The Case of the Missing Cyclist

Kevin, age ten, appears to be a typical child in almost every way. He lives with his family including a younger brother Mark, age seven, in a suburb to a larger city. Kevin has a shiny bicycle in his garage, and even occasionally leaves it out in front of his house, but is never seen riding it. On many Saturday mornings, Kevin and his parents get into the family car and ride to a different part of town. There they unload a bicycle, a different bicycle, and Kevin starts his ritual of riding. This takes place in a school parking lot some distance from his neighborhood and the prying eyes of his classmates and friends. The well-kept secret is that Kevin can’t yet ride without training wheels, so the bike at home in the garage, without training wheels, is strictly for show. Kevin is embarrassed about his inability to ride a conventional bike, and especially as his younger brother, Mark, is able to ride.

As a sleuth detective, I was concerned with the matter of teaching children how to ride, and have come up with some revolutionary techniques. My experiences showed me that the near legendary ritual of a child being pushed off on a conventional bike and left to the capricious whims of falling is completely unnecessary and avoidable. Such approaches should be left behind just as the Spartan notion of throwing children into deep water to force them to learn-to-swim has been relegated to history. Of course, millions of children have made the transition to bicycle riding without these newly developed specialized techniques; but the fact that whole generations have endured this torturous rite of passage doesn’t make it right or optimal. Moreover, the mystery of the missing bicyclist, like Kevin, can have its roots traced, in large, to the lack of an effective alternate instructional methodology. The old-fashioned ways, both with training wheels and without, unnecessarily complicate the transition, making the transition needlessly abrupt and accompanied by unnecessary anxiety. Using the old ways, it is not uncommon to suffer spills, mishaps, and even injuries such as lacerations, broken teeth, and broken bones. Moreover, even if these extreme injuries are averted, a bad case of pavement rash is not uncommon, and pavement rash isn’t much fun. In short, children like Kevin needn’t be subjected to injury, falls, embarrassment, and even, worst of all, failure – not when safe, scientific, and university-tested alternative methods are available.


The Benefits of Cycling. The constellation of benefits that come from cycling is large indeed. Because Kevin can’t ride a conventional two-wheeler, he is denied aspects of peer inclusion. Kevin gets less exercise than most of his peers. Kevin tries hard but he has difficulty being “one of the gang.” In fact, Kevin is prone to fantasies and exaggerated story telling, as he recounts to his friends his imaginary “exploits” in terms of bicycling when talking with friends. In short, Kevin is trying to perpetuate a hoax on his friends. His friends can obviously tell that something is awry as Kevin’s stories get to be so self-serving and laden with impossible fantasies. Not being able to ride a bicycle has taken on severe ramifications in Kevin’s case, to the point of altering Kevin’s self-image and endangering his peer acceptance.
Kevin isn’t alone. Significant numbers of children, and even adults, can’t ride conventional bikes. The typical result is that they stop trying to learn when their inability to ride becomes a social embarrassment. Denial, fantasy, and disinterest in bicycling become central behavior mechanisms for children like Kevin. Of course, I routinely hear of stories and questions coming from, or concerning, the missing bicyclists.


I was concerned with the matter of “the missing bicyclists.” Significant numbers of children, and even adults, are somehow excluded or barred from learning how to master riding two-wheelers. Their stories, just as Kevin’s, are well-kept secrets by and large. There are literally tens of thousands of children and adults in this country who have been barred from learning to ride two-wheelers, and hence they are indeed bicyclists missing from the picture. Of course, there are the usual suspects, those ever-notorious training wheels. Could it be that training wheels are the culprits, or at least the co-conspirators? Or, could it be that the children themselves, like Kevin, are to blame? On the other hand, does the guilt rest with inept instructors and dark-age teaching methodologies?

The shortcomings of training wheels, as well as present-day teaching methods, are suspect. I experimented, in university research programs, with a variety of methods as potential ways to teach children, especially challenged children, and have shockingly found all presently used methods and methodologies to have serious shortcomings. The evident lack of a suitable teaching method led to a systematic university-based research project at the University of Illinois starting in the 1980’s. The goal was to uncover a better way to teach beginning riders, and children in particular. The emphasis of that research soon focused on coming up with a better training alternative, in terms of hardware, to the conventional two-wheeler. I will highlight the findings of that research, as well as the clinical confirmation of results at several university-based institutions.

The missing bicyclists, along with the solution to this mystery, were the focal points. I will review the origins of the problem, with an emphasis on examining training wheels and the previously held notion that beginning instruction should be done using a conventional two-wheeler. I will then present an alternative that is based on a dynamically adapted bicycle, a bicycle-trainer fitted with scientifically designed rollers in place of conventional bicycle tires, as well as specialized instructional techniques. On the trainer-bicycles, the rollers can be progressively adapted to gradually cause the bicycle-trainer to progress from first being a very stable and near impossible-to-tip trainer, to that of a conventional bicycle. A collaborative team of Adapted Physical Educators clinically tested the innovative technique for teaching difficult-to-teach children how to master riding a conventional two-wheeler.

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