Where did you learn to ride? Most of us learned to ride bikes as young children. I learned on Bentley Road in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. The street was flat for the first five blocks and then headed downhill. I can still remember the first few uncertain blocks, my dad holding onto the seat, running behind me and repeating over and over “Pedal!” When he let go, I wobbled forward under my own power as he alternated yelling “Pedal!” with “Steer!” That was good enough till the hill. I didn’t wear a bike helmet, and there were certainly no classes for kids to learn how to bike. That’s why you had parents.
Years later in Pittsburgh, PA, my daughter, Danielle, learned how to ride a bike with my help. There were still no classes, but she did wear a helmet, as did I. Here’s the proof.
Danielle is now 31 years old and works professionally for the City of Portland doing active transportation education and outreach. She also rides for Team Beer. Who says early experiences don’t matter?
We’re fortunate youth bike education has come a long way. Santa Barbara has some excellent programs. I recently rode with a group of students from La Colina Junior High School. They are enrolled in a six-week after-school program run by Bici Centro, a project of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition. It’s called Pedal Power. Below is a group photo.
On two recent bike rides with these seventh graders from La Colina, I watched as they demonstrated their street skills. They rode a mix of mountain and BMX bicycles and had mastered signaling left- and right-hand turns. They moved into the correct traffic lane for turns and were scanning for traffic from the front, sides, and rear. As we rode in the bike lane along the heavily traveled Calle Real, you could see their growing sense of self-confidence. Even more importantly, they were learning to work and ride together as a group. They were communicating with each other about road hazards, riding together in a line, waiting for slower riders, maintaining distance and speed. More experienced riders were helping learners master new skills. Their instructors, Elisa and Amy, were giving them encouragement and teaching them street smarts the whole way. They were learning life lessons of responsibility, pride, and independence — not always easy lessons for 12-year-olds.
Pedal Power also teaches basic wrenching skills so that kids can learn to take care of simple maintenance tasks like putting air in tires, fixing flats, or adjusting the brakes on their bikes. These are basic skills that build self-reliance and offer both manual and intellectual challenges. Conquering those challenges helps children become more confident. A couple years ago at La Cumbre Jr. High, one young girl, challenged by school, graduated after six weeks with a huge smile on her face, never having missed a session, and was by far the best mechanic in the group.
Learning to fix your bike is not just about getting your hands dirty and greasy, although that is very important. Taking a tire off a wheel, putting a patch on a tube, tightening a brake cable, or oiling a chain are only the mechanical facets of the challenge. The hardest task can be figuring out what the real problem is. That often requires the problem-solving skills of Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew. A flat tire could be: a nail puncture in the tube, a problem with the valve, a spoke-end rubbing, or maybe one of your friends playing a trick on you by letting all the air out. Thinking comes before getting your hands dirty. That is another important lesson.
Before we headed out on our rides, everyone did an ABC Quick Check on their bikes. “A” is for air in the tires, “B” is for brakes that work, and “C” is for chain, cogs, and cranks. That’s a good check for all riders. When you’re swooping down the hill at full speed, you want to be sure that the friction of brake pads on rims will stop you. That’s physics. Wow, Pedal Power is also about learning some practical hands-on academics.