Wheeling into summer: Mountain biking for the whole family

Special to the Sunday News
June 15. 2018 5:32PM

Riding through muddy puddles and other obstacles in the yard is good mountain biking practice - and a great way to pass the time when Mom kicks you outside on a rainy day. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)

There is a certain freedom to riding a bike - especially when you're a kid, and it's summer vacation. And if you're a mountain-biking mom or dad, summer is the time to encourage your kids to get out there on the trails, too.

Whether you have tots or teenagers, there are biking options around the state offering opportunities for family fun. Here are a few tips for getting the whole family riding - and keeping it fun.

Start small

Before you hit the single track, everyone should be comfortable pedaling around level, relatively open ground. My kids are lucky to have a long, flat driveway perfect for learning how to ride a bike. Driveway laps and short rides around the neighborhood's small hills and dirt roads proved a good practice ground for learning to shift and brake before we ventured too far off-road.

If you don't have the perfect driveway for Mountain Biking 101, look for a pump track. These feature rolls and berms, and most mountain bike centers have pump tracks for both younger and more advanced riders, as do some town parks.

"Both our kids were on balance bikes on pump tracks before they could even pedal," said Josh Lawton, a Sugar Hill dad whose 7- and 11-year-olds now ride most single-track trails confidently. "That exciting feeling of coasting with the wind in your face over soft rollers seems to be a great way to hook them."

Once kids are comfortable riding on open, relatively flat ground, it's time to hit the trail.

Katy McPhaul pedals her way along the Meadowbrook Trail in Franconia. The right bike - both in size and weight - is important for any rider, but especially for kids. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)

Size matters

Before you venture too far, though, make sure everyone is on the right size bike, and that includes weight. When our older kids first started riding, we made the mistake of buying cheapo bikes. Big no-no. Those little bikes were so heavy the kids had a hard time maneuvering them, even on flat ground.

Better bikes are lighter bikes, and upgrading made a huge difference. The kids could steer and brake more easily without all the clunky weight. (A note here: Many bike shops do springtime "swaps," where you can sell your kid's old bike and look for the next size up, at a slightly-used price.) 

While there are various rules to sizing a bike, younger, less experienced riders are often most comfortable when they can touch the ground without getting out of the saddle.

If you're not sure what size to buy, visit to your local bike shop or mountain biking center and try out a couple of rental bikes for size.

Progress gradually

Once my kids mastered the balance and pedaling aspects of biking, they expanded their biking horizons. They built a small kicker in the driveway. They did endless laps of pedaling up a short bank by the driveway and careening down onto the lawn. They rode over downed tree branches and small boulders and cut into the woods when feeling adventurous.

That's all good practice for advancing beyond the backyard. If you're not familiar with area trails, check with your local bike shop for suggestions on where to take the kids. The goal is to offer up a challenge, but keep it fun so they'll want to keep riding. Heading out on a trail that's too steep or bumpy or long can quickly defeat that purpose when kids are involved.

"Keep it short," said Franconia dad Tim Clough, who rides often with his 9- and 10-year-old bikers. "Keep it pretty simple with some challenging obstacles. Short bridges, rocks, roots, and mud can be fun."

As the kids gain confidence, they'll be more comfortable riding new terrain and staying on the trail a bit longer.
Loaded up for a day of fun on the trails - have bikes, will travel. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)

Let them take ownership

Kids are more likely to get - and stay - interested in an activity if they have some say in it. It's easy for adults to get on the trail and want to go-go-go, but we've found letting the kids set the pace makes for a happier ride for everyone.

A couple of years ago we set out on a new trail in town that none of us had ridden. Yep, we broke the rule of scouting the trail before taking the kids there, and we paid the price. There were roots and rocks that caused some consternation. Luckily, there was also a really cool beaver dam to check out and a gentle river to play in along the way. Those just-off-the-trail detours - and allowing the kids to take the time they needed to regroup and get back to riding - saved the day.

It's also good to give young riders a bit of biking responsibility, both on and off the trail. They can carry their own water - either with a water-bottle holder attached to the bike or in a hydration pack, where they can also stash a snack and an extra clothing layer.

"My boys love having their Camelbaks, with snacks packed," said Clough. "They love it when they can have a bite of their Clif Bar during the ride."

Clough also encourages his kids to be responsible for maintaining their own bikes. He's teaching them how to check tire pressure and lube the chain before rides and to wash their bikes afterwards.

Keep them happy

Like any kid-friendly activity, mountain biking is all about keeping it fun - whether it's a trip to the local pump track, a family outing to a mountain biking center, or an off-road adventure at a state park or some local favorite trail through the woods.

We've discovered new places while riding bikes, had our fair share of adventures (and a few falls), and found some hidden treasures along the way. We've also had a few family rides that could have gone better, and hopefully we've learned from mistakes made on the trail.

As Lawton puts it: "Ride while it's fun. If it is showing no sign of fun, go swimming and get ice cream."

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