing balance.

7. Steering.

Once your kid can ride in a straight line they can learn to steer around bends and obstacles. Initially it is best to practice steering in an open space before letting your kid negotiate real bends and obstacles. Steering is a combination of a little leaning and a very small rotation of the handlebars. Your kid should first slow down before entering a corner, then look through the turn and rotate the handlebars in the direction of the bend before pedalling. After completing the turn, look forwards and rotate the handlebars back to the straight ahead position. Have your kid practice riding round imaginary corners until they can skilfully steer the bike where they want it to go.

8. Handling the bike.

Your kid must now practice riding on sloping and undulating surfaces and negotiate kerbs. A good way to improve co-ordination is a slalom. Place a number of empty drinks cans equally spaced on the ground in a straight line and have your kid practice riding around them. As their co-ordination improves, gradually reduce the spacing between the cans. If the bike has gears then your kid should practice using them on both flat surfaces and gradients.

9. Re-adjust the bike.

As your kid becomes more experienced at riding a bike, they will find the settings from Section 2 does not result in the most comfortable or efficient riding position. Increase the height of the seat so that when your kid sits on the bike with their foot on a pedal in the 6 o'clock position, their knee is slightly bent. If this feels too high for them then lower the seat slightly. Also adjust the height and tilt of the handlebars to the position your kid finds the most comfortable to hold.

Alternatives.

If your kid is uneasy at the idea of learning to balance on a bike then they can use a two wheel scooter instead. The aluminium scooters with roller blade type wheels are ideal. If your kid can ride a scooter for a considerable distance without putting their foot on the ground then they have learnt most of the balancing process from Section 5. Many kids who are uneasy at learning to ride a bike without stabilisers or those who give up due to lack of success readily take to a scooter. Some time later they unexpectedly find - often to their disbelief - that they can ride a bike without stabilisers.

In recent years balance bikes have become commercially available. They are very effective machines for teaching balance, and much better than a bike fitted with stabilisers, but most are quite expensive and few will accommodate kids older than 5 to 6 years old. If your kid comfortably fits on a balance bike then it will be ideal for Section 5 - Balance but your kid will then require a bike with pedals for Section 6 - Pedalling. A solution to this problem is to buy your kid a bike with pedals then borrow a balance bike to learn balancing.

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