Balance and Ride-Without Tears

By Trudy E. Bell

Forget the time-honored ways you were probably taught how to balance and ride a two-wheeler. None of the three most common methods–training wheels, having Dad run alongside the bike holding onto the saddle, or pointing the kid down a grassy hill with toy bribes at various distances–are particularly effective. Moreover, the latter two are terrifying for many children, almost guaranteeing falls that bruise both body and confidence.

Instead, teach your child through an efficient, gentle sequence of steps developed by John P. Waterman, director of the Arc Cycling Program in Wayne, Michigan. Since l988, he has used his method with great success to teach bicycling to hundreds of adults and children with disabilities ranging from autism to Downs’s syndrome to cerebral palsy–with essentially no risk of falling.

First, raise your child’s confidence by easing fears of falling and getting hurt. Fit the child not only with a helmet but also with child-sized bicycle gloves, as well as elbow and knee pads used by in-line skaters. For good measure against scrapes, dress the child in a long-sleeved sweatshirt and jeans.

Then, assure the child that the bicycle will be under his or her own control the entire time.

Start with stopping
Many bicycling accidents with children happen because a kid simply freezes into inaction. Also, even a toy bicycle with tiny 12-inch wheels can roll faster than many adults can run.

Therefore, before teaching a child how to propel a bike forward, have the child develop an instinctive reflex to stop–while unlearning any bad habits (such as dragging the feet).

For best results, do not have the child learn to stop with the foot-operated coaster brakes that are standard on most kids’ bikes. Instead, Waterman recommends that parents have a bike shop install small hand brakes. Not only do leveraged hand brakes have greater stopping power and faster activation (gripping is a natural fright reflex), they remain engaged when the child dismounts at a stop, and brakes are not lost if the chain falls off (as frequently happens with cheap toy store and department store bikes). Small hand brakes also help a child develop the hand strength and reflexes necessary for operating the brakes that are almost universal on bigger bikes.

Before teaching a child how to propel a bike forward, have the child develop an instinctive reflex to stop.

Hand brakes can be mastered while the child is using training wheels (one of the few legitimate uses of training wheels). On the smooth blacktop of a playground, make up stopping games. Draw chalk lines at which the child has to stop. Next, let the kid get up a real head of steam, and then shout “Stop!” unexpectedly. Take your own bicycle and ride around the blacktop with the child, pretending that certain poles are stop signs. An advanced game is for you to roll a ball out in front of the child unexpectedly, to see how reflexively the child stops.

Balance by steering into a fall
When the child has satisfactory instinctive mastery of the brakes, temporarily turn the bicycle into a scooter (in fact, a real scooter is an ideal non-bicycling toy that can help a child learn to balance a bicycle). Remove the training wheels and both pedals; then shove the saddle as far down into the frame as possible so the child’s feet rest on the ground when he or she is seated. Lower the seat for your own bike as well, so you can participate.

After the child has mastered balancing at a standstill, encourage the seated child to propel the bicycle by ‘walking” it forward with “big funny giant steps”.

Now, ask the seated child to hold the bicycle stationary by squeezing the hand brakes (note that the removal of the pedals will have disabled any coaster brake) while the feet lightly touch the ground. Then ask the child to raise the feet an inch while trying to keep the bicycle balanced vertically.

With your own bike, show the child the fundamental secret for balancing on two wheels: if you feel the bicycle beginning to fall to one side, twitch the front wheel to steer into the direction of the fall. If the bike starts falling to the right, turn the front wheel to the right; if the bike starts falling to the left, turn to the left. If all else fails, put the feet down-but not before trying to correct the fall. Count aloud to make a game of seeing how long the child can keep the bicycle balanced at a standstill before needing to touch down an outstretched toe.

After the child has mastered balancing at a standstill, encourage the seated child to propel the bicycle by ‘walking” it forward with “big funny giant steps”, keeping the feet off the ground for as long as possible between steps and the knees close to the frame. When the child can easily coast 10 to 20 feet between steps, make the game more challenging by seeing how slowly the child can coast (balancing a bike at slow speed is tougher than at high speed, but it is essential for learning enough control to mount and dismount). Suggest a “slow race” to see who can cover a certain distance last. (Just to keep the braking practice in mind, also occasionally shout “Stop!” to see how reflexively the child grips the hand brakes.)

Starting on the right foot
Many kids have no clue how to mount a bicycle. They sit on the saddle and shove the bike forward with their feet until they’re moving fast enough to balance, at which point they will lift their feet onto the pedals.

This is a very dangerous bad habit, as it will preclude a child from being able to make a fast start at a busy intersection when he or she is old enough to ride in the street with motor vehicles. Moreover, if the saddle is low enough to allow the feet to touch the ground from a seated position, the saddle is too low to allow the child to have full leg extension (legs nearly straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke) and thus maximum power to the pedals, greatest comfort on long trips, and minimum risk of knee injury.

Don’t let unsafe habits start. As soon as a child can balance, Waterman recommends installing just one pedal and starting to inch up the height of the saddle. Families in the U.S. (and elsewhere where bicycles legally ride on the right side of the road with traffic) should install the right pedal first, Why? Roads are crowned-raised in the center and lower at the sides to shed water-so the left foot (the only one that ever touches the ground while riding) will be at a higher and more stable position.

To mount properly, a child should first rotate the right pedal into the “power position” just forward of the top of the pedal stroke (in about the two o’clock position) and place the right foot onto the pedal. In one motion, the child should push down on the pedal with the right foot to propel the bicycle forward while pushing the body up off the ground with the left foot, sliding the backside onto the saddle.

To dismount properly, the child should squeeze the brake levers to stop the bicycle and slide forward off the saddle to stand with the right foot on the right pedal, which will be at the bottom of the pedal stroke. When the bicycle is nearly stopped, he or she can step down to the ground with the left foot.

When the child has mastered mounting and dismounting with the saddle at the right height for proper leg extension, install the left pedal–and encourage the child to use both feet to pedal off into the sunset. This is the first time the child has any significant risk of falling, as it may take some wobbling to coordinate the pedaling and steering. But chances are that, with all the preparatory games (drills), he or she will readily ride 20 or 30 or 50 feet. After that, practice makes perfect!

With this gentle approach, some children get the hang of balancing a two-wheeler in a single afternoon–others may take a week. Either is far faster than the months often required by any other hit-or-miss method and with far less frustration and risk of injury.

This article is a condensation of Chapter 5 of Bicycling with Children: A Complete How-To Guide by Trudy E. Bell with Roxana K. Bell (The Mountaineers Press, May, 1999) the first book to be written on family cycling. Greater detail and diagrams for step-by-step coaching of this approach, recommended books and videos, and information about kids bikes, other equipment, traffic safety, and activities can be found in this book.

© 2000 by Trudy E. Bell

This article was first published in the Summer 2000 edition of the League of American Bicyclists magazine.