As my husband says, there are two non-negotiables in this family: biking and skiing. Obviously, biking is at the core of our relationship so we are intentionally fostering a love for bikes in the heart of our family.
Kids learn heaps from monkey-see-monkey-do, for better or worse. For worse, when in a moment of frustration you let that swear word fly and next thing you know your barely talking toddler is mimicking your very words (come on, we’ve all done it, right?!); for better, when you see your kids insist on biking to preschool because that’s how dad gets to his job (and your heart swells with pride and joy).
How we model
My husband and I were non-winter commuters when we lived in Montréal, year-round avid commuters in balmy (or so they say) Vancouver, and now we both bike year-round in wintery Calgary: he commutes 20-30 mins. daily to work in downtown Calgary; I get around by bike (or walk) with the kids as much as possible to wherever we need to go, i.e. the library, preschool, swimming lessons, the playground, etc.; and, we often bike altogether on the weekend. Admittedly, I have been more of a fair weather cyclist with the kids in tow, but find that I can ride in the snow using a trailer and am excited to try the bakfiets out in slick conditions. Biking is all around our kids, from our own ingrained habits to living in close proximity to Calgary’s unreal network of pathways and, now, cycletracks, they get to see cycling all around them in this booming bike town.
Although I would strongly urge you to commute and utility bike as much as possible, you don’t have to be a saint. But, the more you do it, the less you need to play cheerleader, because biking’ll just be a given in your household, too.
Start ’em young
We got our eldest a balance (a.k.a. run) bike when she was about 18 months old, give or take. She mucked about with it in the back yard, walking beside it, straddling it and walking, but she didn’t really figure out the whole gliding thing until she was 2.5 years old.
One of our mistakes was that we got a bike with a hard seat, which was fine when we first got it because our eldest was still in massive cloth diapers, so she had all the cushioning in the world! The other downfall was we didn’t have any other biking or balance biking kids around to model for her how it all works. Regardless, she still loved it.
The next spring, the seat was too hard for her potty-trained tush and we were wondering why she was losing interest after being so in to it. I realized that I could buy a padded seat and it proved to be the ticket. This is what happened next:
Instantly she was trying to use the bike and within the week she was looking like this, in party shoes no less:
Kid number two has picked it much more quickly and I believe that being able to watch her big sister has helped her out a lot. She started mucking about on the bike inside this winter when was about 17 mo as she could just straddle and barely sit on the seat if she didn’t have the extra bulk of a diaper. This past spring she almost always insisted on bringing her bike on our walks, too, even if she only rode – I mean, straddled and walked – her bike for a block or two. For the past month or so, you could see teeny glides here or there and then, bam, all of a sudden, she got the hang of it when we were down on the bike path walking the dog and she biked 2 km! This is the day things all fell into place, she’s looking focused:
There are two things that I recommend looking for in a balance bike: weight and standover height. The latter makes sense, as you want your kid to be able to straddle the bike as soon as they are interested in riding! The weight factor is important for two reasons: you don’t want your kid encumbered by a heavy bike that they can’t walk with or easily right on their own, when necessary and in order to use it lots, you want it light enough to throw on the back of your Chariot so that you have it on hand as much as possible and can stash it if fatigue sets in.
Learning to ride on a balance bike helps to master what I think is the hardest part of riding: balancing, but also the hand-eye coordination required to steer and move while keeping upright and travelling forward. Next step adding braking and then pedaling!
There are a handful of balance bikes out there that have a hand brake, extra useful if you have a kamikaze toddler who needs to slow down a little bit. But, also great for helping to teach braking before having to deal with pedaling, too. We didn’t go that route, but my sister added the brake accessory to a Strider for her fearless middle child.
Like when selecting a balance bike, weight was our primary concern for a pedal bike, mostly for our daughter’s sake, but also because I wanted to be able to throw the bike in the Burley, if necessary, as I had with the Strider. We researched pedal bikes for our eldest when she was 3.5 yo and settled on getting a Spawn but we weren’t sure if she was a Furi or Banshee size so we went to a store that carried them and they only had the Banshee in stock. It looked a bit big, but we were hoping that since she had already mastered the tricky part of balancing and steering that it wouldn’t be a big deal. It’s true, some kids aren’t worried about fit – I still remember riding my parents’ huge road bikes when we were 10 or so, ripping around the neighbourhood some how in spite of them being way too big. Kids push through for the love of doing something. But, not all kids, and we should have known with our ‘thinking’ eldest, that being able to solidly rest her feet on the ground would be a big deal.
It was pretty cool, she more or less got on the bike and managed to do it all by herself in a driveway. But, then she had a wobble and it knocked her confidence so that she had trouble starting and stopping. This step back, after being so independent and competent on the balance bike, kind of killed it for her and she just wanted to ride the Strider.
When she was 4 and her 15 month old sister was really starting to get interested in the Strider we decided to bite the bullet and get the appropriately sized bike – the Spawn Furi – which was actually on the smaller size now, but we figured our second will be on it in very soon if her enthusiasm holds up, so we weren’t too stressed about the added cost (plus, these things hold their value for resale, big time. Tip: starting looking 6 months ahead of time on kijiji if you prefer to buy used and keep your fingers crossed that you are the first to reply to an ad as they go like hotcakes!).
To help the big kid regain her confidence and to learn how to use the hand brake, I took off the pedals and she rode it back and forth to preschool just like a balance bike. About a week after doing this, maybe ten days, on a Saturday, she said she wanted the pedals on and voilà! Pedal biker! Totally confident, no probs. She spent a month on this smaller bike and then one day we asked to see if the bigger bike fit her and it did and she like it and we haven’t looked back. In spite of an initial setback after great success with the balance bike, her foundation skills were there and she was so content on the Strider, when given the right equipment she took a huge leap forward!
Read your kid. We should have known that our eldest wouldn’t be flexible about bike size and that it would rattle her confidence as she can be timid about taking risks. Maybe you are lucky, and your kid is fearless! Either way, I recommend not getting a bike they will grow in to. Try to find something where their feet can be more-or-less flat on the ground, something that isn’t a big change from their balance bike.
As much as I liked my coaster brake as a kid, I am pro hand-brake as it is good for them to learn how to properly brake at a younger age when speeds are less. Coaster brakes may be better if your kid has really small hands (i.e. is quite young), but there are lots and lots more bikes on the market with kid-appropriate specs, like Spawn, Frog, Woom, or Isla bikes, for example, off the top of my head.
Making it fun
Although biking may be what we call a non-negotiable in our family, we still have a sense of humour about something that sounds so serious and try to keep things as fun as possible! That includes visiting local bike-friendly establishments, like Sidewalk Citizen or Village Ice Cream, for delicious treats (what can I say, my kids are food motivated – what kid isn’t, for that matter?), as well as playgrounds and bike meet-ups with friends.
Check out Calgary Outdoor Playgroups (note this is a closed group as they try to limit membership to active participants) to find some kid-oriented “biker gangs”, or join us at a Coffee Outside one Thursday (see Facebook events for more details or follow me and #coffeeoutsideforheryyc on Twitter).
We also don’t push their limits. There’s a difference between having them excited to ride the whole 8 km before they gorge themselves on their chocolate croissant, but needing to take some breaks and check out the views along the way, and lording said croissant over them. With the Xtracycle U-Tubes on our Edgerunner, we just pop in either or both the Spawn Banshee or Strider (well, the run bike is still small enough to just lash on with the cargo bag clips). This works just awesome for either tired kids en route or unmotivated kids to start, helping to keep riding positive and have the girls learn their own limits. Our laissez-faire attitude towards when they ride or not has, basically, resulted in them wanting to ride as much as they possibly can! (Phew!!!)
I’ll recommend that you check out the resource list (below) for some extra opinions, do some Googling of your own, and ask around to pick peoples brains, on the internet, at your LBS, or your friends, because this is where it stops (so far) for us! Our experience ends at 16″ wheels, for now. We have a very confident pedaller who can log some decent miles, is learning to ride with one hand and shoulder check (not at the same time!); and, another run bike success story on our hands, a fearless munchkin who needs to start figuring out this whole braking with her feet thing soon before she gives me a heart attack.
How about you?
Please feel free to comment below or contact me if you have a favourite resource to add to this list!
- Momentum Mag’s 6-parter on Everything You Need to Know About Kids’ Bikes
- Where #YYCbikekids Ride (coming soon!)