Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Teaching children to ride (or: 'Why trainer wheels are the devil's accessory')

If you have a child, chances are they will want to ride a bike. Children rate cycling only second to swimming as a fun thing to do.

The traditional way to teach a child to ride is to buy them a small bike, slap trainer wheels on it, and then watch them fall off the very tippy tricycle you just made them until they grow past the counter-intuitive physics setup you put them into.

Let me explain: When you turn a corner on a bike, you lean inwards. A tricycle cannot lean. If you try to lean on a tricycle, you end up on two wheels. As a bike fitted with trainer wheels gets its drive from the rear bike wheel, leaning lifts the wheel off the ground, so the child's legs then spin forward quickly and unexpectedly as traction is lost. A typical tricycle has the wheels equi-distant. It is a 'perfect triangle', and therefore very stable.

A bike with trainer wheels is anything but stable. The trainer wheels are relatively close together compared to the distance to the front wheel, making for an isosceles triangle that is very easy to tip side-to-side.

Usually a child with trainer wheels puts pressure on the wheel arms so much that they bend upward. This then allows them to corner correctly - until the lean over too far, the trainer wheel contacts the ground, the rear bike wheel lifts and carnage usually ensues.

All this delays the child's ability to cycle freely, sometimes by years. Seriously. There are 5- and 6-year-olds out there on trainer wheels who could have been cycling at 3 or 4.

So what's the answer? How to tech your child to balance in a way that doesn't kill your back and gives them the sense of independence and freedom to let their brain focus on the bike? A stick.

There are many types of stick - from a broomstick right up to custom-built multi-pound ones made form space-age steel or aluminium. Fellow Kiwi Gary Moller wrote an excellent how-to guide on the subject years ago - here's a photo from the eBook:

But if DIY isn't your thing, there are commercial alternatives now available all over the place: just Google on ' balance handle child bike ' and a whole range come up to suit different budgets, taste and bike design. All these contraptions do the same thing: connect an adult's hand to the bike, at a comfortable height.

Once fitted, it's as easy as walking or jogging behind your child. You'll both know when it's time to let go.