By Erica Tingey
We are a cycling family. I raced my mountain bike around the world as a professional. My husband is an avid rider. And my 9-year-old son cruises singletrack almost better than I do! You’d think that we were born to pedal, but that would be very far from the truth. I’ll let you in on a little secret; my son resisted riding bikes with the same force that I resist black licorice – and I really can’t stand black licorice.
Cycling, and especially mountain biking, can be a wonderful family activity. Park City is home to trails for all ability levels, with vistas and smiles for miles. We moved here with the idea of pedaling all summer and skiing all winter. Getting our son on board with our plans took some extra work, however. And while we haven’t figured out everything, we think we may have masted the art of mountain biking with our kid. What follows in this brief article are some simple steps and strategies that we used to get our family out on the trails, with minimal tears and maximum fun.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’ve taken your child to your favorite trail in hopes of sharing your love of free-flow riding and it ended up in tears 10 minutes in, followed by a long, silent drive home. That happened to me more times than I care to admit! While there is no magic wand to make it all better, there are a few things you can do to increase the enjoyment level for all involved.
First, and as is true with most things in life, time is a gift that is paid with patience. Children’s muscles grow and their stamina improves each year. As my son is able to pedal stronger, his enjoyment on the bike increases. So, step one, be patient and know that your efforts to get your kids out there is worth it.
Second, and perhaps what has made the most difference, is making the ride enjoyable for everybody. For me, I like to pedal and feel my muscles do what I have trained them to do. To that end, there is a genius set-up designed by a friend of mine called the Tow-Whee. The Tow-Whee allows for the stronger rider to literally pull the weaker rider up and over just about any trail. On my first ride with my son and the Tow-Whee, I pulled him up Ghost Falls then across so we could descend Rush Flow! My son was 7 years old at the time and I expected it to be at least another 4-5 years before I could get him up there! A whole new world opened up when I towed him up the mountain so he could ride back down! The Tow-Whee is especially great with kids’ bikes, as they tend to weigh about 1/2 of the kids’ own body weight, with far too many gears for a child to keep track of.
Third, I put my son in a mountain bike class each summer. Park City has several great options for kids, with each class geared (no pun intended) toward the child’s ability level. With other kids of similar abilities each pushing each other and awesome teaching from the instructors, I noticed marked improvement in my son’s abilities.
Fourth, the right bike can make a big difference. This year, we turned another corner as a riding duo. For my business I have the Jamis Eden bikes for my clients to demo and I decided to let him try one. It is a 26″+ bike with a 1×11 drive train, dropper post and hydraulic brakes. All of a sudden he is riding off rocks, rolling over roots, and all fear has evaporated. There is a saying that “it’s not about the bike.” When it comes to kids and their heavy bikes, however, it actually is. This bike has massively improved his riding, undeniably. Let’s say you aren’t able to upgrade your child’s bike to an adults XS frame just yet (due to their height or your family budget). Then make sure your child’s bike has been checked by a certified bike mechanic to be sure the gears shift smooth and the brakes work. It’s also worth figuring out how low of pressure you can run in their tires. Tires with too much pressure in them make the child bounce around unnecessarily.
Finally, prepare for a lot of stops. Bring food your child likes and choose a trail that allows for off-the-bike exploring. We love to ride a little ways up Armstrong and then stop for a snack at the King Con lift. There is sometimes a stream there and other areas for my son to explore.
Here are a few extra hints that can make all the difference (these apply to the parents as well!)
Make sure they have a snug yet comfortable helmet. If the helmet can be pushed back to see the forehead, the chin strap and circumference is too loose. Helmets have a relatively short life, I recommend using them for only 3-4 years since the foam deteriorates making the helmet less effective.
Full finger gloves will also save you lots of scrapes and potentially save fingernails! Gloves also have the power to get kids excited about riding. As with adults, new gear is motivating.
Get the Trailforks app, it is free and has live tracking. Find a green trail in your area, read the description for suitability, and go for it!
In terms of skills you can teach your child, check these out. Remind your kid to ride with “heavy feet, light hands” (weight over the pedals / bottom bracket, not the handlebars), ride like a ninja, not a flamingo (this refers to pedal position, while coasting downhill you want level pedals), encourage them to stand up off their saddle while descending, with knee flexion to allow for changes in the terrain. For more skill tips and lessons, you can check out my website: womeninthemountains.com
Initially, set your expectations low. Underestimate your child’s fitness. It is better to go for a short, positive ride than a long slog and end up in tears (both of you!). Perhaps you can avoid having a destination in mind. Perhaps you can get your own workout later, just be there in the moment with them to be sure they enjoy the experience!
Lastly, do all that you can to keep the experience positive! We love bikes and want our kids to love bikes!
Erica Tingey is the founder of Women in the Mountains, a mountain bike skills coaching company. She raced mountain bikes professionally from 2010 to 2017. Erica raced World Cups as well as national level races where she secured multiple podiums. She and her husband have a 10- year old son and call Park City, Utah home. You can reach her at: Erica@womeninthemountains and www.womeninthemountains.com. Originally published in Discover Utah Kids Magazine.