I think that if you ask most adult cyclists how they learned to ride a bike as a kid, they would answer as I do: “I don’t know.” My only related memory before fifth grade is my younger brother crashing on a steep hill, and I had to somehow get both his bike and mine home two blocks away.
We wouldn’t allow our kids to drive a car without some instruction, and because nearly every adult in this area knows how to drive, it is natural to teach your kids about safety as they ride along with you. Even if they have professional instruction before getting a license, it’s a safe bet that you and the instructor agree on most of the basics.
But learning to ride a bike is different. Most kids don’t get to watch their parents or another role model as they navigate traffic. I know a lot of parents who just assume that it is too dangerous to ride to school, so they won’t allow their kids to do so. Conversely, most parents who do allow or encourage their kids to ride may not have had the chance to observe them and therefore don’t know how much attention they pay to safety.
While learning to balance and propel a bicycle forward is not that hard and most kids can learn to do it in one or two afternoons (perhaps with some road rash to remind them of their achievement), it is extremely dangerous to then assume that they can ride safely in local traffic. We all know that we learn best from our mistakes, but the consequences of a mistake in traffic can be significant.
Bike safety programs
So what to do, especially if you are not a cyclist? Last summer I had the privilege of participating as an instructor in two local programs.
The first was the Cupertino Middle School Bike Skills Class, sponsored by the city of Cupertino Safe Routes to School Program. Its aim is to help students acquire the street navigation and bike handling skills needed to safely and confidently ride to school and beyond. Classes are taught by League of American Bicyclists League Cycling Instructors through Wheel Kids Bicycle Club Inc. The class is held one weekend morning and requires the commitment of both the student and a parent.
Instruction includes a classroom component, a short course on how to make sure your bike is in condition to ride, learning new skills in the parking lot and experience on the road in a low-traffic-density setting to practice turns and stops. The class does a great job of teaching the basics, but if the parents are able and willing to ride with their kids, they can reinforce the instruction principles in real-world situations and maybe have fun together at the same time.
The second class was the Palo Alto Barron Park School Bike Rodeo, a program for all third-grade students in Palo Alto. If the parents want to opt out, that is fine, but even if children do not ride and have no intention of learning in the near future, they will be interacting with bikes the same way they interact with cars when they are out and about, and it can’t hurt to have basic knowledge of rules-of-the-road for bikes.
The rodeo had six stations for kids to learn specific skills, and it was designed to be fun. The kids who did not have bikes all had scooters and got to go through the same exercises as the cyclists. My kudos to the girl who had no idea how to start from a standing stop and learned how to do a smooth power start as if she had been doing it all her life.
The excitement at the school was palpable; before the class started, I had fourth- and fifth-graders come up to me to brag about having participated in the rodeo last year or the year before, and I had second-graders excitedly tell me that they would get to do it next year.
Space does not allow me to list all of the available resources, but if you are a parent looking for information, or an educator or other stakeholder who wants to influence the curriculum in a given community or a specific school, contact me and I can put you in touch with a wealth of resources.