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How To Ride A Bike

Kate Hinds

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(Kate Hinds)
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I grew up in the New Jersey of the 1970s and 80s--a more laissez-faire parenting time. So when I learned to ride a bike, the adults pretty much stayed out of the way. Here's how my mother, Eleanor Katz, described it. "You figured it out. You were able to ride. You were going faster and faster and you were just like, 'But I don't know how to stop!' So the way to stop was to drive into something and fall over."

As I recall, one of those somethings was a moving car. Anyway, now I have children of my own. Technology has brought us car seats, padded playground surfaces, and Web pages devoted to bad nanny sightings. So naturally we parents think that if we buy the right stuff, and pay close attention, we can protect our children from harm. And now my eight-year-old daughter Fiona wants to learn to ride a bike. Biking is one of the few childhood pursuits that has remained old-school. Your kid is either falling on concrete, or riding to wherever she wants, as fast as she wants. And this unnerves Fiona, who doesn't have the best memories of our previous bike lessons. Because, as she puts it, "I got hurt. First of all, a couple of years ago I fell and cut my hand. I'm very scared, sort of, that I might fall flat on my face. The rest is okay. I'm just kind of worried about getting hurt. And P.S.: learning to ride a bike is not as easy as it looks."

Neither is the teaching of it, because earlier this spring our attempts at it ground to a halt. So we did what modern urban parents do: we outsourced. Which recently brought all of us-- my mother, husband, kids, and me--to a free "Teach Your Child To Ride a Bike" clinic run by an organization called Bike New York. They're piggybacking on an Upper West Side street fair, so the road is closed to traffic. And Rich Conroy, the group's education director, tells the children how it's gonna be. "Here's how you're going to learn to ride a bike. You're going to teach yourselves, OK? Nobody's going to hold you up."

For many parents, this is radical stuff. Here's how it works: The kids' bikes have been denuded of pedals and training wheels. The seats are low enough so that their feet can easily touch the ground. And their goal is to scoot up and down the block until they go fast enough to lift their feet up and balance. The adults' job is to give up control and get out of the way. But is there such a thing as curbside backseat driving? Because if so, my mother and I are guilty.
"The key is speed," the two of us shout from the sidelines. "It's when it slows down that you start to tip over. And if it just feels like it's out of control, you put your feet down."

And soon, Fiona's able to scoot fast enough to lift her feet up off the ground and glide. "Did you see me the way before--I went down that way, I was like gliding along?" she says.

"No," I say, "did you have your feet up for a while?"

And Fiona, who clearly has momentum, says, "Yeah, I had it up for maybe about five feet, maybe? I'll see if I can do it again."

And she does. Maybe a week later, on one of our trips scooting around Central Park, Fiona decides she's ready for pedals. And just like that, she's riding a bike. And yes, I made sure she knew how to use the brakes. I asked her later what she thought about the whole experience.

"Well, sometimes I got frustrated," she said, "because once the bike fell on top of me."

"But you weren't hurt," I quickly interject. And she agreed. "No, I wasn't hurt, and I managed to pick the bike up. Bikes are very heavy!"

This was a real breakthrough, for both of us. She fell, but she picked herself back up and kept going without me calling 9-1-1. And now she's learning that biking comes with the promise of future independence. "You can go really faster than when you can run," she muses, "and it feels good to have the wind and breeze in your face."

Suddenly, I get a bracing and not entirely welcome glimpse into the future. Fiona's already asking how old she has to be before I let her go to the corner store by herself. I keep thinking of what Bike New York's Rich Conroy said: if you keep holding onto the back of the bike, your child won't learn to balance on her own. And see, I did let go. But I'm secure in the knowledge that one day, Fiona will have a GPS cell phone so I can track her location from home.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Sally Lei

    From Jackson Heights, NY, 09/07/2008

    Kate I hope you doesn't ride fast anymore and you should watch what is in front or you and thank goodness your all right.

    By hugh ansty

    From NY, NY, 09/06/2008

    That was fantastic, where do we get the gps cell phone???

    By dorina cragnotti

    From new york, NY, 09/04/2008

    hey kate! this was wonderful! and i love the photos! i always enjoy riding my kids' bikes. (!) i will say that i washed my hands of the whole teach your child how to ride a bike. i sent them out with their dad! some how he got them going in one piece : )

    By dorina cragnotti

    From new york, NY, 09/04/2008

    hey kate! this was wonderful! and i love the photos! i always enjoy riding my kids' bikes. (!) i will say that i washed my hands of the whole teach your child how to ride a bike. i sent them out with their dad! some how he got them going in one piece : )

    By Susan Budig

    From Minneapolis, MN, 08/24/2008

    Nice little excursion for us in the audience, too, Kate. Thanks

    By Meagan Katz

    From Ringwood, NJ, 08/24/2008

    You should have mentioned how Aunt Janet helped you learn to ride a bike down the Jersey shore - that was when you ran into the fence. You were fine though, and are a capable cyclist to this day. :-)

    By Stacey Sonpal

    From Cambridge, MA, 08/23/2008

    I am glad to hear that Kate...um, Fiona survived her first bike ride.

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