Around 6 or 7 B.C. (Before Children), I spent a good amount of my free time on my 1995 Kona Lava Dome mountain bike. Ironically, shortly after moving to Bend, Oregon (mountain biking mecca and land of lava), I found myself pregnant and out of the game for the next several years. My girls did a lot of hiking with me during their early years, but I wasn’t about to strap them on a bike and risk a crash-I’m not that good.
This was the year it all changed… hallelujah! Both girls were comfortable (and becoming increasingly bored) on their cheap beginner bikes, and thanks to a free hand-me-down and a $65 Craigslist find, they found themselves ready to try some singletrack. Wondering if your kid’s up for the challenge? Ask yourself a few questions:
• Are they proficient on a single-speed bike? Can your child stop quickly, turn without wobbling, and stay focused? I knew Elise wasn’t ready for mountain biking when she kept looking up in the sky or at her friends behind her when we rode on pavement-you don’t want them hitting trees or going off-trail in the woods.
• Are they tall enough? The smallest multi-speed mountain bikes on the market have a 20″ wheel size. Most kids need to be about 4′ tall before they can control a bike this size. Once they reach a height where they can comfortably put their feet on the ground while sitting on the seat, they’re ready to try a mountain bike.
• Are they in good enough physical shape? As we know, many kids are spending less and less time outside these days, and not getting an adequate amount of exercise. While it is possible to find old logging road trails or dirt roads without a lot of incline to ride, most singletrack trails involve some elevation gain, which can be frustrating for an out-of-shape kid.
• Are they getting bored with paved trails and roads? I knew I needed to take my girls out in the woods when I had to constantly remind them to stay on the paved paths in Sunriver (the resort near our home)-the dirt along the side was much more attractive. It was time to get them out of there before they got in trouble for wrecking the landscaping.
• Are they good listeners? Just like we have to train our kids to stop at crosswalks and look both ways, we need to make sure they’re ready to obey the adults they’re with immediately when they’re riding in the woods. Maya tends to have a delay hearing me when she’s focused on something, so I didn’t take her out until I knew she could stop or turn if I called out for her to do so on the trail.
So, you’ve answered, “Yes!” to the above and bought the coveted mountain bike. Now, before you load it up and take your kid on their first excursion, make sure they get some practice time to get used to how the bike handles, and make any needed seat-height adjustments. Also, confirm that they can do the following:
• Change gears smoothly. Don’t let them get caught on an uphill climb without knowing how to switch gears without assistance. Chain dumps = frustrated, crying kids.
• Use the front and rear brakes correctly. Most kids’ single-speed bikes have the type of brakes where you pedal backward to stop-hand brakes are a completely different animal. Explain which is the front brake (left hand) and rear (right hand) and encourage them to use the front brake sparingly until they master the right combination. Nobody likes flipping over the handlebars.
Now pack up the crew (don’t forget everyone’s ASTM-approved bike helmets!) and find a trail to explore. Be sure to stop along the way and let the kids enjoy the scenery-they need the breaks and it’s good for the soul.