By Linda Atkins
This is our Bike About Town column, which appeared in The Chronicle on June 30, 2011.
Does the approach of Independence Day have your youngest friends and family members craving two-wheeled liberation? If so, head for a Freedom From Training Wheels class, where children as young as 3 learn to ride bicycles on their own. The free classes are offered at Sunday Streets events throughout summer and fall, and on car-free John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park on winter weekends (weather permitting). Instructors from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition have been known to help get dozens of tykes on bikes in a single day.
No Training Wheels
The ritual of removing training wheels is one many adults recall and that seems built into the process of learning to ride a bike. But the Freedom From Training Wheels approach teaches kids to ride with no training wheels at all, ever.
“Never introducing the training wheels means you never need to take them away,” said Jess Zak, a Freedom From Training Wheels instructor.
The method involves starting out on a “balance bike,” such as a Skuut or Strider, that doesn’t have pedals. If a balance bike is not available, remove existing pedals and training wheels from a child’s bike, and lower the seat so the aspiring rider can sit on the saddle and “walk” or scoot it along.
According to Grace Kumetat, who coordinates the Freedom From Training Wheels program, “The kids can be cruising around on those, and when it’s time to introduce pedals, they already understand how to balance.”
“At the point where they’re gliding comfortably for a distance of 15 feet, then they’re ready to have the pedals put back on,” Kumetat said, “and it’s a matter of giving them a push and saying, ‘Put your feet on the pedals.’ I have them look straight ahead, at a tree or a flower, and pedal, pedal, pedal.”
Watch Them Ride Away
Student AnaSofia Guedez, 7, absorbed the central lesson in her recent class. “The most important thing is balancing,” she said, adding, “Downhill was the easiest.”
Once they get it, “The children zoom off,” Kumetat said. “The first thing they do when they can ride is go away. They always have so much fun, and I think it’s one of their first tastes of control: Where they’re going, when they stop, when they start.”
That sums up 8-year-old Emma Cooney Geisler’s reaction earlier this month at Sunday Streets in the Bayview district. “Bicycles are more fun than roller coasters,” she exclaimed, after learning to pedal on her own in just one day.
Though there is no guarantee that every child will be able to learn to ride a bicycle, Kumetat said a youngster who is “gung ho and ready to go” is often able to ride independently within an hour, while those who have not ridden a balance bike or who are accustomed to riding with training wheels may take an afternoon to learn.
Instructors send parents home with a tip sheet that explains the steps of the Freedom From Training Wheels method for at-home practice. The classes are free and, while the typical learners are young children, students of all ages are welcome.
The next Freedom From Training Wheels class will be 11 a.m.-3 p.m. July 10 during Sunday Streets on the Great Highway. For more information on this and other family bicycling events sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition events, go to www.sfbike.org/?chain.
Bike About Town is presented by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a 12,000-member nonprofit dedicated to creating safer streets and more livable communities by promoting the bicycle for everyday transportation. For more biking resources, go to www.sfbike.org.