Passing down a lifelong skill

This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 153.

Nigel Woodcock reflects on the long-term value of teaching children to ride a bike, and how ways of learning to cycle have changed over two generations.

1970s pic of a family cycling over Garret Hostel Lane bridgeI live in a quiet square of east Cambridge streets with no through traffic, ideal for cycling and for teaching a child to cycle. Working at a desk that looks out on the street, I see children on bikes in all sorts of modes: on an adult’s bike in a carrier, child seat, cargo box or trailer, on a tandem, on their own balance bike, or on a pedal bike with or without stabilisers. I’ve been reminded of the small number of years it takes for an individual child to progress through the learning process, from uninterested baby to confident solo cyclist. I’ve seen this process most rewardingly with my own grandsons, not least because they have been taught by people that I taught to cycle as children. It’s natural then to reflect both on the life-long value of cycling as a skill, and how it is passed on across generations.

That said, I wasn’t taught by cycling parents. I grew up in 1950s Sheffield, one of the hilliest cities in England. Fortunately, our house was on a suburban road with a grass verge and a wide pavement that was nearly level for a few hundred metres, ideal for a child on a bike. My first bike, aged 7, was a blue Phillips 20-inch-wheeled roadster; ‘Renowned the world over’, said their badge. I learned by trial and error, with a parent initially running behind trying to hold the back of the saddle. Once seemingly competent, we were allowed out unsupervised in those times of low car traffic, to play with the neighbourhood kids. Limited in range by having only one gear, our favourite sport was pushing our bikes up the 15% hill at one end of the road, then careering down at a speed only partially moderated by the inefficient rod brakes.

We progressed to adult bikes in our teens, but using them for routine journeys was discouraging. My secondary school was only three miles from home but involved 150 metres of elevation loss and gain. I did use a bike at university, first in a flat Manchester but then in a cycle-hostile 70s London, where one accident too many meant that I retreated to the tube. Moving to Cambridge in 1973 seemed like cycling heaven. With no car and, by 1978, three children, we moved them around in the styles of the times: in a back-pack, on a front seat clamped to the top or down tube, or in a rudimentary rear seat. We even had a primitive bike trailer fitted with a homemade wooden box suitable for kids or shopping; this predated any commercially available cargo bikes.

Nigel’s son Ben, learning to cycle (left), now cycles with his own family.

However, the favourite arrangement with both child and adult was the front seat, which later went out of favour on safety grounds but now seems to have made a comeback – justifiably so in my view: the centres of gravity of rider and child are closer than for a rear seat, making the bike easier and safer to balance and steer. But the real joy of the front seat is how easy it is to talk to each other and how much road sense the child picks up each journey. We would talk about what the changing traffic lights meant, which lane to move into, which hand signal to give when, how to turn right safely…. My children still remember absorbing all this quite complex information, so that when they moved on to their own bikes on the road, the basic rules for riding legally and safely were hard-wired into them.

The joy of the front seat is how much road sense the child picks up on each journey. When they moved onto their own bikes on the road, the basic rules for riding legally and safely were hard-wired into them

The experience of a child learning to cycle in the 1970s and ‘80s was both better and worse than in the ‘50s. A greater range of tricycles was available, giving some pedalling practice before venturing on to two wheels. However, stabilisers were in fashion, serving to frustrate attempts to balance the bike, and forcing the rider to settle for cycling at 10 degrees off the vertical. With the balance bike yet to be re-invented, it was back to the time-honoured drill of an adult racing along behind the child, holding the saddle.

By the time the first of my grandchildren was learning to ride around 2010, the balance bike was widely available and its superiority over stabilisers became obvious. When the child moved on to the pedal bike, the old saddle-holding drill became obsolete, the bike balancing from the first turn of the chain wheel. Not that it was me running along behind at this stage, but the children whom I’d taught thirty years before.

It’s very satisfying that all my children and grandchildren now cycle routinely, for sport, leisure, school, work or several of the above. However, there is one mixed blessing to the family being so involved in cycling: a proliferation of bicycles. On average, there are two and a half bikes per family member! With that fleet comes the need for a further skill to be passed on down the generations: the ability to repair and maintain bikes. But that’s another story….

Tips for teaching a child to cycle

  • Choose somewhere safe and unbusy such as a back garden, path in a park or a quiet cul-de-sac. Choose a hard surface rather than grass.
  • Begin with balancing. This is the key skill. Even if your child has already gained confidence on a separate balance bike, it may be useful to remove the pedals on their new bike as they begin to learn.
  • Make sure the bike is correctly adjusted. The saddle should be high enough to stop them using their feet flat on the ground as stabilisers. They need to be able to practise ‘gliding’ and braking.
  • Replace the pedals once they are confident scooting along. Teach them how to hook one pedal into the two o’clock position ready to push off.
  • Hold the child’s torso or armpits at first, not the handlebars, so they can feel how the bike moves. Encourage them to keep their head up and look straight ahead. Eventually, you’ll be able to let go!