Engaging Children in Mountain Biking

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Engaging Children in Mountain Biking

By Paula Burton


To honor all the moms and dads who take their children mountain biking, I interviewed four families who mountain bike together. There are a range of ages of children from 4 to 16 years old. Each age has its own rewards and challenges.

Ryan, Kyaiera, and Reese Tucker (age 4)

Ryan and Kyaiera began taking Reese to Mianus River Park in Stamford, CT as soon as she could ride a push bike. Mianus has plenty of rocks and roots. Besides a strider or push bike, Ryan rode with Reese on a shotgun seat . Now the family is often spotted at Thunder Mountain Bike Park in Charlemont, MA.

Since Reese was old enough to talk, she would point to the lift and ask to go up the lift at Thunder. A few weeks ago, with a new bike that has brakes, she did her first run on Sugar Line, the beginner trail at Thunder. Ryan says that she is beginning to see “lines'' or ways to navigate down and up technical sections.

Ryan and Kyaiera are thrilled to finally be riding as a family, since up until now, the two of them had to take turns.

Ryan highly recommends scheduling mountain biking into family life. Ryan feels the sport has given Reese confidence in other physical activities and on the playground with her peers.

Reese is willing and enthusiastic about new challenges. Most of all, it is a great way for the family to get outside, get some exercise, and enjoy the sport.

Chris, Meghan, Matt (age 7), Luke (age 5), and Natalie (age 2) Del Sole

Chris started his oldest son on a Strider balance bike when he was two. He progressed to pedals eighteen months later and began riding trails on a 16" bike around the time he went to kindergarten. His younger kids started riding on a shotgun seat on my bike at age two then began the balance bike to pedaling progression in a similar fashion. As a family that skis every weekend in the winter, mountain biking is the perfect off-season sport for them.It allows them to get outside and be active together while also providing great cross-training. Like skiing, riding a bike gives kids a level of autonomy they rarely get in their day-to-day lives. Their self-esteem, confidence, and fitness are all nurtured thanks to mountain biking. They also sleep better after a ride, which is great for Mom and Dad's sanity! 

To maintain the children’s interest in mountain biking, the family watches mountain biking videos on YouTube, and they also film and edit their own videos. Chris built a small trail network in the woods behind their house for the kids to ride on, and he set up skinnies and ramps in their driveway. Chris has three kids, so every so often he’ll take each one out solo as a way of getting some one-on-one attention. 

The best advice Chris has for families is to think about each ride as an investment in the future. Buy your kids proper gear and keep your initial expectations low - a ride of even just one mile on dirt is better than an afternoon spent watching TV. Make sure you bring plenty of snacks and water and take time to explore your surroundings while you're in the woods. If you're patient and keep things fun, those one mile rides will quickly become longer.

Terrain choice is also very important. Keep both the technical challenge as well as the elevation changes as mellow as possible in the beginning. Prior to taking his kids on a trail, Chris makes sure to ride it himself with a "beginner’s eye."

When asked what would make mountain biking easier for families, he would recommend the following:

1. Better trails - regardless of age, beginner mountain bikers need mellow terrain without big elevation changes to learn bike handling skills and start to build confidence and fitness. Little legs only make those requirements more important! Machine built flow trails and skills parks are essential for safely introducing young children to this sport.

2. Equipment. The market for high quality children's equipment has grown immensely in the last 5-10 years, but I still see too many parents buying bikes for their kids at big box stores. Local shops have been slow to embrace this market, too, meaning most sales are happening online. Brands like Strider, Spawn Cycles, Prevelo, Norco, Little Rider Co., Woom Cycles and more are putting out miniature versions of adult bikes and clothing, and that makes all the difference in the world. As an adult, I wouldn't accept a bike that weighs 50% of what I do, so why should my child?

3. Clubs can play a huge role in growing the sport and introducing families to mountain biking. Many mountain bike Moms and Dads don't know how to get their young children (say, 4-7 years old) started, because they didn't start that young, and haven't seen many kids that age on the trails. Local MTB clubs are made up of knowledgeable riders who love to give back to the sport and can play a pivotal role in helping families get started through gear recommendations, guided rides, and skills camps.

Chris says that there is a wealth of information available to bike parents today, if they know where to look. A favorite website of mine is The Bike Dads (www.thebikedads.com), which has reviews, tips, and tricks on kid-specific equipment.

Matt, Mary, Paige (age 16) and Cora (age 13) Tullo

Matt and Mary started mountain biking in college together and continued through their adult life, so their kids didn't really have a choice. They were coming with them!

Outside of the obvious physical health benefits, Paige and Cora have gained confidence through mountain biking. They have overcome mental obstacles and fears every time the family is out riding. It is a time away from screens; a time to enjoy nature and experience fun family time together. Matt and Mary have passed on the experience to their extended family during weekend long camping trips centered around mountain biking .

To maintain and encourage interest in mountain biking both of the girls rode bikes at a young age in the driveway and around the neighborhood. Once out of the neighborhood, the natural progression of the sport leads to ever-changing goals. Learning how to ride new features, faster turns, longer rides,keeps them coming back for more. Paige joined a team and participated in cross country racing, which added a new element to her riding. Paige and Cora started off as reluctant, cautious riders on tech. Now, Paige is racing and riding bike parks, and Cora has become a"Mountain Goat" climber. Both feel like they are ambassadors for the sport and are always trying to get more girls to ride.

Matt’s advice for other parents is to start off slow, and never push beyond the "fun" factor. If riding on gravel trails is what everyone is enjoying, continue with that. Slowly introduce new elements and see how your child does. Find something your child did well or something they overcame during each outing and focus your comments on how proud you are of their effort rather than ability. Try not to show frustration or doubt..

One of the most important factors is choosing the proper trails.

Keeping the frustration level down by avoiding a trail that is too "techy" is the best way to keep them coming back. Then progress as skill increases. Riding with others around their age is another great way to keep them enjoying the ride and motivate them to keep going. If you ride at Rockhouse Hill in Oxford CT , you may see the Tullo family out for one their family rides, with a variety of relatives and others in tow. And in addition to riding together, the family is seen frequently at trail work days.

Monika and Ben Stokes (age 16)

Monika and Ben now spend much time mountain biking and going on great mountain biking adventures, including NEMBAfest at Kingdom, Moab, Santa Fe and Cyclocross Nationals in Kentucky . It wasn’t always that way. Monika needed an outlet for a very energetic young Ben. She bought him a used Red Rocket bike that had training wheels. Monika had to take the training wheels off, because Ben was doing skid stops and tipping over. He just loved riding that bike everywhere around the house and yard.

Monika was not a mountain biker herself, but was an excellent skier, and was on the pre-Olympic team as a teenager in the Czech Republic before she came to study in the United States. When she went trail running in the local Norwalk CT area, she would see many mountain bikers on the same trails. She met Dave Francefort of the Fairfield County Chapter who encouraged her to go mountain biking.

Monika soon discovered that mountain biking was a good substitute for skiing. When Ben was five or six, Ben needed a new bike. Monika found a used bike from a relative, and had Ben choose a new paint scheme for the bike: red and black. Ben was also involved in the care of the bike. It turned out that Ben really liked biking, Monika had fun taking groups of friends on rides, so she started a team, and has been riding and racing ever since. Ben continued racing, both locally, and nationally in cyclocross finals. Ben won the CCAP mountain bike for Category 1 juniors this year.

Stewardship is also important to Monika in addition to managing the CCAP team in Norwalk. She also made Ben do trail work from an early age and now he loves doing it on his own. Ben has become very serious about riding, puts in a lot of training time, and is committed to sport. It has taught him responsibility and self-reliance. He has learned teamwork and has matured as an athlete and a person.

Monika’s advice for other families or parents who want to mountain bike with children is to take them on rides with you.

Make the time. Gear them up properly. You need to do it with them. They learn from adults. Find an easy, appropriate trail to start on, bring pockets full of snacks, enjoy first experiences and keep exploring. Set your ego aside and bring your child’s friends. Connect with local mountain bike groups for advice and information on trails, skills parks, and pump tracks.

Monika says mountain biking is a great sport for the whole family, and she encourages everyone with small kids to start young and get the children on the trails.

I hope this article has been informative and helpful but has also shown how wonderful it is to ride with children and to see them grow in the sport and as people.