Like the bicycle itself, the way we learn to ride a bike has changed over the years. Teaching children to cycle has never been easier with kids’ bikes that are specifically designed for children of every age. Choosing the right size bike is key as it will make learning a lot easier - see our kids bike size guide for more.
Balance – the most important skill
For many years children's bikes with stabilizers were the first step when learning to ride. While stabilizers are a great way to get kids pedalling early on, balance bikes have now taken over as the best way to start cycling. With a balance bike girls and boys can start their cycling journey earlier and can develop their essential cycling skills quicker.
Balance is probably the most important cycling skill to learn which is why many cycling instructors will recommend starting kids on balance bikes.
With their feet close to the ground and no pedals to get in the way, children can get going on a balance bike almost as soon as they can walk. With a balance bike, kids can scoot themselves along and use their feet to steady themselves while learning how to balance as they roll around.
You will soon be able to tell when children have learned how to balance as they will lift their feet up when picking up speed. Some balance bikes feature little foot rests to make this easier for them.
Braking – learn to stop before you start
Stopping on a balance bike is easy, as children simply need to drag their feet to slow down and stop. Some balance bikes come with a rear brake. It is a good idea to encourage them to use this to slow down once they are confident enough to lift their feet onto the foot rests. When moving up to a pedal bike, stopping with their feet won’t be so easy, so it is important for them to learn how to brake before they set off pedalling. If their balance bike isn’t fitted with a brake, make sure they know how to slow down and stop using the brakes on their pedal bike before you teach them to pedal independently.
Little hands may find it difficult to reach the brake levers, even on a children’s bike, so you will need to make sure that they are properly adjusted. Fortunately, all good kid’s bikes will have a reach adjuster on the brake levers, so you can perfectly position the lever for their hands.
Pedalling – the road to independence
Once kids have developed their balance skills, the next step is to move up to a pedal bike. Whether moving from a balance bike or a bike with stabilizers, pedalling independently is the big step in learning to ride a bike. While pedalling independently is much easier to learn once they have mastered how to balance on two wheels, the learning process is much the same as when cycling without stabilizers for the first time.
First choose a nice flat open space free of obstacles. Learning on smooth tarmac is probably easiest, but a grass surface will be more forgiving if they fall. Make sure they know how to stop with their brakes, especially if you start them off on a slope.
The initial pedal stroke is important so start them off with one foot on the pedal in the ten-past-two position. Encourage them to push down strongly with their first pedal stroke, so they can get their other foot onto the pedals while they are still moving forward. Once they have both feet on the pedals it's just a matter of practice before they are cycling confidently all by themselves.
You can support your child while they learn by holding the saddle and walking alongside them. This will mean they don’t need to worry about balancing until they get the pedals going. As they get the hang of this you will be able to let go of them and watch with pride as they cycle independently for the first time.
This step may take some time to master but is well worth persevering with. Once they have learned to pedal a bike independently, this skill will stay with them for a lifetime.
Road Craft – ride safely
Once children are comfortable with the basics, it is time to start thinking about the more advanced skills that will enable them to ride safely on the road. Fortunately cycle training is widely available for children in the UK. Bikeability is a cycle training scheme that teaches kids the skills they need to cycle safely on the road and is widely available through schools and youth groups.
To give your child a head start you can help them learn basic safety skills. Encourage your kids to look behind them while riding in a straight line, as this is an important cycling road safety skill. Cycling with one hand is also a skill worth practicing, as it will help them when they learn how to signal to other road users.
Gears – low to go, high to fly
You will start to see kids' bikes with gears on the 18” and 20” wheeled bikes that are ideal for children aged 6-9 years old. Most 24” wheeled junior bikes will have gears. It is best to start kids off with a bike that has rear derailleur gears only, as this means that they only have one shifter to worry about.
Changing into a higher (harder) gear that enables them to ride faster is relatively easy. The trick is to encourage them to change back into a lower (easier) gear as they slow down. This will mean that they are in the correct gear when they are ready to set off again. Changing into a lower gear is also important when climbing. With the rear derailleur, it is the larger cogs that give you the lower gears while the smaller ones provide the higher gears. This is counterintuitive so it’s a good ideal to show kids this so they can see what gear they are in before they set off.
Some 24" wheel bikes also have front derailleur gears. While these offer a wider gear range they harder for kids to manage so it is best to start them off on a bike with a single chainring. Once they have mastered the rear derailleur and need a bigger gear range then they can step up to a bike with both front and rear derailleur gears more easily.