Growing up, I was never one for traditional sports. Sure, we played ball in the street, but apart from bowling parties and camp color wars, I never engaged in any formalized athletic competition until middle school when I started racing BMX bikes.
Now I’m a parent with an elder son entering sporting age. Kids need to be active both physically and socially, but like me, he seems mostly indifferent to kicking, hitting, catching, or otherwise basing his movements around the trajectory of round projectiles. Instead, also like me, when it comes to physical activity he’s mostly interested in riding bikes.
In one sense it’s harder to raise a cyclist now than it was when I was a kid. For one thing, there are way more cars on the road and the concept that drivers should be extra-cautious in residential neighborhoods has largely gone the way of doffing your hat. For another, I grew up in a particularly idyllic age. While we had access to a full array of sugared cereals, our breakfasts were not yet haunted by the specter of missing kids on milk cartons. This meant you could get jacked up on Sugar Smacks and then run right out the front door to burn them off without your parents assuming you were going to get abducted. It also meant I was able to hone my bike-handling skills by tearing around the neighborhood, either alone or with friends, riding fast and far on that sugar-induced high.
Yes, it was a wonderful time to be alive.
Things are different today. Letting your kids run around and be kids is called “free-range parenting” and fraught with controversy. It seems like they can’t even kick a ball around together unless you lease a minivan and enroll them in a soccer league first. And forget cycling unaccompanied; even riding with your kids is increasingly difficult in many places. Decades of mounting traffic and increasing sprawl means you’re either confined to the cul-de-sal or else forced to undertake a lengthy car journey in order to do a multigenerational ride.
As consumers, however, the parent of a budding cyclist has never had it better. Sure, your kid may not be able to ride to elementary school, but it’s easy to get her set up on anything from a road bike to a fat bike. (Note I said “easy” and not “cheap.”) My son’s bicycle—a cyclocross bike with integrated 10-speed shifting and a dazzling two-tone paint scheme—is so awesome I kind of resent him for it. Sure, I also had a pretty nice bike when I was his age, but it had a coaster brake and weighed almost as much as I did.
Then there’s getting your little bike nut involved in competition. Living in an age of constant supervision and hyperspecialization means organized racing is probably the best way for your kid to find a community of cycling peers. Of course, if you’re already a cyclist this is fairly straightforward. You’re familiar with the local clubs, you’ve got a handle on the various disciplines, and you know which of the local race series include kiddie events. You also know how to identify other bike-y families whose brains you can pick, because they’re the ones who roll up at the playground on Xtracycles laden with produce from the food co-op.
But what if you don’t know the secret handshake? For all the opportunities available to the juvenile cyclist, getting involved in the sport is not a plug-and-play affair like it is with soccer and baseball. Your kid’s not going to come home from school with any fliers for the local cyclocross series in his backpack. And ultimately it all comes down to where you live. Maybe you live near one of America’s 20-something velodromes, or maybe you don’t. Not every local cyclocross series offers Kids’ Cross like the Cross Crusade in Portland (if there even is a cyclocross series near you at all), and not every city has a Valmont Bike Park. (Actually only one city has a Valmont Bike Park, and it’s Boulder.) Still, whatever may be going on in the pro ranks, bike racing as a sport is alive and well. My own youth sport of choice, BMX, is a discipline that has manage to flourish in the ensuing years, and with hundreds of tracks across the country you might find you’re within striking distance of one.
It’s not surprising that cycling is less accessible than other kids’ sports. It requires a sizeable up-front investment in equipment as well as a set of specialized skills. (Sadly, in America, riding a bicycle somewhat competently is a specialized skill-set.) It’s also a sport that’s rife with arcana. Most American parents can show a kid how to toss a football or break in a baseball mitt, but how many are versed in the subtleties of drafting, proper cyclocross dismount technique, or the importance of portaging your bicycle on the non-drive side so as to avoid the dreaded “rookie tattoo”?
Kids’ cycling could stand to go more mainstream though, as it has a huge amount to offer. Just like all those ball sports it teaches the virtues of discipline, hard work, and sportsmanship. Thanks to BMX, I got to experience all that character-building winning and losing that I might otherwise have missed due to my aversion to jock culture, and if I hadn’t discovered it there’s not a chance in hell I’d ever have experienced the pride that comes with winning a trophy. (This was shortly before we invented giving kids trophies for everything.)
But cycling is also better than all those other sports because it does something they don’t: it teaches practical skills you can use for the rest of your life. Sure, most kids may not stick with their childhood sports through adulthood, but at least lapsed bike racers will know how to cycle to work. Moreover, thanks to all that arcana they’ve picked up through they years, they’ll be way ahead of the curve in terms of flat repair, sweat management and keeping their pant legs clean. (If I’ve done my job right, my son will still be hearing my exhortations to portage his bike on the non-drive side long after I’m gone.) A future generation of adults who are comfortable with, on, and around bikes will make the world a much better place.
I mean hey, baseball’s great and all, but besides showing off at the dunking booth now and again, what do you do with it?
Illustration by Taj Mihelich