Friday, April 22, 2011

King of the Hill

Spring is a time of new beginnings, and for our 6-year-old boy Lance, this meant a major rite of passage: last month, for the first time, he rode his own bike to school.

In other circumstances, he might have done this even earlier. But a couple local challenges made this trip practically unthinkable until this spring. And it wasn't until he actually did it did I believe it was even possible.

The first challenge is Budapest's traffic, and the lack safe, separate infrastructure for cyclists. At our flat near Margit Bridge on the Buda side, we're pretty well hemmed in by major urban thoroughfares where cars race around at high speed. As Lance has become more stable on his bike, I've let him ride on sidewalks and on the riverbank promenade (Duna Korzó). But it's nerve-wracking accompanying him on these trips and that's one reason I hesitated about letting him bike to school.

The other reason is that his kindergarten is up a big hill from our flat. That climb is an exertion for me, even in low gear on my 21-speed hybrid. With Lance's last bike, a short-cranked, 16-inch one speed, anything more than a wheelchair ramp was about impossible without getting off and pushing.

But this spring, he traded up for a 20" bike with seven gears. From the moment he got the bike, he was nagging me to let him ride it to school. One thing I wanted him to figure out first, though, was how to use gears.

Gears are not an intuitive concept, apparently. I've had difficulty explaining what they're for without resorting to terms like "torque." To keep it simple, I told him that high gear is for going fast, and low gear for going slow. Naturally, he wanted to ALWAYS be in top gear so he could go fast. Delving deeper into six-year-old psychology, I told him that low gear is good for accelerating, for taking off and reaching a high speed -- like a drag racer. This better describes the physical principle behind gears, but it backfired as a layman's explanation. Now Lance wanted to ALWAYS be in low gear. He seemed to like the exhilaration of peddling really fast -- it made him feel like he was GOING fast.

At any rate, a couple weeks ago, I agreed to let him bike to school, with me accompanying, naturally. I had to nag at him a bit to get him to downshift before we hit the hill but he finally relented. We scooted across the Torok utca, and started up the serpentining street that winds up the flank of Rozsadomb. Lance tore up the hill and he kept going for the whole climb, putting his foot down only where we had to jump curbs.

We've biked almost everyday since then and I reckon within a couple years, he'll be ready to take his first solo trip. It'd be nice if he had a separate bike path by then, but in any case, the trial by fire of Budapest's streets will get him prepared for whatever happens.

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