By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Learning to ride a bicycle is a rite of passage for children. Their first experience at moving themselves around is liberating and world-expanding. But the best ways to get them pedaling? That's a different question, and the answer depends on whom is asked.
Zach Hess, manager at Spokes and Spandex bicycle shop, has seen parents try several methods, and he's seen companies make several products toward that end.
Kick the pedals?
One of those notions is to get rid of the pedals completely. Hess has seen companies make balance bikes -- small bicycles without pedals and with small platforms for feet -- in order to address that thought.
Others encourage taking pedals off of bicycles, although Hess said that has to include the crank arms.
"There is a school of thought that says it teaches kids how to ride faster," Hess said. "The balance bike teaches kids how to turn and counter-steer."
Models such as the Strider Running Bike come in very small heights, with wheel sizes usually no bigger than 12 inches. The bikes are meant for smaller children -- kids who are 5 or 6 years old may not be able to use one effectively, Hess said.
That means one of the most well-known aids is another option. Adaptable to bikes with wheel heights of up to 20 inches, they are affixed to the back axle and basically prevent the bike from falling over.
Hess said that training wheels must be installed properly in order to allow the bike to lean.
Wheels should rest about a half-inch from the ground when the bike is straight up.
But others say training wheels just make a bicycle functional without teaching the child to actually ride.
"This does more to make the bicycle rideable at a younger age, than do anything that teaches bicycling," wrote David Mozer in a report for the International Bicycle Fund. "When the training wheels come off, the bicycle learning sequence generally starts pretty much at the beginning."
Learning to bike without pedals requires a gentle, grassy downhill slope. The IBF recommends having children keep their feet off the ground and coast downhill in order to learn balance. That way, kids can slow down using their feet if they get scared.
If training wheels are used, stick to flat, open surfaces such as driveways.