First bike!

Next week, we’re driving all the way to Madison to see my daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter, and we’re bringing a present: her first bike. I got it all assembled today, although I’m going to suggest that Kyle & Skatje give it a once-over and make sure I didn’t forget something.

I remember my first bike, and really, my only bike. We were poor, so we had to take whatever we could get, and my father was quite proud to have gotten this used bike from a friend. I was 7 or 8, and he gave me this monstrous adult bike (I’d grow into it), dark red, with the words “English Racer” written on the frame (I later learned that it wasn’t really a racing bike, but a Raleigh Sports bike.) It was very light and stripped down, only 3 speeds — high, higher, and so high you’ll rupture yourself trying to turn that crank — and no fenders, which was not a great option in the Pacific Northwest, where I’d spend most of my adolescence with a muddy stripe up my back. It had these tires that were about as thick as my index finger, so no, this wasn’t for riding on the back roads.

Also, no training wheels, of course.

So my dad taught me how to ride by putting me on this razor thin rail on wheels, where I couldn’t simultaneously sit on the seat and reach the pedals, and pushed me off down the driveway. I had to learn to balance or die.

As you can see, I didn’t die. That was my bike all through grade school, and I think my parents didn’t junk it until I went off to college — at least, it disappeared then, and I don’t think it flew away. It was a great bike. Meanwhile, my brother would get a 10-speed with fat tires — I felt sorry for him that he was driving such an inferior vehicle. My bike was a beast to get rolling from a stationary start, but once you got moving, I could easily outrace my brother and all of my friends. As long as there was no turning involved. Or braking. Or going uphill. Downhill on the straightaway, it was glorious.

I don’t think Iliana’s bike will have the staying power of my old Red Racer, but it’s a much more practical and safer way to start bicycling. Maybe when she gets older she can get a skinny death machine and terrorize everyone going down hills.


  1. mordred says

    My first bike was a proper kiddy bike. Like it’s successors it was assembled by grandpa from parts of old broken bikes he had collected from neighbours, familly and the junk yard.

    He died 20 years ago yesterday, and I still miss him!

  2. Hemidactylus says

    I vaguely recall my dad getting me going in learning to ride my first bike. Still not as cool as my big wheel! I owned the streets on that beast.

    My friends as a teen were all into stunt bikes and jumping ramps and stuff. I was more a beach cruiser guy. My most recent bike was a 12(?) speed beach cruiser that was kinda nice for ease of acceleration then getting up to a decent speed. That was in my mid 20s when I was really into weightlifting and aerobic exercise so it helped develop my quads and endurance.

    I don’t own a bike anymore. I had found them to be a magnet for ornery dogs. Cats could care less.

  3. Ed Seedhouse says

    There is a Veritasium video that explains why and how bikes basically balance themselves. They are designed to do that. You don’t have to try to balance them, just ride them and let them do the balancing. You don’t have to turn the handlebars much to change direction either. Just a bit and lean the right way,

  4. Hemidactylus says

    Ed Seedhouse @3
    I guess leaning is important then. I’m amazed at the degree of leaning into chicanes that occurs in MotoGP, but of course those are the elite of world class riders. If I tried leaning into a tight corner on a bicycle I’d inevitably hit some unseen gravel and get road rash.

  5. robro says

    The Veritasium video I saw demonstrates that you start turning a bike by turning the opposite direction.

    I don’t remember my first bike…I’m really old…but the bike I remember the most had one speed. I don’t think I learned about multi-speed bikes until I was in college.

  6. Ed Seedhouse says

    @4: Just learning to trust the damn things is the main obstacle. That was the barrier I couldn’t cross until at the age of 10 I watched my 8 year old brother ride the very same bike that was my nemesis. I decided if he could do it I could too, and I did, mainly out of spite. Just get on and get it moving and it will basically balance itself. We used to do a lot of riding without holding the handle bars, just to show off. You could rid a long way on a straight stretch without touching them. Bikes are designed to be virtually self balancing and self steering.

  7. flex says

    My first bike was also cobbled together by my grandfather. The frame still had the attachment points for the shifter/brake cables, but he spread the forks for wide tires and put in a coaster-brake hub. The only paved road around were too dangerous to ride on, so I rode on the dirt roads, dirt paths, and through the fields where there was no path.

    I rode that bike until after the welds broke. The weld on the bar from the front to the seat (apparently called the top tube if my google-fu is accurate), broke where it attached to the seat. I still rode it. It’s probably still in the parent’s barn somewhere.

    As an aside, I am still in awe of the genius who invented the coaster-brake. What an elegant, self-contained, design. But that may not mean much because I’m also in awe of the genius who invented the metal paint can lid, that’s a circular spring and it’s brilliant!

  8. lochaber says

    If you have the tools (or know someone who does…), it might be worth removing the pedal/cranks, and lowering the seat so the rider’s feet can touch the ground, and it can function sorta like one of those “balance bikes”

    I’ve been seeing more bikes specifically built as “balance bikes” for (mostly young children) to learn on.

    I think why starting to learn to ride a bike the traditional way is difficult, is because your body is trying to learn multiple skills simultaneously – pedaling, steering, balancing, where something like a balance bike lets them focus on learning the balancing and steering bit, and once the rider gets skilled at that, adding in pedaling is almost trivial.

    (it’s also rather amusing to see kids start zipping around on a balance bike once they gain some competence/confidence)

    I bicycle commute ~100 miles a week, so I’ve been learning a bit more about bikes recently (and in the process of building an upgraded commuter…)

  9. laurian says

    My 1st bike was a big, heavy, fat tired, single speed, coaster brake Schwinn Typhoon. It was green. I think you could get a Typhoon in any color you wanted as long as it was green. Training wheels!?! Please! Helmet? What’s a helmet? It was the early 70’s. I only crashed a couple times learning to ride, each of which I walked away from; lightly bloodied with tears in my eyes but nothing broken.

    As a pre-teen I’d rode that bike for hours & miles all over my very rural neighborhood taking a break family, visiting friends and just checking shit out. It became my 1st commuter vehicle when I’d ride a three miles each way from home to my 1st job picking blueberries. Good times, good times.

  10. nekomancer945 says

    PZ, she’s going to love it! And you of course!!! NOW…looking at the picture you need to get a reflector light for the back of the seat, and for both sides of both wheels. A safety matter, particularly if she rides in either early morning, early evening and after, as well as inclement weather. And depending, she might want to have a mirror attachment on the handlebar so she can see what’s behind her. And of course, make sure she has a cool helmet! And she’s going to have fun! Later, and it will come, teach her how to repair a flat!

  11. fishy says

    Our family had this Schwinn American that I loved. It had a coaster brake and two gears.
    This was when kids were riding banana bikes and popping wheelies.

  12. Doc Bill says

    I was going to get Louis’ hand-me-down bike, an old beater that had seen better days. I threw a fit, of course! Then I got a brand new bike with go faster tassels on the handle bars and a ringy dingy bell. Loved it!

    Turns out it was the old switch-a-roo. Dad took Louis’ old bike, repainted it, put on new tires and the gee gaws. They confessed their crime 40 years later.

    Dad got his sweet revenge, though, by shoving me down the hill without teaching me how to brake, and I shot over the end of our road across a ditch and into the forest. Didn’t kill me, made me stronger. Built character, too.

  13. goaded says

    What I remember about my first bike is rolling down a hill, seeing a car coming the other way and having to ride into a gateway and up a hedge because I couldn’t reach the brakes.

    I’ve heard stabilisers are a bad idea; you have to start again when they’re removed. Our kids started with bikes with no peddles, like the original Velocipede.

  14. Jazzlet says

    The balance bike versus pedals and stabilisers debate seems to come down pretty firmly on the balance bike for a first bike. However it does rather assume the child hasn’t ridden any other pedaled or balanced vehicle. I started off on a hand-me-down tricycle so by the time I got to the hand-me-down bike I was already familiar with pedaling and steering. Then I was given a brand new Moulton Mini, which was . . . twitchy I think best describes it and I had to learn to ride almost from scratch again. By the time I graduated to a Raleigh Ladies with Sturmey Archer gears – another new bike – my response time was such I could get most of the way to school without touching the handle bars – it was all down hill. That bike got pinched out of the garage under the bedroom where I was laid up ill on 3rd May 1979, I know the exact date because it was the day Thatcher got in, and yes I did drag myself out of bed to vote – it was my first time I wasn’t about to miss it.

  15. SchreiberBike says

    The brake lever should be on the far side of the handle bar grip so she can reach it with her fingers while holding the grip. It looks like a single-piece Ashtabula crank, so there’s no removing the crank arms. It’s a nicer bike than my first and I’ve had several, but no more.

  16. charley says

    My first bike in the early sixties was a beater from the local Schwinn shop. I didn’t like the scratches and thought the silver color underneath was kind of cool, so I scratched off as much of the paint as I could with a screwdriver.
    I have enjoyed biking ever since, once bike camping all the way around Lake Superior with a friend. I still ride a couple of times a week. The one downside is the ever-present danger of death by car. I upgraded to a full face helmet recently.

  17. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    Professionally trained bike mechanic and owner of a bike shop here.

    Yup, balance bikes are the way to go for first time riders. Taking the pedals and the “training” wheels off and pushing the saddle all the way down could make this bike work for that. You can’t instruct someone in how to balance, you simply have to put them in a situation where they have to do it until their brain learns how to center their weight correctly.

    If the little one has a crash and gets an emotional resistance to riding you may not be able to teach them until they’re around eight years old. You can’t balance if your muscles are tense, the system needs to be able to do all the unconscious small corrections to keep you centred.

    At under eight years old you’re unlikely to be able to talk them out of an emotional reaction. Pointing out that they’re wearing protective gear, are riding on grass etc. and are unlikely to get hurt isn’t going to get them to relax enough to learn to balance. But eventually they’ll develop enough that logical arguments can overcome those fears.

    That brake lever does need to face the other way and be tipped down 30-45 degrees. I wouldn’t worry too much about it though. On most kids bikes with coaster brakes the springs in those front brakes are too strong for little hands to make use of them. It’s good to have it in the right place so they learn where to reach to, but it won’t slow them down much.

    Reflectors are a good idea, not so much for safe riding though, at this age they shouldn’t be riding unsupervised. But having the shiny bits means there’s less likelihood of a parent running the bike over when it’s been left where it shouldn’t be.

    I can give you all the torque measurements for the nutted fittings, but in truth there’s a wide range of acceptable. The place folks most often go wrong is not getting the pedals tight enough. Most consumer 15mm spanners that are thin enough to do that job aren’t long enough to get the needed torque. And despite the left pedal being a left hand thread for safety, pedals do unscrew themselves. Remind the parents to check the pedals occasionally and it’ll be fine.

  18. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    Dang, one more thing. Make sure the brake pads on the front brake are centered when they hit the wheel rim. It’s common for them to be high enough to hit the tyre or low enough to push into the spokes. Ideally the top edge of the pad will line up with the top edge of the braking surface because the pads are moving downward as they close. This gives room for the pad to hit lower as it wears out. But again, little hands are unlikely to be able to use that brake enough for that to be an issue so centred should be fine.

    The pads should also strike the wheel rim either flush or with the front of the pad touching first. (The right edge looking at the pad on the same side as the chain, and the left edge on the other side) This can be hard to fix, it requires bending the brake arm. It’s a very common problem in these bikes though.

  19. Turtle says

    I’ll just jump in and also confirm the no training wheels, no pedals coaster bike recommendation. As an easy modification, you should be able to remove the training wheels and the pedal, but leave the crank arms.

    My nephew is just roughly 16 months old and has just started cruising around (with a little help) on his first coaster bike. Balancing is already working quite well, steering is starting to work, and I expect him to be able to drive around alone without help as soon as he has grown another cm or two in order to properly touch the ground with his feet.

    I expect he will be able to drive around before being able to run around.

    It’s amazing to see, and I’m envious of kids being able to learn riding a bike so early nowadays using coaster bikes.

  20. EvoMonkey says

    Great advice FossilFishy! I also saw that brake lever in the picture and thought, “Hey, that doesn’t look right.” I have also noticed this trend to put front caliper brakes on kids’ bikes and wondered why. It does seem to really complicate things. I do really like the balance bike trend – my friends with kids have said that has really accelerated learning. Just yesterday I was out biking and saw a small preschool girl (maybe about 5 or 6) riding a bike very well with no training wheels on a pedal bicycle with her dad. It brought back great memories for me because bikes are one passion that my dad gave to me and this was my first Father’s Day without him. I will always remember that purple banana seat first bike my parents struggled to buy from Sears and gave me as a Christmas present back in the 70’s. I still commute to work everyday by bike and try to get a couple of fun trail rides or errand done by bike on the weekends. Most weeks I only drive my car about 2 or 3 times.

  21. Matthew Currie says

    Country guy here, but none of my kids (three plus a step,now all in their 40’s or close) got along with training wheels, because they just don’t work on anything but the smoothest pavement. They all did much better without, on grassy surfaces, where I would hold and guide and then let them go. This was before the invention of pedal-less balance bikes. But kids, when they need to, are very good at balancing. As an adult, I was astonished at how far over a little kid can wobble without falling down. Training wheels don’t allow the bike to lean as naturally, and don’t teach the kid how to correct. I don’t think any of my kids took more than about a day before they were riding around the yard.

    I had not seen much real evidence of balance bikes, but the other day driving through a small city there was a kid on one, at a crosswalk, and at the appropriate moment, he and parent scooted across, and at the end, he raised his feet and coasted, just as one would hope.

    All the kids learned to ride quickly. And (pride flag flying) my eldest daughter was at an early age an indefatigable climber, a good cycling companion, and is now a bicycle mechanic by trade.

  22. annattheft says

    In the 1990’s, I tried training wheels with my daughters for several weeks without success. The neighbors no longer wanted a two wheeler razer scooter, and both girls got that right away. Then about a day later they tried the bikes, sans training wheels, and were riding immediately. The grandkids used balance bikes for a couple of weeks, and then hopped on their big kid bikes immediately.

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