Learning to Ride: Balance Bikes

By perseverance the snail reached the ark.Charles Spurgeon

Most of us Utility-Cyclists remember learning to ride. And to this day, most of us who ride with a purpose, whatever it may be, can still recall that initial sense of freedom and the trill that our first rides evoked. In fact, it just might be that long-standing sense-memory that motivates us, as adults, to ride as we do, where we do, and for as long as we have. That’s why, with this post, we’ve decided we’re going to begin looking at an as-yet unexamined category of riding-with-a-purpose here at Utility Cycling… Family Cycling.We think it makes super-good sense. Think about it: For each of us IT, the passion, the desire, the compulsion to ride began somewhere… long, long ago, at that moment when someone taught us to ride. And now, as grown-ups, as parents, as friends it’s our turn to pass the gift of bicycling along. We are, after all, each just small links in a great Chain.—As far as I know, this photo is all that survives as proof that I was once actually taught how to ride a bike. For whatever it’s worth, I have no specific memory of this particular moment in my life, how old I was, or what season of the year it might have been. It was Scottsdale, and I was young. That much is certain. Otherwise, it’s mostly a blur, and probably irrelevant anyway.But, for whatever it’s worth, I do recall that little green bike… and my father’s white work-shirts… our greenish-yellow ranch house in what was then the far-east Valley… and the smell of the Kent cigarettes my father was always smoking.I can also recall the long curving driveway that led from the street to the house. And the endless stretch of sidewalk that seemed to run forever in both directions beside the street in front of the house. I remember pedaling up and down the block on that sidewalk until our house looked small and far away, all on my own, feeling so independent, as my parents watched me from our front yard.I can remember crashing into all that crisp, brown grass in my front yard… and into the neighbors’ front yards… and into my father’s tall, sharp, potted yucca and the spiny pyracantha bushes near the carport… and into the rear-end of his huge Ford Thunderbird company-car… when he finally removed my training wheels and turned me loose to learn balance that little green kids bike with the airless plastic tires on my own, the hard way.For what it’s worth, I survived learning to ride. So did most of us. That way worked fine. I guess. Training wheels, plastic tires, sidewalks and driveways, dad standing-by at the ready to catch you… sometimes…Regardless, when it came time to teach my daughter to ride, we chose a somewhat different approach… a much kinder-gentler sort of route-to-riding, in my opinion… not that I’m usually one to favor such soft-gloved approaches to child development… I more-than-appreciate the oft-rightly-touted School of Hard Knocks and all that it has to offer us when we’re learning to do important things well. But despite that, just about the time we were beginning to consider how to teach our soon-to-be-three-year-old kid how to ride and handle a bike, we became aware of a clever little innovation that was, at first glance, totally new to us: the Balance Bicycle.Turns out, there’s actually very little new about the Balance Bike… or Push Bike… or Like-A-Bike… or Hotwalk… or PUKY, Skuut, or TIKE, or Strider… or whatever the heck you want to call them. Because all a Balance Bike really is is a Dandy Horse, which is pretty much the oldest kind of bicycle there is… a pedal-less two-wheeled rig you push with your feet while seated.So simple.That having been said, at this point I’ll just tell you the facts of the matter. Because, if you’re reading this these are probably the nuggets you’re really looking for:

  • For our kid, starting at age-three the Balance Bike method worked well; it was easy, fun, and compelled almost no frustrated or frightened tears.
  • By “worked well” I mean: Not only did she hardly ever cry, she never had training wheels, not even for a day.
  • And, as a four-year-old, after spending about a year pushing her Balance Bike around, she took to riding a bike with pedals almost immediately.
  • Today, as a five-year-old, she knows how to ride a real bike and, better yet, how to ride it safely and well.

Ok? Got that? Good.Still reading? Great! If so, you probably want to know how we did it, and how it went for us. No problem. Down to the nitty-gritty, as they say. Fortunately, I shot lots of video!For her third birthday, in the springtime of 2008, we bought her a little 12″ white-and-pink Specialized Hotwalk. She’d ridden the same bike around at the bike shop several times before we made the purchase, so we knew it fit her, that she liked it, and that she was able to get it to “go” with minimal instruction or intervention from us… just sit and kick… it seemed to come pretty naturally. Steering and braking Fred-Flintstone-style came but a few days later. By late in the summertime she was riding like this:We spent a lot of time in the woods, riding easy trails. But we also worked a lot on fundamentals: steering, braking, and control in the street out in front of the house. I think both aspects of riding were essential to helping her “get the hang” of how a bike feels and balances when it’s moving. Neither locale was perhaps the ideal venue for learning to ride, but both served some purpose. Some blood was lost in the process. But not too much. And a tooth was pretty much prematurely lost to cycling at this time, too. But in general, I’d call the whole experience a rousing success. She was riding a bike, pure and simple, all on her own!Here’s another longer video, from the same time period, that shows her using the Balance Bike pretty effectively on a local trail (lower Shultz Creek) with a bit more topography:Later that fall, before we more-or-less put the bike away for the winter, she was becoming proficient enough that we made the decision to upgrade her to a pedal bike, a 12″ purple-and-white Specialized Hotrock, for her fourth birthday in April 2009.To help her transition from the Balance Bike to the Pedal Bike I took the pedals off the new Hotrock and let her kick it around in the street as she was accustomed to. Aside from the cranks being ever so slightly obtrusive, the rig pretty much performed just like the Hotwalk had. After a day or two of this, I asked her if she wanted to try pedaling and she enthusiastically said, “Yes!” So I reinstalled the pedals, gave her a quick push down the road and she was off!Afterward, we pretty much followed the same process we’d done with the Balance Bike… a little riding in the woods…Which, due to the fact that she’d learned to brake ala the Flinstones met with more than a few good crashes…And quite a bit more training in the street…Before too long, she was riding like this:To make help her transition back onto singletrack in the woods I installed a rear handbrake, and we’ve been working on coupling it with the coaster brake action… but this learning curve has proven to be steeper and longer than any we’ve yet encountered. She still prefers to put her feet down to stop, something that’s just a lot more challenging, and probably more dangerous, when you’re pedaling than it was on the Balance Bike.Despite my ongoing concerns about helping her learn to brake effectively, I’m completely sold on Balance Bikes. I know they aren’t the only way to teach a kid to ride. And maybe they shouldn’t be. The old training-wheels-and-crashing method has worked from millions, and it continues to work for new riders year after year. But, for folks like us, looking for a kinder, gentler, more compelling and perhaps even a more valid means of cycling instruction, I thought Balance Biking provided the perfect solution. For us, and most especially for our daughter it was, without question, a success!

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