Teach your kid to shift gears: 5 easy tricks

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I don’t really remember learning to ride a bike. I have a vague memory of the training wheels coming off, realizing my Dad was no longer holding onto the saddle, aware I was on my own, wobbling and falling as a result. I think I was around 7. Red started on his balance bike at 2. He was fully riding a pedal bike at 3. At 3 1/2 he rode his first Tour de Fat a bike parade through downtown, along with over 10,000 Boise residents.

I love the move to use balance bikes for kids when they are young, teaching stability, confidence, and an understanding of how their body affects their riding. It means kids are moving to pedal bikes much faster. That also means kids are moving to better and more technical bikes younger too.  As a mountain biking couple, my husband and I want to take the boys on the same trails we love to ride and are excited we can ride as a family already. That means moving to a mountain bike early, and considering things like gears, suspension, and decent brakes for Red, who is still in kindergarten.

Red is 6, pretty average when it comes to height, and has been riding a 16-inch wheeled bike for 3  years now. He’s been desperate to move up to a bigger bike with gears, as he’s watched his friends grow into new bikes. We’ve held off on that as long as possible, for reasons I’ll explain later. Finally this spring the seatpost would go no higher, and we realized it was time for that coveted new bike!

My husband spent a ridiculous amount of time researching the right bike and finally decided to go with the Commencal Ramones, which is what Red was already riding in a 16-inch. We looked at other 20-inch bikes, but the big pluses, as far as my husband was concerned, were the disc brakes, limited gears (7), and relatively light-weight.

The bike arrived this week, and Red couldn’t wait to get it out of the box! He had a few rides around our driveway and on the sidewalk, but this weekend we finally took it out for a proper trial in the foothills, on some of our favorite trails.

Red was desperate for gears, imagining this would solve the problem of the dreaded uphills, but I knew there was a learning curve involved when introducing a shifter at such a young age, and I was interested to see how long it would take for him to figure it out. We had held off moving Red to a geared bike when he was younger because we felt it would be difficult for him to add gears to all the other things he was taking in and trying to do simultaneously.  I wanted to be sure that Red had fully mastered more basic mountain biking skills, and had put in the hours using his legs to get him up the hills before we moved him onto using gears. Last summer, and the start of this year, I’ve watched him learn to push through, literally, as he has worked for the uphills. He knows it’s worth it to get to the downhill sections, so he’s motivated to do it, and he’s worked on standing, and really using his leg muscles to get him to the top. I am confident that only focusing on one thing, using his body to push his bike to the top, meant he has really understood how that feels, plus he has the confidence to know he can get there on his own. Now we’re ready to add in gears!

1. Be patient with them and for them

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Moving to a geared bike probably means other things are changing too.  For Red, that means a much bigger and heavier bike that is a little tricky to get started on, a different geometry, and handlebars that rub and are already causing blisters. I’m glad we let him ride this bike on easy stuff for a few days in the driveway, so he could really get a feel for the size and shape, and get used to hopping on and off it. Once he started trying to bike down the river rock along the back of our yard, we knew he was ready to tackle something a little harder!  If he had wanted to stick to the driveway and sidewalk for a while longer, I would have been happy to let him do that, especially if he had struggled with starting and stopping. Remember, too, that if your kid is desperate to start using a shifter, they are going to be frustrated if it is not as easy as they imagine. Get ready to be patient yourself as you watch them try to figure this out, and to soothe them and help them with their own self-patience. Remind them that this will take time, and to start slow if necessary. We didn’t end up needing it, but I had planned our first outing with this bike to be on the flat greenbelt, so he could just ride the bike and not worry about the gears, and hopefully have a positive and successful first ride.

2. Explain shifting – before you start and during riding

We had been talking to Red for a while about how gears worked, which has been easy as he’s been so interested in moving up to a geared bike. We had been showing him where on the trail we would shift, and pointed out the clicking noise, and suggested he listen to it when other mountain bikers were overtaking us on the trails. When his new bike arrived we showed him the gears and how they worked before he got on so he could see the chain move. On the trails, I rode with him and occasionally suggested when to shift, and sometimes left him to do his own thing.

It’s hard to get the balance right between leaving them to figure it out and offering help so they don’t get frustrated. For us, it really helped that I rode just in front of him so that I could spot what was coming ahead and discuss my plans for shifting gears. Then it felt less like I was barking out commands and more like a commentary that he could choose to follow or not.  No doubt how I offer advice and when will change as we go on more rides. For the first one, my goal was to provide enough information to help, but not overwhelm him. As you will see in the next tip, it helped that both he and I knew he could ride the whole trail without gears.

3. Ride something you both know

My husband had taken both boys out on this trail just last weekend when Red was still on his old bike. It was great to get Red to ride it again so soon, not just for his confidence, but also because it meant we could gauge how well he was handling the new bike. The trail we picked was just over a mile in total and something Smalls was comfortable doing (with a lot of help on the uphills!) on his balance bike. Last week Red had pushed his bike up some of the steeper sections of the uphill, something he is used to doing. It was such a great feeling for him to make it to the top of everything by using his gears! I’m glad he managed it, but even if he hadn’t, as he was used to pushing up sections, and we hadn’t set the expectation that he would be able to ride the whole thing, pushing up some parts would not have ruined the ride.

It didn’t hurt that we had some stunning views of downtown as we rode! We started relatively early in the morning so that it wasn’t too hot, and so that we had lots of time and no pressure to rush. I can see us riding this trail a good few times again before we branch out and try something new. It will help Red’s confidence no end if he knows that he can ride the trail before he even starts, and hopefully will allow him some leeway to experiment with the gears and start to get comfortable with them before we take him on different routes.

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4. Take lots of breaks

This is probably a no-brainer; if you bike with kids, you are used to taking lots of snack and water breaks. But remember that when you add a new skill, like learning to shift gears, there is a lot more work going on in that brain than normal. Give them lots of little breaks to make sure all that information is being processed. It also gives you a chance to discuss what is happening and how the gears work, in a calm, relaxed environment. It’s a lot for them to take in explanations while they are riding, particularly if they are finding it hard or are concerned about a section of the trail that is coming up. If you’re barking orders over your shoulder, they might be struggling to receive and retain all that information.

5. End with something fun

Again, if you’re used to biking with kids, you probably already do this, but make sure to factor in a reward at the end if they’re trying something new like shifting gears. This is one of our favorite trails because most of the downhill ends at a little stream that they love to play in when there’s water. There is another third of a mile to the parking lot after this, but it is easy and a nice gentle downhill section, which means that they end on a high note as they reach the car. Call it bribery if you will, but snacks at designated points, and knowing they will get to build a dam at the stream are huge motivators for my boys!

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Overall, moving to gears has been a success for Red! There’s still a lot for him to learn, and I’m sure there will be difficult times as we try harder routes and he tries to use them more. I’m so glad our first real trail ride with them was such a positive experience, and I’m sure it will stand us in good stead to work through any issues we have as he progresses. Have you taught your kids how to shift gears? I’d love to hear any advice or tips!

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