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Kids and Bikes: The Evolution

“This is the last bike we’re buying you,” we said to my 11-year old son. He’s bigger than my wife now and has the same size feet as me. His “29er” mountain bike is dangerously close to being nicer than mine. I suddenly realized we’d reached the end of the evolution of family bicycles. Let’s see if I learned anything.

Bicycling is a gear-intensive sport. Multiple kids mean lots of bikes. Buying new gear can be intimidating and expensive. Work with your local bike shop, and they will alleviate your fear. A key part of cycling is recycling. First of all, several of your local bike shops or clubs may sponsor an annual bike swap where you can find pre-owned bikes for a reasonable price.

Whether you buy new or used, another way to recycle is to have hand-me-down bikes within your own family. Unless you have twins, you don’t need more than one bike at a time that’s the same size. Kind of like your kids, they can be spread out in size, from younger to older. Our crew went from a tricycle, to a bicycle trailer, to a tag-along, to a small bike with training wheels and coaster brakes, and, finally, to mountain bikes with gears and hand brakes. The tag-along (a child “bike” that is attached to the seat-post of an adult’s bike) was surprisingly useful and allowed family outings when our daughter was still too young to keep up on her own.

I’d add one missing item to our evolutionary chart. I’d get a balance bike. It’s a cycle with no training wheels and no pedals. They’d learn how to balance a two-wheeler and cruise along with “Flintstone” power. When you add pedaling later, maybe they won’t need training wheels.

One thing we always bought new was the helmet. Make sure they always wear it and make sure you do, too. I used to race bikes and I’ve seen too many lives saved by helmets to let this slide.

How do you know when a kid needs to move up to a new bike? My son recently said, “I feel like a dork with my knees hitting my chin.” It’s pretty self-evident. When you move up a bike size, don’t go too big hoping the child will grow into it. A bike that’s too big may be worse than one that’s too small. You don’t want children flying into a ditch because they can’t control their oversized machine.

Should you buy a road bike or a mountain bike? Versatility is more important than specialization. They can ride a mountain bike anywhere. A road bike is a one-trick pony. From a safety standpoint, I’d rather have my kid on singletrack than on the road tangling with traffic.

My parting advice is to let the kid “take the lead.” Let them keep training wheels until they want to be set free. They should also make some trail choices. I pick trails that are easier than they can handle. Let them tell you they want something tougher. I’ve tried to force the issue by taking training wheels off and picking a tough trail. Learn from my mistakes. Relax and be patient. The last time I checked, there’s no prize for getting rid of training wheels first. Keep it calm and happy. That’s the point, after all. Have fun with your kids on bikes in the Northern Wilds.

This story was originally published in the Aug.-Sept. 2012 issue of Northern Wilds.

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