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Teaching a kid to ride a bicycle is a highly technical process: First, you place a bike near the child. Next, offer encouragement. Then watch them ride off into that cul-de-sac sunset. That may be skipping some of the finer points, but fortunately Todd Wells can fill all of that in for you.
Wells is 14-time National Champion and 3-time Olympian who you can still find teaching others to ride a mountain bike like a pro — like his 2-year-old son Cooper, who got up on 2 wheels faster than most kids get up on 2 feet.
“Kids mimic their parents, so if they see you peddling around they’ll want to do that, too,” says Wells. “At that young age, they want to explore everything, and a bike opens that up.” Here’s the quickest way to start your only family biker gang.
Balance First, Pedals Later
Forget about all the Space-Age technological advancements in bicycles (like literally using material they send to space), there’s only one thing you need to do to get your kid up and balancing on a bike: Take off the pedals.
“Nowadays, we’re so lucky to have walker or strider bikes,” Wells says. Balance bikes are those pedal-less pushers that allow kids to sit down and almost immediately dial-in how to stay upright. His son picked one up at one. “They can develop their balance much younger than if riding a traditional bike with pedals and training wheels,” he says. Once your little cyclist masters the balance bikes, transitioning to pedals isn’t a huge leap.
Find A Helmet
Remember when you were young, and nobody wore helmets? What wonderful, idiotic days those were. Since massive brain injuries are less cool than wearing a helmet, you should probably find the right one for the whole family.
Wells recommends that, first and foremost, it fit correctly. The means the helmet is snug, doesn’t wiggle around, but also doesn’t squeeze their head. Next, make sure it has a sun-visor. Apart from keeping out the sun, those little visors can prevent a kid’s face from making contact with things. This is especially important for young kids who don’t have the reflexes to put out their hands. “Cooper has fallen on his face a hundred times and never gotten cut, so a well-fitting helmet with a visor is key,” he says.
The Smaller the Kid, The Shorter the Fall
Because your child isn’t named Johnny Knoxville, you understandably get upset when they take a nosedive into the pavement. But you also should realize that falling hurts less for young kids. “When they’re young, they don’t have a long way to fall, they don’t carry a lot of speed, and they don’t have a lot of mass, so they bounce right back up,” says Wells. “When they’re young, they bend.”
When your toddler does wipe out, play it cool tough guy. They’ll often have the same reaction as you. “If they crash and see you’re panicked, they’ll panic, too. But if you’re calm, they stay pretty calm,” he says. For example, Cooper was good at accelerating. Maybe a little too good. That’s why Wells has a near-constant dialogue with him about Newtonian physics (in toddler-speak). A 2-year-old can be distracted by an odd-shaped cloud, so you have to be their navigator when obstacles pop up.
Cruise the Fairway
Wells lives in Durango, Colorado, where he and Cooper ride on a local golf course. The grass is perfect — it’s hard enough to ride on, soft enough to fall on, and the grass blades are short, so gaining momentum is possible. Of course, people in Colorado have a different relationship with grass, and your local country club might not be cool with being a toddler track. In that case, find soft, open, undulating areas for learners from toddler-age to elementary school-age.
“Grassy parks with a slight downhill are great,” says Wells. “Kids can build up to riding down the steeper grass, then transition to pavement or dirt.” As they get older, seek out similarly mellow mountain biking areas or dirt roads. “Anywhere that isn’t busy, where you and your kid can explore.
Bicycles Built For Everyone
Wells was a decent BMX rider, but when he discovered mountain biking he became a world-class athlete. Cycling is a diverse sport. You can ride ramps, mountains, and roads. You can cruise or compete. You can ride to the corner for a Tastee Freez or race to the North Pole. Wells says that, once your kid hit elementary school, start exposing them to these different styles of cycling. “Just about any kid can ride a smooth mountain bike trail,” he says. “Some might just love riding a bike path with mom and dad.”
Find Bike-Minded People
There’s a reason bikers join gangs — and it’s not just for the group discounts at leather stores. Wells recommends finding riding friends, or joining clubs or leagues, like the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which is for high-schoolers interested in mountain biking. What Wells loves about NICA allows them to do all kinds of organized bike activities: They can enter competitions, receive instruction, or just roll with the homies. “The culture of cycling is very supportive and inclusive,” says Wells. No NICA chapter near you — find the nearest bike shops or the closest Internet.