Learning to ride a bicycle

Greg Sneath describes how he helped his daughter Katrina learn to ride a bicycle.

Sneath, G. (2003) Learning to ride a bicycle. Down Syndrome News and Update, 3(3), 94-95. doi:10.3104/dsupdate.244

Teaching our daughter Katrina to ride had been a vague sort of goal for several years, and we were surprised how very quickly it all fell into place (eventually).

Initially, it was impossible to find a way to motivate her to take an interest in riding a bike at all! She was very happy to watch all her friends and neighbors riding, but did not want to do so herself - although her pride and joy when she did manage it, was tremendous.

The first indication that she might eventually take to riding came when we trialled a special 3 wheeler suited to her size. She knew it was just for her. It was sturdy and secure. She could pedal it easily because of the accommodating gear ratios, and her feet didn't slip off the pedals because it had toe clips. The sales representative brought the bike to our house and she took great delight in riding alongside her brother and sister. She managed it easily, with just a little guidance and reassurance for the steering and braking.

Our unbounded enthusiasm for this progress was only thwarted by the exorbitant price tag of the three wheeler. Funding can be found, apparently, but instead we spoke to a local bicycle dealer and established that many of the redeeming features of the three wheeler 'might' be incorporated into the standard 'off the shelf' bike. For some bikes with gears it might be possible to fit 'extender' bolts onto the rear axle so that trainer wheels could also be fitted. (we intended to leave it in just one easy gear) Alternatively, it might be possible to alter the size of the front or rear sprockets to make it easier to pedal. Toe clips to stop the feet slipping out are easy to fit on the right sort of pedals, although if the child also wants to remove their foot from the pedal you may want to leave the straps off, and just have the front clip to stop their foot sliding forward.

For various reasons we didn't advance far enough down those options to justify converting the expression 'might be possible' to 'definitely worked / failed'. Instead winter came, and so did a change in employment. We were generally distracted from the current cycling ambitions.

Katrina Sneath riding her bicycle on a cycle path

Katrina Sneath riding her bicycle.

Our daughter pre-emptively took what I now consider to be the most advisable course of using a friend's scooter instead. She was way ahead of us, because I see now that in terms of learning balance, the scooter is far superior to training wheels on a bicycle. I only had to watch all the other children lean the wrong way, 'out of' the corners when trainer wheels were removed, to realise that balance is not part of the 'training'.

So, for us, the scooter was the answer for a long while, especially for balance. We encouraged her to glide along with her foot up as much as possible.

Having invested in trainer wheels on a standard bike, it was pleasing to realise they were still essential for gaining the strength to pedal, and for learning how to use the hand brake. Indeed, I'd underestimated the hand brake. My daughter very sensibly put her foot down and adamantly refused to ride the bicycle, even with the trainer wheels on, until one day it occurred to me to spend more time teaching her how to use the brakes with more confidence.

So, for a year or more, it was the scooter for keeping up with siblings and neighbors, and also for learning balance and steering. It was the bicycle with trainer wheels for learning to pedal, and learning the brakes - hopefully with as little time as possible learning to lean the wrong way when cornering. (I was unsuccessful in restricting her bike riding to straight lines only).

Over the summer school holidays all the children in the street were enthusiastically cycling about the limited space available to them. A neighboring family took all the children out for a bike ride, with my daughter on a half bike trailer unit. She loved it, and seemed to accept the challenge that we could all go riding places if she learned to ride independently.

She seemed confident with braking and pedalling now, so off came the trainer wheels!

In preference to trying to hold the seat or handle bars, I fitted an old toddler harness around her chest and grabbed a firm hold in the middle of her back. Her balance wasn't too bad except on the corners. We practiced that for some time, occasionally with me also guiding the handle bars on the tighter corners until she started to get the hang of it. It didn't take long.

Then came the hard part. To build confidence we sought the long straight runs on a cycle path. I was running along side holding firmly onto the harness in the middle of her back. It wasn't long before she didn't need any support at all for short periods. Well, that is provided I could help get her started, and then could grab hold when she veered off the path, and again when it was time to stop. The independent cycling bit between times was pretty good.

Katrina Sneath riding her bicycle on grass

Katrina Sneath riding her bicycle.

Much to the stress of my cardio-vascular system, Katrina started riding along the cycle path, unaided for longer and longer distances, with only the very occasional desperate lunge from me to catch her from the edge of disaster. Before long she learned how to stop unaided, and then after a while how to set the pedals in the right place to start unaided. Then, of course, with the long stretches of clear runs came invaluable confidence and enthusiasm.

Daily practice saw her riding more and more comfortably along the path with me jogging less and less comfortably along side to catch her when needed. Her confidence developed quickly to the point that one day, she continued on faster and faster, for further and further until I was left purple in the face, with legs of jelly, and heaving with breathlessness, as she took great delight in riding free and easy into the far distance in pursuit of her brother.

It was with great pride and a sense of real achievement that I followed at my own sedate pace. She waited quietly for me just around a distant corner, unharmed but comfortably spread eagled on the muddy verge with another cycling enthusiast watching over her with what could be described as a very kindly air - considering his own front wheel now lay in a twisted mangled wreck entwined with my daughter's bike.

Katrina mastered the bicycle at 7 years of age and is cheerfully riding independently now, but with the wisdom of hindsight we are spending time in the open grassy parks, practicing looking well ahead to anticipate and negotiate obstacles.