18 August 2007

Riding with Xabi: How to ride safely with toddlers

[Xabi's first ride at 11 months old.]

I enjoy riding with my youngest. Though Xabi will now be two years old in November, we've been riding together since he was 11 months old. (Remember that toddlers should not be riding until they are about 1 years old due to their maturing bones and muscles. Check on your child. See how strong he's getting, how he sits on chairs, how his neck holds up, etc. If in doubt wait. There's plenty of time.)

I still remember that first ride together--how nervous I was, how unstable the bike felt (cause I was so unused to the weight out back), how simply strange it felt to ride with a fragile baby "drafting" behind me. We've learned a few things since then and we'd like to share them with you and your baby:

1. You must practice getting the child on and off the seat, preferably by yourself without outside assistance. This almost sounds stupid but getting children on and off the bike is one of the most dangerous situations you can encounter when riding with children. Many kids get hurt when they either fall off their seat or fall while on their seat with the bike on top of them from a standstill position. This will almost always result in a serious accident as the weight of the bike will fall on the child. (The child is always wearing a helmet, right?! The child is secured with chest straps/belts in his seat, right? And you checked that the seat is properly anchored to the bike, right?) Right.

2. Practice getting yourself on and off the bike with the child in the seat. Feel comfortable and secure. Be careful the bike doesn't slip away from you or beneath you. Remember the weight is now out back and the front wheel may rise, tipping the bike backwards or over. Get on the bike on even, flat ground. Not uphill, not downhill.

3. Ride with a toddler only if you have decent bike-handling skills. Since I don't have the time to explain what common sense should be about in this post just think that if you have the slightest doubt DON'T do it. A stupid fall can be very serious.

4. Dress the child appropriately for the weather. A toddler moves very little on a bike seat and he's strapped in. She's not pedaling so she is neither breathing hard nor sweating as you climb that little hill. So remember that temperature/wind are not the same for both of you. The child may need an extra sweater (or may need to remove it). Stop from time to time. Check how things are and don't forget to offer them a drink.

5. Talk a lot, though people who don't see your child out back at first might think you're a strange cyclist (or maybe they already knew that, regardless!) Communicate with the child. "Oh look at those birdies, cars, flowers!") They love to talk and are amazed by what they see, especially for the first time. Don't forget to stop to let them get a better view of that horsie or that bridge or that big truck parked on the side of the road.

6. Make the rides short, especially the first ones. Let the child get used to his new environment. Short rides also allow you to see if the toddler is comfortable. (Recently, for example, I found that Xabi's chest straps where a bit tight -- how children grow from week to week.) Increase the length of the rides accordingly and don't ride too far from home in case the child insists on finishing the ride NOW. This may happen on first rides and you don't want to punish the kid for an hour while you try to make it home. Besides, they may not want to go with your again.

7. Ride for fun and for fun only. This is not part of your training or your recovery ride or your August mileage. This is a stroll with your child. If you can't make it fun, don't do it.

8. Stop in locations of interest. This is "dangerous" but necessary at some point. Stopping in the park, having a go at the swings, etc., just makes the trip all that more fun and the child will remember it, believe me. Dangerous because the child will not know when to stop playing and may not want to go home, not on the bike, not in the car, not no-how. Plan accordingly. Stop in those strategic places when you have the time and the patience to do so.

9. Change your route often, if possible. Children have tremendous memories. Looking at the sea and the gulls flying is cool for a couple of outings but may get old quickly. Spice it up. Point out differences to the child: colors, shapes, wind in your face. It's amazing how they appreciate and how quickly they learn. (When Xabi gets a little tired he likes to go through his list of peoples' and animals' names that he knows. I chant them along with him.)

10. Celebrate the completion of the outing once you get home. My wife and I clap and cheer and encourage him the minute we get through the garage door. We take off the helmet and clap. We unstrap him and clap and we cheer when he gets off the bike. He seems as satisfied as a congressional speaker (and he didn't even have to lie about the importance of bike paths)!
[A more experienced Xabi, August 2007.]

Enjoy your bike and your toddler. It makes for a great family activity. Do so carefully. Ask about the correct and proper equipment you need. Inform yourself. It's one of life's hidden pleasures.

Some must reads:

15 August 2007


[My daughter on tour, age eight in May 2006]

Every time we ride on the road – and sooner or later we must – we must be aware of the DANGER cars represent. Many tip givers recommend that children ride only on bicycle trails or sidewalks. That’s normally decent and well-meaning advice. However, I don’t recommend this practice in its entirety and I don’t necessarily like people riding on sidewalks as that can represent a trap to the innocent. I warn my children (or any new cyclist) that driveways on sidewalks can be very dangerous; unlike road riding oftentimes you do not expect cars to enter driveways from the road (they may not be in your line of vision or they may be hidden by bushes or what have you and, what’s worse, as a cyclist you are not in their line of vision!). Also, when driving on sidewalks your guard may be down since you’re cruising down what appears to be a safe sidewalk with no traffic. Beware!

Of course, no rule is absolute. Not all roads are the same and not all sidewalks are created equal. I believe that children may/will try different things despite our warnings and best wishes. I know I did. Hence, I prefer to teach my children (and now my wife) how to ride on the road. I do so on little-transited roads, obviously – we live in a rural community – but I do know that sooner or later my children will want to cycle on their own, with their friends, and I won’t be there to supervise their every move.

Road riding will require an understanding of basic bike handling. One must be totally comfortable on the bike, must be able to ride straight as an arrow, stop on a dime, etc. This we must do before riding on the road. (Basic safety issues, helmets, gloves, etc., must be a given. No child should ride without a helmet, regardless of what parents think of how they ride themselves. Safety when in doubt first, philosophical issues of freedom and well-meaning self-expression second. My respectful opinion, of course.)

One technique I’ve used with my children is the Spy Behind Your Helmet Trick. This was inadvertently developed by my son. Sure enough one day he wanted to ride our normal road route – which we had done together hundreds of times – all by himself. He was eight years old. This was the safest route I could find for my children, with little traffic but always with some cars passing us, etc. (But remember that it only takes one careless car or one careless cyclist to cause an accident, so we must never let our guard down despite what may appear to be a safe road.) I let my son ride thinking that he was unsupervised while I simply spied on him from my own bike back in the distance without him knowing it. It was not comforting to me at all, believe me. "What if something goes wrong?" "Am I sure that this is right?" If anything had happened there would be nothing I could do, but then again I had to convince myself that there would be little I could do if he had wanted to ride around the neighborhood with his friends.

And so it went and I was able to verify that he not only remembered what we had gone over and over, but was in fact very respectful of traffic when he was unsure, stopping his bike on the edge of the road if need be and waiting for cars to pass safely. This worked well and we continue to practice it on different routes, expanding the distance and the responsibilities involved. (My daughter, who is less the cyclist, also went through the same routine though she claimed she had a “feeling of being watched”.) Oh well.

Eventually children and beginners must venture on their own. It is a fallacy to think that we can protect them from the world. And over-protecting, well, let each parent make those decisions. We cannot do the impossible so we might as well face reality and give children the knowledge and tools to enjoy life with the greatest safety available to them.

12 August 2007

In the beginning...

Beginning cycling must concentrate first and foremost on fun. It must be fun to ride a bike.

The difficult question is: what is fun? We must answer this question by looking closely at the cycler, the beginning cycler in our case. This can be a child, an adult in good shape, an adult in really bad shape, an adult who barely knows how to ride. (And on and on ad nauseum.) We may be dealing with a person who barely remembers how a bicycle shifts gears. Why three big cogs up front and all those little ones in the back? We mustn't take the newbie for granted. We must explain some basics first. Why two brakes? Why not just one in the back or one in the front? How should we use them and when?

We must explain basic handling. How to keep the bike straight on the road; how to maintain our position on the road, relative to cars, pedestrians, etc. We must explain the importance of "feeling" the bike. You know that feeling of maintaining control, knowing how long it takes us to stop, what happens when we brake hard or when we "feather" our brakes ever so slightly to slow us down just a bit so we regain control under the right speeds. Let's feel the fun of what a bike is, what it does and what we can experience/do with it. It's way too zen for me, but it's true: we must try to feel one with the bike.

Let's know very, very slowly what our limits are. (Again, let us know ourselves or the people we are helping to get started.) Let's take a careful look at our route, at the hills we may encounter, the traffic, the weather conditions, and how we may handle different sorts of situations. (It was sunny when we left and now it's raining and the road might just be slick.)

Let's learn to stop when we can't go any further. (Let's do that with everything in our lives and then we'd really begin talking about knowing ourselves.) It's alright to stop today -- our knees are beginning to hurt -- and to try tomorrow and see if we can improve on today's performance. One terrible experience in the beginning may be the end of cycling for a person. We should not take this lightly and we shall not take for granted what others can do and what their reasonable limitations may be. So we shall begin slowly and increase our time on the bike slowly. We must be patient. We should ride three or four times a week if we can maintain those outings -- resting in between those rides so we ride one day and rest the next day and so on. This is only the beginning folks! (I prefer days off between rides whenever possible. It works for me. Think about how it may work for you or the beginner you are coaching.) We must make those first outing "easy", moderate, at cruising speeds, taking advantage of these easy-fun rides to get us acquainted with the bike and with good technique on the bike.

We must know the importance of rest and how critical it will be to our cycling and to our progress on the bike. Ride + Rest = Fun. We cannot have fun if we do not feel good, if we do not feel the bike, if we do not progress.

All of this I'm thinking out loud to start my wife on her riding program. Slowly.

06 August 2007

A Bike of Her Own

Well, it was about time. The Mrs. gets her own hybrid and she’ll be back on the road after her fall and previous cycling disappointment. The Kelly Visage is being set up at the LBS and it will be my wife’s first bike EVER! Can you believe that? Can you believe that she never had a bike of her own as a child? Now, I’ve been married for 21 years – God Bless! – and I really never knew that my wife never had her own bike. (And I’m frankly tired of seeing her, oh so jealous, when I go out with our three children for a ride!) Well that’s been fixed. Little “Envy” that someone let us have didn’t work out for her (was in bad shape and I just don’t know how to fix her and at the LBS it will cost almost like a new one to get up and running) so the only way to get my wife cycling and to overcome her fears was to get her a decent hybrid – her size – all set up and ready to go. I’m so excited! More than her. Now I get to plan her routes, a little training, bike shopping and we’ll all get to ride together: that’s five of us – I get to carry the little critter. More on the bike shortly, once we know more about it in practice since in theory I’m pretty much okay with it as a starter bike – similar to my Specialized Crossroads. Now I’ve got to think of a name for her. Any ideas?

02 August 2007


Learn to say no.

Sometimes we just can’t ride. Not to commute, not to go to the shop, not to do a little training. We might need some time off the bike, but it isn’t as simple as it sounds. How do you know you’re just putting things off or whether it’s a legitimate NO situation? Though it isn’t what we want to hear the fact remains that there is no simple answer, no simple rule. It requires that bit of intuition that we can’t learn and that no system can teach, despite what some gurus might suggest. There is one answer, of course, but it’s the one we don’t want to hear: We need to know ourselves. And since we’re all different this can become quite a psycho-drama type of thing. For me it’s become rather simple over the last year:

- My legs feel heavy, especially when I climb stairs. Not the type of heavy like when you finish a work-out, but rather the heavy that sits there for a couple of days. I call it heavy-heavy. I need a couple days’ rest and it goes away.

- Waking up in the morning is a real chore. (I know it always is, right?) But I think you know what I mean. You’re just dragging yourself out of bed. You’re late as it is; you don’t even have time to make a cup of coffee – oh, you never do? Well, you see, we’re all different. When I don’t have my cup of coffee – make that two – and some toast I’m hurting.

- I drank two extra beers the night before because my friends couldn’t help changing the world. Ok. I’m dehydrated the next day and I’m hurting.

And my favourite, like today. I just don’t feel like it and don’t know exactly why. It involves a certain bad feeling or sensation like something wrong might happen. This is very rare. I don’t know what it is and I don’t really care, but when I feel it I don’t ride it.

So over the past year I’ve grown up a bit in my cycling. I know when to say no and, incredibly, my cycling has improved considerably. If I don’t ride or do my little training ride – which I try to do at least 3 times a week independent of other riding – it’s OK. Nothing happens. Things just get fresher and better when we get back on the bike again.

What makes you say NO?