PARIS – Not every 6-year-old can tackle the distractions of bike riding along the Seine, which on weekends and sunny days in Paris can include thousands of other cyclists, roller bladers and oblivious tourists with cameras.
It's enough to give a parent palpitations.
But the city of Paris, in a bid to train the next generation of cyclists, has added a range of kids' bikes and gliders to its bike-sharing program, devices that could be theoretically used even by children as young as two.
And to ease parents' minds, they even offer helmets.
My 6-year-old was among the first to take out the new P'tit Velib' on Wednesday, riding happily along the banks of the Seine and obediently steering clear of the drop-off into the water. She pronounced the borrowed wheels exactly the same as the ones I use for my daily commute, but sized just for her.
She carefully checked the color and style against the bikes used by "les grands" — the grown-ups — and was satisfied that her ride had not been dumbed down or painted in pastels or primary colors. It costs at most 6 euros ($8) an hour or 12 euros a day ($16) in five of Paris' best cycling locations (seven by mid-July), with training wheels or without.
Kids can accompany their parents on the full-size bike share — there's a stand a stone's throw away at the Seine River location — but keeping your eyes on the road involves ignoring the Eiffel Tower, dozens of tour boats and gilded bridge statues.
This is not riding for amateurs.
For my daughter, the joy was in finally being able to ride with the grown-ups in parts of Paris previously unreachable on her own bike. She worried about very young riders — the program is pitched to children ages 2 to 8 — saying the distractions and the unfamiliar bikes could be too much for them. But she loved the quality of her shared bike and its responsive brakes.
The program developed after city officials discovered that about half of Parisian children learn to cycle outside the city, which has limited space for bike lanes, few green spaces large enough to accommodate amateur riders, and no easy way to get a child's bike from one point to another. I've even tried lifting one over a subway turnstile, only to find an even more unwelcome reception inside a crowded car.
"We wanted this habit of riding a bicycle, the cycling experience, to be learned at the earliest possible age and that young Parisians pick up the habit at the earliest opportunity," said Jean-Francois Martins, who is in charge of sport and tourism at city hall.
The very youngest get glider bikes, which give children the sense of balance before they attempt pedals. There are three successively larger sizes with pedals for older children. The program starts with 300 bikes, which must be returned to the location where they were rented.
The hope is eventually to make it resemble adult bike shares, where riders can pick up a bike in one place and drop it in another, said Joel Sick, whose association AICV runs the stand on the Seine.
"The idea now is to create a space for the youngest riders," Sick said.
For at least one, they sure did.
Locations (bikes are first-come, first-serve):
Berges de Seine, between the Pont des Invalides and the Pont de l'Alma
Bois de Boulogne - Porte la Muette and Rond-Point du Jardin d'Acclimatation
Canal de l'Ourcq, quai de la Marne
Bois de Vincennes - Lac Daumesnil