Beginner's bicycling is no longer kids' stuff

Instructors instill confidence in all ages

some riders discover a great new sport

Health & Fitness

May 02, 2004|By Martha Thomas | Martha Thomas,Special to the Sun

Jeremy Perrin coasted shakily on his bike across the parking lot, awkwardly slamming his feet to the ground and pitching sideways each time the bike wobbled.

Jeremy, 12, was outside Gerstung, the fitness center on Falls Road, learning to ride a bike.

For many adults, the idea of a 12-year-old unable to ride a bike is difficult to comprehend. A generation ago, the bicycle was a rite of passage and a means of independence.

"The bike was our ticket to freedom," says Rob Slade, 45, a trainer who regularly works with high school athletes but also likes to teach kids and adults to ride bikes.

With youngsters spending more time in front of computers and sports activities increasingly being drive-to, organized affairs, there seems less time or opportunity for a child to ride a bike to the playground or just take a cruise around the neighborhood.

The number of Americans age 7 and older who ride bikes has dropped by 24 percent in the past decade, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. In 2002, association figures show, about 41.4 million people were pedaling.

"Fewer kids are riding bikes now," says Nancy Devore, a bicycling coach for Fitness Concepts in Fairfax, Va., and an advocacy director for Mid-Atlantic Off Road Enthusiasts, a group that represents mountain bikers.

"Parents don't feel safe with kids going out and riding around in their neighborhoods," Devore explains. "The percentage of kids who ride their bikes to school is nothing compared to what it used to be."

According to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, an alternative transportation policy group promoting mass transit, "nearly 70 percent of today's parents bicycled and walked to school while only 18 percent of their children do today."

Slade, whose business, Sport, Speed and Strength Athletic Club, is located in the lower level of Gerstung, has developed a method for teaching older children and adults to ride. The method, he says, ensures that "one, they know they can stop, and two, they know they won't fall."

Slade was inspired by a picture in an encyclopedia of an early bike called the "bone shaker." It was a two-wheeler with no pedals and no brakes, propelled by the rider's feet pushing along the ground. When enough momentum was achieved, the rider lifted his feet and coasted, coming to a stop by placing his feet back on the ground.

Slade modified the concept by putting his clients on low bikes, so their feet could easily rest on the ground. He tells new riders to forget the pedals and to use their feet, "as if you're Fred Flintstone."

He says he can teach most people to ride in one day. "For most of them," he says, "it's a couple hours."

Slade is not the only one in town who offers instruction to beginning cyclists, though most who attend the Baltimore Bicycling Club's instructional courses have some experience.

"Usually we get people who learned when they were kids but gave it up," says Howard Kaplon, head of the club's instruction committee.

The group's annual spring instructional series begins with an introduction in the Ridgely Middle School cafeteria in Timonium that includes a safety video and safety checks on participants' bikes.

Then the group moves to the school's parking lot for some riding. Generally, anywhere from 30 to 60 people sign up for the six-week course.

Frances Tate hadn't ridden a bike since childhood when her sister Winifred Tate proposed that the two participate in a one-week 500-mile ride in Iowa in 2000.

Frances, 30, a professional musician who lives in the city, had never considered herself athletic. "I was always the last one picked for teams," she says.

Even the trainer at her gym told her the goal of riding 500 miles in a week was "impossible," she recalls.

That April, she attended the BBC's instructional series, where Kaplon told her: "Don't worry, you can do it."

Frances participated in the BBC's regular rides, and that July, she and her sister completed the weeklong excursion, camping each night after rides of anywhere from 50 to 80 miles.

Bicycling, says Frances, "changed my life." She now goes to the gym regularly and enjoys physical activity.

Her sister's life has also changed: Winifred met her fiance on a cycling trip, and they plan to be married this month.

Liz Yao, a program administrator for the Howard County Meals-on-Wheels program, began training with Slade about five years ago. Yao, 41, is physically challenged by what she describes as her "short stature." She is 4 feet 6, and because her legs are significantly shorter than the average adult's, Yao says, "If I want to do something, I have to work twice as hard."

Yao, who had learned to ride as a child but hadn't been on a bike in many years and lacked confidence, started out riding a kids' one-speed BMX bike with Slade's Saturday morning mountain-biking group, the "Sprockids." She struggled to keep up.

Now she has a 21-speed mountain bike, and in the past two years has participated in races as well as charitable rides.

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