Saturday, June 22, 2013

Family Biking Interview With Charlene Belanger

 I've written many stories in my Kids on Wheels family biking series and so far have mostly focused on the children with topics ranging from making bike riding fun to choosing a good first bike.  One topic I haven't covered in depth though is family dynamics, why it's important to ride as a family - together, and why your kids need to see their mom and dad on a bike too.

Knowing when I'm in way over my head, being the novice cyclist that I am, I have chosen to bring in a more qualified expert on the subject of family biking.  Charlene Belanger is a local Calgary mom and I first met her when I moved to this city 10+ years ago.  We lost touch over the years but I was thrilled when we met up again on a family hiking trip with the Alpine Club of Canada and I've been following Char's adventures on the Bike Pirate website where she is a guest blogger.

I asked Char if I could interview her and pick her brain a bit on how to introduce children to biking (mountain biking in particular), how to raise up kids who would love biking, and how it all worked to pursue this sport together as a family.  Fortunately for us Char agreed to answer a few questions and so I'd like to share her answers with you today.








Interview with Charlene Belanger on Family Biking

Let’s start with you Char, how old were you when you first started riding a bike?  And do you have any favourite biking memories from childhood?
Hey Tanya, I think it must have been when I was around 4 or so when I learned to ride.  I remember my dad running alongside my bike (no training wheels in our family!) and him telling me he wasn’t going to let go.  I learned 2 things that day:  1 – if you think you will fall, you will.  2 - never trust my dad because he did let go, which is how I learned lesson # 1.

Growing up in a small northern town we rode our bikes everywhere.  It was how we got around because mom and dad wouldn’t drive us.  We used to live close to an old field where people would dump dirt and we started playing around on the dirt piles with our bikes and eventually started making some small jumps in the hills.  Bikes, dirt and friends – what more could you ask for?  

When did you get started with mountain biking and how are you active in the Calgary mountain biking community?

I bought my first mountain bike in 1991 second hand from a friend of mine for $200.  It was a Miyata Terra Runner – a sweet hard tail ride with cantilever brakes.  Ok, sweet may be a bit of a stretch but it introduced me to a whole new world and new passions.  I was so excited when I upgraded and got a 2” elastomer shock put on it.  Whoo hoo!  I managed to convince a few of my friends to head out to Bragg Creek midweek for evening rides, which back then seemed kind of crazy.  At that time there was only us and a group of paddlers who were out there on a regular basis.  Now, it is difficult to get a spot in the parking lot on a nice summer evening because so many people are getting out there.  The sport has evolved incredibly over the past 15 years. 

Over the years I have tried a few races but decided that I enjoy just getting out with my friends and checking out new places and trails for fun.  Since we had our kids we have had more time to be home and have become a little more involved in the community.  I started writing a blog with Bike Pirate with most of my focus on getting kids out riding. 

I’ve been involved in a few of the clubs on a casual basis but recently took on a Board of Directors position with the Calgary Mountain Bike Skills Park Association.   The CMBSPA is a Calgary based group with a mission to develop and maintain bike parks within Calgary.  Bike parks with dirt jumps, drops, skinnies, pump tracks, etc have really grown in popularity across North America with most major cities and many smaller towns developing one or many parks.  They are a fantastic way to get kids (of all ages) out riding and really enjoying playing on a bike.  We are currently in the planning phase of building the park and will be really kicking it into high gear in the next few months as we work through our plans.  

 How old were your children when you got them on bikes? 

We bought my daughter, Genevieve, her first balance bike when she was 15 months old as a Christmas present.  She could barely clear the bar but eventually she got used to being on it and started coasting and riding on it.  My son was lucky enough to get her pink bike as a hand me down when he was 2 years old.

How old are your children now and what are they riding at the moment?

My daughter is now 7 and is riding a Kona Shred.  My son is 5 and he is riding a Toys R Us special.

Why do you think it’s important to get kids riding a bike from an early age?

I know how much work it is to get kids going on their bikes at an early age, but it is worth every moment to get them going early.

First, if you wait until they are older, chances are they won’t have an interest in it.  So many people I know complain that their pre-teen or teenager won’t get out and go for a ride with them and I firmly believe they didn’t get them started early enough.  If you wait until they are older they will have found other passions and interests already and it will be tough to pull them away from those interests.  If you start them early, then biking becomes one of those passions they enjoy and it becomes a part of regular life. 

Second, it sets them up for a healthy lifestyle.  The latest statistic I saw was that 1/3 of Canadian children are obese.  Not just overweight, but obese.  What chance do those kids have of ever attaining a healthy weight and lifestyle?  By incorporating exercise and activities into our daily lives, and making it fun, it encourages kids to make healthy choices the rest of their lives.  Kids learn their priorities and values from us so it is important that we continuously encourage healthy lifestyles throughout their lives.

And finally, the sooner they start, the sooner we can all ride together as a family!  We were in Sedona, Arizona over spring break and it was so exciting to be able to ride technical single track trails with the kids.  It’s just going to get better and better!

Do you have any advice for parents choosing between a balance bike and a pedal bike with training wheels for their 2-4 year old?

There is a lot of discussion about which is better - balance bikes or training wheels.  First thing I would say is
getting them out on either is better than neither.  Having said that, I got my kids started on balance bikes, all my friends (except one) got their kids started on balance bikes and I recommend getting kids started on balance bikes to anyone who will listen.

There are 3 skills a child must learn in order to ride a bike – balance, steering and pedalling.  Kids can figure out the steering and pedals pretty quickly, but learning balance is the most difficult of all the skills to learn.  By getting a child on a balance bike early it gives them the opportunity to build a new skill – balance – while using one they already understand and are comfortable with – walking.  It makes the adjustment into the world of two wheels easier for kids.

My kids were tentative and nervous on the bikes at first, however because their feet could touch the ground it took a lot of the initial fear they felt away and made them more inclined to get on the bike.  Balance bikes allow kids to explore their balance and understand speed while helping them to overcome their fear of falling.  It allows them to get hooked on the joy of riding without overwhelming them. 

Do you have any suggestions for parents making that first pedal bike purchase?  (Do parents need to go out to a real bike store and spend hundreds on the first bike?)

Great question Tanya!  We struggled with this one as well and at the end of the day we picked up a cheap bike from Toys R Us for my 3 year old because we didn’t think it would make a difference at this age. 

There are 2 main challenges kids at this age face with biking – gaining confidence/honing their skills and leg strength.  For improving their confidence and skills, pretty much any bike will do.  The big question is, do you drop the cash to get a lighter bike with better components?  Will it make a difference to help them overcome the lack of strength?  My 3 year old’s bike weighed about half of my bike – no kidding he had a hard time pedalling it on a hill!  But what I have come to realize is that kids in this age range just don’t have the leg strength to get up a hill on a bike, period.  So while shaving a few pounds off a bike definitely makes it easier for them, I don’t think you can take off enough to actually help them get up a hill regardless.  Do I think it’s worthwhile to spend a lot on a first bike?  Not for us.

Having said that, if you do decide that you want to get a lighter/more expensive bike, the market is extremely limited and as far as I know, the only company that makes bikes in that segment is Spawn Cycles.  Spawn is a Calgary based family owned company that was inspired by their desire to have a lighter, better quality bike for their son.  I’ve chatted with the owner of Spawn and if you are interested in a higher quality bike, I definitely would recommend checking them out.

I'm glad you mentioned Spawn Cycles because that's where our son's new bike has come from and so far we are big fans of the company.   I’ve been writing about biking a lot since last month and one thing I’ve talked about is creating a biker gang for your kids to ride with.  Do you ride with other families when you go out?

Sometimes.  I think the kids enjoy riding with other kids far more, but I really enjoy riding together as a family so we try to find a balance between the two.

I really treasure the times we get to ride as a family because it helps us to share and bond as a family.  Between work, the house, extended family, friends and other commitments it is hard to spend time with just the 4 of us.  Biking is one of those sports that is a true family sport we can all participate in rather than one where I am relegated to being a spectator.  Because of all these things we make it a priority to get out regularly with just the four of us.

We also do a lot of bike camping trips with other families.  Those trips are fantastic because it allows us bigger kids to get out and ride, have fun and allows the little kids to run and bike around with other kids.  I think those trips provide a great role model for the kids because they see us rounding up the gang to go out for a ride and are there to hear our stories of adventure when we get back.  It is fun and allows us to demonstrate our passion to the kids.  It is also a lot of fun for the kids because they can go riding together, encouraging each other and showing each other new tricks (oooohhh....who can make the biggest skid mark with their tires?!)   It is also a great way for us to keep in touch with other families and for the kids to develop friendships with other families who share similar values.

Bike Camping sounds like a lot of fun!  What else do you do as a family to keep biking FUN?  Any tricks, games, or suggestions for parents with kids that might need a bit of extra motivation to ride their bike?

First off, you need to love biking yourself.  If you are doing it just for them, they’ll sense it. 
Kids love games so anything you can do to make it into a game will be a huge hit.  One of the first things we did with the kids is to set up an obstacle course for them on the road using pine cones.  We kept changing up the configuration so they wouldn’t get bored and played games with them such as tag or raced them on foot.  

Another thing that was a huge hit for the kids was to “build” a little bike park for them in the park behind our house.  We used some old plywood, 2x8’s and some old logs to build ramps, skinnies, corners and teeter totters for them.  Our little bike park wasn’t fancy at all – we just leaned the 2x8’s on the logs and placed the plywood on top of the logs – but it gave the kids some exciting challenges to motivate them.  They loved it and were super excited when we took videos and replayed it back for them.

Pump tracks and bike parks are another great way to get kids excited about riding.  They see other kids doing cool tricks and because the parking lot is only a few metres away, it is easy for them to quit when they are tired. 

Also, when you are out on trail, you can still play games with them to make it more interesting.  When we are out on trail one of us will ride ahead and hide behind a tree then jump out and scare them.  Sometimes taking pictures or videos can be a motivator as well. 

Having said all that, never underestimate the motivation of well spaced out candy breaks!!!

We love bike hiking as a family and have been exploring the Kananaskis and  Banff area to find the best easy hiking trails that are balance bike friendly.  Do you have any favourite trails that your kids liked to do on their balance bikes either in Calgary or in the local mountains?
In Calgary, Fish Creek Park offers some fantastic trails for kids to get comfortable ripping through the trees where it is reasonably flat and open.  We often start out at Bebo Grove but pretty much every area of Fish Creek offers some really fun riding for kids.  As well, once the Mountain bike skills park opens up, this will definitely be “the” place to take the kids to in Calgary.

The top of the escarpment at Nose Hill park also offers some easy flat riding for younger kids but it does require a little more creativity to make it more interesting. 

Outside of Calgary, Fernie, Canmore and Golden have fantastic pump tracks with some small drops and structures to get the kids excited, having fun and playing around on their bikes. 

For trails, Golden has a great trail called 2% which is a double track with only a 2% grade.  It’s great because you can bring along a Chariot in case the kids can’t make it back to the parking lot.  In Fernie, there are many little trails around the Mt. Fernie campground that are reasonably flat and fun windy single track. 

Closer to home, the Sundance Trail, Bankhead Trail and Fenland Trails in Banff also offer some easier, fun rides to get out with the kids.

Now that your children are transitioning to mountain biking with real pedal bikes, have you discovered any good local trails that parents may want to try out with their own children for first mountain bike rides?
A lot of the trails we did with the kids on their balance bikes we still continue to do with them on their pedal bikes because they are familiar with them and we find new ways to challenge them on the trails.  The bike parks though, are by far the thing the kids really enjoy the most.

Finally, do you have any advice for parents wanting to introduce their kids to biking off pavement?  How does one start their kids on a journey to mountain biking?

Ok, I just have to say it – it starts long before you buy that first bike.  Kids are sponges.  And, like sponges, they absorb light waves better than sound waves – meaning they absorb what they see WAY more than what they hear.  So, if you want them to ride, you have to show them that by riding yourself.  Get out there and have fun!  Involve them in your riding!  Let them hear you whooping it up on your bike!  Go on biking trips and biking weekends as a family.  By involving them and being excited around them, they can’t help but be excited too.

That's great advice Char!  I couldn't agree more.  I finally caved and got my first adult bike last summer because I realized there would come a day when my son would want to know why we were pushing him so hard to learn to ride a bike and yet, had no interest in riding ourselves. 

 End Notes

All photos are courtesy of Charlene Belanger.

For more information on the Mountain Bike Skills Park that Char refers to in Fish Creek, visit the Calgary Mountain Bike Skills Park Association website.  The Calgary Sun recently did a story on the new to be developed park as well and you can read it here.  The pump track for children is expected to be open as early as August.  

To read about some of Char's amazing family biking adventures, including the trip to Sedona she mentioned above, check out the following links to her stories for Bike Pirate.


A big thanks to Charlene Belanger for her time and help with this story.  I had no idea there was a mountain bike skills park in Canmore.  I'm definitely going to check it out now with my son!


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