Slow and Steady

Slow and Steady

Lessons from teaching a risk-averse kid the joys of mountain biking–so far

Words by Simon Makker, images by Sam Minnell from Spoke Issue 86

Growing up without television on a Waikato dairy farm, it was inevitable that I’d discover a love for riding early on; years before mountain bikes were even invented, you would’ve often found me exploring bush tracks on an old three-speed chopper.

Putting two wheels on dirt is now second-nature to me, but I’m not one of those naturally-gifted riders who can throw effortless whips or hit blind gaps without a care in the world. Mountain bike skills are something I’ve got to continuously hone so that the edge doesn’t dull, and it can still take me a while sometimes monthsto summon up the courage to hit a new gap, drop or chute.

In 2013 my little fella, Zach, arrived on the scene and almost instantly I had dreams of riding bikes with him, exploring the back-country and passing on the joys of mountain biking to the next generation.

Just to be clear, I’ve never fantasised about him becoming the next Finn Iles or anything, but I’ve always had a desire for him to be confident on the bike and discover the same passion for riding that I found at an early age.

Zach’s now eight years old. He’s built like a broom-handle, has the hand-eye co-ordination and running style of a cross-eyed deer, is naturally risk averse, but has an almost photographic ability to learn and absorb information.

I’ll be frank: riding bikes doesn’t come naturally to him and it’s been a challenge for me to not lose patience, or unconsciously compare his riding progress to other kids his age who’re hitting jumps and whizzing past us on the trails.

Now I know for a fact I’m not the only dad who’s found himself in this position, and even though we’ve still got a long, long way to go before he joins me on a Grade 4 trail, I’ve learnt a few lessons over the past four years that could be helpful to other readers.

It’s honestly OK if they don’t jell with a strider

Now I’m all for strider bikes and the skills they can provide youngsters from an early age. But Zach, with his long, ungainly limbs, struggled to zip around on one, regardless of how high we extended the seat. We resorted to the traditional training-wheel set up and, while they’re far from a perfect tool for nippers, at least Zach could get a feel for pedal movements and being in control of a bike. The leaning into corners lessons would come later

Repetition is key

If I had two cents for every time I told Zach to look where he wants to go, stand strong, roll his wrists forward on the bars and keep his pedals level, I’d be pushing Elon Musk status right now. But if those stances and riding styles don’t come naturally, they need to be ingrained as habits at an early age. 

Go around the block a thousand times, hit the same trails regularly and keep constantly working on the basics

Now the last thing you want to do is be a “moto dad” or “soccer mum” where you push a kid so much that they resent you. But at the same time, you need to help extend their limits with a bit of firm encouragement every now and then. If you don’t, the risk-averse kid will quite happily sit in their little bubble and never improve. I realise this is quite a subjective issue that varies wildly between situations, but ultimately it comes down to your faith in them and their ability, and their trust in you, that you’re not going to make them do something that could kill them.

Never say no to a ride

Some of the best words that can come out of your child’s mouth are “can we got for a ride?” and it’s one thing I’ll never say no to. Even if it’s dark and hissing down outside, if he wants to just go for a spin around the streets, I’m all for it. If you’re busy adulting, schedule a time with them for later in the day to make it happen, and commit to it. When the kids start initiating rides—particularly ones involving single-trail—it’s one of the most gratifying feelings ever.

Be prepared to go backwards

Crashes suck, but they’re a part of the sport. While some kids seem to bounce straight back into the saddle with a bone sticking out and half a face missing, Zach takes crashing hard. He still talks about the biggest one from when he was just four years old: his front tyre clipped my rear as we came scooting off a gravel stop-bank and he ate shit in spectacular fashion, taking skin off every extremity. When he crashes now, we still have to take a few deep breaths, calm the mind, reset, then pull things back a bit. It can sometimes take him a good few rides to start finding his confidence again, so it’s a matter of going back to tracks and places he’s comfortable on, working on the basics, then ever-so-slowly building him back up again.

Celebrate the little wins

As a parent, there are few bigger buzzes than seeing your kid achieve something new, and those come thick and fast out on the trail. Zach’s just learnt how to pop the front wheel off the ground, and even though this might be a minor, basic thing for a lot of kids, it was a massive thing for both of us when he first got the hang of it. Out on the trail I make sure I keep the encouragement flowing thick and fast: good line choices, a clean corner, a well-caught save, good body positioning… it’s all worth verbally noting to help build his confidence up. And if we get through a ride cleanly without a crash or a baulk, there’re high fives and hugs all round.

Take plenty of supplies and breaks

Because Zach has slightly less meat on him than a three-year-old dog bone, he hits a brick wall when he runs out of energy. There’re no additional fat reserves for his body to tap into, and when he bonked out at the far end of a 10km cross-country loop with no snacks, it was a long, slow, tedious grind back to the car. I learnt a valuable lesson that day, and now I always try and make sure we have ample snacks and water to get us through the inevitable slump. Make sure you take plenty of rest breaks, too – taking 10 minutes to biff some rocks in a stream or find the world’s biggest pinecone can do wonders for a kid’s energy and motivation levels. Besides, what’s the rush? You’re only going to end up back home sooner, which is nowhere near as fun as being outdoors.

Share your own mistakes, misadventures and crashes

It’s easy to forget that your grom sees you as a big, invincible hero who could conquer the world, so I’ve found it helps to share your own mistakes and experiences, and the funnier the better. If I crash on a ride without him, I make sure I show Zach all my bumps, bruises and scrapes afterwards, just to normalise it. Yes I make a shitload of mistakes and crash more than I care to admit, but I hope showing him these things and talking about the lessons I learnt takes some of the dread and stigma out of crashes. 

It’s all about the journey

I hate to end this feature on a cliché, but teaching kids to ride bikes has to rate as one of the most rewarding (and yes, frustrating) aspects of parenthood. The best thing, though, is there’s no destination, no end-point where they’ve learnt every single bike skill in the world. With a cautious or risk-averse child, the journey might be at a slower pace, with more backward steps, more snacks and a little more encouragement, but the experiences are equally as rewarding, if not more so.