So you’ve got a kid, and you think it would be pretty swell if that kid was a mountain biker. Awesome! Way to get started early on giving your child the gift of mountain biking – get ready for an exciting ride. There are a few things you can do to make this process easier on yourself, and help ensure that your progeny falls as deeply in love with the sport as you are. From bike selection, to safe progression, and general tips, we’ve got the info you need to get your kid shredding on two wheels.
When and how should they get started?
Sometimes great riders are described as looking “more comfortable riding than they do walking”—they just look natural and intuitive on the bike. And even if you’re not raising the next great world cup racer, the earlier you get your child riding, the easier it will be for them to learn. So as soon as your child is comfortable walking, you can get them started on a balance bike. It’s always shocking how quickly kids as young as 2 or 3 years old can figure out how to putter around on a balance bike with no pedals or training wheels. Just make sure to get them a bike helmet that fits, and help them make a habit of wearing it.
If your child is already older, there’s no better age to start at than the one they are now. The key shift that parents and bike experts have found in the last decade is ditching training wheels. I know, you have fond memories of riding that red Schwin around the neighborhood the day after your dad took off your training wheels, but it turns out that they mostly help kids develop bad habits that they then have to unlearn when they graduate to riding unassisted.
Instead get them started on a balance or run bike. These bikes won’t have pedals, instead you get around by kicking your feet. They are a great tool to get comfortable coasting, turning, and moving the bike around, so that once it’s time for pedals, they’re already strong riders. If your child is too big for a run bike, just have your local shop take the cranks and chain off a regular bike in their size so that they can get familiar with the bike before they have to learn to pedal too.
What to look for in a kids bike?
When it comes to your kid’s first bike, it’s usually pretty simple: find something that they can straddle comfortably with their feet flat on the floor. As they get older though, things get more complicated. Luckily, plenty of big bike brands have put a bunch of time and effort into building better kids bikes and components recently, so there are more good choices than ever before. Here are some general guidelines to look for.
This is the most often overlooked factor in choosing a kids bike. They need something light that they can move around easily on their own. Go in to a shop and have your kid handle a few bikes. Make sure they can pick the bike up on their own, and lean it back up if they fall down. Even though you’ll be there to help them, it really helps children to feel more self-sufficient and confident if they can move their bike around on their own. There’s nothing worse than a heavy kids bike.
Tires and Suspension
For most younger kids a fully rigid bike is the right choice. Suspension adds weight, and younger riders rarely reach the speeds on technical trails that justify it. Instead, look for kids bikes with higher volume tires. Many brands have started to sell “plus” size tires on kids bikes. These tires are 2.8” wide, or even wider, and make life much easier for small riders. You can run low tire pressures that give them more traction, and more cushioning from the trail, without adding much weight. Plus sized tires are also easier to balance, and harder to skid out of control on. They make a ton of sense for anyone, of any age learning to ride. Skip the suspension and shell out for extra wide rubber instead.
Kids don’t just have small bodies, they have small hands too, and those small hands can have a hard time working the shifter and brakes on normal handlebars. Not to mention that they’re too small to be comfortable on adult grips. So look for bikes with kid-specific cockpits. Narrower grips, smaller brake levers, and modified shifters are all easier to use with kid-sized hands. They won’t be in control if they can’t even reach the controls.
Simplicity reins here. Smaller kids on flatter trails can get away with single speeds. No thinking about shifting, just pedal, brake, and ride. For older kids who are ready for gears, look for a 1x 8 or 9 speed drivetrain. Kids don’t need too many gears, it just adds confusion, and front derailleurs are hard enough for adult riders to deal with. So go with a single front ring with a wide-ish range cassette in the back. It’s ok if they still have to walk up some hills, those skills will come with experience.
Keep the Focus on Fun
This one should be pretty obvious, but kids get better at things they enjoy, and resent things they don’t. So make mountain biking fun, and don’t ever force your child to ride. Make sure you choose easy trails and add treats like ice cream or cookies to help incentivise them. You want to associate bike rides with positive memories so they keep coming back. The point isn’t to raise a kid who can keep up with you, it’s to share something you love with them.
Let the ride with someone else
Finally, this is the most important thing you can do. Don’t always make your kid ride with you. They spend plenty of time with you as it is, and they have plenty of preconceived notions about riding with you. So switch it up. Let them ride with friends, put them in a youth program. Hire a coach. Do whatever you need to do to let them experience riding without a parent. It’s incredible how quickly kids can gain confidence riding with people other than their parents. Let them figure this out in other groups, it will make them stronger and happier when they ride with you. Mountain biking is fun, raising kids is fun. Raising kids who love riding is even more fun.