Prince Louis was all smiles on his balance bike as he left for his first day at nursery recently. And should the young prince fancy being crowned a world champion balance biker – in a stately home setting to boot – he should enter the Balance Bike World Championships, to be staged in August beside the imposing Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire’s Malvern Hills.
The castle’s deer park hosts the 2021 Balance Bike World Championships during the GT Bicycles Malverns Classic, a camping-based mountain bike festival staged over the Bank Holiday weekend, August 27-29.
Eastnor Castle was commissioned in the early 19th century by the super-rich banking baron Lord Somers. Completed in 1824, the castle was designed to look like a medieval fortress guarding the Welsh Borders.
A balance bike race at British Cycling’s National Downhill Mountain Bike Series at Llangollen. ‘It’s a family affair with mums and dads getting in on the action,’ says event director Si Paton
It’s eyes on the prize at British Cycling’s National Downhill Mountain Bike Series at Llangollen
Eastnor Castle, pictured, in Herefordshire’s Malvern Hills will host the 2021 Balance Bike World Championships
Today it guards a 300-acre deer park and the adjoining 23-acre camping field. A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Special Scientific Interest, Eastnor Castle’s estate features rolling vistas and woodland dells. There’s also an arboretum, a maze, and a lake (mountain biking festival-goers launch themselves into the water from a ramp).
When not racing against other tots in three different balance bike events, split into age groups, kids can be kept amused on the estate’s year-round playground featuring a mock wooden castle and suspension bridge and tractor. That is, if you can peel them away from the event’s free funfair – for the weekend only and open to competitors and their families, there’s going to be dodgems, a merry-go-round, trampolines, and a bouncy castle slide.
Race categories are split between both boys and girls as well as age categories. There are three separate balance bike events, spread over the three days of the Bank Holiday weekend: timed solo slalom and downhill races and a ‘quad eliminator’, which is an elbows-out four-tot race with a BMX-style start gate.
Unlike the adult races, which head off into the hills, the balance bike events will be held on a gently sloping grassy field. The biggest hiccup is usually getting tots to start – some are fazed by cheering spectators and need coaxing to move their little legs.
Toddlers get ready for the off at the Balance Bike Cup, Resorts World Birmingham, on October 2019
Prince Louis on his red Frog balance bike, worth £200
‘We’ve never had any issues with “football parents” yelling at their kids to go faster,’ says event director Si Paton, ‘but not every child starts when they’re meant to.’
Younger riders, in particular, often need encouragement to finish what they’ve started. Hare-like competitors quick out of the start gate sometimes fade and can be overtaken by tortoise-like tots.
In each age group, the riders that accumulate the most points over the three races will be crowned the Balance Bike World Champions on Sunday, with boy and girl champions applauded on the event’s main stage.
When Prince Louis posed for photos taken by his mum Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, before he left for his first day at the Willcocks Nursery School in Kensington, he was riding a red Frog balance bike, worth £200. Any make of pedal-free bike can be used in the Balance Bike World Championships.
The GT Bicycles Malverns Classic Festival — not staged in 2020 because of the pandemic — hopes to attract 7,000 attendees, most of whom will camp for the weekend. There’s a family section of the campground in a quiet corner, with the sound-stage cut at midnight.
Paton is a mountain bike veteran. He became event director for British Cycling’s National Downhill Mountain Bike Series in 2007. Balance bike racing for tots was staged at halftime on race day of the main event and out of this grew the grandly-styled Balance Bike World Championships.
For many toddler cyclists, balance bikes have largely taken over from stabiliser-equipped pedal bikes. These push-alongs have no pedals, cranks or chain. The child pushes off the ground with their feet, first walking, then running and gradually increasing their stride until they can glide along with their feet in the air.
Balance bicycles are similar to the ‘hobby horse’ scooting machine developed in 1817 by a Baron von Drais, a minor German aristocrat, and which, once pedals were attached to it 50 years later by French innovators, led to what would become the modern bicycle.
A zippy toddler makes it to the first corner first at the 2019 Balance Bike Cup at Resorts World Birmingham
The traditional method of teaching a child to cycle – if we ignore the Spartan-like approach of rolling the learner down a hillside and hoping for the best – is to run alongside, controlling the steering. This may work. Eventually.
Stabilisers may seem like a good alternative, but they don’t teach balance and can impede a child’s progress. Some tots can scoot with legs off the ground within an hour of picking up a balance bike.
The first of the modern balance bikes were made in 1997 by German firm Kokua, which marketed them under the name of Likeabike. They were originally made out of plywood, but most brands now usually fabricate with lightweight aluminium frames.
Riders negotiate ‘Noodle Alley’ at the 2019 Balance Bike Cup at Resorts World Birmingham
A toddler corners on a dime at the 2019 Balance Bike Cup at Resorts World Birmingham
Many children faced with such pedal-free bikes don’t sit fully on the saddle, preferring to do what comes more naturally: they run with them, bum in almost zero contact with the saddle. Encouraging the child to sit aids progress.
Scooting involves the child taking larger and larger steps, using their feet to restore balance as they propel themselves forward.
Once a child has mastered short scoots, and the intervals between the foot-downs get slightly longer, speed – and balance time – will increase naturally.
Balance bike tots can reach surprising speeds, and the Balance Bike World Championships is the perfect place to see cute kids going for it on two wheels.
At the 2021 Balance Bike World Championships there are only 16 spaces available in each category. Race entries are £12.00 per rider, per race plus a £1.52 booking fee. Tots as young as two can enter with none over the age of five. For more information visit malvernsclassic.com/balance-bike-racing.