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All About Bicycle Riding

child riding bike

Chris Eckert

There's a special bond between kids and bikes that can never be broken. Riding a bike is a rite of passage, a passport to worlds beyond the front lawn. Bikes represent fun, freedom, and fresh air -- everything that's good about being a kid. Moreover, biking is a healthy pastime that kids will never outgrow. Here are some of the other benefits of cycling:

  • Developing strength, balance, and overall fitness
  • Burning up calories
  • Strengthening the heart, lungs, and lower-body muscles and bones
  • Developing and strengthening the muscles surrounding the knees without impact

But biking boasts other benefits as well. Children of all shapes, sizes, and abilities can ride a bike. Most important, bicycling is a healthy outdoor activity that the entire family can enjoy together.

How to Teach Someone to Ride a Bicycle
How to Teach Someone to Ride a Bicycle

Before embarking on a family cycling trip, you'll need to find your child a bike that suits his physical needs -- and personal taste.

Where to buy

Kids' bikes start at around $100 at most bike shops, compared to $50 and up at discount department stores. Cheaper models, however, tend to be heavier and more prone to mechanical problems, says Jay Townley, executive director of the Bicycle Council, a Wisconsin-based biking-industry association. Townley also notes that bike shops often offer more personalized service than general department stores. Also, many bike shops offer a free 30-day "checkup" to ensure that everything is functioning properly.

Finding the right size

If buying from a discount store, you will most likely have to determine the right-size bike for your child. Finding a bike that fits is crucial to your child's safety, especially since both oversize and undersize bikes can prove hazardous. Bikes that are too large, for instance, can prevent a child's feet from touching the ground and keep his hands from reaching the hand brakes. Bikes that are too small, on the other hand, force a child to pedal awkwardly with substantially bent knees, which can cause knee pain and make a child's legs tire quickly. When fitting a bike:

  • Make sure your child, while seated, can touch the ground easily with both feet when the seat is in its lowest position. (The seat can be raised gradually as your child grows.)
  • Adjust the seat so that your child's legs bend slightly at the bottom of each revolution when pedaling.

Your child's taste

Besides fitting your child physically, a bike should match your child's personality. Let him choose the color and style of the bike, while you decide on more substantial matters, such as size and quality. It's important that a child like his bike because then he's more likely to ride it, notes Peter Moe of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Bicycling and Walking, a leading bike-advocacy organization.

Just as babies must learn to crawl before they can walk, your tyke will first pedal a tricycle before graduating to the world of two-wheeling. Here's what experts at the National Center for Bicycling and Walking say to expect along the way:

Tricycles (ages 2 to 5): Plastic three-wheelers, such as Big Wheels, and traditional trikes are perfect for preschoolers who are testing their newfound motor skills. Tricycles should be ridden only on a playground or within a fenced yard, not in a driveway or street. Toddlers can also get a feel for biking by riding with parents on a bicycle-mounted seat or by being towed behind an adult bicycle in a cushioned bike trailer. The important thing to remember is that toddlers, like all riders, should always wear a size-appropriate helmet when biking.

Training wheels (ages 5 to 6): The training-wheels phase may last a couple of months or a couple of years, depending on the rate at which a child's coordination and strength develop. Parents can gradually elevate training wheels to help build their child's confidence. Eventually, when a child shows a mastery of balance on the bike, the training wheels can be removed.

Single-speed bikes (ages 6 to 9): A child's first two-wheeler should be a one-speed with foot brakes. He won't be ready for hand brakes and gears until age 9 or 10, when his hands are larger and stronger. Also, kids aren't ready for street riding until sometime between ages 8 and 10. Until then, they should ride in a driveway or along park paths with an adult.

Multispeed bikes (ages 9 and up): Once your child is ready for a larger bike with gears and hand brakes, he can start riding on quiet streets, where you can teach him safe-riding skills. If your child wants to ride to school, and you feel that he's ready, help him plot a route that avoids busy streets and crowded intersections.

Bicycling can bridge generations and bring family members together. Here are five ways to make your family cycling trips enjoyable:

1. Find bike paths in your area. Call your town or county parks department or visit TraillLink.com, a Web site that lists hundreds of bike trails throughout the United States and categorizes them by region, surface, and distance.

 

2. Make sure your family is comfortably dressed and prepared for the elements. In warm weather, for instance, wear lightweight fabrics that wick away moisture and sweat; in cold weather, dress in layers. Also, have everyone stock a backpack to take along on the ride.

3. Don't forget your gear. Take water bottles, sunglasses, sunscreen, hats, bike locks, a tire pump, a pressure gauge, a small tool kit, sandwiches, healthy snacks, and a disposable camera. Be sure that kids aren't overloaded with heavy items that could affect their balance.

4. Make frequent stops during your ride. Take breaks -- especially on hot, humid days -- for drinks, snacks, and picture taking.

5. Chronicle your family's excursion with photographs. Taking pictures is fun for the kids and a great way to preserve pleasant memories. Make sure to let everyone snap a couple of shots, capturing everything from scenic landscapes to family portraits. After developing the film, place the photographs in a special album, and write captions beneath each picture. Your family will never tire of leafing through (and adding to) this book of biking memories.

Additional reporting by Bob Cooper

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's health.