KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 13 — Mohammad Aariz Nazimi, rider number 208, was the second rider in place as soon as the racers were let off the starting line. The leader of the pack was right in front of him.
He had a lot riding on this race. In the last tournament, he had performed well but could not qualify for the finals due to his moody temperament in one of the heats. He wanted to win this time around.
With the first corner coming up, Aariz saw a gap where he could squeeze in. He steadied his foot and he steered his orange ride for a sharp turn in the inner corner… and overtook his opponent.
He cruised for the rest of the track, and won gold in Category 2A. Aariz is two-years-old.
In Category 2B, silver trophy winner Khaira Zahra Shahrim was a first-timer, but was among the few girl riders. She has spent a lot of time on two wheels, with her parents being avid mountain bikers.
Like Aariz, Khaira also had an orange ride — complete with her name emblazoned in yellow decals on the frame.
Their rides, however, were not your typical bicycles. Commonly known as balance bikes, a usual part is missing — the pedals.
Two wheels, no pedals, for kids? Are you nuts?
“In Malaysia, balance bikes are still very new to the public. To them, it’s baffling: how could you ride a bike without a pedal?” Fred Cheong told Malay Mail Online.
Cheong, a 34-year-old network engineer was mainly responsible for bringing in Strider here almost three years ago, probably the biggest manufacturer and seller of balance bikes worldwide.
The brand from the United States has grown from just selling bikes to helping grassroots enthusiasts organise races for riders as young as two up to five-years-old — just like the sixth round of the Strider Cup Malaysia held at the Pudu Ulu Park in Cheras last month.
“We started organising this since there are no sporting events for kids as young as two years old, especially cycling. With this, they get another activity to look out for, not just having their attention on gadgets,” Cheong said.
“We try to balance sports and education for the kids as needed, and try to expose them to the outdoors,” said designer Mohamad Rizal Mohamad Yusoff, 33, from Cheras. He and his son have participated in the event since its first iteration in late 2015.
Although it was a race, the atmosphere was more akin to a picnic.
Families sat on mats to one side of the track while digging into their breakfasts, shaded from the piercing morning sun. On another side were ramps for practice rides. After a few hours, even the ice-cream man dropped by.
Here and there, children strolled on their Strider bikes in different colours, some seemingly extension of the fathers’ wish fulfilment — with decals and stickers of motorcycle brands. Strider itself has licensed versions of the big boys’ bikes Yamaha, Honda and KTM.
Across from the ice cream man on the tarmac, Rully Ibnu and Vihan were busy running maintenance checks on their son’s bike. The two Strider enthusiasts and friends of Cheong had come all the way with their families from Indonesia, Malang and Bali respectively, just for this race.
“We came here just to have fun,” said Rully. His son Ken has raced for almost four years, on a silver bike wheels, tires and handlebar — which he said has run them close to 18 million rupiah, or nearly RM6,000.
Most of the parents who spoke to Malay Mail Online said they got their supply of accessories from Japan, where the market is huge. In the annual Strider Cup World Championship in Salt Lake City, US last month, Japanese toddlers were the biggest contingent among the nearly 400 racers — they took home all the four world titles.
Confidence does not come cheap
A Strider bike sold here starts from RM550 each, but what makes balance bikes better for children who have never ridden on anything?
Parents who are fans of it believe the bikes can help children ride faster compared to using training wheels, since they help them focus on the fundamentals of steering and balancing by experiencing the feel of leaning and coordination.
“The bikes can help the kids balance themselves. Even those smaller than two years can try it out without falling,” said businessman Nazimi Zahari, 32, the father of Aariz.
“Without a pedal, the advantage is the kids can focus just on riding and handling their bikes. They can also go off road.”
Balance riders usually start by walking while standing over the bike, followed by walking while seated, to running while seated; eventually gliding while seated and even standing on the footrests while gliding.
“It is better because by using your feet, you minimise the chance of falling — you can just put your leg down. Also, the bike is light, just around 3kg compared to heavier bicycles that may be dangerous for younger kids,” Cheong said.
Ready, set, go
Closer to the track, the heat of the race could be felt. The racers lined up in rows of tens behind a makeshift wooden barrier that would be flattened as a race starts. Some parents held umbrellas to shield their children from the sun’s glare and heat and some others brought hand fans and mist spray to keep the mini competitors cool.
Most were in the uniform race T-shirts and helmets, but some were kitted out in race jerseys, riding gloves, and even full face helmets. On several bikes, action cameras like GoPros were affixed to capture the action.
The moment a race start, the crowd roared into cheers. The parents were obviously the loudest, shouting “GO! GO! GO!” as they followed their children scuttling round the bends and dashing across the final stretch, and giving them high-fives and hugs once they crossed the finishing line.
Being the young children that they are, not all managed to pass the starting line, no matter how hard their parents try to coax them. They were too keyed up, a mix of nervousness, crankiness that saw some throw a tantrum… like Vihan’s son Kelvin.
“He was tired, and was asking for toys instead,” the father said, laughing.
It may have sounded competitive, but the parents told Malay Mail Online they were all supportive of each other. For some, it marked the start of a beautiful friendship that they hoped would last over the years.
“When we first started, there was little reception. But as time went by, more people joined,” said Mohd Soffry, 34, from Ampang, another long-time participant. His son was in the three-year-old category.
“There may be some competition, but we put family values first here,” said Khairil Shahrim, training provider and father to Khaira Zahra.
As a spectator, the four and five year olds were where the excitement was.
“They are very very fast… It’s on a totally different level,” Cheong said. He was of course using the word “fast” relatively here, but the distinction with the older kids was apparent.
For the four-year-old category, four racers immediately caught the people’s attention.
Muhamad Adam Raef, Rizal’s son, had entered the Strider Asian Cup Championship in Bangkok earlier this year. He rode a silver customised bike with the number 410.
Muhammad Zharief Aryan came from a family of racers. You may know his eldest brother Hafizh Syahrin, who races for the Petronas Raceline team in the Moto2 Grand Prix. Zharief’s custom bike with number 411, too, was in Petronas colours.
Ainaa Saiful Nizam, came all the way from Batu Pahat, Johor in the early morning. It was her first Strider race ever, but she was already racing with normal bicycles, including in BMX extreme sports. She used a stock orange bike numbered 422.
And there was also Ken from Indonesia.
All four of them blazed round the track during their respective heats. Zharief consistently placed first to go through to the finals. Adam placed third in the first heat, but won the next one. Ainaa was the underdog who took runner-up positions. Ken stumbled in the first heat, but aced the others.
By the time for the final round, the sun was nearly at its peak, but that did not stop the parents and family members from steadying the racers at the starting line, reminding them how they could race better this time.
The barrier went down and the racers were off while the spectators ran along the track. Many were still catching their breath as the racers crossed the line for an explosive finish. It was that close.
Zharief took second place. Ainaa took the bronze. And Ken was crowned champion. He burst into tears shortly after crossing the finishing line.
Next up were the five-year-olds. And the same rush of emotions were repeated.
At the end of the day, the kids shook hands, and the parents did too, patting each other on their back for what was a great race. And on every face was a satisfied smile that stretched from ear to ear.