Editor’s note: This post was updated on April 17, 2020.
There are an estimated 2 billion bicycles in the world.
In fact, after walking, biking is the second most popular form of active transportation. And for good reasons.
With the new technology in bikes, you can two-wheel yourself over almost any terrain and in all weather. Some kids even ride their bikes to school in the snow.
Biking is not only an active way to get around; it’s also lots of fun. The ability to ride a bike safely, with skills, confidence, and enjoyment is a great gift to give all kids.
But the best thing about cycling is that it’s an activity you can practice for life.
It’s got to feel good
If you’ve ever watched a group of kids whiz around on their bikes, you will see some bobble from side to side, other kids’ knees hit their chest as they pedal, and then there are those who ride smoothly, efficiently, and with confidence.
The kids that bike better were not born that way. There’s no such thing as a “natural cyclist”. Those smooth-riding kids have two things going for them:
- A basic understanding and knowledge of how to pedal and shift their weight.
- A bike that fits them properly.
Kids that look good biking, feel good biking. Biking is a skill, and as with any skill the better it feels, and the more enjoyable it is, the more kids will do it. The key is to follow a few fundamentals to help your child develop the skills that will make biking a better experience.
To help understand what good pedaling looks and feels like, I reached out to Paulo Saldanha, an applied sports physiologist and endurance coach. He shared a great metaphor to help parents and kids understand the pedal stroke: a clock.
Understanding the basics of a good pedaling stroke
1. Helping your child develop sound pedalling fundamentals begins from the feet up. The ball of the foot – that’s the padded portion of the sole between the toes and the arch – should rest on the surface of the pedal. The feet should be pointing straight forward.
Assuming that young kids are not wearing cycling cleats (which means their feet are not attached to the pedals) the rest is as simple as going around the clock.
2. The first phase of the pedal stroke begins at the 11 o’clock position. From there, kids should push forward onto the pedal until they reach the 1 o’clock position.
3. Once the foot reaches the 1 o’clock position, kids should feel themselves pushing down on the pedal with the full power of their leg until the 5 o’clock position. This is the phase of the stroke where most of the power is generated.
4. From the 5 o’clock to the 7 o’clock position, kids should focus on pointing the foot downward. This will build the good habit of “pulling the pedal” when they get older and transition to wearing cycling shoes for mountain or road biking.
5. Once they reach the 7 o’clock position, the focus should be for kids to keep a light pressure on the pedal during this phase, because the opposite leg will be working to help turn the pedals.
How to teach kids the basics of how to pedal a bike
You can teach these basic mechanics to kids age seven years and older without lecturing them on human anatomy. Simply coach them through the different phases of the clock analogy, as they stand with one foot on the ground and the other on the pedal:
- 11 o’clock: Push your foot forward on the pedal
- 1 o’clock: Push your foot down on the pedal
- 5 o’clock: Point your foot to the ground
- 7 o’clock: Keep a light pressure on the pedal as it comes up
Once you’ve done this with one leg, ask your kids to switch and put the other foot on the pedal and go through the same exercise. If you sense that your child understands, then have them bike around and gently remind them of the cues for the different phases of their pedal stroke focusing on one foot at a time at first.
Once they are comfortable, you can also share other bike riding cues:
- Keep your upper body still with your arms (elbows) bent
- Sit still; try not to let your hips rock from side to side
- Try to keep your body calm on the bike; too much movement in your body wastes energy
- Think about making round circles with your feet through the clock
How to fit your child’s bike properly
Stage 1: Building confidence
When first learning to ride, the child’s confidence in their ability to balance on those little rubber tires needs to be addressed. The easiest way to do this is to ensure the child can sit on the seat and have flat feet on the ground. While this isn’t the most efficient for the purpose of pedaling, in the beginning it can help children feel safe, which in turn can help them learn more quickly. When they can lay feet flat on the ground, they can push off more easily to start, and it allows them to put their feet down if they feel unstable. This gives them the confidence to practice on their own or with some parent support. This stage should last until they have the ability to start and stop on their own.
Stage 2: Riding
A good pedaling technique is all about extending the leg properly. When your child’s foot reaches the bottom of the pedal stroke (6 o’clock), the knee should have a slight bend (an angle of 25 to 35 degrees). The leg should not be locked nor should it be too bent. If your child is new to cycling, it is better for them to safely dismount to err on the side of a seat that is too low rather than too high.
To achieve this angle, the key is to set the seat of your child’s bike at the right height. If the seat is too high, your child’s leg will be too straight when the pedal is in the 6 o’clock position. The knee will not be bent enough and the hips will bounce from one side of the bike’s frame to the other as they pedal.
If the seat is too low, the knee will bend too much when the pedal is in the 12 o’clock position and they won’t be able to generate much power.
When it comes to fitting your child’s bike properly, an image is worth a thousand words and a video is even better. We found this one that is clear, easy to understand, and short. Please note, Active for Life is not connected to the brand that created the video and our sharing it is not intended to be an endorsement of the product.
If you teach kids using the clock analogy and the diagram above, they will see what pedaling correctly looks like. In turn, their bodies will learn how it feels, and their ears will hear your verbal cues for remembering key elements of technique.
Stage 3: Bumps, jumps, downhills, and other skills
As kids grow more confident in their riding skills, they will become more daring. They might try jumps, riding down steeper hills or challenging their skills at a bike park. When your kids reach this stage, it is a good idea to lower the bike seat a bit. This will create enough space for your kids to stand balanced on the pedals during the bumps, or even pedal in a standing position. It will also lower their centre of gravity, which helps with balance.
Congratulations! You have helped a new generation to bike well. From cycling with their friends, going off-road and into nature, and maybe commuting to work one day, they will use this essential skill in more ways than you will ever imagine.