There’s a common misperception that kids younger than five are too little to learn to ride a bike. The other day at our local playground, a couple of parents stopped to ask how old my daughter is. She was tearing around the outer loop, standing up to pump her pedals, and then slamming on the brakes with such conviction she proudly left skid marks on the sidewalk. They were convinced she was six. She’s four. They looked at me with a mix of awe and mistrust, like I have a prodigy on my hands or else I’m just being pushy and reckless. My daughter is athletic, but she’s not unusual. Almost any child can learn to ride a two wheeler by the time they’re three.
And some can even learn to bomb a downhill course, complete with ramps and bridges and rocky ledges, by the time they’re four—like the rad preschooler named Malcolm in this video that went viral last week. If you haven’t already seen it, be prepared to be seriously impressed. The kid is clearing stuff at Highland Mountain Bike Park in New Hampshire that would terrify a lot of adults, and he’s four. More proof that, as parents, we tend to underestimate what our kids are capable of, and when.
Not every kid will be a natural-born mountain biker like Malcolm, but it's easy to raise competent three-year-old rippers—on one condition: No training wheels. Just. Don't. Go. There.
Training wheels don’t do kids any favors. They just prolong the awkward, wobbly period and put the fear of God into kids about falling. Back in the day, training wheels were part of the natural progression of bike riding: Toddlers started out on tricycles, graduated to training wheels by the time they were four or five, then finally—while screaming "Don’t let go!" to the parent who has already let go—learned to ride a two wheeler. (My mother would stand at the bottom of our alley in Washington, D.C., and yell "All clear!" and my sister and I would screech down the nearly imperceptible slope on our Big Wheels.) Each step took time and you couldn’t skip a step or you’d scar your kid for life.
But balance bikes have changed everything. Designed with handlebars but no pedals, they teach kids to steer and balance on their seats while gliding along with their feet in the air. To stop, they simply put their feet down. Balance bikes also take the fear out of falling because kids can almost always get their feet under them to cushion the impact. Then it just becomes a matter of dusting themselves off, learning to untangle themselves from the bike—always a good skill to have—and saddling up again. Once they get the hang of riding, steering, falling, and balancing, it’s an easy, natural transition to a pedal bike. Our older daughter had just turned three when we decided to make the move. We weren’t sure she was ready—again, the widespread assumption is that kids this young are too young—but we had a hunch that she was, so we took her to a grassy park and after an hour or so of wiping out (see below), she was pedaling on her own and mostly staying upright (braking was another story). The next week, she was riding on dirt and bombing down our gravel driveway, with the booboos to prove it. A few months later, she hit the local pump track. Now she’s four and starting to ride her first singletrack: mellow, flat, mostly smooth sections of trail along the Santa Fe River.
Ryan McFarland invented the Strider toddler bike in 2007, when he was looking for a safe bike for his two-year-old son. The company’s motto is, If your kid can walk, he can rider a Strider. And it’s true. Our two-year-old happily tears around the playground on her borrowed Strider like she’s been riding it for years. It’s only been a few weeks. At this rate, I don’t doubt that she’ll be riding a pedal bike before she’s three—and not because she’s gifted, but because of technology, pure and simple. (And yes, always, always with a helmet.)
Start them on two wheels when they're young and you'll be setting them up for a lifetime of riding. And who knows, maybe one day you'll have a hard-charging downhiller on your hands.