How to get and keep kids on bikes

Rebecca Gross is an American professional cyclist racing as a privateer in cyclocross and cross-country mountain bike. She currently resides in Golden, Colorado where she mentors a youth cycling group called Golden Bicycle Experience where kids learn cycling fundamentals and skills.

I fell into cycling during my undergraduate program in the deep south - an area not typically heralded for cycling culture. This was the time when Trek Factory racer Travis Brown was king, suspension was a budding technology, there was no such thing as women’s-sized t-shirts much less jerseys, and one could make a respectable salary holding an “expert” mountain bike license. My time in the small but tightly knit cycling community introduced me to all things bike. I discovered a feeling of independence in the woods on that first awkward, basketball shorts/sneaker-wearing ride so abundant that twenty years later the appeal has yet to diminish. In that time, I’ve developed a career as a professional privateer cyclocross and mountain bike racer and have become fully-vested in returning the love to the community that helped form the happiness that is my life. 

These days we are seeing a downtrend in the appeal of formal bike racing, yet a massive uptick in the popularity of youth cycling, thanks to programs like NICA and the dedication of local programs to get kids outdoors. I’m privileged to live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Golden, CO where outdoor sports are a staple of everyday life. There’s ample access to multiple trail networks and bike paths that safely tie the trails together. I experience daily the benefits of getting youth involved in the sport of cycling: the common sight of kids barely shy of baby-sitting age off on their own shredding the trails or throngs of teenagers from local high schools meeting up at trailheads to practice.

For areas not quite as invested as Colorado, I have found certain facets of the sport that can be leveraged to really appeal to the up and coming generation of young adults:

Bike rides are a chance to explore

My primary intention with kids is to explore and discover. While we typically have a learning objective that we set out with that day, it always falls second to the “fun” factor of being able to go places you otherwise couldn’t. It can require a bit of area familiarity but knowing where to find tadpoles, an abandoned car, caves, a haunted house, or the best climbing tree can turn the ride into a destination. Stopping to marvel at weird bugs or unique rocks along the way can be the first step in the progression of sessioning a pile of logs or a step-up.

Take the time to slow down and see what’s around: to normalize a less-than-instant gratification culture, so that the “click-and-ye-shall-receive,” or “are we there yet?” behavior turns into appreciation for the world on top of a bicycle. I believe in teaching “process as the reward” behavior and it’s a whole lot of fun to show how gratifying this reward can be.

Skills should be fun

From a child’s perspective, so much can appear to be off limits, but on a bike there is ample opportunity to delve into what is traditionally not allowed. Splashing through the mud puddle? Riding down a scary rock garden? Using your outdoor voice? Why not!? 

Skills on the trail can be developed as the need arises and highlighting the reward that comes from trying (“You made it all the way to the top!” Or “I can barely ride that and you just sent it!” or, “It impresses me so much when you try your hardest!”) helps solidify the accomplishment. Always in the mix are the personality types that expect perfection that first time out and revel in frustration when failure is the outcome. Setting small and attainable goals to stair step these developing athletes, such as front and then back wheel lifts over a stick can lead to them making progress at holding a wheelie.  Expressing positive reinforcement for small accomplishments is key, as is occasionally reverting to a skill the athlete is proficient at to reinforce the positive feedback. 

Challenging but not impossible

One of the best things about cycling is that no matter what experience level one considers themselves there will always be aspects that are challenging. This is quite apparent with kids who in general have bike-to-body weight ratios that would make any adult cringe. Add in developing motor skills and the near guaranteed complication of frustration from being tired, hungry, or overwhelmed, and teaching skills can be a daunting task on it’s own. (Packing extra kid-friendly snacks can be a lifesaver!) 

I always offer kids a choice and that includes consequences: “We can climb up this hill to have the super fun descent or pedal a lot on this flat and boring way around.” Allowing kids to make their own decisions makes them that much more vested in the process. 

Vocalizing my internal risk assessment helps young riders to gain awareness, then letting kids fill in the blanks with their own thoughts help to drive the point home: “That corner is really tight with loose rocks and I’m going to have a lot of speed coming in, so how will I need to approach it?” Then, I’ll ask the kids to run me through their own version and what their plan is to accomplish an obstacle. 

Instilling responsibility and independence 

Riding around the block can be taken to a whole new level of awesome when that block suddenly becomes infinite space. It can be frightening to think of kids on their own in the woods practicing self-reliance to navigate out, but instilling common sense skills, along with the knowledge and equipment to be prepared can go a long way. Teaching them how to handle mechanicals or wildlife encounters can set the tone for critical thinking and a lifetime of good decision making. The need to practice self-sufficiency is an unequaled opportunity for developing maturity.

Likewise, seeing kids work together to solve a problem or motivate and encourage each other develops social skills that creates lifelong bonds with each other and the sport. 

The bike is along for the ride

It’s faster than walking and the cool factor is sky high in comparison. The relatively simple tool that is the bicycle can be a catalyst for developing community, transportation, self-discovery, and independence. While not all kids are yet aware, they crave these things. Introducing the bicycle as a lifestyle staple can set them up for the confidence to face challenges, an outlet for stress, and a healthy habit to fall back on as they begin to learn who they are. 

As a non-parent, seeing the world from a child's perspective comes more often than not from my time coaching. The fresh perspective, time to stop and marvel at anything along the way, and endless giggles are a change of pace from the training rides and shred sessions that is my otherwise everyday experience on the bike.  As one of those kids who didn’t quite fit into the confines of team sports, cycling was the answer to my need to be outdoors and in turn it has helped to teach me to be a compassionate adult. Kids and bikes are made for each other so next time the opportunity presents itself, take a kid out on the trails and see what they might teach you.