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Getting the Kids Started

Introducing a child to off road riding is an exciting time for a parent, especially for those of us that have a background in the sport. It’s also a bit nerve racking. I admit that I am one of those parents that sees potential disaster in any situation. I can’t explain it, maybe it’s because I have girls, or maybe I’m just wired that way. Paradoxically, I ran out and bought a PW 50 at the first expression of interest from my oldest daughter. That was a few years ago. She was five or six back then so I’ve had some time to observe her progress and form an opinion about how to ease entry-level girls in to riding.
One of the first decisions you will have to make is what bike to purchase. As mentioned above, I bought a used Yamaha PW 50 because she was five years old back then. I went with the PW 50 largely because it came with training wheels and includes a throttle limiter screw that allows the parent to control how fast the motorcycle will go. Being able to limit your child’s speed alleviates a huge amount of stress from those early rides. I literally set it on walking speed and walked next to her until she asked that I sit with her. Another plus with the PW 50 is that it is just powerful enough for the both of us to ride it. Fortunately, I am 5’8” and not a heifer, so we both fit.
We began with me sitting behind her and controlling the throttle and steering while putting around a small field. We then started working the throttle together with my hand over hers. Eventually she got the hang of accelerating and slowing down. We started by going in a straight line and then stopping in front of Mommy. In a short time she understood how to accelerate, slow down and stop. Success! Next we began working on steering.
We moved over to a dirt road that happened to have several pot holes. When she figured out that it hurt my butt every time she careened into a pot hole, she aimed for every damn pothole she came across, which consequently improved her steering and throttle control. At least she found it amusing. Keeping it fun and not turning it in to a training session was essential for us. Right about the time I couldn’t take the butt pain any more, she got bored with me on the bike and kicked me off. She then took an interest in tailing me while on my mountain bike. She got even better with steering and throttle control while chasing me down. Eventually, the training wheels came off.
By this time, she already knew how to ride a bicycle, so ditching the training wheels was an easy transition. This is where the throttle limiter screw really came in handy. I again set it at a walking speed until she was comfortable with braking and turning without the training wheels. Between the bikes inability to go fast and her protective gear, I only had mild heartburn during these initial lessons. With her behind me, I’d speed up, slow down and turn. And before too long, she was buzzing around the yard and competent with turning, accelerating and slowing down. We would practice starting and stopping drills, too. The PW 50 isn’t well suspended so we didn’t do anything with going over obstacles that were lager than a couple of inches in height. For the most part, I told her to avoid the big bumps.
She would often go months without riding and we never pushed her. As a result, we kept the PW 50 until she was too big for it. This worked out well because the taller she got, the more confidence she gained zipping around on the now too small PW50 which caused her to like it more. She got to the point where she would kick the start the bike herself, pull it off or lift it on to the kickstand and rip around the yard on it with complete confidence. Finally, she asked for a bigger bike. This is when things got fun!
As you may have read on page 18, we purchased a Yamaha TTR-90 for her next bike. The bigger wheels, more powerful motor and improved suspension opened up a whole new off road world for her but there was more she needed to know and learn. Her PW 50 had a three speed automatic motor with front and rear hand brakes. The TTR by contrast is a three speed manual transmission with the rear brake pedal in its traditional location by the right foot peg. Fortunately, there is no clutch to deal with.
These changes required some getting used to and little bit of practice. Even after years of sporadically riding the PW50, she was still very much a beginner. With that in mid, we focused on teaching her basic techniques for safe handling of the motorcycle. Proper technique is an evolving process, especially for young novice riders on bikes with poor suspension, small wheels and short knobbies. You need to crawl before you can walk, so please don’t write us and tell us that we should have insisted that they stand when going through mud or rock gardens. We’re talking about a level that precedes that, but that we can expand upon. Our intention is to keep it fun and very simple with the intent of developing good habits over time. Making the training easier, we discovered a friend’s daughter of the same age is also into riding.
Start, Shift, Brake, Repeat.
We started out by having the girls perform a shifting and rear pedal braking drill as both were new to them. We had them start off in first, accelerate and shift the bike in to second gear then downshift and slow down to a stop using the rear brake pedal. This got them used to shifting and then applying the rear foot pedal brake to slow down. They would often take their braking foot off the peg and use their heel to stomp on the brake. Eventually they learned that they had more “feel” when using the front of the foot to gently apply the brake.
Stand up!
When they were comfortable shifting and braking, we made them stand up after shifting in to second gear. We then had them make a wide corner while standing. Once comfortable, we set up a few cones and had them stand up when going around them.
Up hills
We started small here with a focus on gaining a little speed before hitting the incline. As they grew more comfortable, we increased the size of the hill. The concept remained the same–gain speed and maintain momentum. If they got squirrelly, we had them slide back slightly on the seat and put their weight over the back wheel. These bikes are not going to loop over, so putting their weight back is appropriate. Eventually we’ll get to the point where they try standing up and going up the hill in second gear.
Down hills
Of everything we did, it was the down-hills that they found the scariest– something I can relate to. Once again we started small, hills they would ordinarily coast down but instead we had them practice the proper technique of shifting their weight towards the rear of the motorcycle while lightly engaging the front and rear brakes. We started with them sitting and then had them stand, once comfortable.
Mud is something most experienced riders attack, but that’s generally not realistic to a couple of fourth grade beginners. We introduced a few mud scenarios that ranged from moist soil to saturated muddy trails. The former we had them stand through while the latter we had them drop right to the seat and paddle with their feet. Having them stand through a saturated mud hole and consequently crashing is quite an ordeal. Nothing good comes from it. For now, we’ll encourage them to drop to the seat and paddle while applying a steady throttle when it comes to saturated mud. It’s generally easier for the beginner to be aggressive when sitting down and paddling. Their mud techniques will evolve over time but for now, sitting and paddling is where they’re at.
Rocks and Roots
Obviously you want to start small here. We set up a small log and had them stand up with their weight back, being careful not to whiskey throttle the bike. We then increased the number and spacing of the small logs and had them stand up as long as they could before sitting on the seat and paddling. The reality is all riders of all abilities drop to the seat and put their feet down at some point. We emphasized it’s best to stand when possible. After they got used to the sensation of going over multiple small logs straight on, we graduated to rocks and roots which are almost always angled. Again, we had them stand, weight back but over the bars. We started with short tracts of roots and rocks and moved up to slightly longer sections
Starting a flooded bike.
Kids are going to tip the bike over. Once upright, if the bike is difficult to start, we had showed them to kick start the bike with the throttle wide open. Note that our bikes will only start with the transmission in neutral. Obviously it was easier to use the e-start of the TTR 90 over the kick start PW 80. Regardless, we had them try both.
Our instruction was specific to our riders’ skill set. There are some that will inevitably write me and tell me that having them drop to seat and paddle is creating bad habits. I call BS. If a year or two from now they are still doing it, I’ll agree, but anyone who remembers the road to their current skillset knows it was an evolving process, one that required fine tuning over the years.