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4.5 year old just got a bicycle with training wheels. She just learned a few months ago for the first time how to correctly pedal and use a tricycle, and has been riding it around the neighborhood with the exception of hills. She is having an incredibly difficult time with her bike with training wheels. One thing I haven't tried yet is pushing the bike for her so it's easier to pedal (starting out is hard). Some challenges she faces are the 6 and 12 o'clock positions, pedaling backwards brakes the bike rather than doing nothing like her tricycle, and the pedals work independently unlike her tricycle so it requires more left and right foot coordination. She's excited about this but after today it became a frustrating experience for her and I, because she loses confidence. I'm wondering if I can make this easier in any way.

Also, she lacks leg power. While I know there is a 'correct' position for the seat according to the instructions, I'm wondering if lowering the seat would make it easier (or if raising it would make it easier).

Will the tire width make a difference, for instance smaller width or larger width (current width is 2.175)?

Will tire pressure make a difference? I understand inflated the tires, because the first time I tried to fill it per the instructions to 40 psi the tire popped, so I had to replace the inner tube.

EDIT: Thank you all for your help, each answer was very useful. Some helpful things were

  • going downhill(this made it so much simpler, probably the main fix)
  • playing a game(I had her chase me with her bike and it motivated her)
  • new training wheels(I havent tried these yet but I bought rubber training wheels instead of plastic)
  • Lowering the existing training wheels(this prevented the bike from tilting or leaning heavily towards one wheel, preventing friction that reduced speed. This helped a lot)
  • Other things I might try would be adjusting the rear hub as someone had mentioned so the wheels dont brake when pedaling backwards

While I appreciate the advice of a balance bike, this is an issue as mine took months just to learn how to pedal a tricycle, as she would just 'walk' the tricycle. After finally teaching her and her building confidence, I didnt want to take a step backwards and remove the pedals. While balancing is the next critical piece, I dont want to regress to not using pedals at all(This was a huge hurdle the first time). I do have to entice her with a gummy bear snack or something, but the last time we rode, she rode for a half hour and had fun.

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    May be worth clarifying what autism level 1 is - my understanding is that it's probably synonymous with Aspergers or high functioning autism (those terms may be considered outdated).
    – Weiwen Ng
    Dec 26, 2023 at 19:22
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    "and the pedals work independently" They aren't on a common axle? Dec 27, 2023 at 4:54
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    It also may be worth clarifying how autism level 1 hinders their ability to ride a bike compared to other 4.5 year old girls.
    – mkrieger1
    Dec 27, 2023 at 13:23
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    @Acccumulation they mean independently from the wheel, as opposed to having a freewheel. Additionally their trike probably has pedals directly connected to the front wheel axle, so it is fixed gear, 1:1 gearing, and chainless. Dec 28, 2023 at 16:33
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    In this case, I think the degree of motor function (dyspraxia) is probably more relevant than ability to emulate neurotypical communication patterns, withstand the intense stimulation of supermarkets, or act in immoral ways, all of which factor into the “level 1” classification. @AceCabbie Can you edit the question to focus on motor function, degree of sensory sensitivity, and some information about previous times someone's tried to teach this child skills, if you have that information?
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 28, 2023 at 18:28

5 Answers 5

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One thing I’ve had good experience with in this situation is using zip ties to lock out the rear hub.

Doing this means that the bike’s forward motion will carry the pedals with it, so they don’t get stuck in the awkward 6/12 dead zone.

It also prevents back pedaling from engaging the brake, and makes any pedal motion directly drive the bike, eliminating the “backlash” (range over which you can move the pedals without engaging the mechanism) in the hub.

As you move past the training wheels phase, you may also want to look at getting a “buddy bar” that provides an adult-height handle for supporting/guiding the bike.

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  • So basically turning the bike into a fixed gear bike? That's interesting. After having taught my two kids to ride bikes, I've been thinking along the same lines: riding a fixed gear is actually more intuitive than riding with a freewheel. How did you do that with a zip tie?
    – SimonL
    Dec 27, 2023 at 12:20
  • @SimonLundberg You can usually loop a zip-tie through part of the sproket and one of the spokes to achieve an approximation of a fixie on a ‘regular’ bike, provide it’s not using an IGH. It works better with multiple zip ties though so that you distribute the load on the spokes more evenly. Dec 27, 2023 at 12:21
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    I don't understand. Through the sprocket? Does your sprocket have holes in it?
    – SimonL
    Dec 27, 2023 at 12:24
  • @SimonLundberg: Yes, the coaster-brake bikes I've encountered have weight-reducing cutouts in the sprocket.
    – RLH
    Dec 29, 2023 at 17:38
  • Ah. I’ll have to check that. Thanks for the info! If my youngest’s bike has holes in the sprocket, I might try it.
    – SimonL
    Dec 29, 2023 at 20:56
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I'll depart a bit from cycling mode: the Autism Society of America has chapters in each state. One of the things they may do is provide information and resources to people with autism or their parents. It's possible they may be able to refer you to materials for coaching children with autism, or perhaps offer you direct advice. You might also Google for general principles in coaching kids with autism. Those might include trying to avoid figures of speech, trying to pick a quiet environment to reduce the risk of sensory overstimulation, etc.

We do know that most consumers set their own saddles too low so they can touch the ground easily, but that this reduces maximum power. I would probably avoid setting her saddle lower. For the purposes of your task, changing tires or tire pressure shouldn't make a difference. Going to a tire and a wheel with a bigger circumference would probably require more torque to get past the dead spot, and it also may not fit the bike and its brake.

In general, balance bikes may be better for children to learn on. On the Escape Collective, Caley Fretz wrote about some bikes he used with his kids. You don't pedal on a balance bike, but it does train the kid to balance. Ronan McLaughlin wrote on Cyclingtips (predecessor to Escape Collective) about balance bikes and what you might consider in buying one. In particular, a thrift store might have something used. This could be an alternative that you could offer in addition to her bike and tricycle.

I realize that these won't develop the leg strength to turn the pedals over the dead spot, but she is a 4.5 year old kid, and all kids are developing motor skills and strength at that age. To some extent, I wonder if strength issues will just resolve with time.

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    I wonder if removing the cranks and lowering the seat on the existing bike would be a reasonably good approximation of a balance bike (though I suppose at nearly 5 years old, you'd want hand brakes on it)
    – Paul H
    Dec 26, 2023 at 19:48
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    I learned on a balance bike and it is much better. You learn balance and a little bit of steering, if you think about kids learning to ride often the front wheel is wobbling all over not just because of bad balance and slow speed but also because they don't know how to hold the handlebar independent of what the rest of their body is doing. Dec 27, 2023 at 13:35
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    @PaulH I wouldn't introduce hand breaks until the kid is already comfortable on the balance bike. The important part of the balance bike is to isolate concepts, learn fewer things separately and then put them together. If you stay on flat ground there's no need anyway, you stop by putting your feet down which is very natural. Dec 27, 2023 at 13:38
  • @user3067860 only brought up hand brakes because the if you converted the kid’s existing bike to a balance bike, it’d probably be capable of picking up speed pretty quickly. So yeah. Not idea.
    – Paul H
    Dec 27, 2023 at 15:28
  • @PaulH It's really hard to go fast on a balance bike without the aid of a hill. (Source: Childhood memories. But also look up balance bike races and remember that this is the top speed achievable after training and with significant effort.) Dec 28, 2023 at 10:51
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pedaling backwards brakes the bike

This appears to be a common feature of European bikes. British bikes virtually never have a hub brake, and just have rim brakes instead. There's a good reason for that too - it gets in the way of spinning the pedals back for the next power stroke, and that's a problem when you don't have as much leg strength.

When I borrowed a bike on exchange trips as a kid, it took me ages to get used to this. You might want to consider changing out the back wheel to one without a hub brake.

Of course there'd be no rear brake, but beginners don't really need that. Many kids' bikes only have a single brake, and that makes sense because braking takes some practise.

I'm wondering if lowering the seat would make it easier

Maybe for pedalling. But for getting on and off, being able to touch the ground from the seat is important, and that gives a kid confidence.

starting out is hard

That's always the case for kids. Starting on hard surfaces is always best, and a little downhill as well if possible. That's definitely something you can help with.

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    ‘common feature of European bikes’ And also American kids’ bikes. IIRC, it’s actually indirectly required by law to have coaster brakes on children’s bikes here, and it’s a major issue for kids trying to learn to ride in a context other than simply tooling up and down the street in front of their house. Dec 27, 2023 at 12:24
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    @AustinHemmelgarn I think the UK requires front and rear brakes for bikes that aren't classified as toys too. We get regular brakes on handlebars though. They're cheaper and make cycling easier. I guess there may be a low-maintenance thing for hub brakes?
    – Graham
    Dec 27, 2023 at 13:01
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    The US has requirements for brakes on bikes in general (in general mandated at the state level), but the Consumer Product Safety Commission (same regulatory group that is responsible for the bans on things like kinder eggs) has a specific requirement that children’s bicycles have coaster brakes because of some rather misguided views that they are ‘easier’ for small children (but the wording of the regulations requires them on bikes for older children too). This is demonstrably wrong though, and there’s almost no advantage to using them in general. Dec 27, 2023 at 13:45
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Get rid of the pedals and lower the saddle so she can accelerate by pushing with her feet. Once she got the hang of that, it's much easier to learn to ride with pedals.

On normal bicycles it's easy to remove (and reinstall later) the pedals, you probably need a big hex key.

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Folks have been rediscovering that the best way to teach riding a bicycle may be to start with a kick bike, and move to pedals only when the basics of coasting and steering and (hand) braking have been learned. This achieved the same kind of separation of skills that training wheels are supposed to, but is probably an easier transition than retracting/removing training wheels.

Remember that kick bikes predated pedal bikes...

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