The Associated Press June 7, 2010, 10:47AM ET

South Dakota man sells training bikes for tykes

Ryan McFarland says it's time for tricycles and training wheels to take a time out.

His company in the Black Hills of South Dakota sells training bikes designed to teach kids how to balance and steer on two wheels. The bike has no pedals; instead, riders propel themselves with their feet while sitting down, like a scooter with a saddle. It weighs about 7 pounds, light enough for most youngsters to carry.

One of McFarland's customers, Phil Busching of Rapid City, said his youngest son mastered the bike by the time he was 18 months old.

"He was coasting it 30 feet within two weeks of throwing a leg over it," Busching said. "It was an immediate hit."

The two-wheeled trainers, long popular in Europe, are often referred to as balance bikes, running bikes or kick bikes. They are now catching on in the United States, thanks to McFarland and a handful of bike enthusiasts who have produced their own models and peddled them on the Internet.

McFarland's business venture started in his garage after he took the smallest and lightest bike he could find and sawed off the pedals for his son. Both Bode McFarland, 2 1/2 years old at the time, and his dad's company were quick to take off.

"My wife thought I was crazy and was absolutely quite upset I had chopped up this brand new bike," Ryan McFarland said. "I really had no intention of starting a company around this."

Ed Mondello, of Wilmington, N.C., claims to be the first person in the United States to make and sell a training bike. He made his first model in his basement, out of PVC pipe. His first rider was his son, Max, who was 22 months old.

Mondello put the bike on display several years ago at a trade show, where he said it drew curious onlookers -- and skeptics. Mondello said bike shops didn't believe they could sell a bike with no pedals for $100.

Since then, many of the major bike companies have added their own training bikes.

"I do see it as flattery that those bigger companies decided, 'Hey, we better jump on this because we've got the vertical market to already place these things in bike shops,'" Mondello said.

James Deacon, spokesman for bicycle and equipment manufacturer Specialized, said he expects the training bike market to grow as the Gen Xers and Gen Yers become parents and pass on their love for extreme sports.

"I have many telling testimonials and personal experiences that would motivate even the most extreme non-cyclist to get on board," said Deacon, the father of four children. "Learning to balance on two wheels is very intuitive and natural, as long as it's not complicated with having to pedal at the same time."

Tom Smith, who runs Island Park Cycles in Fargo, N.D., said he keeps a couple of training bikes on hand at all times.

"It's kind of fun to see little kids get on them and kick around," Smith said. "It lets the parents realize that their kids aren't so far away from riding a bike."

McFarland -- whose bike is called a Strider -- and Mondello -- whose bike is called a Glider -- believe they have their place in the market, mainly because they sell a single product.

"Some companies are selling a tricycle and a balance bike in the same catalog," McFarland said. "To me that should be a sign that they're not dedicated and they don't believe in what they're doing."

McFarland also has mommy marketers on his side. More than 100 people, most of them parents of bike-riding tots, act as independent distributors and sell mostly through social networking.

"I rely heavily on moms," McFarland said. "The company would not exist without them."

One of those moms, Stacey Snover, started a Strider dealership in bike-crazy Portland, Ore., in 2008. Business is so good that she quit her job as a medical social worker in favor of selling the bikes full-time. She expects to approach the 2,500 mark this year.

"I started in the late spring so it was a really good time to start selling them," Snover said. "But it just really never slowed down."

Annette Simmons, of Teaneck, N.J., has a 3-year-old salesman in her son, Charlie, who likes to show off his running and coasting skills in their suburban neighborhood. Charlie can reel off the available colors of the Strider bike and is quick to tell observers the address of his mom's website.

"My best way to get the word out is Charlie in the park," Simmons said.

Unlike McFarland, Deacon believes tricycles can serve a purpose in teaching kids how to pedal. But he agrees that training wheels should be grounded forever.

"Training wheels really do nothing for learning how to ride a bicycle. Rather, they tend to teach bad habits that need to be undone once you take them off," he said.


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