Skills and safety for family bike rides

Skills and Safety

“Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

Learning to ride a bicycle, a major milestone on our road to adventure and independence, gives us a fabulous sense of accomplishment. Riding safely and confidently requires skills beyond balance and coordination, and different skills are required for riding different types of bikes and on different surfaces. Keeping yourselves and your family safe takes personal responsibility, proactivity and awareness.

Learning to ride a bike

“The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realisation that this is what the child will always need can hit hard” Sloan Wilson

As with anything parenting related, there are many different approaches to helping your child learn to ride. Do you teach your child the way you were taught? Leave them to pick it up via trial and error? Or choose one of the myriad of other methods? The fundamentals to remember are:

  1. We are all different. Different children learn and develop differently. Choose the timing and method that suits your child.
  2. Fear is normal. Since learning to walk your child’s awareness has grown greatly, as with their experience of falling. They will likely be anxious about relying on something other than their own two feet (or you) to hold them up. Be patient and empathetic. Try and remember what it was like when you learned to ride and share a few stories, the funnier the better.
  3. Each failure brings us closer to success. Learning to ride a bike is a great life lesson: that it is not about how many times we fall off, but how many times we get back on again! Gently taught, this is a great foundation for future learning.
  4. Take the cues from your child. When they are ready they will learn. Know when to call it a day and try again another time.
  5. Where possible provide a soft landing and a quiet, private place to learn. On the weekend, schools are a good spot.

Cycle Skills Training

Community programs, available throughout New Zealand, help people develop and improve cycle skills, enabling them to ride safely and confidently. Courses range from Beginner through to Intermediate and Advanced. There are also programs which visit schools. To find out what is available locally check out:


Bike Ready:

Bikes in Schools – BikeOn:

Pedal Ready:

Riding Safely

Keep yourself, your kids and those around you safe by making the following part of your riding.

  • Ensure your bike is well maintained, suited to your size and the riding surface.
  • Carry a mobile phone so you can call for help.
  • Choose a safe route and know where you are going.
  • Have lights available when you need them.
  • Make eye contact with other road/path users (so you know they have seen you).
  • Don’t cut across others, swerve or brake suddenly.
  • Know how to hold your line (not swerving around the place).
  • Don’t pass on the left hand side.
  • Riding on the road, avoid weaving in and out between parked cars. See Riding on the road.
  • Use your bell or call out when you are passing someone (a friendly hello will usually do).
  • Riding in a group, arrange regrouping points and ensure everyone rides within eyeshot and earshot of at least one other person.
  • On the road, use hand signals to indicate your intentions. A friendly wave and ‘thank you’ is a great way to show you appreciate other’s courtesy. When they haven’t been courteous I usually restrict myself to a friendly wave, rather than other gestures.
  • When riding with others, especially kids, call out when you will be stopping or turning.
  • Stay clear of trucks and buses. They have massive blind spots. See below for more on trucks.
  • Be vigilant around parked cars and give them a wide berth: being hit by an opening car door is common and can cause serious injury.
  • Be patient around other users, pass slowly and when it is safe.
  • Ensure you are visible at all times, and especially when visibility is impacted by weather and low light.
  • Be prepared with lights – don’t get caught without a light if your plans or the weather change. Check batteries regularly.
  • Consider a high visibility vest, reflective strips on your bike and helmet, and how the colour of your clothing impacts your visibility. Black is chic but blends into the road a bit too well!
Total Awareness
  • No headphones!
  • On a shared path, anticipate the unexpected, especially around small children and dogs. Give them a wide berth.
  • Riding on roads requires hypervigilance and observation as you are trying to predict what other road users may do, especially stupid things.
  • Be aware of the surface you are riding on: is it loose or sealed? Are there wheel-eating potholes, grates, or train tracks? Is it wet or greasy?
Caution, confidence and control
  • Be confident in handling your bike in tighter spots and on varying surfaces.
  • If you are in a situation outside your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to get off and walk it.
  • Staying in control of your bike means managing your speed and your braking ability.
  • Brake smoothly and safely.
Defensively lawful
  • Learn and follow the rules of the road.
  • Ride in a way that assumes other people on the road make mistakes.
  • Always wear a helmet.

Truck blind spots

If you get a chance, get into the cab of a parked truck and get someone else to walk around the outside of it. You will be shocked by just how little visibility they have of anything alongside or directly behind them.


For more on safety around trucks check out:

Cycle Skills for Kids

Learning the mechanics of how to ride a bike is one thing, riding safely is another. Safety skills are added layer by layer. Firstly, by cycling with them from a very young age, they learn by observation, reinforced with reminders and recognition when they do it right. Then you add on more specific lessons. The whole lot is bound together by lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement.

Here are some of the basic safety skills to cover with your child:

  • Always wearing their helmet
  • Getting on and off their bike independently
  • Starting off and peddling without help
  • Stopping quickly with control
  • Steering confidently: avoiding obstacles
  • Ringing their bell whilst cycling
  • Being able to check over their shoulder (look behind) without swerving
  • Signalling for left and right turns and stopping.
  • Using gears (if they have them)

Remember: Anytime you ride together is an opportunity add another layer of skill and awareness, and practice the ones you have already taught.

Mind your manners – Share with care

At some point you’ll be riding with walkers, dogs and other cyclists, and possibly farmers and livestock. Use it as an opportunity to show your kids the life skills of manners, courtesy, and sharing:

  • Talk about treating others with respect.
  • Show them how you return and give friendly greetings.
  • Thank others for giving way or making room.
  • Enjoy them engaging in conversations with others.
  • Help them learn about dog-safety.
  • In rural areas, demonstrate the importance of leaving gates as you find them (open/closed), and respecting fences and boundaries.
  • Use rubbish bins or take your rubbish with you.

Shared Paths

A shared path is one which can be legally used by both cyclists and walkers (and sometimes horse riders). Make it enjoyable for all by courtesy and consideration to other users and practice good path etiquette:

  • Use a bike bell or call out to warn pedestrians when approaching from behind
  • Ride slowly, courteously and safely
  • Be prepared to stop and give way when needed
  • Ride on the left of the path (unless on a path where there is a separate cycle and pedestrian lane).


Take great care around intersections with driveways and roads. Children can take longer to assess safety factors, so when a path crosses a road I teach them to stop and check both ways before proceeding. Be hyper aware of driveways, entrances and exits, especially when visibility is impaired by fences, shrubbery and buildings. Teach your children to use their ears and eyes, listening and looking for vehicles at all times.

Experience: When using a path, we stop and dismount before crossing a road, as this allows more time and headspace for the kids to determine whether it is safe to cross, and helps their brain learn to distinguish between the vigilance required when cycling versus crossing.

Riding on the Footpath

Unless a path is especially designated as a shared use path, the following rules apply:

  • You are only allowed to cycle on the footpath if you are:
  • delivering newspapers or mail, or
  • you are riding a small wheeled recreational device that has a wheel diameter of less than 355 millimetres (typically tricycles or small children’s bicycles).

I understand that the police seldom enforce this rule, but would do so if there was a safety concern. Providing you are courtesy and careful, and always give way to pedestrians, you are unlikely to get into trouble. However you may be concerned about liability if there is an accident. When cycling with kids, we use the footpath as do many families, and want the law changed to support that choice.

Cars moving in and out of driveways are the main risk when cycling on the footpath. Drivers are meant to give way to footpath users, but if they do check, they are mostly scanning for walkers, who are slower. More often they just look at the road, checking for cars. Be hypervigilant and treat driveways as intersections.

Experience: I obey the law, just not the NZ one. I apply the NSW (Australia) road code, which allows adults to cycle on the footpath when accompanying kids, and applies an age cut-off to children cycling on the footpath, rather than limits on wheel size. As they get older, we are gradually introducing the kids to cycling on the road, using a sandwich technique (see Make a Sandwich).
Pedestrian crossings

Normally you should get off and walk across. Some special crossings are designed for both pedestrians and cyclists; with additional crossing lights displaying bicycle symbols. You are allowed to cycle across when the bicycle symbol is green, which may or may not be when pedestrians cross.

Riding on the road

If your child will be riding on the road they will need mastery of all aforementioned skills, and close supervision whilst they learn:

  • Road rules and signs (there is a NZ Road Code for cyclists)
  • Starting and stopping from the kerb / side of road
  • Awareness, whilst riding, of other vehicles, hazards and debris
  • Ability to safely pass a parked car or obstacle (e.g. traffic calming devices that stick out from the kerb)
  • Turning left and right, or travelling straight at both controlled and uncontrolled intersections

Make a Sandwich

When riding on the road we like to make a ‘sandwich’. Adults are the bread at front and back, kids are the filling. They have fun deciding who is cheese, tomato etc. Be selective: choose quiet roads with lots of space and few intersections or complexities to negotiate.

Road Rules

The Official New Zealand code for cyclists. A user-friendly guide to New Zealand’s traffic law and safe driving practices.

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