Your first memory of cycling will always be one of the greatest. For many of us it’s that moment when we realise that the person teaching us is no longer holding on to the back of the saddle.
We’re cycling by ourselves, with the wind in our hair and a sudden realisation of the freedom that riding a bike can offer.
That often the next thing we do is fall off is forgotten. We get back on and we go again, and we keep going until we don’t fall off. At least not as often.
What we don’t appreciate at the time is the effort it takes to get us to that point, but thankfully there’s a lot more help out there these days than there was back when when our elders removed the stabilisers and hoped for the best.
‘There’s no time limit on learning to ride – some children take to it like a duck to water, while for others it’s a much longer process,’ says British Cycling policy manager Nick Chamberlin. ‘And sometimes it’s the adults that need a guiding hand.’
You can at least start them young. ‘Getting kids confident on two wheels from an early age is key, and balance bikes are the way to go here,’ says Sam Robinson, director at cycling charity Love To Ride.
‘Children can learn to balance as they learn to walk, so you can start them off from age one up. Equally it’s never too late, and you can remove the pedals from any bicycle to turn it into a balance bike.’
‘Balance bikes are the key to a lifetime of confident riding,’ agrees Alexandra Rico-Lloyd, co-founder of the UK’s first monthly kids’ bike subscription service, The Bike Club. ‘We can’t stress this enough: stabilisers don’t teach children how to balance, which is absolutely essential.’
Next, pick your spot. ‘Any open, traffic-free space is perfect – it could be your local park, a quiet car park or a cul-de-sac,’ says Robinson.
Then comes the tricky bit – teaching them. ‘Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage, but it can end in frustration,’ says Cycling UK instructor Julie Rand. ‘Luckily there are a few simple steps that can make it fun for all.’
Firstly, check the bike over with your child: tyres should be pumped up, the saddle should be secure and pedals should turn smoothly. ‘Most importantly, the brakes should work,’ says Rand.
Your child needs to get on and off safely, so teach them to hold the brakes, tilt the bike slightly and swing a leg over to sit on the saddle. ‘Both feet should be flat on the ground and their hands should be on the brake levers,’ she adds. ‘Get them to squeeze both brake levers gently at the same time.’
Then they’re ready to scoot, and once they’ve got the hang of it they’re ready to pedal. ‘Ask your child if they want to try it,’ says Chamberlin. ‘If they’re taking big, long strides while scooting on a balance bike, putting their feet up and gliding, cornering easily and with confidence, give it a go.
‘The progression once they are confident enough and strong enough is to learn the “pedal ready” position with the pedal at 2 o’clock,’ he adds. ‘All you’ll need to do is tell them to push down hard and get the pedals turning.’
‘You may find when trying out pedals for the first time your child may begin pedalling backwards due to lack of resistance,’ says Rico-Lloyd. ‘With a little encouragement they’ll soon make the link between forward movement and balance.’
‘Remind them to look where they’re going and not down at their feet, which can be the temptation when pedalling is a new skill,’ adds Rand. ‘They need to sit up and look straight ahead at where they’re going. Encourage them to steer into the turn and move with the bike.’
Stay with them
Once your kid has got the basics, this is not your cue to put your feet up with a flask of coffee – you should be with them, lightly holding on to them or the back of the saddle to correct them if they veer off course (they will) and save them if they wobble (they will).
‘It’s a bit of a back-breaker for the adult helping, but running behind and making encouraging noises really can help,’ says Robinson. With practice they will learn to balance, steer and pedal at the same time, and once they’ve combined that with stopping safely you can let go.
‘Tell them to keep pedalling, and to stop when you say,’ says Rand. ‘Practice makes perfect, so try it again and again.’
‘We all know the age-old trick of letting go without them knowing works a treat,’ says Robinson. ‘It just takes time, so patience and determination for both rider and parent is vital. Keep talking to them, and be positive.
‘You might be wincing as they wobble along, but they don’t need to know that. Let them know they’re doing great, and remind them to keep their head up, keep pedalling and looking where they want to go.’
‘It’s important to acknowledge from the very beginning that falling off is something that could well happen, but that it’s OK – it doesn’t mean failure,’ says Rico-Lloyd.
‘For most children it’s a natural part of the learning process, which is a significant physical and emotional challenge. Being prepared for the possibility of falling off will help your child if and when it does happen.
‘Pick them up, dust them down and make sure they’re happy to go again. If they aren’t, that’s fine – you can always come back to it another time.’
Whatever they want to do there and then, they need to know that you have faith in them. Assure them you’re in control of the situation and that you know they can do it.
‘You could even remind them you got them through all that scary baby stuff, even when they fell over, so there’s good evidence you’re a pretty safe and trustworthy co-pilot,’ says Rico-Lloyd.
Just remember one other thing: this is meant to be fun. ‘Always stop before your child is bored, tired or hungry,’ says Rand. ‘About half an hour is right for young children. Be positive, be encouraging and they will really enjoy learning to ride.’
Simple steps to get your child cycling
Start with a balance bike: A balance bike or a bike with the pedals removed allows your child to learn to balance for themselves.
Find a quiet space: The best options are usually your local park or a cul-de-sac with no traffic. Find a stretch of flat, smooth tarmac, or an area of short grass in summer.
Get the basics right: Make sure they start by learning simple skills such as cornering and, most importantly, braking.
Move on to pedalling: Teach them to push down on the pedals, starting with one foot on the floor and the other on a pedal at 2 o’clock, in line with the frame.
Stay with them: Run alongside or behind them, holding onto them or the back of the saddle while they get used to pedalling.
Then let go! As they grow in confidence let go and let them try for themselves, while still running alongside to catch them in case of a fall.
Be encouraging: Keep talking all the time to offer advice and encouragement. And always be positive, even if/when they fall off.
Keep at it: Remember to go at their pace – and have fun!
Read our guide to the best kids’ bikes for every age
Photography: Patrik Lundin except where noted