Runners and riders
There’s no pleasure in biking at first – it’s stressful. The freedom of moving through the world on your own terms, that comes later.
For a bunch of reasons, we’ve been slow to get our kids on bikes. But now Maddy is 6, George is 5, and we live on the flat, it’s time. I can’t tell you how old I was when I first wobbled along on two wheels, but I can recall the low buzz of my fear. I had blonde plaits and probably wore stripes. It was the 70s, after all. My bike was new; my dead granddad had gifted it to me in his will.
Everywhere was flat near our house; our subdivision was still being built. The bricks smelt new, the tar was freshly black, there were newly dug saplings and piles of paving stones waiting to be laid. We lived in a traffic-calmed zone, with underpasses and overbridges privileging people on foot or on wheels. It was a paradise for kids and bikes.
Still, there’s no pleasure in biking at first – it’s stressful. You feel cross with your parents for putting you through this. The exhilaration, the coiled power of your muscles, the freedom of scissoring through the world on your own terms – that all comes later. For now it’s just you, a scrappy kid, tussling with gravity. You don’t understand that forward motion is your friend because speed, at this point, terrifies you.
It’s ridiculous to protect your child from this part of learning to ride. This is learning to ride. What they’re going to find out is that a kid earns their liberty in chafed hands and scuffed knees, the odd nasty clash of skin and bike, and a pothole they didn’t see coming.
I wonder if bikes meant more to us back then. We could actually use them, for one thing, trusted and unsupervised. Six blocks in either direction, that was our dominion and for once, we – pint-sized, with gappy teeth – were in charge.
Anyway, did you know there’s now a whole genre of internet video teaching you how to teach your kid to ride? The most memorable of these features a plainspeaking, middle-aged American Dad in a baseball cap and blue jeans. With his swagger and a slight paunch he looks like a Republican, so let’s call him Mitt.
“Check out this guy,” I told my husband. “He says you can teach a kid to ride in under five minutes.”
Mitt addresses the camera and says his method is guaranteed; plus, you won’t need to run alongside the bike.
“You could be a single mother, you could be handicapped, you could be blind, you could be overly large… whatever it is, this way you’ll be able to walk alongside your kid, ask them to ride a bike, and teach ’em to ride a bike.” Mitt isn’t exactly likeable, but he has our full attention.
Mitt picks a boy out of a knot of kids at the playground. He tells us, and the kid, that he’s been riding a bike for 50 years without a helmet, so a helmet is not required. He then jacks up the tension.
Mitt: Rule number one, are you ready to ride a bike? I’ll ask you again. Are you ready to ride a bike?
Mitt: OK, he’s ready to ride a bike so he’s going to be able to ride a bike.
Mitt then instructs the kid to straddle the bike and practise shifting his weight from his planted left foot, to his planted right foot. The kid obeys. Then Mitt grips the back of the bike seat, tells the kid to start pedalling, and pushes him off.
Against science, fairness, and all odds, THE KID RIDES THE BIKE.
At the park, George and his dad pair off. I do Mitt’s left foot, right foot thing with Maddy. I can’t bring myself to jettison the helmet.
I grip the seat and cup her waist with my other hand. We begin rolling forward. Mitt has his arms crossed, tutting, but it feels premature to push her away. She’s wobbling a lot and yipping with anxiety.
A plain-speaking American Dad in a baseball cap and blue jeans... Mitt isn’t exactly likeable but he has our full attention.
We begin our first lap of the park and I can’t help it, but I’m running alongside her. My right hand holds the bike and I tuck the other hand under her armpit. I’m sweating and my heart is wild, so we keep stopping. I take off my jersey and survey the park, panting.
“That’s it, that’s it!” I gasp to Maddy. Other parents eye me and smile fondly. Sometimes her balance is almost perfect but most of the time, it’s off. We do a second lap.
Mitt says, Let go! The kid’s 6! She doesn’t need a wimpy Democrat mom!
Maddy says, Don’t let go, Mum.
Don’t worry, I tell her. She has plaits and a gap in her teeth. I know it’s time, but I’m not ready to let go.