ST. LOUIS — One recent Sunday morning, the blacktop at Nottingham School in south St. Louis became a classroom.
Bobby Kelting squatted in front of his student, a gum-chewing 8-year-old astride a purple bike, and let the bike tilt to the side. Stomp the bug, he told her. She slammed her foot on the ground, killing an imaginary insect — and kept herself from toppling.
When you teach children to ride, Kelting said, you develop your own lingo.
Kelting opened BK Bike School in March 2021, a year into a bicycle boom that saw sales of two-wheelers more than double. When social distancing shut down team sports, biking prevailed. Mountain-biking leagues formed, trails teemed with riders, and parents — exhausted by driveway tutorials and cul-de-sac jog-alongs — started looking for expert instructors.
“There’s something about a teacher vs. a parent,” said Kelting, a job skills coach at Bayless High School. “The biggest thing is to build kids’ confidence and make them comfortable.”
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He assures the novice riders he will never do anything without telling them first, then buffers his directions with easy-to-grasp imagery: A push start is a frog jump. Good posture is like zipping up your coat. And kicking one’s legs off the pedals — a definite no-no — elicits an unfavorable comparison to Humpty Dumpty.
Kelting honed his technique while teaching physical education in Arkansas. Bicycles were given to all students, and each year, a couple of dozen middle schoolers would have to learn from scratch. After moving to St. Louis, he showed his young daughters how to ride, and friends asked him for advice.
But virtual teaching is what really propelled the bike school. Kelting missed hands-on instruction. So last spring, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, he began teaching private lessons in the Nottingham parking lot. He wore himself out doing wind sprints behind his wobbly charges, always alert to a potential tumble.
By autumn, Kelting had hired staff, recruiting education students from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and expanded into St. Charles County. Now he books more than 30 hour-long lessons a month. The goal is one and done.
The $55 cost is a small price to pay to alleviate family stress, said Andrew Cheek of the Tower Grove South neighborhood. Last summer, after a few iffy outings with his then 7-year-old, Cheek conceded defeat.
“There was a lot of frustration,” he said. “For both of us.”
He ferried his daughter Coco and her purple bike to Nottingham on a recent Sunday morning.
Near the end of the lesson, Cheek counted the seconds as Coco took an unassisted spin around the asphalt, her iridescent spokes catching the light.
The second grader earned an elbow bump from Kelting, then a hug from her dad. There were no falls, no skinned knees, no tears.
Coasting and steering
Learning to ride is an exercise in multitasking. The side-to-side balancing. The forward pedaling. The hand-brake squeezing.
“Even walking a bike is a skill,” said Evie Hemphill, programs director at BWorks, a bicycling nonprofit in Soulard. “There’s a lot of smacking of ankles by pedals.”
BWorks’ main program, Earn-A-Bike, focuses on bike safety and maintenance. But volunteers found that when some kids received their bikes, they didn’t yet have the basics down.
In March, BWorks formalized a curriculum for a 10-year-old program called Learn-To-Ride and immediately filled a waiting list for the free four-week class. Week One is indoors, on stationary machines. For the second session this month, the six kids headed to the parking lot at Humboldt School, where they practiced pedal-free coasting and steering.
“The hardest part is grabbing the brakes,” said 10-year-old Fiona Flynn of St. Louis. She expertly crushed plastic dome cones with her front tires in a game dubbed “Smash It,” but couldn’t resist dragging her shoes along the ground to slow herself down.
The maneuvering by Elijah Gillian, also 10, wasn’t quite as smooth. Until recently, he had never been on a bike without training wheels. But he’s motivated to learn. The soon-to-be sixth grader is transferring schools in the fall and wants to be able to keep up.
BWorks’ mission is to give everyone an opportunity to become a confident rider. “More and more people haven’t had that chance,” said Hemphill. “Our programs have evolved in response.”
Of course, plenty of kids are naturals. And for those overachievers, Cody Jones of St. Charles offers Wheels Up clinics on off-roading skills.
Jones taught art before shifting to his first love, mountain biking, in 2008. He hauls slopes, wedges and airbags in a 24-foot trailer to schools, summer camps and parks around the state.
“My job is cycling ambassador,” he said.
Ready for jumps?
The more people who ride, the more bike parks will be built and trails extended, said Jones. Drivers will get used to sharing the road. And competitive opportunities will expand. In 2020, the National Intercollegiate Cycling Association added a Missouri chapter; last year, the middle- and high-school-aged South City Otters, sponsored by SouthSide Cyclery in St. Louis, competed for the first time.
On a recent Wednesday in St. Louis Hills’ Francis Park, eight of Jones’ mountain-biking pupils packed down the grass with their fat tires. They traced an oval across a slight incline, practicing shifting gears and ratcheting — a partial pedal stroke.
Near the end of the two-hour, $50 session, the ramps came out. Five-year-old Mikayla Adams of Eureka took a Sour Patch Kids break to burnish her energy for the teeter-totter.
She’s not quite ready for jumps, yet, said her dad, Stefan Adams. “But she loves to try new things.”
The daredevil attitude tends to dissipate at adulthood, but the teaching process is the same no matter the age, said Kelting, the Bayless instructor.
Decades ago, Jean Lin, 57, of St. Charles taught both her children to ride even though her own progress had been stymied by a childhood wreck.
But it was always in the back of her mind. A couple of times, she Googled “adult bike lessons” but came up empty. Her son even bought her a bicycle for Christmas one year, but it sat in her garage, shiny and unused.
Finally, she found Kelting.
“I told him, ‘Hopefully, you can work a miracle,’” she said.
He did. After three lessons last month — stomping the bug, keeping her imaginary coat zipped up and avoiding Humpty Dumpty legs — Lin is planning a Katy Trail ride when her son comes for a visit this summer.
“I’m still going to need some practice,” Lin said. “But it feels good.”
Photos: Kids learn the power of pedaling