You may have learned to ride a bike with your mom or dad running alongside to keep you from falling. That method still works, but there's an alternative offered by bike experts, such as the nonprofit group International Bicycle Fund (IBF). It's a method that separates learning to balance from the other skills needed to ride.
If you want to stick with the more traditional method for your kids, you can try a tool called an EZ-Bar. This device attaches to the back of the bike with a quick-release feature. You stand behind the bike, offering support as needed. Your child can't see you, and thus doesn't know when you are intervening to keep the bike upright.
Outlined below is the alternative method of teaching your child to ride.
Your child should be able to sit on the bike with both feet flat on the ground. If necessary, lower the seat to accomplish this. Remove the training wheels. Make sure your child is wearing a helmet. You may want him to wear long pants and gloves for added protection.
Position the bike in a grassy field about halfway up a gentle slope of about 30 yards, the IBF says. The grass will provide a soft landing when your child falls.
Hold the bike while your child gets on. Have your child keep the bike still with both feet on the ground, so that you can let go. Tell your child to raise his feet about an inch off the ground, so he can coast down the hill, without pedaling. The bike will go slowly, so your child can put his feet down to stop if he feels scared.
You can run alongside the bike if your child wants you to, but try not to steady the bike.
Have your child continue practice coasting down the hill until he no longer needs to put his feet down along the way.
In this way, your child learns the feeling of balancing the bike without the added skill of pedaling.
Once your child has mastered the balance without pedals, have him put his feet on the pedals and coast. You may start with just one pedal, then both pedals. As before, do this exercise from halfway up the hill. When this is comfortable, have your child begin pedaling down the hill.
The next step is to move to the top of the gentle hill and try the pedaling exercise for the length of the down slope. At this point, you can raise the bike seat. Then have your child practice braking before the bike stops on its own.
Straight lines and turns
The next set of skills should be done on flat ground, in a flat park, basketball or tennis court, or other off-street area not used by cars.
First, have your child practice starting from a stop. He should have one pedal pointed at the handlebars--the 2 o'clock position--to provide a solid pedal stroke when starting, the IBF says. Starting from a lower position can cause the bike to wobble.
To ride straight, your child should look straight. A beginner who looks to the right or left instead, often ends up swerving.
Your child should also practice braking. If the bike has front and rear brakes, have your child use both at the same time. Using only the front brakes can pitch the rider off the bike head first. Using only the rear brakes makes the bike more likely to skid.
To teach your child to turn, have him slow down before he starts to turn. Turning is a combination of a little leaning and a very little steering, the IBF says. Tell your child to keep the inside pedal up and look through the turn.
Even before your child is ready for the road, be sure to teach him to follow the rules of the road. That means riding on the right side of the road, in the same direction as traffic; and stopping at stop signs.
The IBF lists these rules for beginning cyclists:
Don't play in the road.
Don't ride on busy streets.
Stop and look before crossing or entering any road.
Ride in the same direction as traffic, even if riding on the shoulder or the sidewalk.
Stop for all stop signs, and obey all other traffic signs and signals.
Don't just "follow the leader" when riding when others. Make your own safety decisions, such as when to cross a road.
Keep at least one hand on the handlebars at all times. Two hands are better.
Don't ride at night. Wear bright clothing during the day so you'll be more easily seen.
Wear a helmet whenever you ride.
Good bike skills and common sense can help prevent crashes, but helmets are critical if a crash occurs. Tell your child to wear a helmet whenever he rides. Be a good role model by wearing your helmet when you ride. A helmet is a good idea for every cyclist, no matter what age.
A good bicycle helmet must be able to absorb the energy of impact to prevent brain injury. Most of the best helmets have three elements: a shell, a liner and straps and buckle.
The helmet you buy should carry a sticker stating that it means the standard set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or Snell B-95 or N-94 standards, the IBF says.
These are pointers from the IBF when selecting a helmet:
The helmet should sit level on the head, covering the forehead in front.
The chin strap splitter should lie right under the ears.
All straps should lie flat, not be twisted
The chin straps should be tight enough to allow only one finger between the strap and neck--without choking.
The helmet shouldn't rock from side to side.
The helmet should rock slightly forwards and backwards. If it can lift up off the forehead or come down over the eyebrows it needs further adjustment.
Trim loose ends of overlapping straps or tack down with duct tape or rubber bands.
The IBF says that adding decorative stickers or paint can affect the strength of the shell and may void the warranty.
Going for a ride
When you feel that your child has a good grounding in basic skills, take him on a longer ride. You can keep it interesting by bringing snacks; taking rest breaks; and stopping for other activities, such as a playground or ice cream shop. Invite one of your child's friends along.