(This story originally appeared on the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's blog )
There are two factions in this city as polarized as Republicans and Democrats, and the debate is taking place on playgrounds across San Francisco: training wheels, or balance bikes?
For those of you who haven’t been to a playground in the past few years, balance bikes are kids’ bikes that come without pedals or training wheels. Kids sit on them and push against the ground, as if running, to propel themselves forward. Some parents swear by them, while others have forsworn them. The balance bike vs. training wheels argument is a heated one in some families.
"The debates cook and sizzle," says Nancy Madynski, mom and Social Events Chair for Friends of Dolores Park. "I am on the training wheel side. My husband is on the balance bike side. My position is that we’ve all learned on training wheels. We took a couple tumbles but we eventually got it. My husband’s argument is that most of bike riding is balance and overcoming fear. He believes that because balance bike riders can keep their feet down they get really comfortable with the concept of two wheels."
Lack of fear-factor is one of the biggest selling points for balance bikes and one of the biggest brands is The Skuut. Designed for kids ages two-to-five, The Skuut "is perfect for learning balance, steering, coordination and independence," says Jenny Stern, co-founder of Diggin Active, Inc., maker of The Skuut. She explains that after kids get the hang of balancing on a Skuut, the transition to a two wheeled bike is easy.
"We have seen many children who are able to use a Skuut the first time they sit down on the bike," Stern says. "They intuitively learn to coast with their feet up, and begin to balance as they glide."
But training wheels still definitely have their adherents.
"There’s no research that says [balance bikes] are better or more effective than training wheels," says Dr. Jeffrey A. Potteiger, Director of the Center for Health Enhancement at Miami of Ohio University. "The main difference I can see is that they require the rider to exert a little more energy. I’m a research person. I’m a little skeptical."
Dr. Potteiger taught his kids how to ride with training wheels. "Kids will take advantage of training wheels so my wife and I made a game: 'can you ride from here to the end of the street without letting the training wheels touch the ground?' Each child is going to be different. It comes down to when they have the confidence and skills to ride safely and enjoyably."
Many parents look back on their memories of training wheels with disdain. "I’m planning to avoid the whole training wheel fiasco," says Steve Armijo, a San Francisco software engineer. "I remember how they would ‘thunk’ into the ground on turns just when you had a little speed. It was frightening."
"She barely fit over a Skuut as of our last Sports Basement trip, however I expect that in two months, for her birthday, she’ll have a Skuut hanging in the garage next to her parents’ bikes," says Armijo.
Meantime, other parents are taking a three-wheeled approach to training. Bret "One T" Lobree, also of San Francisco, says his daughter "learned to ride a tricycle at daycare without any help from us. Peer pressure, at two and a half years old." Bret’s daughter wears her helmet out of that same mimic behavior. She wants to be like her dad who commutes via bike to work. Her next bike will be a balance bike. Which one, Bret isn’t sure. There are many to chose from.
Mike’s Bikes carries Specialized’s Hot Walk (they used to have Skuuts). Unlike the wooden Skuut, these bikes are aluminum (one Mike’s Bike employee with discriminating taste, Davin Pukulis, is waiting for a titanium version). Zack Stender, the General Manager of Mike’s San Francisco location, is a huge fan of balance bikes. The way he talks about them you would think he’d ridden one before. He’s not a parent, but he certainly knows kids bikes.
"I urge every parent to get a Hot Walk rather than a bike with training wheels," says Stender. "Kids that start with balance bikes can pretty much skip training wheels altogether. After the 12-inch wheel balance bike, they move to the 16 inch pedal-bikes without training wheels and they instantly know how to balance. All they need to learn is pedaling, which is much easier than learning balance.”
Stender is shocked that balance bikes weren’t invented sooner. "It’s a no-brainer," he says. "Not sure why this took so long. I think they would be more popular if they came in larger sizes."
Many parents wish balance bikes had come out sooner too.
"My first boy, now seven, learned to ride on a tricycle and then training wheels and is just now shedding his training wheels and going on his own," says San Francisco mom Elizabeth Sullivan. "But my just-turned three year old, who used a Skuut, has the balance and control without training wheels and we are now in the process of teaching him too. It’s amazing!"
Regardless of what bike you choose, getting kids on bikes is one of the best things you can do for their development.
"No question whatsoever, bikes help kids with movement, visual, and reaction skills," says Dr. Potteiger. "From a fitness and exercise standpoint, kids on bikes are not playing video games, so that’s a good thing. Riding a bike establishes the foundation for developing other athletic abilities, like running, kicking a soccer ball, and body awareness."
No matter what kind of bike your kids start out on, it’s better than sitting around watching TV. That’s something both sides can agree on.
You can have your child test out a balance bike during the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Freedom From Training Wheels program in car-free areas of the city. The next stop for Freedom from Training wheels will be Sunday Streets  in the Bayview on Sunday May 23 (11am-3pm). The Bicycle Coalition’s trained instructors will be on hand to give one-on-one assistance to help kids learn to balance and ride without training wheels and parents leave with tips to practice at home. More information on the Freedom From Training Wheels program at: http://www.sfbike.org/freedom