Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Wheel Deal

If Anchorage, Alaska has anything going, it is its bike trails. Forgive my stating the obvious, but to enjoy those trails it would seem necessary to be able to ride a bike; those of us who have extra sets of small legs running around the house can appreciate the dilemma that having children can pose when all you want to do is get out and take a nice ride once in a while.

For the first time all my children are mobile enough to go biking with us. On Monday we drove down to Westchester Lagoon and started from there, biking north on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to Elderberry Park. Turning around and biking back required the traditional detour to the Valley of the Moon park where we had the obligatory vain threats about not getting wet in Chester Creek which Spencer, of course, ignored (that’s why we never step outside our home without extra pairs of pants—that’s the kind of “wilderness survival skills” we’re talking).

We’ve often taken the trail south down to Kincaid Park, but it doesn’t really matter, any place along the trail where you can see across Cook Inlet out to Fire Island and enjoy the sun shining at 9:00 pm while you bike along green terrain, following the coast and the current is something you can’t miss.

Riding bikes has always been the defining difference in our children’s personalities. Grace likes to look at scenery. Period. Riding a bike just gets in the way for her in terms of the overall experience, as illustrated in one of our recent family bike rides. We were going downhill caravan style when we heard this colossal WHUMP-THUNK and looked back to see Grace end over end in the newly-hydroseeded ditches along the bike path. The six or seven inches of topsoil broke her fall but she came up rather green and fuzzy and dirty. I figured it was a sure thing to expect grass to start growing all over everything, jeans, tires, helmet, you name it. Something about a rolling stone gathering moss comes to mind. But I’m sure she had her eyes on the pretty flowers and birds singing and who-knows-what-else, anything but the road. I can’t begin to think of what will happen when she graduates to cars.

Spencer took all of five minutes to learn to ride. Something along the lines of, “Dad, really, I can do it! Dad! I can do it! I can do it! JUST LET GO!” He’s more coordinated and falls less, at least he has fewer minor scrapes and bumps. No, his falls tend to be truly spectacular—something that would do Evil Knievel proud—knowing Spencer he’ll go out jumping the Grand Canyon. In fact, around here we use Spencer’s bandage count as an indicator of the progression of summer. Luckily Alaskan summers are short enough we usually stop short of anything requiring reconstructive surgery. So far.

So, given all this, here are A Few Suggestions garnered from our hours of experience, case study and clinical testing:

Rule #1:
Get the Best Bikes Money Can Buy

I’m kidding. When Spencer was four and in a moment of misplaced maternal affection I went out and bought him a Big Wheel—remember those?—and soon feel victim to that infamous phrase “some assembly required.” Andrew and I thought we’d quickly throw it together before we ran out and caught a movie, and like the organizational freaks we are we had all the parts laid out neatly and ready to go. We got to the “5/16-inch cap nut A” and made the critical decision to set it on the nearby rock wall while we wrestled with the remaining pieces, the result being that it felt down into the crevices between the rocks (“DO’H!”). We then spent most of the next hour dismantling the wall stone by stone in a futile effort to find said “5/16-inch cap nut A” missing the movie and instead making an emergency Home Depot run to replace the stupid piece.

That provoked a critical decision never to purchase an unassembled vehicle ever again and so far we’ve stuck to it. But unless you want to pay the equivalent of a month’s salary for one lousy brand new bike, you’re looking at garage sales. After a bit of hunting we’ve come up with five fabulous bikes from $10-$40 apiece—leaving us enough to cover the increase in insurance premiums our kinetically-challenged children have created.

Rule #2
Tracks are Pretty Darn Useful

We’ve also found tracks to be extremely helpful in teaching the kids to ride. Though it helps if no one else is using it. When Grace was five she’d drive around and around the track with her head swaying all around taking in the sights and paying no attention to the road in front of her (probably singing too if I know her). At one point she was circling the track while several kids were having track practice on one of the straight-aways. I had told her she could still ride around, but that when she came to the section where they were practicing she would have to be careful to avoid them (a symbiotic relationship, she needed to learn how to avoid pedestrians and what better way for them to improve their reflexes than by dodging a kid on a bike?) But I had to finally give up and call it quits because every time she came around the track (wobbling back and forth like a drunk) and got about 30 feet away instead of going neatly around them she would start screaming at top levels, “HEY WATCH OUT WATCH OUT I’M COMING!!!!!! I SAID WATCH OUT I’M COMING!!!!! GET OUTTA THE WAY!!!!!!”

Tracks have been an important part of our Mitton biking experience. When David had barely learned to ride I was concerned because he just wasn’t reliable. I mean, staying upright is only half the job, right? In short, he could ride a bike if he were the only person around in the middle of a football field without another object or human being in sight AND if he had someone to start him up and help him stop and dismount. So for his First Official Post-Training Wheels Ride of the season I felt he’d best be served by heading over to Rabbit Creek Elementary and riding around the track there and practicing staying in the lanes. Boy! Getting over there was problem in itself, it was hardly a mile but you wouldn’t believe how many mailboxes, cars, bikers, joggers, dogs and speed bumps we encountered en route. Every time he got spooked he’d wobble off the path and crash and I had to stop to help him get started again. By the time we got there we were getting tired but he did make good progress, practicing riding between the lane lines and going up on the sidewalk and down again, plus avoiding traffic. I even had him riding one direction and the rest of us riding in the opposite direction and he would have to avoid everyone. Then I decided to take the training up a notch and REALLY test his reflexes, so he’d ride by while the rest of us threw things at him—bottles, rock, clumps of dirt—Come on! THIS is how Lance Armstrong learned to ride so stop your crying and . . . no, I’m just kidding. No objects were thrown. But it certainly would have provided a memorable training experience. Hmmmmm . . . overall it went well, we had lessons in Starting By Oneself and Not Using Skin As a Breaking Surface. We had to call it quits when the other kids started grumbling about the never-changing scenery, going around and around.

Rule #3:
Technology Isn’t a Bad Idea

When Grace wanted more freedom we considered implanting one of those homing chips under her skin, but eventually opted for some long-range walkie-talkies so she could ride all over the neighborhood and keep in contact—which of course prompted quite a bit of strutting in front of the younger brothers. We went through the whole “this isn’t a toy” lecture (yea, right) and not goofing off with them, pretending to call for help, etc.

She set off one morning on her maiden voyage, checking in every few minutes to report. It worked like a dream until I got this fuzzy, incoherent, scrambled message and instantly jumped to the conclusion she was doing just what we’d forbidden, that she was trying to be funny and pretend she was in trouble. Then when it came in a second time it sounded as if she was scared of someone trying to come near her. By the third time I finally got out most of the translation which was something along the lines of (and with Grace it’s always in caps): “MOM-I’M-BLEEDING-I’M-HURT-HELP-ME-QUICK!!

So I jumped in the van and found her at the bottom of a big rocky hill in a heap, her face scraped and bloodied. She’d stopped the fall with her face and her lip was already twice its normal size (at least the part of it that I could see under all the dirt). Later that night Andrew and I gingerly chuckled, wondering if we were glad she’d had the radio. It helped us get to her and help her but if she hadn’t had it she wouldn’t have been at the park. That eternal parental dilemma of freedom v. danger, but then, how else are they going to get through childhood?


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Lisa Milton said...

You have inspired me to fix my flat tire and get some bike trips in this summer. Zack still has training wheels. My kids are scared to death of crashing, so it is high drama all around getting them up and running.

Beautiful park, by the way.