Building balance on a bike

Posted: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Our daughter sat hunched on the tiny purple seat, leaning heavily on the right training wheel. With every push of the pedals, she grimaced and groaned, clutching the handlebars until her hands were as white as tiny marshmallows. She cranked the pedals slowly, flinching, and sometimes screaming, each time the bike wobbled off the training wheel.

Needless to say, riding to the glacier was out.

My husband is an avid biker, commuting on two wheels year-round, cranking up a sweat while plowing though the snow in reflective clothes. For years, he didn't own a car at all, his bike his only mode of transportation. He does this for many reasons beyond exercise; he likes the independence, the conservation of resources, the knowledge that he can move under power completely under his control.

So obviously one of our first purchases for our daughter was a bike trailer; we bought it around the same time we bought a car seat. From when she could mostly sit up, my husband would drag her around behind his bike. As she got older, she began to sing while riding back there, happy in any weather under her plastic cover. She seemed fearless in the trailer, sometimes unstrapping herself and standing up to feel the wind on her face. One time my husband was taking her to daycare in the trailer, plowing the bike through deep snow; he realized, a few pedal strokes after a particularly deep patch, that the bike was pedaling pretty easily. He looked in his rearview mirror, and there was Adelie, strapped in, trailer detached from the bike and wedged in the snowbank. When he got back to her a few seconds later, she was humming a song from The Little Mermaid.

Eventually her head started to push on the top of the trailer, and we graduated to a trail-a-bike. I had to stop riding behind them when she was on the trail-a-bike, because of the seat gymnastics she performed: feet on the seat, turning around backwards, going without hands.

Many people had told us that the trail-a-bike was a short-term mode of riding, that kids often quickly leapt from it to their own two-wheeler. And she loved the trail-a-bike along with her two-wheeler with training wheels. She rode to school, around the block, around Dryden. We thought she was ready.

As it turns out, she was not. We raised the training wheels, and while she could ride, she couldn't start or stop alone. When she realized this, she became increasingly scared of riding the bike. Even though she never had a bad wreck, eventually if we even mentioned taking a bike ride, she began to whimper and every ride ended in crying as she slumped to the side, never moving herself off the training wheel.

We thought we knew how to teach our child how to ride a bike: the same way our parents taught us. When that didn't work, we were frustrated and annoyed. I began thinking she was just being stubborn, not trying hard enough, perhaps even enjoying avoiding something she knew we wanted her to do. It was even worse for my husband, who was the main biking teacher, with both of them coming home from "rides" frustrated and unhappy.

One day, a friend mentioned removing the pedals from the bike so she would sit on the seat and scoot along. It was genius; really, training wheels were around to teach you how to pedal. For her, pedaling was cake. She needed to learn to relax and balance, to unfurl from her curled, fear gripped body. Se we tried it. On the first pedal-free day, she was balancing. By day four, she took a friend's bike and rode it.

As a teacher (and a parent and a spouse), what amazed me most about this was simple. When we really identified the true problem, it was relatively easy to fix. No excuses, no recriminations, no rationalizations. Just a problem (in this case, lack of balance) and a real path toward fixing it. Not easy, yet simple. Otherwise, she'd still be hunched over a training wheel.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a parent and teacher in Juneau.

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