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Thoughts on the First Singletrack Rides with Kiddos

This past year in a half I started mountain biking for the first time. At first, it took some getting used to: hovering over the seat a lot, changing gears frequently, trying to roll over big rocks. I remember running into my first tree as well because I took a corner too fast and I slammed into some part of my bike that I don’t even remember now. But it hurt… then I got back on.

With each ride, I got better. Despite varying levels of confidence, I kept at it. Some days one has more confidence than other days. Over this past Christmas, I felt the joy of getting a little bit of air under my bike as I went over my first jump in Bentonville, Arkansas on a feature on the beloved “All American trail.”

Of course, the trails I ride the most are the ones closest to my home. I’ll drive to a trail, but even better if I can ride there in 15 minutes. I fell in love with the “dirt roller coaster” ones, where I can ride fast and just listen to the birds and my own breath as I roll over hills and corners. One example of this is the Red Cedar trail at Squaw Creek Park in Marion, Iowa. There is shade, and hills, and it feels like you disappear a bit. Naturally, I wanted to share my new joy with my children.

We picked a trail closer to home in Iowa City, where I live. I was nervous about their first, inevitable fall: who wouldn’t be? But I felt the gain outweighed the risk. I thought, no matter how old they got, they could always bike. If they were fighting with one another, I said, you always have my permission to leave a situation to gather your thoughts by going for a bike ride. I wanted cycling to be a solace for them. Here are some thoughts I have so far on our process:

debut singletrack ride for this guy

1. Route Options

The first time I took my eleven-year-old son on a trail, it was a “clockwise” trail with little signage. I quickly realized that riding the full 5 miles would be too long for him. So we made the decision to go for 15- 25 minutes in and then just turn around. Luckily we didn’t run into too many people coming towards us on the way back. People are usually gracious on the dirt trails. But I did think it would be nice to have an “out” or a connector trail to cut back- not be stuck in a loop that you technically cannot get out of if you want to follow the rules.

2. Conflict Resolution

I have two children who take medication for ADHD. Briefing them before we do something new or schedule changes is key. Biking is no exception to this rule. I tell them where we are going, how far, and it’s okay if something is hard or if they fall. (I’m glad I brought band-aids when one son fell one day and I had to convince him that he had to get back on his bike for us to get back to the car.) We were maybe a mile out, I definitely didn’t want to walk our bikes all the way on the trail. A band-aid is a symbol for “fixing” a problem even if it doesn’t.) The whole point of life is to fall down and get back up again. My son ended up getting back on his bike and riding another 15 minutes and got into better spirits. I learned I have to encourage but not be pushy.

My son on wooden roller coaster skills feature.

3. Skill Advancement

My one child took to the skills course like a fish to water and easily went over the short, loopy wooden bridges. We have to work up to the drop off still- myself included. But this was easy for him. It made me appreciate trail systems that have different difficulty levels. We want to get better at something, being human, this is something that drives us. No matter how we start out, we are always changing. Not all kids are going to ride/progress the same. I have one child who prefers to tune out in the woods and ride along, sometimes getting off his bike when there are some steep climbs. Who knows how he will progress, - that is his own journey, like all of us, we have our own learning pace.

4. Keep At It

There is some “put in” to loading the bikes on your car and getting to the trail. But we’ve done it many times now and my kids will ask to spend one on one time with me this way. If I can give them a life-long hobby where they are outside, enjoying the sun and air, getting some exercise, and maybe pushing their own comfort zone, then that gives me some happiness as a parent. I am excited to keep hitting the trails with them and see where we all go.

Guest BYT Blogger Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Iowa City, Iowa. She likes to write, bike, and rock climb.

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