Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bike Lessons

Working Title One: Transitioning from a Balance Bike to a Pedal Bike
Working Title Two: Second Thoughts about Bikes and Kids

Like many first time parents, we were overly eagerly for Noah to ride a bike. When he was 2, we watched online videos of kids using various types of balance bikes (bikes without pedals). If you've ever watched a little kid scoot around on a balance bike, you know the feeling: WOW! That little kid can balance on two wheels! And go so fast! And it looks so fun! That burns energy! I bet he's tired out afterwards!  I quickly developed dreams of Noah and I taking long rides together - rides where I actually RAN - while he glided along under perfect control next to me. No more fights about the stroller! No more dawdling! We would be a team. We would go fast. I would RUN and GET IN SHAPE while Noah rode a balance bike.

When Noah was 2, we started looking for balance bikes. REI had several; Noah liked the pink metal one the best. We cringed at the pink (all while trying to open-minded, cool parents), told him it was too expensive, and bought a simpler one. We passed over the wood bikes because 1) he seemed less interested in them, 2) we reasoned that the bike would be left outside, and 3) we worried about destroying the bike by our own neglect. We also liked the idea of real tires with air cushioning. The gender neutral, metal bike that we purchased ended up being heavier than a wood bike, and thus harder for him to control. I think it's about 12" tires. Bikes are awkward; they have wiggly handlebars moving separately from the rest of the bike. They have a tendency to fall over when you don't hold on with both hands.  Once you can use a bike, of course, it's a graceful thing – but we had forgotten how unmanageable it is in the beginning.

Noah wasn't really interested in it until he was about 2.5 years old. At 2.5 years old, his strength, coordination and physical size all came together to make it manageable for him. And I should confess, he didn't pick it up terrible quickly. He's tallish, but average in athletic ability. At 2.5, he would inch along, legs straddling the bike, but not sitting on the seat. This continued for weeks. It was a little maddening. But eventually, after a few months of practicing on our concrete patio, he more or less got that hang of it. As the weather got colder, he was gliding along under his own power. He was balancing! Unfortunately, his motivation and the weather were a little misaligned.

Also around that time, my stomach swelling with Mattias, and it became clear that running plan was not happening.

The summer that Noah was 3 - 3.5 years old, he rode the balance bike everywhere, for distances of 1 to 2 miles. (I would bring our double bike trailer on long walks: Mattias asleep in the infant sling attachment, Noah on the balance bike. If Noah tired out, he could ride inside the trailer with his brother and I secured the balance bike to the outside of the trailer.) Noah could glide for 50, 100, 150 feet depending on the slope. That summer, his sandals were green with yellow soles. I spent a lot of time looking at those yellow soles, his feet tucked backward, while he glided along the sidewalk. By the end of the summer, he was seriously outgrowing the balance bike, even with an adjusted seat. HE almost could have used his knees, as opposed to feet, to stop himself. He often rode the balance bike to school that fall, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile.

For his 4th birthday in the spring, we gave him a used PEDAL bike, a 16" Trek bike. (I mention the brand particularly because: MAN! Is this bike heavy!) When we wheeled it out and he attempted to hold it, I immediately regretted impulsively purchasing something second-hand and making the same-mistake-again. Namely: getting him a bike that was too heavy for him to control. What I had hoped is that there would be a smooth transition from balance bike to regular bike. No need for training wheels, just pop him on the bike and off we'd go.


First of all, there was the new bigger size. It wasn't too big for him, but he wasn't used to lifting his leg so high and he wasn't used to controlling so much weight all while getting on. There was a whole new level of coordination: using pedals was familiar to him because he had a tricycle, but using pedals to take-off from standing still and using pedals to brake were new skills. Also, the pedals were IN THE WAY when he attempted to stop by putting his feet down. Add that together with balancing a bigger, heavier bike, and it was clear that the training wheels needed to go on.

He spent last summer riding his 16" bike with training wheels. I've chilled somewhat since those early days when I was so eager to get him on a bike. I asked him a few times last summer if he'd like to take off the training wheels, and he had no interest, so I didn't push. He did a lot of riding with Fritz; 3 mile trips were the norm. Fritz was also more aggressive with proper bike training than me. He almost always took Noah in the bike lane and taught him how to follow traffic signs.

This spring, I asked him: should we take off your training wheels? I paused. You'll be able to go faster, I said. He agreed. We took off the training wheels, and he rode off, without any help from us. Of course, they say that once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget. Apparently, once you learn to balance on a bike, you also don't forget. As soon as the training wheels were gone, the bike fell over on the ground. So Fritz and Noah rode to the local bike shop, where the owner cut down a regular-sized kickstand to fit Noah's kid-sized bike. Noah got to watch the whole cutting-and-installation-process in the workshop. He was more excited about the kickstand than his ability to ride the bike training-wheel-less.

These days, Noah is very stable. He can ride very slowly if I block the path on the sidewalk with Mattias on his push tricycle. Noah doesn't like this at all (Duh!): he prefers to ride FAST. He protests riding on the sidewalk and insists on bike lanes and streets. He would ride his bike everyday and everywhere if I let him. I'm both happy and proud about this and, honestly, FREAKED OUT. His judgement lacks, especially when a friend is in the vicinity. And he gets out of sight SO FAST if I'm not also on a bike. I want to be all free-range - I want to worry less, I want him to feel confident and independent - I'm certain that his own confidence will follow mine.... But then, the things I'm reading about the five year old brains lately are making me aware that we're pushing against some limitations with his biking.

When I said he would be able to go faster without training wheels, I didn't understand the implications for my own peace of mind. One of the many parenting books I'm reading lately, this one from the 70s, had a section about how 5 year olds like to ride their tricycles, but how they still need to stay close to their parents. The idea of sitting on the front stoop while the boys rode their tricycles in circles under my watchful eyes was more than appealing. But I thought to myself: Good luck, if you foolishly already taught them to ride a bike! 

Hmm. If only I could find a place to hide his ridiculously heavy bike....

I didn't learn to ride bike until I was 7 years old. And I'm beginning to suspect that the lesson for me is: 7 years old was A Good Thing.


Katie said...

For some reason I loved the sentence about his green shoes with yellow soles. Such a vivid thing to remember, those little details stitched forever into a mama's heart.

Pregnantly Plump said...

It's great that he knows how so soon! And it doesn't sound like you had any wrecks, which is great. Little Elvis is fine with the training wheels, so I haven't brought them up. I've been bad about the bike since we live on top of a steep hill, and I spent most of my childhood with skinned knees from my constant biking and roller blading accidents.