MY BOYS GOT real bicycles at age four. $200 each. Parents and grandma went in on them together.
The moment that made me understand the depth of pride that a four-year-old can feel for a new yellow bike occurs on video. We were walking back from his first day with it at the playground. He didn’t want me to carry it; he wanted to walk it. And then he says, “This is my new bike,” and the way he says it…
I didn’t even see it when it actually happened. I had to be watching the video that night to notice. It still gets me right in the heart every time I watch—because I can tell that it got him right in the heart to have been given such an amazing thing. It had never occurred to him that something this wondrous could happen to him.
Since then, the three of us have ridden hundreds of miles together. Their training wheels came off this summer (age 5) and we rode to school most mornings this summer. School bike rides decreased somewhat in Autumn because of family cold-sharing and general exhaustion, but we’re back to it now.
One boy can climb hills I’ve seen adults dismount and walk up. The other understands his drive train (the pedal turns the…? CRANK! the crank turns the…? CHAINWHEEL!), and enjoys cleaning and maintaining it. They know how to warn their riding companions about approaching hazards, stay in their lane, wear proper gear, and get back on after they take a tumble. They can both do running dismounts, which I never taught them except by example.
They both got their own three-way wrenches, too, at the same time as they got their bikes. Great for pretending to fix bikes. Even better for being sent on bolt-tightening missions around the apartment. (One of the three standard bike hex wrenches fits Ikea Allen bolts.)
We ride to the local greenmarket on Saturdays and get fresh vegetables and bread, which we probably wouldn’t bother with if we didn’t have the bikes, and sometimes it’s nice to look at the one member of the family who’s not driving you nuts that day and say, “Let’s go for a ride.”
THEIR LONGEST RIDE so far was 14 miles.
From Inwood at the top of Manhattan, down to River Run Playground on the Upper West Side, then a little farther to McDonalds, and back home. And after they watched me do my SR series this year, they asked when they could go on brevets too, so in October I put together the Rockland Lake 15K for them.
I doubt much of that would have happened if we’d given them the cheap bikes you get at the toy store. They fall apart, they’re heavy, they’ve got plastic junk masquerading as parts bolted onto them, and cheap screws and fiddly pieces to snap and snag and never get repaired. The Specialized Hot Rocks we got also use pretty standard bike parts, so things like a longer seat post when somebody’s legs outgrow the stock one aren’t a problem. After the training wheels came off and stopping on inclines became more difficult with the coaster brakes, I had hand brake levers fitted as well—though I need to go back to the bike shop and see if we can figure out a way to make them less stiff for little hands.
BUYING REAL STUFF—I don’t mean top-end silliness, I just mean not junk—lets you live more simply because you’re not constantly fighting with making it work, or giving up and losing out on whatever it was you wanted to do. I’ve seen kids on 24-inch carbon fiber Colnegos that must have cost at least a few grand, which I think is ridiculous, but the return on two $200 bikes–which I can probably resell for $100 each when they’re too small–has been incalculable.
If anyone wants their kids to learn to ride a bike without fuss and without training wheels, start with a balance bike (think Skuut or some similar brand). Our son started at 2-1/2 riding the balance bike. At 4-1/2 he’s on a conventional pedal bike and we ride together every night after dinner. It took him about 90 seconds to make the transition from his balance bike to his pedal bike.
—Guy Browne, who works at Schwalbe (they make terrific bike tires)
This is excellent advice. I had every intention of going that route—until it was made absolutely, crystal clear to me, with no back-talk tolerated, that bikes have pedals, Daddy!
SO WHAT I did instead was keep a wrench on my bike, and take the training wheels off whenever they wanted them off, and put them back on whenever they wanted them back on. I made it clear that if they wanted to learn to ride without the training wheels, that was great—but it was their bike, and they could do what they wanted.
I mean, is there any good reason to push them?
The drivetrain expert rode without them when he was four. Problem was, I did a lousy job explaining how to stop, so they went back on through the rest of that summer. But they came off permanently when he was five.
The other boy just left his on. For a while.
From a post at my previous blog:
Today I watched the training wheels while he rode and then called him over and said, “You know what? I’ve been watching you, and your training wheels are up. You’re not really riding on them, you’re riding on your wheels.”
“Yeah. You’re balancing.”
“Time to come off!”
“You want me to take your training wheels off your bike?”
“Uh—” I actually thought I’d been planting seeds for later. “Well, let me see if I brought the right wrench.”
“OK, let me show you something now.”
See, last time he tried, which was the day he saw his brother do it and his daddy get all excited, I got caught up in his rhythm and accidentally left out a step in his instruction. With Mac, I’d shown him, with my own bike, how when you brake and the bike comes to a stop, it doesn’t immediately just topple over and slam into the ground. You have a second or two of dead time, kind of a null feeling, before you need to put your foot down. Brake…aaaaaaand foot.
So this time I showed Butch what I’d shown his brother, and then there were a few practice foot-downs with me holding the bike steady and stationary and moving his body the way I wanted it to go, and then at the point where I ran alongside Mac and held the seat until I took my hand away—all of this above-board, no tricking the kid about letting go, because why teach him not only how to ride a bike but also how to distrust his father?—Butchie changed the script.
He did the foot-down stationary bike thing by himself.
Then he did it again and let himself balance for half a second longer.
Then he did it again and rolled an inch.
Then his brother got all excited and was bursting to teach him how to do it, so I let him give one lesson and then ran interference for Butchie’s experimentation again. He went a couple of inches this time. Then a foot. Then two feet.
They learn so differently.
Then I said, “I’m going to stand over there. Can you go all the way around that way and come to me?”
Oh my gosh, the joy and pride. His and mine.
“Butchie!” I called to him as I walked across the playground a few minutes later, holding things up in the air. “Know what these are?”
He stopped and peered. “My training wheels.”
We smiled at each other and I pitched them into the trash can.
I repeat this because it turned out to be a perfect way to deal with training wheels, and now that I figured it out, I have to wait twenty years, minimum, to use it again. Maybe it’ll do somebody else some good before then. (And lower the seat while you’re at it. Easier for little legs to mount and dismount without worry and wobble. You can raise it again for better power transfer later.)
SO ARE YOU screwed if you can’t afford bike-store bikes?
No! Look, they’re better. But I’m a bike Dad. I want my kids to hang with me. I want us doing bike stuff and racking up fun miles. So this is where the money goes, instead of somewhere else. But even with longer seatposts, the boys are going to outgrow them in another year or two, and the next-size bigger ones will cost even more.
And millions of kids learned to love riding on Toys R Us junk, so it’s not as though anybody needs a $200 bike just to learn to ride.
But I don’t want things breaking at mile 100 or 200 and keeping us out of the saddle for weeks until I’ve got the time and the money and the energy. The better bike is as much for me as for them.
IT’S EASY TO come off like a terrific father when you’re the one doing the blogging. I’m pretty flawed, plus it’s been a very tough slog lately, and one’s family is who gets to deal with one’s imperfect and stressed-out ass. So when one can find something that everybody likes to do together, something physically fun and interesting that gets each body’s endorphins buzzing a little louder and everybody liking each other…that’s not something for one to skimp on.
And I’ve learned you don’t need to talk much, or effect grand, intensely meaningful gestures to let a kid bask in parental warmth. Warmth is an important one for me; for one reason and another, “cold, with chance of eruptions” is not what I want for my kids. The eruptions…well, those remain a challenge. But cold is something anybody can do something about, because probably, if you’re a Dad who loves his kid, it doesn’t match what’s inside. So warm becomes a simple matter of learning to let the inside show on the outside. It’s in the body, not the mind; and as with most body-based things you’re not immediately good at—say, learning to ride a bike—it’s just a matter of practice. It’s a matter of not quitting when you feel awkward or stupid, or when you fall down. You go with the odd sensation for a while, and eventually it’s not odd, and good stuff happens.
For another of those reasons-or-another, I developed a poker face somewhere along the line—but I know warm isn’t just absence of cold. It’s not just opening a window and expecting people to come over and recognize there’s a hearth in there; you have to project that heat outward, so life can flower on your orbiting planets. It’s an active thing, not a passive one, something you do, not something you let. So when they were still babies, I practiced going outside my poker-faced comfort zone. It got easy pretty quickly. If anyone rewards overt love with immediate return of same, it’s a child.
Warmth begets warmth, and then you show that you received it back by showing it more, and then you’re two happy little celestial objects and even God smiles, because everybody wants to get into the act.
So anyway. How that relates to a family bike ride:
The ride itself is not enough. It’s good for happy memories of bike riding, not a loving experience of Daddy. What will give them that is the eyes-too smile as we’re coasting together, or the genuine approval when I mention nice job on that panic stop, or it makes me happy when I get to ride with you. But even there, warmth is sensory. It’s mostly in the tone of voice.
(And no BSing the nice jobs, either, if it wasn’t one. They’re on to that.)
But before any of that, it’s also that because you spent the money on real bikes, you can be out on the greenway, or the bridge, or the playground, or the athletic field together in the first place instead of watching Wonder Pets and retweeting Craig Ferguson because the toy store bike with Diego on it lost a pedal three months ago and you don’t ride anymore.
NOW, AS FOR helmets:
Yes, you want one for your kid.
There was never any question in our household. I ride thousands of miles a year, a chunk of which is in New York City traffic, and I’m not a total moron. (Yes, that’s bait for the helmets-have-never-been-proven-blah-blah-blah crowd. Take your best shot.) My boys have never seen me leave for a 26-mile commute, 360-mile brevet, or 2-block grocery run without head protection, so as far as they’re concerned, it’s just part of how real cyclists do it. Since they were three, they wanted bicycles so badly they could taste it, and helmets are part of the thing—another a way to be just like Daddy.
Is there a down side here?
Considering all the recent fuss about helicopter parenting and free-range kids and delayed onset of adulthood, do you strictly need helmets if the kid’s just at the playground? We didn’t when we were kids!
Well, I dunno. Do you?
AND IN CLOSING:
I rest my case.