It is a universal truth that once you learn to ride a bicycle, you never forget.
Learning to ride a bicycle is a hard-wired skill, but over the last decade, the method of how we learned to ride bicycles has changed.
For generations, young children were taught to ride a bike one of two ways. The brute force method was to put a kid on a bicycle and push them along until they learned to balance on their own. The second method was to attach training wheels to the back of the wheels.
The training-wheel method was long seen as the safest method for teaching youth to ride, but a more effective training method is available.
It’s called the balance bike. Several different bicycle companies manufacture these styles of bikes, but all emphasize the importance of balance.
Teaching a child to ride a standard bicycle requires the child to master two skills. The first is balancing the bike on two wheels, and the second is pedaling.
Under the training-wheels method, the child learned to pedal the bike first while the training wheels balanced the bike for them. Once a rider mastered pedaling, the training wheels were removed and they could work on balancing.
As the name suggests, balance bikes teach riders to balance first. Balance bikes are designed without pedals with a low seat that allows the rider to balance with their own legs.
The riders still use their feet to propel the bike, but instead of pedaling, they push off from the ground, similar to how a skateboard or manual scooter operates.
New Ulm resident Dennis Born was sold on the balance-bike method 15 years ago. He first saw videos of kids riding bikes without pedals on a parkway in Rapid City, South Dakota. These were Strider bikes, made in Rapid City. The bikes were made for kids 18 months to 48 months.
“They caught my eye because the kids seemed to like them, and I had grandkids at the time,” Born said.
Born thought it was a great design concept for a bike, but at the time these styles of bikes were not for sale in New Ulm. He decided to experiment to see if he could covert standard pedal bikes into balance bikes.
Born started with converting 12-inch-wheel bikes for his grandkids.
“At first my bikes were totally redesigned from stock bikes to bikes that looked like the Strider Bike,” he said. “It was a lot of cutting, welding and painting, so it was a lot of work.”
Born eventually streamlined the process. Now he simply modifies the original bike to make it foot-propelled by the rider.
Modifications included removing the pedals, crank and chain and replacing any worn-out tires or other needed parts. The rear wheel is replaced with another front wheel and the rear frame is squeezed together to fit the wheel.
Foot pegs go into the former crank tube so the rider can stand on them and coast. Born usually adds new handgrips and paint to the bike. He believes it is important for the kid to have a bike that looks new.
Born was pleased that kids seem to take to these bikes a lot quicker and graduate on to the large pedal bikes sooner.
“It is amazing how quickly they learn to be part of the bike,” Born said. “They just run up to the newer, larger bike, hop on and pedal away.
Born estimates he has converted about 15 of the 12-inch bikes and has given them away to the parent of kids looking for bikes. The bicycles tend to be passed down through families.
The children’s bikes will usually have multiple riders in a lifetime. Nearly all of his converted balance bikes have been passed through multiple children.
Born does not ask for any money for the bikes but requests that once a family no longer needs the bikes, to pass them on to someone else in need.
“My payment is in seeing the first smile when the kid sits on the bike with feet on the ground and hands on the bars and then rides off like an expert,” he said, describing the experience as priceless.