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A Parent's Guide to Youth Cycling

A Parent

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Updated on Jun 30, 2008

One of the most coveted sporting events in history is coming up right around the corner: the Tour de France. This high profile race is a great motivator for kids and parents to get on their bikes this summer.

Biking offers a myriad of physical, emotional and developmental benefits for kids. Leah Shahum, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, one of the oldest bicycle advocacy organizations in the country, says biking gives kids:

A sense of independence. “Biking is really a vehicle of independence, giving them the confidence to explore their neighborhoods, and meet with friends,” she says.

Physical exercise. Shahum says biking provides a great opportunity for kids to get away from the screen, and improve physical fitness in an outdoor setting. Not only is biking a huge calorie-burner, and a great way to develop balance, but it also is a less impactful form of exercise, leading to fewer injuries over a long period. “In terms of developing a regular routine of exercising, biking can be a really sustainable way for people of all various physical abilities,” Shahum says. “That's important because not all kids are naturally athletic, and this is a way to include kids who aren't star athletes. You don't have to be football quarterback or gymnast to enjoy biking with your family every weekend.”

Quality Family Time. Biking is a great way to pass the weekend as a family. “If you want to encourage in your child a love for exploration, this is a great way to do it together as a family,” Shahum says. “Explore your neighborhood, your city, or another part of the city together." Need to find a good place to bike? Shahum says your local bike coalition can be a great place to research routes. Search for a coalition in your area at the League of American Bicyclists or the Thunderhead Alliance

And, yet despite these benefits, research shows less than 1% of children ages 7-15 now ride bicycles to school. Shahum says a lot of that may boil down to a public perception that biking is dangerous for kids, and yet, she points out, automobile accidents are the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children under the age of 15. "There are many dangerous things and we have to put it all in perspective. It's far more safe to bike in many urban environments than people think, in part because the number of people biking is skyrocketing. When more people bike, it gets safer because there's more awareness among motorists."

If you're in the midst of teaching your child to ride a bike, here are some tips from the San Francisco Bike Coalition:

  • Resist the temptation to get training wheels. They prevent children from learning to balance properly, especially on turns.
     
  • Skip tricycles, and get a toy bike that has pedals attached to the front wheel. Remove the training wheels and hacksaw off the cranks and pedals, then lower the seat so that the child can sit comfortably with both feet flat and knees bent. The foam tires have enough rolling resistance that the child will not be able to coast very fast as long as you stay away from steep hills. When out walking, shove a stick into the space behind the seat and you can roll them along almost as easily as in a stroller.
     
  • A push scooter is another good alternative. It's less intimidating and you can ride on the back and steer until your child gets the hang of it. Just remember that skate wheel scooters have poor brakes and on hills can easily go too fast to stop.
     
  • When buying that first real bike, too small is better. A bike that's too big is intimidating, and that can distract your child from learning about steering and balance. If you're worried about your child quickly growing out of her bike consider getting a cheap one at a thrift store that is small enough for her to put both feet on the ground. Then, once your child gets her balance, you can trade it in for a larger bike. 
     
  • When teaching balance, practice in a wide, flat area. Bikes don't actually ever go in a straight line and while learning to balance, a child shouldn't also have to worry about running off the path. Let her loop and swerve until she gets her balance, then start to work on going in a specific direction. A child who tries to initiate a turn by twisting the handlebars ends up steering the bike out from under herself. Instead, a successful turn starts by leaning, then resisting the handlebars' tendency to oversteer.
     
  • In recent years helmets have been oversold as safety devices to the point that many parents believe that wearing one is sufficient protection for any bike crash. This is not so. Most deaths come from being hit by a car, the situation in which a helmet is least likely to be effective. A helmet protects one body part in a fall. Good technique prevents both falls and impacts from cars. Teaching technique can start years before the child rides. While walking or riding, talk about what you are doing and why; explain how to watch for traffic, where a driver's blind spots are, and how parked vehicles obstruct a driver's view, especially of a short rider. Falling is a learned skill and preparation can start well before children can ride. Practicing at low speeds without a helmet ingrains an instinctive tuck and roll. Gymnastics classes that emphasize tumbling help children feel comfortable hitting the ground in a way that protects not only the head, but wrists, elbows and knees. Praise your children when she lands well or steps off the bike instead of falling tangled up in it.

Whether your child is just learning to ride a bike or getting motivated to get back in the seat by the upcoming Tour de France competition, your encouragement will help pave the way for a healthier, safer little athlete. Happy cycling!

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