Gentle reader, let your mind wander back to the day you first learned how to ride a bike. Who can forget such a magnificent moment?
It’s an iconic scene: The child is nervous on his shiny new Schwinn, but he trusts his father—and his training wheels. On the sun-dappled day they are finally removed, the child is confident that his training wheels have prepared him to ride a bike—that they have trained him. His father runs beside the bicycle, holding onto the seat, and then lets go. The child triumphantly sails forth—face down, into the pavement.
Oh, the memories!
For generations, training wheels have been the standard way of not teaching children how to ride a bike. It’s a time-honored childhood ritual: fumble with wrench, remove tiny wheels, watch child fall on face, repeat.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Compared to the rub-some-dirt-on-it old-timeyness of training wheels, balance bikes—those wooden, pedalless bikes you’ve definitely seen if you live in Portland or Brooklyn, and you’ve maybe seen if you live somewhere else—look like a newfangled waste of money, a meta-bike, a parody of the kinds of crap consumer-culture parents will buy. (They will buy a bike that literally doesn’t work!) But the balance bike isn’t newfangled at all. It is a direct descendant of the first proto-bicycle. And its popularity is growing for very good reason: It corrects the tragic historical error of training wheels.
It’s unclear when training wheels became popular, although historians suggest the early 1900s seem most likely. But it’s apparent why they became popular. They were an obvious solution to an obvious problem: How do you convince someone to climb onto something that is obviously going to fall over?
It’s easy to forget how counterintuitive the act of bicycling is. For starters, to steady a bicycle, you have to turn in the direction that the bike is leaning. This is so unconscious that when you’re riding a bike you don’t know you’re doing it. Children know they’re doing it, though, which is why they have such trouble. It just feels wrong. The intellect, as Mark Twain wrote after learning to ride a bicycle, “has to teach the limbs to discard their old education and adopt the new.”
To make matters worse, in order to ride a bike, you have to be willing to embrace its precariousness. As Archibald Sharp, an English engineer, wrote in a seminal book on bicycling in 1896, “If the bicycle and rider be at rest, the position is thus one of unstable equilibrium, and no amount of gymnastic dexterity will enable the position to be maintained for more than a few seconds.” To lose your nerve is to lose your balance.
So it isn’t surprising that aspiring riders wanted some greater stability, especially when bicycles were still a wondrous sight. “We can't imagine today how huge the fear of balancing was among the adult population,” the German historian of technology Hans-Erhard Lessing explained in an interview. “People would hardly dare to take their feet off safe ground.”