The best way to teach children cycling skills is to ride with them. Awareness, caution, predictability and visibility skills are grown layer upon layer with lots of practice, guidance and positive reinforcement. When you introduce them to road riding, your position relative to them should enable you to be constantly observing and coaching. And remember, a great coach tells us what we are doing right as well as where and how we need to improve.
Are you ready?
Unless you are quite confident and skilled at riding on the road yourself, you are not in a good position to pass these skills on to your children. They learn so much simply by watching, so you need to be sure you are doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. If your own skills need work, consider a bike skills course. Courses are available for adults and children, see: Cycle Skills Training.
Your children also need to be ready. On one hand SafeKids and the NZ Police recommend that children under 10 do not ride on the road, and when they do they should be accompanied by an adult. On the other hand, skills are acquired gradually with practice, and some experts recommend starting at an early age. As a parent you will know if you kids are ready, taking into account whether they can ride strongly, predictably, listen and learn from you and be focused. An unpredictable and head-strong child determined to do their own thing may not be ready for road riding yet, but you could practice the same skills in a more controlled environment.
Pick and choose
Choose a quiet road at a quiet time. Make sure you are highly visible, so avoid times when visibility is limited by weather or sun-strike. Choose a road with space, preferably an on road cycle lane. I strongly recommend hi-visability clothing.
The sandwich technique
If you have two adults riding with children, then ‘make a sandwich’. One adult rides at the front, modelling correct road positioning, hand signals and other safe behaviours. Another adult rides at the rear, slightly out from the children so as to deflect traffic. The children are the filing in the sandwich. They may enjoy this analogy as ours do, spending some time discussing exactly what type of filling they want to be: “I’m the cheese”.
Here is the recipe for a great cycling sandwich:
Lead rider (Bread 1, Driver)
- Cycles exactly where the children should be riding
- Sets the pace, which should be no faster than the slowest rider
- Looks back frequently to ensure the group is handling the pace and staying together
- Models hand signals and predictable riding
- Determines the route with feedback from the rear rider
Children (Assorted fillings of their choosing)
- Slowest toward front, most confident at rear
- Follow the wheel (keep in line with) the lead rider
- Ride predictably, with awareness of other members of the group and traffic
- Use their bell or call out if they are having problems keeping up
- Listen and pay attention
Rear rider (Bread2, Sweep or Marshaller)
- Coach and correct the children’s riding
- Keep the group together and inline with the leader
- Monitor pace and general coping
- Determine when a break is needed, or if applicable, the need to move off the road.
If you only have one adult you can use an open sandwich technique, where the most capable and responsible child (which may well be different from the most confident one!) goes in front. The adult rides the rear assuming all the duties of rear rider, as well as calling out and coaching the kids on positioning, route, and signalling.
The sandwich technique is well suited to cycle trails as well as the road, especially when the trail crosses roads and includes on-road cycle paths.
Ensure you can be heard by all members of the group. Agree on some phrases or bell signals, especially around stopping. Pass advance warning up and down the line about:
- A change in direction
- The need to slow or stop
- Other riders / path users (e.g. walker ahead)
- The pace (too slow? too fast?)
- Obstacles and hazards on the path or trail (cattle grids, glass on the road, pot holes etc).
Intersections are a fairly advanced skill. Until you are confident that you and your kids are ready, always consider the option of dismounting and crossing the intersection as pedestrians. This means walking your bikes on crossings. If you are sufficiently confident and skilled to handle intersections and your kids are ready, start with very quiet ones. Ensure the kids know what is coming up and what they are meant to do. When turning right, the front and rear riders should move across to the right first, closely followed by the children. This provides a clear visual to the kids and other traffic of what is going on. Allow plenty of time to get across the intersection: don’t rely on the same surges in pace that an adult can generate.
There is a lot to learn here, and this post really just scratches the surface. Check out the Resources page for links to great websites with more detailed information.
What is your top tip for cycling on the road with kids?