Sports Profile: Kids Bicycling

There are lots of ways for kids to have fun and be fit on two wheels.

Boy riding mountain bike on hill
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Once your kid trades up from a tricycle or balance bike, she can rely on her two-wheeler to tool around the neighborhood. Or she might decide to take up bicycling as a more serious hobby. There are plenty of options: bike racing on a track or road, mountain biking (for pleasure or speed), even cyclocross and BMX courses with jumps and obstacles to negotiate.

The basics: Of course kids (and adults) can bicycle for transportation, for pleasure, or to raise money for charity.

If your child wants to compete in cycling, events include:

  • Road racing: Cyclists race to cross the finish line first. Elite athletes compete as a team, using strategy along with speed to win. Time trials are based only on an individual's time against the clock. A criterium is a road race comprised of a many laps around a short course.
  • Track racing: Cyclists compete on a banked oval track, much like a car race track. There are several different events, some for individuals and some for teams.
  • Bicycle motocross or BMX: Racers start at the top of a high drop, then speed through a short, man-made course featuring jumps, tight corners, and other challenging obstacles.
  • Mountain biking: Off-road race events include cross-country, short track, downhill courses, and more.
  • Cyclocross: In these short-distance races, competitors do laps around a course that includes obstacles. Racers have to get off their bikes and carry them over or through creeks, fences, and other barriers.

    Age kids can start: Kids can learn to ride a bike starting at around age 5 or 6 (some may not be ready until 8 or 9 years old, though). They can also use a trailer bike attached to a parent's bike before they are ready to ride on their own, or for longer trips with the family even after they're able to pedal on their own.

    Road or mountain bike races or triathlons for adults will often have an associated kids' event, usually covering a shorter distance. Kids can get a racing license from USA Cycling starting at age 6.

    Skills needed/used: Balance, fitness, and endurance. Some kinds of bicycling events require teamwork and strategy too.

    Best for kids who are: Driven, outdoorsy, daring.

    Season/when played: Year-round, depending on available facilities, climate, and type of event.

    Team or individual? Both, depending on the type of race or event.

    Levels: You won't find kids bicycling teams at most schools (although some high schools and colleges do have teams). Races and other events may have kids' divisions broken down by age; USA Cycling's divisions are age 6 to 9 (youth), ages 10 to 18 (junior), ages 19 to 22 (under 23), ages 23 to 29 (elite/senior) and 30 and up (master).

    Road racing, track racing, mountain biking, and BMX are all summer Olympic sports. And some professional cyclists make their living racing for a road racing team, appearing in events like the famed Tour de France.

    Appropriate for kids with special needs: Yes. The Special Olympics hosts time trial and road racing events for kids with intellectual disabilities.

    USA Paralympics has both road and track cycling events for physically disabled and visually impaired athletes.

    Fitness factor: High, if your athlete is riding for speed or endurance.

    Equipment: Your child will need a bicycle and tires appropriate for the type of riding he wants to do, and a helmet. Beyond that, wants and needs might include special shoes (that clip into his pedals), a tool kit, shorts and jerseys, and a GPS to track distance.

    Costs: A good road bike can cost thousands of dollars, but you can start small with a good-quality used bike for your child (just make sure it fits him properly).

    Club membership fees are usually nominal ($100 or less), but entry fees for races can add up fast.

    Time commitment required: If your child races competitively, she will need to put in lots of practice time, including long endurance rides.

    Potential for injury: Medium-high. Risks include collisions or falls (leading to broken bones, sprains, spinal injuries or concussion). To help prevent injuries, riders should always wear a helmet and follow traffic and trail safety rules. Get a tip sheet on preventing bicycling injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

    How to find a bicycling club or team:

    Associations and governing bodies:

    If your child likes bicycling, also try: Horseback riding, hiking, track and field, swimming, triathlons.

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