Kids and Bikes - Back to the Future?

Dale Campbell, Bent Fork Chronicles Co-Editor

Roll forward about 40+ years, and you would see the velocipede. This iteration in the history of the bicycle adds pedals to the front wheel. It was generally constructed using wooden spokes and iron rims. Imagine riding that over a rough road or cobblestones. No wonder it earned the nickname "boneshaker." By the way, those of you with a knowledge of the Latin languages may recognize the word velocipede. Translated from the original Latin, the word literally means "fast foot."

Within the next ten years, the popularity of the high-wheel bicycle grew. Often referred to as an "ordinary," the larger front wheel enabled faster speeds with a pedaled form of transportation. However, with speed also came danger. Because of the configuration of the bike (very large front wheel and a small rear wheel), hitting a bad spot in the road could cause a rider to be thrown over the front wheel, inviting serious injury. This disparity in the size of the wheels helped to "coin" a nickname for the bicycle. Called a "penny-farthing" in England, the name was truly derived from names for coins - a penny representing the front wheel, and a coin smaller in size and value, the farthing, representing the rear.

Fortunately, the design of bicycles advanced over the next 15 to 20 years into the basic style of bicycle that we still have today. It can be said that the development of the safety bicycle ("a steerable front wheel that had significant caster, equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel") in the 1890s was probably the most significant change in the history of the bicycle. With the addition of the pneumatic tires during that same time period, rider comfort and ease of control was improved. As noted in a Wikipedia article about the History of Bicycles, " The development of the safety bicycle was arguably the most important change in the history of the bicycle. It shifted their use and public perception from being a dangerous toy for sporting young men to being an everyday transport tool for men—and, crucially, women—of all ages."

This period is often referred to as the "golden age" or "bicycle craze." At the beginning of the 20th Century, cycling had become an important means of transportation. In the United States, it had also become an increasingly popular form of recreation. Since that time, we've seen improvements in the technology of bicycles, not only in the drive trains and the frame designs, but also in the materials used in the construction of bicycles. These advances have also made bicycles more affordable for some and more useful for others. And more recently, developments in the design and construction of electric powered bicycles are bringing the bicycle back to the forefront as a viable means of "green" transportation.

Bringing this discussion back to the subject of the article, what about bicycles for kids? Have there also been advances in how bicycles are introduced to children? If you're like me, your first bike probably had training wheels. According to a Time Magazine article, Huffy claims to have invented training wheels in 1949. You may recall that the training wheels were installed to keep the bike from falling over, until you learned to keep upright on this new contraption. Using training wheels, you probably learned to pedal and steer the bike first, later getting control over the balance of the bicycle. Now, current thinking indicated that training wheels probably slow learning because kids become too dependent on them, acquiring bad habits. It is said that training wheels that prevent the bike from leaning also prevent countersteering. This in effect causes kids learn to turn the handlebars like a tricycle, effectively the wrong way, which must be unlearned later. To clarify, "countersteering is the technique used by single-track vehicle operators, such as cyclists and motorcyclists, to initiate a turn toward a given direction by momentarily steering counter to the desired direction ('steer left to turn right')." Think about it...., that's what we do as cyclists (and motorcyclists, too).

By the way, the article in Time Magazine also indicates that independent bike shops are reporting a drop in sales of training wheel equipped bicycles and tricycles for the first half of 2011. seems that training wheels are bad for beginners. Where does that leave us? Well, with a design for kids bikes that's now called balance bikes. A balance bike is defined as "a training bicycle that helps children learn balance and steering. It has no pedals, no crankset and chain, and no training wheels." No pedals.... Does this sound familiar, like something that was invented almost 200 years ago? According to manufacturers of the balance bicycles, children can learn quicker to bicycle because the focus of learning is balance and countersteering, with the ability to pedal coming later in the learning process.

So, does this mean that we adults have to go back and learn again how to ride a bicycle? At this point, I think not. But, at least for me, this information does put a new perspective on the mechanics of riding a bicycle.

That said, just get out there and ride. Stay safe and enjoy!

December 2011 Issue - Vol 4 Issue 6, 1 December 2011

Bookmark and Share