For both my kids, bike riding has been a bumpy experience. They each took a long time to get the hang of a two-wheeler, with plenty of wipe-outs and tears along the way. Even now, at ages nine and 13, they are a little wobbly in both their skills and their confidence.
Because of this, our cycling outings have been limited, and they have never ridden unsupervised. I worry that the high-speed vehicle traffic in our neighbourhood, combined with their beginner-level cycling skills, will result in accident and injury.
I see the rows of bikes parked outside their school and I wonder: how will I know when the time is right for them to stand on their own two wheels? Are there some key signs that will indicate they’re road-ready?
Spoiler alert: this story doesn’t end with my kids riding smoothly off into the sunset. They are still nervous—and so am I—but we’re working on it. If you’re experiencing similar concerns, here are some tips and ideas to support your rookie rider.
Safety is priority number one, and it starts with head protection. “A properly fitted helmet is the most important piece of equipment,” says Ben Oryall of Pedalheads, a Canadian company that offers bike, swim, and sport programs for kids. At their camps, Pedalheads instructors teach “the four S’s” of helmet wearing: Snug, Straps (adjusted to fit), Straight (no tilting), and Stickers (complying with recognized safety standards).
When choosing a bike, be aware that they’re not one-size-fits-all. “We don’t recommend buying a large bike for the child to ‘grow into,’” Oryall explains. “This can make riding more difficult for a newcomer. When sitting on the seat, both of the child’s feet should be flat on the ground.”
Finally, Oryall advises parents to perform an overall bike check (including handlebars, tires, and brakes) to ensure everything is in working order.
Helmet—check. Bike—check. But what if your kids, like mine, simply haven’t gotten the hang of it yet? How can they become more proficient in their basic riding skills?
“It’s all about gradual progression,” says Oryall. “Young riders need consistent practice, ideally with others who are at a similar skill level.”
Here are some strategies I’ve tried with my two tentative riders:
- Wearing extra pieces of protective gear, such as knee and elbow pads. Since I realize these might not “look cool,” they’re worn underneath their pants and sleeves.
- Heading out at a quiet, less busy time of the day, such as mid-morning or early afternoon.
- Avoiding difficult conditions, such as the fading light of dusk and extremely windy days.
- Seeking out low-traffic locations for practice sessions. Our neighbourhood has a wide walking trail and quite a few cul-de-sacs, which have provided a variety of “closed courses” to work on steering and braking.
- Challenging them to ride in a straight line on a paved, lined surface, such as a cycling path, school blacktop, or empty parking lot.
- Bringing along water bottles to rehydrate and regroup as needed. (I also stash a few Band-Aids in my pocket in case of minor scrapes.)
- Taking pictures and videos of them riding. Afterwards, they can see themselves in action and be proud of how well they’re doing.
When can they go on their own?
Once kids can are competent riders and can safely navigate roadways, can they ride independently to school, or to a friend’s house? Is there a recommended age for this? How is a parent to decide?
“Before riding solo, a young cyclist should have mastered the fundamentals of steering, braking, shoulder-checking, and signaling,” Oryall says. “There should also be a clear understanding of the rules of the road and common traffic signs [PDF].”
If you feel your child would benefit from formal instruction, consider registering for a local learn-to-ride course or camp. You can also search online for bike safety events (sometimes called “bike rodeos”) in your community.
While the choice is obviously yours to make as a parent, Parachute Canada, a national charity focused on injury prevention, suggests 10 years old as a minimum age where kids may have the physical and mental capabilities to ride on the road. To proactively prepare kids for this responsibility, the Canada Safety Council has compiled a list of dangerous cycling situations and how to avoid them.
Since there are no hard-and-fast guidelines, parents will need to weigh all the factors and make the call. As your child approaches this “final frontier,” pay close attention on family bike rides. Make a conscious choice to observe without guiding them, to simulate a situation where they’re alone. Ride behind them and refrain from calling out instructions or assisting them, unless absolutely necessary.
This will give you some insight into their awareness level and decision-making abilities. When they do set out on their own, you may want them to carry a mobile phone for emergencies, or to contact you when they reach their destination.
My kids haven’t reached this point yet, but I do want them to have this life skill and the freedom to ride. With diligence and practice, I believe they will eventually be ready to venture further. For now, though, we’re content to ride together.
Think your kids might be ready to ride independently? Take a look at this printable poster [PDF] and assess their bike-riding skills first!