I wish I had had my camera with me, because just the other day I saw something extraordinary. Something so rare that I thought it was almost extinct. I was, frankly, both shocked and excited!
What was this rarity, this amazing vision? Picture this: I’m walking back from my local cafe/shopping strip on Main St in Osborne Park. An inner-city suburb in Perth, Western Australia. I’m walking down Hutton St, a very busy main suburban feeder road that leads directly to the Mitchell Freeway entries a kilometre away. It’s around 4.30pm, so the rush hour has started and Hutton St is packed with cars, heading for the Freeway and home.
And then I saw it! Or should I say saw him. A young boy on a dazzling chrome and electric blue BMX bike came whizzing down Hutton St. He’s keeping up with the packed traffic, but he’s pumping hard on the pedals, out of his seat, and going for it.
A quick glance left and right, over both shoulders; then he sits back down on the seat, expertly signals for a left turn, lays the bike over and turns hard into my own street, Edward St. He’s still flying, and now he’s back onto the pedals and pumping hard again, and that’s where I lost sight of him. Extraordinary!
What’s so odd about that, you may say. Kids ride bikes don’t they? Well, do they? Or do they any more? And do they do it on their own, without mum or dad, on busy roads? They used to – Lord knows, I did when I was this boy’s age. But I simply cannot recall the last time I saw a kid – of any age – on a bike on Hutton St.
On the footpath, yes, sometimes, at a sedate barely-above-walking pace, normally carefully shepherded by a watchful parent on a bike or on foot. Often that’s entirely reasonable – little kids on bikes need supervision, even on footpaths. Sometimes it’s the ugly parent syndrome, with Mum or Dad barking constant instructions and warnings.Sometimes the “kid” who is being barked at is well into his/her teens.
On the the road itself? Alone? Does not happen. You only occasionally see adult cyclists on Hutton St; never kids, and certainly never kids as young as this one.
This kid was around 9 – maybe 10. He was seriously competent – he knew his road rules, he was totally in control, and he was not taking unnecessary risks. He was reading the traffic, he wasn’t weaving through it or tailgating the car in front. If he had been riding more slowly he would have been at more risk, not less, since he wouldn’t have been keeping up with traffic, he would have been passed by car after car. He was just a good rider, doing what good riders do – ride.
He had the legally compulsory stack hat on – there are serious fines here for non-compliance with the cycle helmet laws. But what was keeping him safe – and I truly do believe he was safe (or as safe as any rider of any age, even an adult) – what was keeping him safe was not his stack hat. It was his skills and his knowledge. And you only get those skills and knowledge through serious practice.
You can learn to ride a bike in a park or an empty car park. You can even do it on a driveway, or backyard or at school. But to learn to ride on roads, and to do it safely and competently there is only one method: you must ride on roads. And cyclists, including child cyclists, have every bit as much right to be on the roads as any other vehicle.
My guess is that this kid has been learning to ride practically since he learnt to walk. He’ll have started on a tricycle, maybe moved onto a 3 wheeled scooter. Maybe he went straight to a mini-BMX bike at around 3 – and I reckon the training wheels came off a couple of months later.
At first he’ll have ridden under the close supervision of his parents. And only in safe areas where falling off is unpleasant, but not a tragedy – probably the local oval or park. You don’t learn to ride well without falling off a lot of times. Firm grass is a lot more forgiving than concrete or bitumen, but I’ve no doubt he was riding every day on that too.
And gradually he must – MUST – have been introduced to riding on the roads. Quiet suburban cul-de-sacs; back streets; then gradually more busy streets. And at first I bet he had mum or dad watching him like a hawk, teaching him the road rules, teaching him about safety and how to deal with traffic (even quiet back streets get plenty of traffic).
And as the hours on the roads mounted up and the lessons sunk in, as his skills developed and his knowledge consolidated, he must – MUST – have gradually been given more freedom and autonomy by his parents. They knew they could trust him; they did trust him: bit by bit, little by little, they let him spread his wings and fly.
And so now, here he is: 9 or perhaps 10. No parent to cotton-wool him or yell that singularly useless phrase “Be careful!”. No one to tell him how to ride or what to do, or what is safe and what isn’t. No need: he knows. It’s embedded, right down deep in his brain, he doesn’t even have to think very much; by now most of what he is doing is instinctive. Because he has practised and practised and practised again.
They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at any physical skill. Piano, guitar, tennis, surfing – or riding a bike. My guess is that he had put in those 10,000 hours, or something close to it, since he first got on a tricycle at what? 15 months? He’s had the time if he’s dedicated enough.
Assume he has been riding now for 8 years. That’s 70,000+ hours total time. A lot of that time he’s asleep or at school or doing other things, but even so, he has plenty of time to make his 10,000 hours – if he is given the opportunity to put the time in by parents who understand that here is a boy who lives and breathes cycling. I wouldn’t be surprised to find he’s into competition BMX racing or maybe Freestyle BMX.
Putting in the hours at the track or the skatepark, training hard, trying new things, and falling off and getting back on the bike, over and over and over again.
So: to the young boy I saw; to that extraordinary sight, that astonishing rarity (a sight that used to be an everyday, all-day occurrence in the past); to that young boy I say: “Go, you good thing! Crank those pedals! Proj on! Citius, Altius, Fortius!” But I don’t think he needs any telling. He knows he’s good and he’s justifiably proud of his skill.
And to his parents I say: “Thank you! Thank you for putting the countless hours in with your son. Thank you for teaching him right. Thank you for supervising him when he needed it. And most of all, thank you for trusting him, thank you for giving him his freedom, thank you for giving him the wings to fly.”
Want to know more about cycling and children? Do you want facts and figures, hard data from an internationally respected academic researcher and policy adviser on the subject?
It’s all there: How much do children cycle? Is it decreasing over time? What are the rates of cycle ownership? How far do children travel and where? What are the risks? What are the benefits? What are the general societal attitudes to children cycling? What are children’s own attitudes to cycling?
What policy initiatives increase – or decrease cycling rates in children? What about other countries – what can we learn from international perspectives and policies? What research has been done – and what remains to be done? What’s controversial? And what isn’t?
What about safety? What policies, practices and facilities work to reduce injury? What don’t? Do helmets save lives and/or prevent injuries? And if so, how effective are they at doing so? Do the benefits of helmets outweigh their downsides?
And much, much more, and all backed up with extensive hard data and fully annotated and with all the citations to all the research cited in the document.
It’s not light reading- but it’s very readable! You don’t need to be a statistician or academic to read this paper, believe me! And if you just want an overview, not to read every word, there is a 4 page summary that lists all the key findings of the report.
Thanks to Tim Gill for drawing my attention to this report – it’s essential reading!