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Common Tread

How to get your kid on a motorcycle

May 02, 2018

Motorcycles aren’t just for grownups.

In fact, I bet many of you have been accused of being a child yourselves, well into adulthood. I’ve spent a long time getting my own boy onto a motorcycle, especially lately. At this stage, Stinky has his motorcycle permit and he's cruising around on a street bike. I had a lot of trouble, however, because I didn’t know what to do, and because of that, he had a lot of trouble, too. I am not Dr. Spock, but I learned a few things that were not immediately obvious (though a few of them probably should have been.) Here’s a few tips I’d offer based on my experience.

Stink and his bike
Stinky with his first street bike. Photo by Lemmy.

Get gear

This is Step One. Presumably, you love your children and don't want to see them get busted up by every rock and tree in your yard. Logically, a kid who is getting racked up by injury is not going to enjoy riding a motorcycle. Full stop. End of story.

Most kids’ gear is kind of crappy and it needs to be replaced a lot because kids grow fast. This also means you'll be buying a lot of gear. You can't just buy stuff for them to "grow into." Ill-fitting gear is less protective and less comfortable, which is not conducive to getting your child to love riding a motorcycle. Also, most children’s protective equipment is geared to the dirt, because in most cases, it’s not legal for a child to operate a motorcycle on the street. (Apparently, gear manufacturers have not yet caught on to the idea that some children will ride on the back of a street machine with Mama or Papa.) There are a few outliers, but by and large, items for children offering good asphalt protection are sort of like purple squirrels; they're rarely seen in the wild. For those who are just putting Junior onto the pillion to start off, I have to say, there are not many great options out there. Use your best judgment.

“I actually rode into a planter on a Doodlebug I had a couple years ago, remember, Dad?”

Stink told me that when he was looking over this article. Truth be told, he also ran into a tree on a Yamaha PW50, and ran over a bush on a Suzuki ALT50. He hasn’t taken a trip to the hospital, though, because he’s been dressed for a get-off. Stinky has had a weirdo dirt helmet or two, and some castoff street helmets, along with whatever other items I could rustle up for him. These were a combination of mistakes on my part as well as a definite lack of quality protective gear made for little people. His lids were largely either lacking in protection or ill-fitting — neither of which is ideal. He's finally big enough now he can wear adult gear, which has improved the quality of his safety gear immensely. (The boy looks dashing in Dainese.)

If you ask me, I'd say spend as much as you can comfortably afford to. That may be a very different number from family to family.

Rev your kid up — within reason

Some of you will have a kid who cannot be pried from a motorcycle. They’ll fog up the car windows just trying to see one go past. If your kid takes to a bicycle, Strider bike, or other motorized goober machine, you are probably on the right path. Keep in mind, though — some kids don’t give a hoot. Expose them to whatever you can. A Supercross race and some popcorn may be the best fifty bucks you ever spend on your kid’s motorcycling career.

Stinky and I did lots of motorcycle stuff together — rides for a hot dog, trying out the latest bike that came home for a press ride, motorcycle shows, swap meets, and countless hours in the garage all took place. This isn’t always a quick process! We used to play a game not too different than “Punchbuggy,” whereby one has to be the first to spot motorcycles on the street. He also accompanied me to some motorcycle shows and has spent more than a few hours in shops helping to fabricate stuff.

Some of that went over well and some bored him to tears. I tried to let him select the amount of involvement he wanted. As he grew, his interest grew, too. But people — and kids are definitely people — are different. Don’t push it too hard. I think it’s OK to force a kid into doing something they might not be interested in, but within reason. Forcing your little sprat into checking out a custom bike show is probably reasonable. Forcing them to ride, however, might be pushing it.

Spurg and Stink
There's a big difference between riding and riding on the back. Spurg was happy to show Stink how to hunt down ice cream, and Stink was content to be on the pillion seat. Photo by Brett Walling.

"What do you want to do?"

Once you find out your child wants to ride, you need to ask an important question: Does your little one want to ride his own bike, or just pillion with you? There's a difference. It may sound silly, but you should ask!

Assess your son or daughter’s skill level

This is more important than the motorcycle. Kids have wildly varying dexterity, natural talent, ambition, spatial perception, and coordination. Note that this assessment ain’t gonna happen on a motorcycle. You have to use your noodle. If your child picked up the act of throwing a perfect spiral when tossing a pigskin around, that may be an indicator of ability. If your kid struggles when assembling small Lego pieces, that’s a clue, too.

Stinky replaces his chain
Stinky's progressing nicely not just as a rider, but also as a wrench. He tackled a chain replacement on his machine, and while some help from Old Fat Dad was required, he did the bulk of the job himself. Growth comes on the motorcycle and off it. Photo by Lemmy.

I knew Stinky was exceptionally bright, but a little bit of a spaz physically. (In reading this article he said, “I'm probably more than just a little bit of a spaz, Dad!”) It took him a solid five years to get comfortable riding a bicycle, but he was able to grasp the concept of engine layouts almost immediately after I explained it to him. Work with what you got, and no matter what, do not act disappointed or frustrated.

This is supposed to be fun for both of you.

Figure out when to start

I know a bunch of dads who want to pull their kids from the womb and get ‘em into a saddle. That plan works well with some children, and not so well with others. Some tykes are ready to ride at four. Others will be ready at 14. Interest has a huge bearing on this. Physical strength and size come into play, too. (Is squeezing a clutch something your kid can do?)

Remember that the timing is not up to you. You have to be ready when things are right.

Get a bike

Sometimes it makes sense to use what is available. Sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s the first thing: If you’re not willing to buy a bike, but instead want to use someone else’s, you’re gonna have to introduce your child at precisely the right time for them on that bike. Timing that can be as tricky as timing the stock market, so I think to some degree or another, you might want to plan on buying a motorcycle. (Actually, if you're serious about your child loving riding, plan on purchasing multiple motorcycles over the kid’s riding career!) I know that ain’t cheap, but neither is any other aspect of having a kid.

For a first bike, I’d probably venture that 50-100 cc is about right if we’re talking about four-stroke machines. That size engine should move all but a nearly adult-sized human at fun speeds. Obviously, lighter riders should be at the low end of that spectrum and heavier ones at the high end. Remember, of course, that some bikes are full-on race bikes (usually two-stroke) and should be avoided. Pricing and research should tip you off that these bikes, though small, are inappropriate for fresh rookies.

The really important part here is size. The weight of the bike and the seat height are going to be deciding factors. Your child should be able to flat foot the bike and easily reach the controls. Buying a bike that’s too tall means at best a kid doesn’t feel confident and at worst, he hurts himself. If you’re gonna err, err on the side of too short — just recognize that costly replacement may come along a bit sooner. Perhaps more than any other beginning rider, kids’ bikes need to fit them.

Weight is related to size. Though most play bikes are pretty dinky compared to adult motorcycles, a heavy bike that’s also a mite too tall can present one hell of an obstacle to a kid riding well.

Let’s also not forget the level of complexity. Bikes range from “twist ‘n’ go” to “tiny race bike.” Really coordinated kids may pick up the hang of a clutch in no time, but that’s not a guarantee for every child out there.

Stink on a Doodlebug
Little kid, little bike. Very old photo by Lemmy.

Stinky started his riding career on a little Baja Doodlebug, which is pretty similar to a Rupp minibike, at age 11. A six-horsepower engine with no gears to select and a single brake was about as simple as a motorcycle could be. Later, he spent some time on a Yamaha PW50, which is set up similarly. Most recently, he’s been on a Kawasaki KLX110. That bike has a shifter (but an auto clutch) and separate front and rear brakes. He’s got his permit for the street now, and the Honda Grom seems to be right up his alley. “Dad, write that we just bought one and I can't wait for it to be warm outside to ride it!”

Have a classroom session

Explain stuff about a bike. How does the throttle work? How about the brakes? This can be on the bike, of course, but my point is that some verbal education is helpful, and going basic is key. Just because you and I know that neutral is a “half-click” between first and second doesn’t mean that a rookie understands that without a few shifts.

One thing I recommended to Stinky when he jumped on that KLX, since he was new to selecting his own gears, was starting at the top of a long hill in neutral and letting the bike coast down so he’d get a good feel for the brakes, suspension, and terrain. He came to a stop, and then clicked into first. Better to suffer a slight delay than a concussion from an unplanned get-off.

Set ‘em up for success

Avoid cars, houses, roads, animals, baby-head rocks, and awful terrain at first. A proper place to ride is critical. A loud, dangerous, busy street ain’t legal in most places, and it’s a poor choice in almost all scenarios. Even if you have to rent a truck, call a buddy, or pack up the truck, it’s worth it to practice in a low-volume, low-stress area where neither you nor your progeny will be pressured by outside forces. This is supposed to be fun!

“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”

Work on doing things slowly and deliberately. Gentle inputs are important, and especially with little ones who may not have wonderfully fine motor control, it can help to stress this point. Working the controls through their range with the bike off may help them understand what “a little bit of brake” means.

Stinky took things slow at first, and I never pestered him to go any faster, but as he got bolder and a little bored with going slow, I saw him gradually get faster and faster over the years. To wit: when he was editing this article, Stink highlighted the title of this section and left a note in the margin: “If I had a dime for every time I heard Pops say this, I'd be a very rich dude.” At this point, it's both terrifying and very satisfying to see my boy riding competently on the road. Don't rush your child; proficiency happens faster than you think it will.

Assess your own skill level

I’m not asking what type of rider you are. If you have any idea of what to do on a motorcycle, you probably are skilled enough. Rather, I mean take stock of your teaching skills, such as your ability to remain patient, to explain things in different ways, and demonstrate what you mean. You also need to be good at encouraging. (Excited parents tend to pour on the pressure.) If you’re a yeller (like me), either have a friend help out, take over completely, or make damn sure you can keep yourself in check.

Over the years, I've had a few of my buddies show Stinky the ropes. I’m just stupid old Dad to him, but some of the guys I ride with are gentler than I am and more enthusiastic and encouraging. As a parent, there’s nothing wrong with graciously accepting help from a more patient instructor, or getting some help from people who do this more often than you do.

Also know when it’s time to quit. Lessons forced on a tired, thirsty or hungry child are not apt to be learnt well, nor are they likely to improve a kid’s motorcycling outlook. Half an hour of solid practice and grins beats six hours of grueling instruction. This is s'posed to be fun, remember?

This isn’t everything you need to know, but it’s a start. If you ask me, the best way to raise your children is to race your children.