Children as young as six can ride a dozen miles, and by the age of ten
or 11 most are keen to use their own bikes. Independent cycling offers a sense of freedom and achievement that assisted cycling can't match.
The snag can be finding a suitable bike.
The right bike
Most children's bikes are under-spec'd and overweight. Fifteen kilos is typical, which can be half the rider's bodyweight. The frames are overbuilt to prevent breakage (and liability claims?) while manufacturing corners are cut to keep prices low. Your child will get more out of cycling with a lighter bike. Aim for 13kg or less for 20 and 24-inch wheel bikes, especially if they're likely to go off-road.
Don't be tempted to buy a bike your child will 'grow into'. An over-large bike will be awkward to ride. As a rule of thumb, 14 or 16in-wheel bikes suit ages four to six, 20in ages five to ten, and 24in ages eight to 12. A long seatpost and a steerer with plenty of spacer washers - or a quill stem - will maximise growing room. Children often prefer a seat height that's lower than optimum, and in any event they must be able to stand over the bike and dab a foot when seated.
Some components should be scaled down for children, though manufacturers may overlook this and fit, say, adult sized cranks to a tiny bike. Cranks should be about 10% of the child's height, so a 140cm child should have 140mm cranks. Longer cranks can be shortened - by 22mm or more - by Longstaff Cycles from around £25 (Tel: 01782 561966). Brakes need to be reachable by smaller hands - two-finger adult brake levers can be used, if they're adjustable.
The number of gears is a badge of status among children. In fact, too many gears causes mechanical complications. One gear is best for starter bikes, a three-speed hub for second bikes, and a 7- or 8-speed derailleur for pre-teens. If there is a front mech, then until your child has sussed out the rear, remove the cable and adjust the stop screws so the chain is fixed on the middle chaining.
Most children's bikes have Gripshift, which is a good thing as it doesn't require much hand-strength to use. A bolt-on derailleur protector for the rear mech is vital. Suspension is always basic on children's bikes. Forks might work tolerably well, but rear suspension will add more weight than function and is best avoided.
One of the reasons that 11 year olds will want to ride their own bikes is image: suddenly they don't want to be seen on the tandem. Their friends might see them! Peer pressure, and the desire to conform, is very strong at this age.
Anything remotely 'geeky' will be a big issue, so you may find it preferable to make some concessions. Riding a Cannondale Bad Boy beside your pre-teen son will be seen as acceptable, even cool; riding a Brompton while wearing luminous trouser bands might have him cringing with embarrassment. Kids don't want to be different.
This helmet is cool for kids
Get a helmet that you're both happy with, so that it's worn without resentment. Cycle clothing is available for children, from your local bike shop or online retailers. Offer a choice between two or three items and, if it makes junior happy, let those Lycra shorts be worn under cotton baggies.
Off-road areas are ideal for children to develop bike handling skills, and to enjoy it while doing so. Lack of traffic means you can talk more easily, and the riding can be technically interesting. Sooner or later your child will fall off off-road, but falls at this age are rarely serious because there's no traffic or street furniture to connect with, and speeds are generally low. (It's worth carrying some plasters, mind you.)
A helmet is an obvious precaution, and cycling mitts can help prevent scuffed hands. Long trousers such as tracksuit bottoms and shirts with sleeves are better than bare arms and legs. They offer protection from minor grazes, scratches and nettle stings. Boots or sturdy trainers are better than sandals or plimsoles for the same reason.
As always, plan the ride so you're going places that will interest the children - a café stop here, a good place for trying to do jumps there, whatever interests them. Don't over-estimate your speed when planning the route. If they're on their own bikes, you may be averaging only 5mph or so off-road.
Forest tracks are great places to ride together. The Forestry Commission has a searchable online database. Routes are graded for difficulty level, and you can specifically search for easy or moderate routes in your own area. There's information about facilities too. Their site is at.
If you're heading out on bridleways or tow-paths that you don't have route information on, it's worth doing a recce of the route yourself in advance. That way you'll know just what it's like on the ground, where the 'escape routes' are, and how far the cafe is when a weary riding partner asks. Off-road doesn't have to mean unsurfaced riding. Sustrans paths are also off-road, and they provide an excellent environment for children to cycle in. Even younger children can ride their own bikes there, particularly when it's quieter, and they will relish being 'let off the leash' on their own bikes.