It seems as soon as the days get longer and the spring sun spills its promise of summer on after-school hours, kids take to the streets on bikes.
It is a rite of the season legs pumping rhythmically, ponytail flying in the breeze as the two-wheeled warriors pedal their independence, wearing their scraped knees and skinned elbows as badges of freedom.
Even in the city, where traffic may make cycling around the neighborhood too dangerous, bike trails and parks provide safe places for a healthy bicycle ride.
Kids and bikes are a natural, and pediatricians and fitness experts agree that the two make for a wonderful combination, as long as the children have the necessary equipment and know the rules of the road. When properly equipped and prepared, kids and adults alike can reap the aerobic benefits of bicycle riding.
According to the American Heart Association, regular aerobic activity, including bike riding, plays a role in both the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. It can also help control high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol while improving flexibility, building muscle strength and increasing endurance. Cycling imposes far less stress in joints than running. It is considered a "lifetime" fitness activity.
Maybe most appealing of all is the fact that, although biking is considered a workout, it is not as tedious as most traditional exercises or as competitive as most sports. In fact, it's fun. Riding a bike outdoors offers variety and mobility, as well as fresh air, sunshine and pleasant conversation with your family all things that cannot be found in an expensive gym but can be a part of an average bike ride.
Get a Proper Fit
The most important piece of equipment, of course, is the bike itself. Although many parents look for a larger bicycle that a child can "grow into," this practice may save money at the expense of the child's safety. Experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that oversized bikes are harder for the child to control and pose a safety hazard. Instead, they recommend that a person should "try on" a bicycle and look for signs of a proper fit:
- Sitting on the seat with hands on the handlebars, the rider should be able to put the balls of both feet on the ground.
- Straddling the center bar, the rider should be able to keep both feet flat on the ground with a 2-inch clearance between the crotch and the bar.
- Avoid slippery plastic pedals; instead, look for rubber-treated pedals or metal pedals with serrated edges.
- Coaster brakes are recommended for the younger or less-experienced rider. Once the child is ready for a bike with hand brakes, make sure the child can comfortably grasp the brakes and apply sufficient pressure to stop the bike.
If you are dusting off last year's bike, be sure to get it tuned up before you log on too many miles. John Lancaster, a bike dealer for more than 20 years, suggests that bike riders get a bike tune-up and gear and brake adjustment every season.
Helmets Save Lives
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, approximately 900 people, including more than 200 children, are killed annually in bicycle-related incidents, and more than 75,000 bicyclists are injured by cars each year. Since over 60 percent of these deaths involve a head injury-and research indicates that a helmet can reduce the risk of a head injury by up to 85 percent-a helmet should be considered standard equipment by all bicycle riders.
By law, children must wear a helmet at all times, and parents should do likewise to serve as good role models to their children.
Bike store owner Rich Politz says that it is crucial to get the helmet fitted properly. Bicycle helmets should have a snug but comfortable fit, as well as a chin strap and buckle that will stay fastened securely. Helmets should be worn flat atop the head, not tilted back at an angle, and should never obscure the rider's field of vision. Most bike shops sell helmets made by Giro, which has patented the rock lock, a device that keeps the helmet sitting in the correct position on the rider's head.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends the purchase of helmets approved by the Snell Memorial Foundation or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which assure that the helmets meet safety standards.
And what about the younger riders those babies under the age of 1 who coo in delight on a ride through the park, but whose heads are too small or neck muscles too weak to support helmets? Well, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute states that nobody in the injury-prevention field recommends taking an infant of less than 12 months of age on a bike ride. That explains why there are no tiny helmets in the neighborhood baby boutique.
Once the baby is old enough to ride, parents have several choices on how to carry a baby on a bike. Trailers are perhaps the safest way to take a young child along. They are lower to the ground than baby seats and can accommodate larger and multiple children.
A child riding in a trailer is 1 to 2 feet from the bike's wheels, so dangerous spokes are out of reach. Trailers can fit up to two kids and some can even be converted to joggers or strollers. Bike stores and toy store chains sell lots of trailers. Many will even take a trade-in as your child outgrows his trailer.
A child riding in a trailer, however, has a restricted view and is unable to hear the adult on the bike. Another disadvantage is that trailers can pose a problem on narrow roads, and may tip over if one wheel rides up on a curb.
Rear-mounted baby seats are the most popular way for adult cyclists to take their little ones along. Ranging in price from $30 to $125, they are considerably cheaper than the trailers, which can range from $150 to $500. The child shares the parent's high vantage point and can talk to the parent while riding.
However, balance and handling are somewhat compromised because the seat's location changes the bike's center of gravity. Most seats will only hold up to 40 pounds, and once bolted on, removing a seat can be a hassle.
Newer to the market are front-mounted child seats which put the kids in plain view of the parents. According to Ron Kauffman, president of Leisure Sports Accessories Inc., front-mounted seats are preferable because parents can keep their eyes on children and the road at the same time.
"Parents can communicate with their children without turning around, a leading cause of parent/child bike accidents," Kauffman said.
He added that the front carrier also allowed the parents to wear fanny packs or a backpack without crowding the child. Mounting and dismounting is easier and safer when the child is seated up front.
However, critics of the front-mounted seat, including Bicycling Magazine editor Joe Kita, have warned against putting a child near the steering.