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Training wheels, balance bike or gyrobike? How to ride a bike

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In our neighborhood, you can’t take a stroll through the park these days without seeing a tiny rider fly by on a bike without pedals. From very young ages, many tots are able to take control of these simple two-wheelers. Since the bikes have no pedals, kids are in control and can move forward at their own pace – walking at first, then gradually scooting and picking up their legs – all the while practicing balance.

Andy Ruina, an expert in bicycle dynamics at the Biorobotics and Locomotion Lab at Cornell University, says balance is the key to learning to ride big-kid bikes. For this reason, he notes, “Training wheels are close to useless as far as learning to ride a bike.” With stabilizing wheels attached, kids only practice steering and pedaling, but according to Ruina, these are the simplest to learn. The major challenge is to steer and balance together. This combo of skills gets no practice with training wheels, so when the additional help comes off, it’s like starting again from scratch.

The pedal-less bike – also known as a balance or run bike – is increasingly popular in the U.S., but the trend started over 10 years ago in Germany. Dad and woodworker Rolf Mertens invented Like a Bike, the first contemporary balance bike. After being advised by the German Bicycle Club to remove the pedals and lower the seat on his child’s bike, Mertens decided instead to take the next step and design a completely new wood pedal-less cycle from scratch. The invention caught on and spread first through Europe and then to the States.

Earlier this year, another approach came on the market. The Gyrobike is a high-tech wheel that replaces the front wheel of a standard bike. Inside it has a spinning disc that creates gyroscopic torque to help keep the bike upright. As the child gets better and better at balancing, steering, and pedaling together, the parent can adjust the settings to provide less and less (and eventually no) help.

According to the people at Gyrobike (and Ruina agrees), kids suffer so many spills and skinned knees partly because riding a bike requires leaning into gravity instead of away. The gyroscopic wheel allows a child to practice the proper lean (whereas the physics of training wheels makes the bike lean away from gravity).

I haven’t heard any first-hand reviews of the Gyrobike, but a techie dad I know has been eagerly anticipating its release since it showed at the 2010 Toy Fair.

When I ask moms and dads about pedal-less cruisers like the Skuut, however, there isn’t full consensus. Along with the enthusiastic testimony, I hear stories of run bikes bought but never ridden. In part, this might be an age issue – kids under two and a half seem to have a more difficult time managing the run bikes and are more likely to get frustrated, give up, and head for their tricycles.

I still haven’t graduated my newly-two-year-old from his toddler motorcycle, so I’m far from being on the cutting edge of bike technology. But I like the concept of skipping training wheels – it appeals to my sense that over-helping my son or doing things for him is counterproductive.

Ruina seems to agree with the no-frills approach to bike learning, but says a high tech wheel or specially designed run bike is unnecessary. “You don’t need a special product for this. Just take an ordinary bike, take off the pedals, and lower the seat enough” (note: there’s a trick to removing bike pedals. Here’s how: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMG4I_IyzzY).

Ruina has taught many kids to ride by having them walk while on the bike, then bit by bit pick up their feet for a fraction of a second, then a second, then a few seconds. “After scooting down a gentle hill,” he says, “you can put the pedals on and they ride in a matter of minutes. The whole thing from start to finish takes between 30 minutes and 2 hours.”

He claims that this should work for kids as young as three, but the tough part is keeping the child interested at the beginning. “It takes a lot of coaxing to get kids to put in that 30 minutes of practice time when they are just awkwardly walking the bike,” he admits. “It works like magic in the end, but it is a bit of torture at the start.”

Whether you opt for the minimalist design of the run bike, the fancy torquing wheel of Gyrobike, or just stay with a conventional bike (minus pedals and with lowered seat), the general trend is to give little bikers more control. Learning to ride has that amazing “a-ha moment” – when slow wobbling turns to real cycling and you leave your clapping parents in the dust. It sounds like the earlier we take off the training wheels, the sooner our kids will get there.

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