I never thought that I’d participate in a rodeo with kids, much less lead one. But the rodeo I helped put on this past Saturday didn’t involve “mutton busting,” as bizarrely adorable and potentially child-endangering as it sounds. Instead, it was a bicycle rodeo, where kids start by wrangling bikes into submission and eventually learn to work with them rather than against them.
This year, Rockville Bicycle Advisory Commission started putting on bicycle rodeos as an expansion of last year’s bicycle safety campaign. While we’re continuing to lead rides to a variety of locations, these events specifically focus educating kids. Rockville has a Safe Routes to School program, but town staff members only have a limited amount of time and an endless need for education. In addition to actually improving skills, bike rodeos can also help adults feel more comfortable about allowing children to ride. With the increase in cases like the one near my hometown, where a school principal didn’t allow a kid to ride to school with his parent because she determined it was “unsafe” regardless of the parent’s judgment, both the actual skills and awareness of such are important.
Much like a regular rodeo, a bike rodeo involves safety equipment, a cordoned-off area, and expert supervision. Rodeos allow children to practice bicycle skills in a mentally and physically safe space where experienced adults can provide instant feedback. In the best case scenario, one of the supervising volunteers even has professional training. Thankfully, we have such dedicated volunteers that the person leading the bike rodeos underwent training to become a Bike Ambassador through the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
Our first bike rodeo was at this year’s Hometown Holidays Memorial Day celebration, but I didn’t participate because I was busy working our bike valet booth. Instead, I volunteered at our second one, which was last weekend at a community center’s public outreach day.
Although there are a number of ways to organize them (this handbook has excellent instructions), our bike rodeo guided kids through a number of stations that each taught them a different element of bicycle safety. To protect those precious noggins, we started off with helmet fitting. As we didn’t expect kids to have equipment with them, we used helmets and bicycles from the city’s Safe Routes to School program. Due to the proliferation of head lice in schools (ick), the kids had to wear blue hair nets under the helmets, which looked pretty funny. At the second station, we ran through the ABCs of bike maintenance – pumping up tires with Air, checking the Brakes, and inspecting your Chain for damage. The third stop reminded me of the playground game Red Light, Green Light. We’d hold giant stop signs up for kids to practice stopping and starting quickly, an essential skill that many adults sometimes have difficulty with. Even I occasionally wobble a bit coming off of a light when I’ve stopped in too high of a gear!
The last station was by far the most fun – our obstacle course. Ours was set up on a basketball court, but organizers can set them up anywhere that is flat and smooth, such as parking lots or gyms. By first “riding the line” down the middle of the court, the kids practiced riding in a straight line without swerving. At the end of the court, they would turn left or right and demonstrate the correct hand signal. As beginner cyclists, including adults, often aren’t comfortable riding one-handed, that skill still needed a bit more work. But the pinnacle of the course was the slalom. Here, the kids had to weave between orange traffic cones without knocking over or running into any of them. Most kids did well on the easy course, but the hard course was challenging, with its cones close together and the “rock fall” at the end. The “rock fall” (a pile of cones in the middle of a larger circle of cones) tested an essential skill that’s often ignored – maneuvering around an obstacle in the road without swerving into traffic. As this hilariously depressing video shows, staying in the bike lane is often impossible and unsafe. Avoiding potholes, roadkill, puddles, and other obstructions without cutting in front of a car or veering off of the road can be incredibly difficult and providing a protected space to learn this skill is very helpful.
The kids we worked with weren’t exactly thrilled by the first two stations, which were hands-on, but admittedly involved quite a bit of listening. In contrast, they had a blast on the course. It’s not often you’re encouraged to weave your bicycle around objects, and it’s fun testing yourself. Several of the kids made more than five laps and one little girl was enjoying herself so much that her mom attempted to leave several times before finally succeeding. In fact, I was tempted to run it myself and would have if we hadn’t started breaking down before I brought my bike over. While you can do bike rodeos with adults, we only had children’s-size bicycles available, so the parents just stood by and watched. I hope that some of their kids’ enthusiasm is at least infectious.
While lacking the excitement of a bucking bull, our bike rodeo helped kids not only learn safe riding skills, but put them into action.