For almost a decade I was a motorcycle safety instructor and taught a lot of students how to ride and more importantly how to ride safely.
In my teaching experience, I came across two types of students. The first had never ridden a motorcycle before and the second is one with years of experience. The beginner was typically timid but listened well. The experienced knew how to ride but was full of bad habits. Can you guess which one was easiest to teach? It is common to assume that if someone can already ride then explaining to them their mistakes would result in quick correction. That is rarely the case because once a habit becomes ingrained it can take years of constant practice to change.
Think about a professional golfer who decides to change their swing. They practice thousands of hours over the offseason to learn and master the new swing, but in the tournament if they hit one bad shot they go back to the old way, or worse a hybrid of the new swing and old. Which causes, even more, bad shots.
As a parent when it was time for my kids to ride a bicycle without training wheels I wondered what was the best way of teaching the skills needed? I’d seen hundreds of photos and movies showing the parent running behind them until they have their balance and then letting go. The child rides off into the sunset and has it all figured out.
Of course, real life isn’t like that. Getting their balance at speed is easy, and anyone can do that. What makes a good rider is the skills like turning, looking ahead, stopping, and riding defensively. Teaching those to a young child can be difficult but if you can then they will be both a better rider and car driver in the future.
One thing to note before you attempt to teach your child to ride a bike to be sure your child is ready. If you try and force them into riding when they are not then the both of you are going to be in for a frustrating experience.
What I did was to take the motorcycle safety curriculum I used to teach and modified it down to the very basics to build their confidence. Then visited a flat empty parking lot that had plenty of room in case things went out of control and went through the steps below.
Step 1. Sit on the bike
For the first step have your kid straddle the bike. Then lean it to the right, then left, finally back center. This allows them to feel the weight and is easy for them.
Cover the controls next so they become comfortable with where they are, how they work, etc. I’m assuming they would be on the same bicycle they’ve been riding with training wheels so they will already know how the breaks work. But going over them again is good and a great time to discuss trying not to slide the tire. My kids loved sliding the rear tire while on training wheels, but that is a bad habit when on two wheels. If it has hand breaks practice using them while looking ahead and not down at the handlebars.
Describe turning their head when going through curves. Any two-wheeled vehicle will always go in the direction you are looking. When going through turns, their head and eyes should be focused to the exit. Of course, for a child, this is not something easy to grasp, and I just tell them to be looking where they want to go.
Finally, show them how to position the pedals for a start and how it’s done. It’s a forward push with the foot on the ground and a firm press down on the peddle with the other foot.
Step 2. Straight Line Assisted Riding
Before giving them full control practice going in a straight line by walking behind them and keeping them upright. The focus of this is on balance and, more importantly, coming to a smooth stop. I would recommend going about 10 to 20 yards and having them stop like you would coming to a stop sign in a car. Turn around and do it again.
Once you feel like they are good at stopping it’s time to move into real riding. Let them firmly press on the peddles just like they would for a typical start and stand behind to give them a little assistance getting their speed up. Have them ride in a straight line and come to a nice smooth stop.
In just a few times of going back and forth, they will start to get better and better.
After they are feeling confident with riding straight and stopping take a break to talk about it and celebrate. The break lets them rejuvenate and start to soak in just what all they have learned.
Step 3. Real Riding
Once the break is over, practice starting off without assistance and continue doing the straight line ride with smooth stopping. You may have to help by giving them a boost at the start, but your goal is to limit the help with each start.
As they become comfortable doing it on their own, start looking at their head and eyes. Make sure they are looking up and ahead not down at the ground or handlebars. If you do notice them looking down, tell them to look ahead.
Step 4. Turns
Turns are the next skill that is essential and I have them do a big oval like a Nascar track.
The proper form is to slow down in the straightaway, then turn your head and look all the way through the curve, and finally, make the turn by pressing on the inside hand grip.
Teaching that to a young child isn’t easy so I pick the most important skill, and that is the head turn. As they go around the turn, just watch where they are looking. If it’s anywhere but the exit, work on reinforcing that they need to look through the curve, so the turn is smoother, sharper, and so they have more time to react if something is ahead they didn’t anticipate.
The head turn is the one secret to becoming a great rider on a bicycle or motorcycle, and if you can instill this habit from the beginning, they will be a much better rider.
Step 5. Defensive Riding
If you remember drivers education, they taught you to be a defensive driver. At the very basics, it means pretending like you invisible and no one else on the road can see you. See that car at the stop sign? They are going to pull out in front of you. See that car coming to a red light? They are going to run it.
I live in a neighborhood, and it’s full of things that can endanger a new rider. Kids are playing, balls rolling across the street, unleashed dogs, and worst of all adult drivers running 50 miles an hour.
That is why I spend a lot of time talking about this with my kids and going through typical “what if” scenarios. Then letting them create their own. Putting the focus on what action to take in the event it ever does arise. Should they stop, weave, scream, clap their hands.
If all this is too much for you just send them on their way, kids pick up things quicker than we do. Just remember to keep it fun because this will be a lifetime memory.
Do you have any tips to share? Leave a comment and let me know.