Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: Little bikers shrug off their training wheels

Three-year-old Maya Suruki never bothered with training wheels. She touched foot to pedal for the first time Sunday, and pretty soon she was a full-fledged bicycle rider.

She was among a few dozen children who attempted the two-wheeled rite of passage at Carrboro’s Open Streets festival, under the cheering guidance of cycling professionals and volunteers. Weaver Street was closed to automobiles and opened to a recreational variety that included rock climbing and taekwondo, with several events centered around small children on bikes.

When Maya’s unruly black hair fell across her eyes, her mom swept it back under her helmet. When her silver tutu hung too low, a friend tucked it into the waistband of her blue leggings.

And when Maya fell off her borrowed orange bike, repeatedly, she got back on.

“She’s very determined,” Lois Suruki of Chapel Hill said, watching her daughter try and try again in a bank branch parking lot. “She wants to do everything her older brother wants to do.”

Aaron Hipp of Cary, an associate professor of community health and sustainability at N.C. State University, has studied Open Streets events for the past six years. He was here Sunday to enjoy the afternoon with his 4-year-old daughter, Micah.

“We’re on the streets every day in cars, going to work and going to school,” Hipp said. “In this area that has been taken over by vehicles, it’s fun to be out there on a bicycle or walking down the middle of the street. On my academic side, I would say that it really democratizes this public space.”

Street events growing

There were Open Streets programs last year in 125 U.S. cities, including Boone and Carrboro in North Carolina – up from about 20 in 2009, Hipp said. Colombia first turned streets into occasional cycle-ways in the 1960s, in car-free events originally known as ciclovías.

Scott Smith, who sells bikes at his Clean Machine store in Carrboro, was here with friends and coworkers to do his part. They provided helmets and bikes – some without pedals – and they showed 3-to-5-year-old girls and boys how to use them.

Some parents said they had struggled to help their kids learn to ride without training wheels. Smith and the other volunteers invited the moms and dads to stand aside.

“If I can get kids out here for half an hour or an hour, I can teach them how to ride a bike,” Smith said. “Most kids have a bike at home that has training wheels on it. And they know how to pedal. We teach ’em how to balance, teach ’em how to steer – and then we try to put all three of those things together.”

Eventually, if it worked out, the child made it all the way down the ramp with both feet off the ground, keeping the bike in balance. Once they were steering and balancing, it was time to try putting their feet on the pedals.

Encouragement was the main ingredient. There was plenty of shouting and bell-ringing. When a little cyclist fell over, the adult response was: “Great dismount!”

Micah, in her polka-dot helmet, was a master of steering and balancing. Smith declared, “Oh, she’s ready.”

But she balked at pedaling without her training wheels.

That was fine, her dad said. It’ll happen soon enough. Meanwhile, Micah had fun.

“She’s a very strong-willed child,” Hipp said. “If she doesn’t want to pedal, she’s not going to pedal. But if a bigger kid starts doing it, well, maybe.”