Josie Ortega shares her family’s journey to get every member on a bike, and off to family adventures!
This morning, our entire immediate family—two parents, three kids—hopped on our bikes for a short ride to the coffee shop half a mile away. We enjoyed a picnic pastry breakfast and a semi-successful family yoga session in the nearby park. I’ll be honest: I feel so proud of us for becoming a biking family!
You may find my smug self-satisfaction obnoxious, even insufferable—but I hope you’ll cut me some slack when I tell you that we worked for years to earn this biking family status.
The Benefits of Biking
The upsides to biking are many. Essentially, riding a bike meets two of our basic human needs —exercise and transportation—at the same time!
Biking can be leisurely, or utilitarian. It provides the enjoyment of being outdoors and experiencing the carefree exhilaration of flying against the wind. But on a more practical level, biking equips us with the ability to get to a friend’s house, to school, even to commute to work. In our family, cycling is a combination of both fun and useful, and as kids grow, having bikes as a transportation option will become only more and more practical.
That’s why I’m so thrilled that finally, everyone in our family is old enough and increasingly skilled enough to each ride our own bikes. It’s fun, it’s faster than walking, and it opens up a world of options for family activities together.
I tell you the truth: If we can do it, it’s possible!
First Step to Becoming a Bike Family: Proficient Parents
Start with my husband. Of the many skills he boasted when we met—believe it or not, riding a bicycle was not among them. As a city boy growing up in Queens then Greenwich Village, NYC, it simply wasn’t part of his childhood experience.
Funny story: he didn’t learn to drive until he moved to DC and got an entry-level job in a congressional office. In addition to answering the phone and whatever other undesirable tasks fell on his plate, one of his primary duties was to chauffeur the congresswoman around town in a large black suburban. So, he learned to drive. I think he’d recommend that driver’s education not be under such stressful circumstances!
Riding a bicycle, though, is something he could have decided not to pursue. Of course, it’s fine for others to have the skills and hobbies that we don’t have. We can’t do everything. I could name quite a few that I admire but don’t practice (my mom’s sewing comes to mind!).
Still, I admire and appreciate that instead of filing bicycling away under Not For Me, he decided to learn as a grown man with children.
His first foray into bicycling was with a friendly beach cruiser on our Florida vacation. With that enjoyable experience under his belt, he felt ready to invest in a bike at home.
As for me, I’m fairly comfortable on a bike from childhood experience. Once our son, the youngest, grew past the stage of riding in the stroller, my husband kindly picked up a used bike from someone in the neighborhood and had it refurbished at the local bike shop for me. When I got back on the saddle, muscle memory came back … just like riding a bike. So to speak.
Second Step: Learn as You Go.
Because my prior bike experience was comprised mainly of large suburban sidewalks, riding a charmer named Pink Thunder!, I’ve had plenty to learn to become comfortable riding in an urban/suburban area, with children.
- Finding experts to help us made my husband and me much more confident in this endeavor. That could be friends who ride miles every Saturday in tight bike shorts and professionals at the friendly bike shop. And, don’t forget YouTube! These friends and experts can advise us about the right type and size bike for adults and children, and talk through bike maintenance and other issues that arise.
- Know your neighborhood. Finding an inviting, easy place to get comfortable and practice really helps build confidence. Check your municipal website for a bike map, and you can learn which trails, streets, and sidewalks are bike-friendly. You may find a gorgeous scenic route, or just unassuming empty parking lots and quiet streets, perfect for beginners.
- Learn the rules of the road. Cyclists are obligated to know and follow traffic laws, to yield to pedestrians, to signal their turns, and more. Searching for “bicycle rules of the road” in each state is a great place to start. We were learning the guidelines for Virginia.
Third Step: Start Early!
Starting early won’t guarantee that kids will learn to ride quickly. They’re developing at their own pace, after all. Our kids followed the typical birth order pattern: the oldest waited probably a year after she’d received a balance bike to really get into it, and the younger ones got going earlier, motivated to keep up with big sister.
Start Early With Riding
All three of our kids began with a balance bike, a very cool way to get started zipping around the neighborhood, which we never had when I was a kid! With no pedals, kids as young as age two use their feet to scoot themselves and get used to the balancing part of riding a bicycle. And if it works out, they may be able to go straight to a regular bike when it’s time, skipping the training wheels.
Our oldest still used training wheels after the balance bike because of the size of the bicycle we bought for her since we didn’t want to purchase a small bike she’d quickly grow out of. (It is worth keeping an eye out for bike shops that offer trade-in discounts when your child needs a larger bicycle.) Our younger two never rode with training wheels but had a brief time of transition learning to pedal a two-wheel bike. The youngest bike family member had been racing around the neighborhood for so long on his sisters’ old pink balance bike that our neighbors were sick of it. They picked up a pedal bike for him when they came across one, which he received via Santa Claus a few weeks later. And we were off to the races!
Start Early With Rules!
Starting early also helped the kids get used to rules and practices like wearing a helmet whenever getting on the bicycle, putting the helmet back in the designated stylish basket upon returning home; stopping before each corner when we’re on a family walk, waiting for Mama before we cross the street together. They’re used to established boundaries. These days, my kids can ride around our block if they ask me ahead of time. If I’m not in the front yard, my son knows his limits. He can ride back and forth between two certain houses on our street.
We’ll have opportunities to earn more independence as everyone grows. And of course, we’ll have a natural consequence—losing the biking privilege—if and when safety standards and parental limits aren’t respected. BOOM goes the dynamite.
Fourth Step: Find the Right Equipment.
Of course, we didn’t acquire five bikes, with every single piece of equipment, on Day One. Having said that, it is quite helpful to set the family up for success by having everything you need, easily accessible. In addition to the bicycles themselves, start with:
- Helmets, of course! And as a friendly piece of advice, I’m glad I got a cute one, or at least one I don’t hate the look of, for myself.
- Bell: for fun, and for safety. Use it to alert someone ahead of you that you’re passing on their left, for example.
- Simple bike lights: just in case. My husband and I are both comfortable riding on our own in the early morning or evening, but we don’t allow our children to ride in the dark. But in case we’d lost track of time out somewhere, or for some other reason, I think it’s smart to have lights for the front and back of each bike, in addition to the reflectors that come standard on the bike.
- Basket. So fun.
- Bike locks.
- Storage: consider what makes sense for your family. A bike shed, a designated spot in the garage, maybe a cool, mod hanger on the family room wall for a sculptural vibe!
Bike Family Bonding
Our path to becoming a bike family had a few bumps. We’ve had crashes, we’ve had family rides that started out with delight and ended in tears. We still have a lot to learn! Whether biking, baking, building a treehouse, or something else, these are the days to take on a family project and learn something new together.