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Teaching the Boy Scouts Cycling Merit Badge

wpe2C.jpg (4762 bytes) So one or more scouts has asked you to be the counselor for the Cycling Merit Badge?

Congratulations, you are in for a fun and rewarding time where you will get to know your boys much better.


However, where to start? Maybe you've been riding for years with your local bike club and want to share your knowledge with your scouts. If so you probably have a good working knowledge of Effective Cycling. If so skip to the suggestions on running the classes and rides. If you haven't ridden in years or don't know what Effective Cycling is, read this entire article. Things have changed since our parents pushed us off the curb and yelled "Stay out of traffic."

A note to Girl Scout leaders. Because my daughter is in Girl Scouts, I've tried to find a similar program for her without much success. There is a Sports Badge that has a cycling option but I do not know the details. If anyone has information about this activity, please e-mail me!

First, pick up a new copy of the BSA Cycling Merit Badge book, the 1997 edition. If you have an older version, throw it away. It no longer represents the current thinking concerning the proper way to cycle. Read the booklet from cover to cover. In the credits you will see that this book was re-written by Effective Cycling Instructors. You will read some things that may not square with what you were taught but keep an open mind.

Next, obtain a copy of "Street Smarts" by John Allen. You can usually get one from your local bike club, state Cycling Coordinator or Department of Transportation. This will give you a more complete description of Effective Cycling. Want to know more? Obtain a copy of Effective Cycling by John Forester from your library or bookstore ($25 -$30). This massive manual (599 pages) has virtually everything you need to know about road cycling. Having read all this you now know all there is about cycling? Wrong! Now you need to get some experience.

Contact your local cycling club and go on some of their beginner rides. You won't find them in the phone book though. Call around to the local bike stores (not Sears or Kmart but a real bike store). If the store is worth anything, they will be able to put you in contact with a club member. Usually the club will send you a sample copy of their current newsletter and provide their Website address (if they have one).

On the rides, talk to the ride leader. Explain what you are doing and ask for assistance. They will usually know when the Effective Cycling I classes are being held. If time permits, sign up for this intro course. If time is short, ask if an experienced club member can help you with the classes and exercises. It never hurts to ask and many clubs are more than willing to help you. Sometimes they even have videos that you can show to your scouts.

Selecting Scouts for the badge:

First, the scout must have a bike or have access to one. The bike must be in good mechanical condition and must fit him. As the riding requirements of the badge stress long distance riding, a single speed bike is usually not suitable. Nor are stunt bikes, BMX bikes or bikes with banana seats. If that's all the boy has, see if he can borrow a more appropriate one. Most scouts will have mountain bikes and a few may have road bikes. Either type will work for the distances that you need to cover.

Next, you will need the help of the scout parents. One person can not properly lead a ride and teach at the same time. Some parents will be able to ride. Encourage them but make sure that they "sign on" to Effective Cycling. For non-riding parents, have them volunteer to drive the support vehicle - the SAG wagon. If a scout or scouter becomes injured or tired they can ride in the car until they are ready to ride again. The SAG wagon also carries tools, snacks and extra liquids.

Where possible, arrange your boys in two age groups, 11 to 13 and 14 to 17. As a general rule the scouts will be able to average their age in miles per hour (Law's Law). The younger boys won't be able to keep up with the older scouts and your group will get spread out along the road. Note: a larger or more experienced 13 year old may be more suited to the older group and a older boy experiencing problems keeping up with the older group may ride at the younger scouts speed. Encourage him to ride, for the amount of time he needs to rest, with the slower group, by suggesting to him that you need an older scout to keep an eye on the younger ones. Not only will he be helping you out where you need it most, he will also be building leadership skills and confidence in himself.

In any event, do not have a class larger than 12 scouts. Even with help of well meaning parents (and an experienced scout), it's too hard to keep track of and teach a larger group.

Scheduling the Rides

Lay out a schedule that includes at least 5 classes and the seven required rides. Make sure that the parents get a copy of it by holding a bike inspection meeting first. Check out the bikes and enlist the parent's help. Nothing works better than having your schedule in front of parents and asking them what rides they can help out on. Do not limit yourself to just the men. Cycling is an equal opportunity activity.

In addition to the seven required rides, I would suggest you include a make-up ride for each of the 10, 15 and 25 mile ride groups - 3 in all. Because there is such a gap between the two 25 mile rides and the final 50 miler, I have always scheduled one or two 35 mile rides. Use these rides in case of bad weather, vacation conflicts or if a scout is having problems making the distance on the required rides.

Schedule at least two classes before the first ride. Use these classes to go over the rules of the road, group riding issues and basic emergency techniques. Unless you are an experienced Effective Cycling rider, try to enlist someone from your local bike club to help you with these two classes. The other classes can cover map/route reading, first aid and bike repair - your local bike store might help you with this last requirement.

Use the first couple of rides to reinforce the basics that the boys learned in class. Start with less traveled roads so that if scouts make mistakes (and they will) it is not in heavy traffic. Stay away from multi-lane roads that are heavily traveled for all the rides. Stress riding single file and with a proper interval between bikes - at least two bike lengths. Practice simple right then left turns. Make sure that each scout comes to a complete stop (one foot down on the ground) at each stop sign and red light. Teach them to signal their turns. Teach them proper positioning on the road as explained in "Street Smarts." Do not have them use bike paths or sidewalks. There is nothing there to learn except bad habits.

For the final 50 miler, contact your local bike club. At the very least it will have route sheets of that length that they have already checked out and ridden. Very often there is a club sponsored day tour that you can join. For a moderate cost, $10 to $20 per rider, the club provides marked bike routes with route sheets, rest stops with usually free food and support vehicles as well as a "free" memento such as a water bottle or gloves. Bear in mind that the club does not want to baby sit. Assume full responsibility for your scouts. The boys will have a blast joining a "real" tour and you will have that much less planning to do.

Other Suggestions:

Have the scouts and scouters ride in class B shirts to identify them as scouts. You can have special shirts made up for $8 to $10. Or, make your own with fabric dye. Just make sure they are bright for greater visibility. If you do dye T-shirts, read the dye package before starting. The hotter the water and the longer a shirt is steeped, the brighter the result. This is a good function for non-riding parents to help out.

Have one of the scouts lead each ride. This is a boy-run program and the adults should be there to guide and teach. You might want to consider obtaining a ride leader shirt (X-large to fit all the boys). Yellow would be an appropriate color, it's bright, and the traditional color worn by the leader in cycling events. Start with an older and experienced boy then select a new boy each time. Don't overlook the younger boys. They need leadership experience too.

Always have sufficient copies of the route sheets so that every rider and driver has one. Obtain sample copies of rides from your local bike club. Never wing it. Make sure that all the parents know when the ride starts and when it ends. Have the scouts there at least 15 minutes before the start. They should be ready to ride at the scheduled time. Announce when you plan to be back. For the first 10 milers, I planned an hour and a half. Depending on the rider's speed and the type of ground to be covered, you may want to adjust this based on your experience. If a cell phone is available, use it to call a couple of key parents if your estimated time of arrival is off. They can call the rest of the parents using a phone tree list you have previously set up. Stress to the parents that you need to have them at the pickup spot when the ride is over.

Wherever possible, check out each route before hand. Drive or, better yet, ride it. Riding it gives you a better idea as to the road conditions. It lets you make sure that your mileage is correct and that you know, by sight, where every turn is. Take along the youth ride leader and any other co-leader when you go so that they will be familiar with the route.

On the road, have the youth ride leader up front. At least to begin with, tell the other scouts that they are not to pass him. This will help control the few fast riders that tend to become separated from the group. Have an adult at the end of the line to keep track of the slower scouts. Ideally this should be a person who has experience in encouraging young people. You should float up and down the line (another good reason for single file riding.) When you know you are coming up to a difficult crossing or turn, move up to the front to help out the leader. From time to time, fall back to relieve the end leader. At other times, observe the scouts and make suggestions on how they can improve their riding skills. Some will have already developed bad habits such as riding with their heels on the pedals or weaving. Almost all will start out riding in too high a gear. Be patient. Bad habits take time to change into good riding practices.

Many organized ride groups use road calls to communicate various conditions encountered of their rides. This is a good practice which I suggest that you adopt. Calls are passed from front to back (or back to front) with each rider repeating the call. Examples of the calls are:

Car Back! Given by the end riders, this alerts the rest of the group of any motor vehicle approaching from the rear that is likely to pass. Scouts should form a single file and generally ride in a predictable manner

Car Up! Given by the front rider on lightly traveled or back roads. It is not necessary if the volume of traffic is such that there is usually a car coming from the front. The call alerts the riders to the need to ride on the right half of the right lane, usually in single file. Another car may be behind the first car and decide to pass as they approach your group. On very narrow roads this call is important to the group so that they keep to the right.

Car Right (or Left)! Given by any rider that sees a motor vehicle approaching the group's line of travel. This may be either from a cross road or a driveway. Usually the sound of the group calling the car coming out of the driveway is enough to alert the driver to the group's presence. For cross roads, follow the directions of the traffic signs but keep an eye on the driver. Try to obtain eye contact. If the car or truck shows no sign of slowing for a stop sign do not try to stand on your rights. This differs from what you will have read in Street Smarts. While individual adults or adult groups may want to take the risk, your first duty is the safety of the scouts. However, the size of the group and a steady, purposeful air will almost always cause the driver to slow to a stop. Do not rely on this method to run lights or stop signs. Obeying traffic signs is one of the first things that you need to teach your scouts. On your rides, practice what you preach.

Glass! Gravel! Trash! Parked Car Up! The front riders call this out whenever they encounter something in the line of travel. Riders behind them might otherwise not see the problem until too late. Where there is a choice, teach the boys to steer around the obstacle to the right, away from traffic. However, gravel and trash is usually blown to the right edge of the road. This those cases, the scouts should steer to the left after looking back for traffic. Parked cars should always be passed on the left. Leave a margin of about three feet when passing a car least the driver pop their door open just at that time.

Road Kill! Animals will, from time to time, wander onto the roadway and frequently get killed. Naturally you do not want to ride over the body. My scouts took particular delight in describing the grossness of the corpse.

Clear! When crossing a road, some groups will use this call as each rider crosses. People tend to rely too much on the rider ahead and just repeat the call without really looking. It is better to train each scout to look both ways before crossing. If you do decide to use it, I suggest you have an older scout or adult ride ahead of the group, cross the road and stop where he or she has a clear view of both directions. S/He should be the only one call out as each scout approaches. Later you may want to go to each scout calling out as he crosses.

Helmets are a controversial topic in some groups. You either hate them or you love them. The BSA supports the use of helmets and requires their use by all riders on all BSA sanctioned rides. In addition, many states require them for all youth riders. Consult your states bike laws for age requirements. Considering that you will usually have a number of scouts who are inexperienced in group riding, following BSA requirements make sense.

Finally, have fun and learn as much as your scouts do. Too bad there isn't a Cycling Merit Badge Counselor's badge. You will have earned it!


Local Bike Club: Contact your nearest "real" bike stores.

State Bike Coordinator: This is a great source for "freebies" such as copies of "Street Smarts" or state bicycle maps. Check the listings under State Government in your telephone book.

Department of Transportation: Usually they have cycling handouts and copies of your state's bike laws. If you plan to ride into other states, obtain a copy of the state's bike laws. While all states have adopted the Uniform Vehicle Code, many have modified them especially in the area of helmet use.

Local Police Department: Some municipalities have bike ordinances of which you should be aware.

Other Websites:

League of American Bicyclists: Lots of reproducible handouts that deal with most cycling subjects. This is a must visit Website. 

Ken Kifer's Cycling pages: an excellent set of topics that are explained in a calm, rational manner. This is a good site for the scouts to visit but some of the topics may be over the younger one's heads. Next to the LAB site, this is the one I would recommend visiting.

Chainguard: An excellent Website with lots of links to other sites.

John Allen's Website: Good cycling subjects.

Sprocket Man  A safety course for young cyclists in the form of a comic book featuring Sprocket Man, a superhero like character that points out the safe way to ride on streets and roads.  Available in a downloadable PDF file which can be printed/stapled to form a 24 page (12 sheet) comic book.  Fairly good advice and an attractive style, unusual for a government publication.

Got a question? Try this newsgroup: rec.bicycles.misc If you explain what you are trying to do, most responders will be helpful. Bear in mind that this is a mostly uncensored discussion group. Sometimes the language is not appropriate for scouts.




Christopher R. Law Assistant Scoutmaster, Troop 603



John Allen

BSA Merit Badge Program

Merit Badge Resources



Can we Teach it on Bike Paths?


Effective Cycling:

A program begun by John Forester and the League of American Bicyclists, based on the study of the safest practices in bicycle riding.




Some editions of John Allen's book include suggestions
of riding on sidewalks as a means of getting through traffic snarls. This is not considered safe, and is illegal in many locations. Be prepared to explain this discrepancy.

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