How to keep it fun when biking with kids. From keeping them involved through to bare faced chocolate bribery, here's some useful pedalling parenting.
Words by Dan Trent
Ride to escape from the family, or escape with them? It’s the existential question many of us ask ourselves as our lives unfold, as well as the sequel to a story I wrote for these pages some years ago about sharing the love for riding with your better half, and my own experiences of doing so.
If your relationship survived that – as mine has – it’s entirely possible that this partnership has now become a collective, and you’re facing the prospect of going through the whole process again with kids. So assuming you want to get out riding with them, what are the secrets to turning mountain biking into something the whole family can enjoy?
When my boy Oswald arrived back in 2012, I was dreaming of the bike-based dad’n’lad glory days to come before we’d even left the maternity ward. His sister, Florence, arrived a couple of years later, and there are now four of us, a cellar full of kit and the realisation the Trent family is fully committed to a life with bikes at the core.
It’s early days so far, but various rites of passage have already been observed, from Alpine trips to Oswald’s first major off and trip to A&E. Like father, like son there. Given that, the expense, the four sets of stinking kit and all the rest, am I really telling you it’s a good idea to get your kids into riding?
Of course it is.
Whether it’s reliving your favourite old films and TV shows, rediscovering old books or simply enjoying a guilt-free Lego spree, parenthood offers free license to regress to being a kid yourself. Seeing and experiencing these things through their eyes is like reliving it for yourself, just in more vivid detail and with better toys, up to and including playing out on bikes.
So goes the dream, at least. But don’t take it for granted. Plenty of my riding buddies have kids of their own and it’s not a given they’ll inherit your love for bikes the way you might hope. You can’t force it. But there are a few things you can do to help plant the seeds and, hopefully, help raise your own crop of little rippers.
There’s a whole ‘how to’ feature on kids’ bikes and the rest. But the fixation with kit to the distraction of riding is a trap we too often fall into as mountain bikers, so perhaps the most important thing to get right at the beginning is how you portray your passion to young and impressionable minds. You can buy the fanciest balance bike for playground bragging rights in front of the other parents, but unless the kids equate riding with fun, they’ll never want to get out and do it themselves. So, make it look appealing!
The first big decision you’ll face is whether that formative first adrenaline rush should come riding with you on your bike, or with them on their own.
There are arguments for both; a mate of mine uses a top-tube mounted Mac Ride so he can session the singletrack with his daughter along for the ride. Going by some of the vids people have put up, if you take a relaxed view of health and safety there’s little need to hold back on your personal buzz just because you’ve got a little’n onboard, either.
Paths to riding
We did start with a rear seat for nursery runs, but let’s just say I learned a harsh lesson in 853 tubing and the amount of leverage these things exert on lightweight frames. tagalongs and trailers are another option for parents looking to ride at their own speed with the kids (literally) in tow and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to session easy trail centres with a rig like that, without necessarily barrel-rolling through the dirt jumps like Danny MacAskill.
Each to their own, but I remember another mate proudly investing in a fancy lightweight trailer, excitedly going out for his first winter ride with his son behind him … and then getting home to realise he’d basically spent an hour spraying mud directly into a toddler’s face. Not ideal. And while these solutions mean you can, up to a point, cover some miles, the fact the kids are just passengers makes it more of a passive experience for them.
I opted to get Oswald riding himself as soon as I could. OK, maybe a bit too soon, given he spent nearly a year walking around straddling the Zooom balance bike I’d bought him before he plonked his backside on it and actually realised the wheels did something. Once he got the hang of it, the progression was fast and, before long, his pavement pace to the shops was sufficient for me to have to jog to keep up.
I was glad, therefore, we’d got a proper one with pneumatic tyres and a rear brake. The wooden types look cool and are good for the playroom or garden, but the more serious ones both look cool and prepare them for the next step, both in terms of balance and braking. In theory at least: Florence’s first feet-up burst of speed ended shortly afterwards in a head-on impact into a dry-stone wall.
How and when to switch to pedals is another big moment you’ll need to navigate with care. By this point the range of options increases hugely, from the lousy bike-shaped objects you’ll see inflicted on many kids, to the properly fancy stuff aimed as squarely at bike-geek dads as their offspring. As a serious mountain biker you’ll likely be too proud to consider the indignity of stabilisers but, all being well, the balance bike will have done its job and they’ll have that confidence already. In Oswald’s case he simply picked up a friend’s pedal bike on a trip to the park, crank-flipping to the starting position and setting off like he’d been doing it all his life. With his sister it was a little more difficult – our attempt to use a 16in-wheeled Orange Pop with the pedals removed as a balance bike worked out until we tried to fit them back on, at which point her obstinate refusal to respond to this cue slowed the switch down somewhat. Live and learn.
Whenever it comes, much like the transition from crawling to walking, expect a slight backward step at this point. To a toddler used to speeding about on hands and knees, those first few steps can seem exciting but a lot of hard work for not much forward progress.
It’s the same on bikes; little leg muscles lacking the power to deal with anything but the flattest ground, and their pedalling range likely shorter and slower than what they were doing on the balance bike. Which is frustrating for everyone. Stick with it though – pedalling power builds very quickly and within a few weeks they’ll be getting up mild gradients that defeated them initially.
This is the point where horizons really start to open and terrain choice becomes the most important consideration, trail centre blues suddenly gaining an allure they never had before. Smooth, consistent surfaces, predictable gradients and the comforting embrace of big berms are all great for building confidence and, if you’re fortunate enough to have a local venue where trail building advocates have worked their magic, you can start with easier stuff before building up. We’re lucky to have Oakwell Hall and Leeds Urban Bike Park nearby, similar trails like those built by Ride Sheffield at Lady Cannings Plantation and Parkwood Springs also providing a leg up to the mellower end of ‘proper’ trail centres such as Swinley Forest or Sherwood Pines. You’ll be amazed at how a well-designed trail inspires young riders too – your respect for the skill and effort that goes into building them magnified when you view them through five-year-old eyes. Pump tracks and the skills areas you always used to ride past at trail centres are also great training grounds.
Purpose-built trails may appear generic to you, but the confidence and transferrable skills they inspire are the key to unlocking more serious terrain – Florence happily upscaled berm-carving skills learned on Oakwell Hall’s modest elevation to a lift-assisted, 5km green trail in Métabief before she’d even turned five. It’s a return on investment like that makes all those trips to the park worthwhile, the fact one berm looks very much like another meaning it makes no odds to them whether it’s down the road or up a proper mountain.
Obviously, convincing kids that riding downhill is fun isn’t the trickiest. Getting them back up the other side raises a greater challenge, mentally and physically. Now on gears, while Florence was on 16in wheels and singlespeed, a fatherly push got us up a surprising amount of stuff. Just be careful not to thwack ‘em in the face with your fashionably wide bars as you’re weaving about one-handed.
More involved solutions include mechanical hitches like a Trail-Gator for the climbs, from which the child can then be released for the downs. The bungee-style Tow-Whee is a neater solution you can simply sling over your shoulder, bandolier-style when not in use and opens up proper rides more inclusively than a fixed tagalong. It’s something I’ve been meaning to try but, for now, ‘daddy gear’ and a helping hand to the small of the back rules supreme. That and pockets stuffed with sweet treats and flapjack, there being nothing like the promise of “another Haribo when you get to the top!” to help with that physical and psychological push for the summit.
OK, so through a combination of scooting, pedalling, towing, bribery and pushing, your kids have now reached the top of the hill and you’re all ready to shred. And now the fun can really start.
As with everything in life, kids develop at different speeds in terms of what they’ll tackle. Again, time invested on those smooth, swoopy trail centre blues will open up the thrill of going fast in a relatively safe environment, and once that spark has been ignited, you’re away. But let them choose what they’re happy riding, rather than going all competitive dad and forcing them down something too hard before they’re ready. Remember, what looks smooth to you on your enduro bike will feel more like a full-on rock garden on small wheels and rigid forks.
A commentary of encouragement and basic technique will be your soundtrack to these early days of downhill fun. It took about two years of shouting “stand up … pedals LEVEL!” before Oswald finally got the message, his sister, meanwhile, nailing a textbook, new-school body position long before he even got his bum off the saddle. It’s here you’ll realise the real benefits of proper geometry and fit, too.
Islabikes has long led the way for bikes with child-friendly sizing and components; Frog has similar at a more affordable price; the Hope Academy bikes look ace and if you want to spend big, Commençal has an enviable range of grom-focused options for junior bike park shredders. Oswald recently graduated to a 24-inch wheeled Whyte 303, and the way the long and slack geometry places him ‘in’ the bike rather than perched over the top of a short top tube and long stem is reflected in the confidence and bike-handling skills he’s already developed. That so few manufacturers seem bothered – and the god-awful set-ups many shops send kids’ bikes out the door with – exposes the gulf in the industry between those who get it and those who don’t.
Choices in brakes, pedals, gears and suspension are all important considerations, too. You think having that wide-range cassette made a difference to your riding? Imagine what it does for a seven-year-old; likewise a set of decent tyres and pressures appropriate to someone weighing a quarter of what you do. Down the park you’ll see some horrors, too, from back to front forks to flapping quick-releases and brake pads touching thin air rather than rims. Knowing when to bite your tongue and when to offer advice to non-cycling fellow parents is a lesson in tact and diplomacy they don’t give you in NCT classes but, if you only do one thing, at least wind the damned brake-lever adjusters all the way in on any kids’ bike!
But back to the trails. Fitness, skills and the right kit are all great but you’ve got to remember to make riding look cool, and that’s a job that continues long after the bikes have been stabled.
Choose your poison, be it social media, YouTube videos, livestreamed World Cup downhills as family TV or even, dare I say it, picking up a print mag like the one in your hands now. The more your kids see people doing cool stuff on bikes, the more they’ll want to emulate it themselves and learn the skills to do so. To the point where I’m now watching in awe at Florence’s ability to pick a line through a rock garden or Oswald’s smooth, berm-carving cutties. The day he pops his first manual is the day I quit and buy a gravel bike, though. I’d like to hope I’ve got a couple of years before that happens, but the way he’s going I may not be so lucky.
And while lockdown hasn’t been a barrel of laughs for anyone, I’ll forever look back at those weird early days of seemingly endless sunshine, dry trails and nothing else to do but ride with the family, thankful I’d somehow forged a tight little unit with an appetite and joy for riding as strong as my own. Sure, they might have missed a bit of school. But they’ve learned to love their bikes, and that’s more important than SAT scores for me.
Words by Dan Trent