If you’re an avid cyclist with kids, I bet that you also want to get them involved in biking! I started my son on a strider, and then his own little bike at age 4. Transitioning him off of training wheels was easier than my parents had it with me — I didn’t do the “run alongside their bike and pray they can balance” routine — instead, I followed the instructions here and it was a fast transition. It wasn’t without a few wipeouts, but the kid learned to ride on his own much younger than I did.
“Mountain biking is all about getting dirty, having fun, falling down and getting hurt. Actually no, not getting hurt. Just falling down.” – My kiddos mountain biking mantra
After a year or two of riding on the sidewalks, I decided to let him try some of the easiest singletrack trails around. They were fairly wide, undulating trails with minimal hills and zero obstacles. HE LOVED IT!! I have a fond memory of him yelling “THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER!” as he cruised down the hill … and then he crashed into the bushes. I’ve learned to give him space and I still have to remind myself not to audibly gasp when he’s doing something that looks risky. The kid already has better balance and innate skill on the mountain bike than I do! If you ask him, he’ll tell you that “mountain biking is all about getting dirty, having fun, falling down and getting hurt. Actually no, not getting hurt. Just falling down.”
I have a few tips to share from my trials and tribulations of biking with my elementary school aged son:
Let them make choices
- I try to only go biking with my son when HE wants to. This also means that I end up biking on days that I don’t want to, only because he’s excited about it.
- I let my son pick out where he wants to bike and let him decide when he’s ready to upgrade to a harder trail (within reason). I’ll typically set some criteria before he can upgrade mountain bike trails — for example, he had to ride the beginner loop in its entirety without crashing before he could upgrade to intermediate.
Make it fun
- Bike to somewhere interesting and fun. We’ve biked to the local coffee shop to get him a hot chocolate when it’s cold, and we’ve biked just up the street to the gas station in the summer to get him a slurpee.
- Let the kid lead – sometimes I let him pick the route, leading us in odd circles around the neighborhood. Other times I’ve let him try to figure out the way to his favorite park.
- Pick a route with short loops when pushing the distance, or have a bail out plan. I’ll know we’re close to the car, but he may not! Watch for flagging energy and cranky moods — it can signal an incoming tantrum!
- I also pack snacks. Biking with a HANGRY kid is awful — I don’t want him to learn to rely on always snacking, but I usually have something tucked into my jersey pocket for him.
Get them good gear — new, used or borrowed!
- If you’re an enthusiastic cyclist, odds are your gear doesn’t suck. I had been mountain biking with my son somewhat regularly and he struggled up every hill. On steeper sections he ended up walking and pushing his bike, which was miserable for both of us. I figured that the bike weighed almost half of what he did!
- I had a friend who let us borrow a much lighter, nicer bike and lo and behold, my kiddo could bike up almost every hill we hit! The bike was more agile and he could maneuver better, and the switch from coaster brakes to hand brakes meant he could get out of the saddle more and had better control of the bike. It was an AMAZING shift for both of us.
- Once he outgrew that loaner bike, I spent the winter scouring used bike sites. I was patient and managed to snag a great deal! It felt like a lot of money, but to put it in perspective, his mountain bike cost less than 10% of what I spent on one of my nice bikes. Granted, he’ll outgrow it in a few years, but I think the hours we’ll spend on the trails this summer will make it worth it!
- I even got him a jersey to wear, and how he feels like “one of the pack” when we’re out there. He wears it religiously on almost every ride we do!
Even out your advantage
- My son was initially frustrated that I had gears on my mountain bike and he did not. I decided that when we rode together I would typically ride the rigid singlespeed, just like him. He got to see where I had to get out of the saddle to power up hills, and he started doing the same. It was a great teaching tool!
- The first time he hit up the intermediate trail, I took my cyclocross bike instead of a mountain bike. He and I BOTH had to walk the same obstacles that day, and I think it was empowering for him to see both of us struggle through the trail.
Mix it up
- My son rides on the roads around our house, the paved bike trails, and mountain bike singletrack. I let him pick where we’ll ride and try to mix it up. This could mean new trails, new MTB locations, and maybe even new riding buddies — one of the local youth riding clubs geared towards slightly older kids let us join them at the start of a ride. It was motivating for him to see the older cyclists and watch their bike handling skills!
- I don’t know how your kids are with you, but my son tends to whine the most for me. It’s like I’m his “safe place” and aallllll the emotions come screaming out sometimes. I’ve been assured by other moms that this is a common phenomenon with their kids. I’ve had my son go biking with other adults I trust, and he tends to try harder and do better at new trails with a different adult around. Plus it’s great for me, as I get to go rip around on my own ride without him!
Our Favorite Places to Bike
South central Minnesota is home to some amazing bike trails that the whole family can enjoy. Here are a few of our favorites.
- Murphy Hanrehan, Savage, MN – Murphy Hanrehan has one of the best beginner MTB trails in the area, in my opinion. It is fairly flat, on wide open grassy prairie, with minimal elevation changes. It was the first place I had my son try singletrack!
- Lebanon Hills, Eagan, MN – Lebanon Hills is a great MTB spot in the metro area. There is a skills park located next to a picnic shelter. This is a great spot for the parents to sit, eat, and chat while the little ones rip laps around the skills park!
- Sechler Park, Northfield, MN – over the past few years CROCT (Cannon River Off-road Cycling & Trails) has really worked to improve mountain biking in the Northfield area, and it shows. The trails are expanding every year!
- Paved bike paths near our house, Lakeville, MN – I love the paved trails for teaching my son “the rules of the road” without actually having to deal with much traffic. We work on riding side by side, hand signals, holding a steady line, etc. all while keeping my blood pressure down!
- Low key gravel on our tandem!, Northfield, MN – The kid loves gravel rides. We rode with a group outside of Northfield, MN in the fall as the full moon was rising. My son was more enamored with the farm equipment harvesting crops in the darkness than the supermoon!
Hopefully you’ll find some of these tips helpful when introducing your kids to cycling! Do you have other suggestions to add to the list? Please add them to the comments for others to read!