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Published June 22, 2013, 11:40 PM

Tots on two wheels: Balance bikes switch up order for learning to ride

FARGO - Kirsten Jensen’s older son struggled to ride his bicycle without training wheels. “He was so afraid to take them off,” the Fargo mom remembers. “I was very interested in not going through that again.”

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO - Kirsten Jensen’s older son struggled to ride his bicycle without training wheels.

“He was so afraid to take them off,” the Fargo mom remembers. “I was very interested in not going through that again.”

Meanwhile, her younger son, Reid, then 2, would watch big brother on a bicycle and cry, wanting to ride, too.

That’s when a friend told her about balance bikes, two-wheel bicycles without pedals.

Instead of the child pedaling on a bike with training wheels, balance bikes teach them to balance on two wheels first. Pedaling comes later.

The concept made sense to Jensen. She ordered one online, and Reid was on two wheels at age 2.

Now 4 years old and still on the same Strider balance bike, Reid easily keeps up with 8-year-old Davis on his scooter.

“The experience of riding it felt much more successful for Reid than the training wheels experience felt for Davis,” Jensen says. “He felt so proud and successful immediately, where it was a long, stressful training wheel experience.”

Passersby would sometimes gape at the two-wheeling tot, especially when he would “Fred Flintstone” up inclines, Jensen says.

She now fields questions from interested parents on Facebook. The plan is for Reid to transition to a regular bike this summer.

More parents are turning to balance bikes to teach young children to ride.

Tom Smith, owner of Great Northern Bicycle Co., says balance bikes (which he also calls kick bikes or scooch bikes) have been standard in Europe for decades.

Most feature 12-inch wheels, an adjustable seat post and platforms for the feet.

Taking off training wheels “was always a terrifying transition,” Smith says. “Kick bikes get that part of it out of the way earlier. Kids learn that bikes are fun.”

He notes balance bikes are a return to the earliest bicycle-like inventions.

While they’ve been around the U.S. many years, they’ve only recently gained popularity locally. People just weren’t aware of them, Smith says.

By the time parents started shopping for a first bike, the child had outgrown balance bikes. Now they might come with a 2- or 3-year-old younger sibling, he says.

Great Northern Bicycle Co. now sells as many balance bikes in a week as it did the first year, Smith says. Its balance bikes cost about $120.

Scott Maneval, bike manager at Scheels All Sports in Fargo, says many customers come in based on word-of-mouth. Also, the store has hosted Strider races and events. Scheels sells the Strider bikes for $100. They’re geared for 1½ to 5 year olds.

“It gets everything out of the way for them,” Maneval says. “They don’t have the pedals, and they don’t have the brakes. They can concentrate on balance.

“They skip over the training wheel phase and go right into the 16-inch bike,” he adds.

Parents or caregivers need to follow the same safety rules with balance bikes as they do tricycles or bicycles, says Bobbi Paper, injury prevention coordinator with Sanford Health in Fargo.

That includes wearing a helmet and active adult supervision, and perhaps elbow pads. The bike’s seat should be set at the right size, too, so the child’s feet can touch the ground.

Paper notes that starting a child on a balance bike at 1 year of age is concerning. Our culture tends to push kids into new activities and skills that may be beyond their natural abilities, she says.

“The problem is sometimes we don’t take into mind all those other cognitive, behavioral and physical skills those kids need time to develop,” Paper says.

Smith, of Great Northern Bicycle Co., recognizes the downside of little ones getting on two wheels sooner, calling balance bikes a “freedom machine.”

“The kid is across the yard in one second instead of 10 seconds,” Smith says. “From a mom or dad standpoint, sometimes that would be harrowing.

“It’s amazing to watch just little squirts zip around,” Smith says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556