Amazing Bikes: Family Cycling

All about family cycling: carry your kids safely, from cradle to college.

Posted by Peter Eland on Thursday 4 Aug 2011

Family Cycling and Childrens' Bikes

family bike image
Even for some people who've been regular cyclists, the arrival of children can make cycling less obvious as a regular method of transport. But as with any cycling, the right equipment and attitude make anything possible. And it's worth the effort. Getting kids into the habit of cycling early on encourages physical fitness, awareness of their surroundings and an understanding of the roads that they won't get in a car. And they'll see that there are alternatives to being driven eveywhere, alternatives that will give them a measure of independence as they grow into their teens.

So, how do you make the seamless transition into family cycling? Your prime considerations will be safety, and perhaps cost. For every age group there are safe options - it's a question of knowing when your child is ready for the next stage. And while some of the specialist equipement and bikes may seem expensive, they often hold their value well for resale - and of course they may get used again and again for siblings and cousins...

Pre-birth
If Mum-to-be is a keen or regular cyclist, there's no reason to give it up when she's expecting. Unless there is some underlying health problem, women should be able to carry on riding for as long as they feel comfortable doing so. A more upright position may be more comfortable in the later stages than a very tucked racing position. It's actually an advantage to be as fit as possible - labour is called labour because it's hard work, and the fitter you are, the better you'll cope. And if you enjoy cycling anyway, you'll feel happier, which has got to be good for baby. Many women happily carry on cycling until weeks or even days before the due date. Just listen to your body, and take any medical advice given.

Of course, if you're not a regular cyclist, then pregnancy isn't a good time to suddenly take up cycling, or any sort of new strenuous physical activity.

New-born
A new born baby is a precious and fragile looking thing, and it's natural to worry about its safety. But even at this age, babies can be carried by bike. A standard baby car seat, which pads and supports the little one, can be secured in a child trailer towed behind either parent's bike. Good trailers, like those made by Burley are robust and designed with durability and safety in mind. Properly secured, your child is protected inside a roll cage. The low centre of gravity means it's very hard to tip a trailer over - in normal use, you'd have to ride really hard into a kerb or similar, and even if you did, the child is likely to be more surprised than hurt. Drivers also tend to recognise a child trailer for what it is, and give the whole ensemble more room on the road - partly due to the extra width of the trailer, and partly out of consideration.

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Child trailers usually hitch to the rear hub or the rear triangle, and having an extra hitch means you can tow it behind Mum or Dad's bike, depending on what is convenient. They also usually fold flat when not in use, making it easy to unhitch them and store them indoors. Some even come with a third wheel, so that you can convert them into a pushchair once off the bike.

If you're willing to invest a little more, your babyseat can sit in the front box of a trike like the Christiania or Nihola - these are more expensive options, but give you the advantage of having baby in front where you can see them. Rain covers keep the weather out, and there'll even be room for a bit of shopping too.

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An advantage of having a trailer or trike is that, as in cars, babies are often soothed to sleep by the motion. So when some parents resort to driving round the block to get the little one to sleep, you can save fuel and get some fresh air for the same result!

Toddlers
Once your child is able to sit up and support their head, the options expand to include the standard bicycle childseat, which is probably one of the most popular ways of carrying a child on a bike. Popular doesn't necessarily mean best, of course, and there are several things to consider if you plan to use such a seat. The centre of gravity of the bike will be raised, which may make it unwieldy to push around with your toddler in the seat. Will you be able to support the bike well as you get the little one strapped in? A sturdy two legged kickstand may be needed - you really don't want the whole bike toppling over with your child on it: apart from anything else, it could put them off bikes for life. If your bike is a gents frame with a crossbar, can you still mount it easily - with a childseat on, you'll struggle to swing your leg over the saddle, so a step-through frame may be required. If the seat fits to your pannier rack, can you still carry panniers on it?

Also, you need to consider the child's comfort. If they doze off, will their head loll uncomfortably? Some seats have extra support around the head and neck for this reason. It's important that the child can't dangle their feet into the spokes of the rear wheel: again, good seats have footrests that prevent this, with straps to restrain the feet. Also, watch out for any dangling mittens or scarves that might get into the spokes. And will your child have enough room? If you're large, or wearing a bulky coat, they could be jammed up against your back, with not much of a view.

The alternative child seat option is one where the child sits in front of the parent, such as the Wee Ride, which bolts onto a bar fixed to your bike. Having the child in front gives them a better view, makes conversation easier and frees up the rear rack for carrying panniers. The cushioned head-rest lets the little one put their head down if they are tired. The one drawback is that you may need to pedal with your knees sticking out a bit more than normal - ok for short distance, but it might get a bit tiring over a longer ride. As with any piece of equipment, it's a good idea to try one out if you can, to see what you and your child, prefer.

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If you don't fancy the idea of a child seat, then the trailer and tricycle options suitable for a baby are still open to you with a toddler - simply move them out of the car seat and strap them in with the integral straps. Many trailers will take a child up to 5 years old, or two smaller siblings, and there'll probably be room for some shopping too.

Pre-schoolers
When they get to 2 or 3 years old and walking happily, your child might start to want their very own bike - especially if they see you cycling, and riding is part of family everyday life. Toy tricycles will be fairly easy for them to master, although they might take a while to get the point of pedalling. If you get one with a handle to push them along, be prepared to do most of the work!

Two wheelers are trickier to master, and there are three options when teaching a child to ride. One traditional method has tended to be the normal bike with stabilisers or "training wheels". The wheels hold the bike upright and the child learns to pedal and steer, and the wheels are gradually raised so that the child is forced to balance upright, or ride along at a very odd angle. But riding with stabilisers is only really like riding a tricycle, and if you've ever tried to ride an upright tricycle as an adult, you'll know that it's a very different technique. The stability also allows a child to ride very slowly, when a certain amount of speed is required to balance a bike, so a lot of the time they won't really be learning the skill they need.

The next option is to forget the stabilisers, and run or walk alongside holding the child up, until they get the hang of it. With you pushing, they don't have to pedal so hard, and can concentrate on the steering and balance. But this can get very tiring for the adult and, at first, the moment you say "You're doing it!" the child realises you've let go, turns round to look at you and promptly falls off.

The final way is now generally regarded as the best - the scooting method. Almost as soon as they can walk, they can learn to propel themselves along in other ways too. Bikes like the Toddlebike, which stand up alone on its four little wheels allow a child to push themselves along and steer without needing to think about balance.

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Once they are steady enough to learn balance, they might move onto a special scooter bike, like the Likeabike or the Islabikes Rothan, or you can use a regular child's bike with the pedals removed and the seat right down. The child needs to be able to straddle the saddle and have both feet flat on the ground, to feel confident.

They can now start to shuffle the bike forwards, and pretty soon they'll be running or scooting - with each step they learn balance and steering for the moments when their feet are off the ground, without the added complication of remembering to pedal. Pretty soon they'll be able to take advantage of downhill slopes to freewheel with their feet up, and then you know they've mastered balance. A scooterbike equipped with a back brake will also teach them how to slow down or stop under control. Once they can balance, it's a relatively easy step up to a bike with pedals.

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Incidentally, this is also the best way for an adult who never learned as a child to master a bike - just remove the pedals from a suitably sized bike, and lower the saddle for confidence. It can take as little as a couple of hours to be ready for pedalling.

Of course, at this age, even once they can ride, a child isn't going to be up to long distances, and the bike is likely to be used only in the park. But strap it to the back of a child trailer, and head for a stretch of nice off-road cycle track, and your little one can get out and ride alongside you for a while, making them feel very grown up. Have a cafe or playground as a destination, and they'll really feel they are getting somewhere under their own steam.

Early School Years
Once your child can ride their own bike and keep pedalling for a decent amount of time, they'll probably get fed up with being in the trailer, or they'll have outgrown it. For short trips on very quiet streets or off-road paths, they'll probably ride quite well alongside you on their own bike. Do try and invest in a suitable bike for them. It's tempting to get something cheap because they'll grow out of it, but as with adult bikes, cheap often means heavy, with poor components which make riding harder than it needs to be, and in some cases not so safe. Good child specific brands, like Islabikes or Puky are designed with small children in mind, with smaller, shorter reach brake levers for example, suitable for small hands. Cheap bikes will be more likely to have heavy frames, slow knobbly tyres, and hard to reach brake levers. And don't be tempted to buy the next size up on the basis that they'll grow into it - a bike that is too big isn't safe, and your child is more likely to feel wobbly on it. Invest a little, and look after the bike, and it will retain a decent portion of its value for resale - or last well enough to be used by siblings or other family.

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If your child needs to ride with you for further than they can pedal on their own, or on roads with traffic, a trailerbike is the answer. These turn an adult bike into an articulated tandem, usually with the added advantage that the child has their own gears and freewheel. They can contribute to the power, or rest if they need to, without having to think about traffic - although it's an ideal way to develop road sense, if the parent talks the child through each manoeuvre.

There are many different models, but as with any bike, it pays to spend as much as you can afford, to get better quality. The more gears a trailer bike has, the more a child will be able to tailor their own cadence to the pace. Good quality components and plenty of adjustability mean the trailer bike could see your child through from age 4 to 10 - spread over six years (or more, with siblings) the cost evens out a bit.

family bike image

Probably the key component to check is the hitch. Many cheaper models hitch to the seat post of the towing bike, and if this mounting point isn't adequately engineered, the swivel can start to wear out and develop looseness, with the result that the trailerbike starts to lean one way or the other, moving over with a clunk when turning. The best examples, such as the Islabikes Trailerbike or the models here at Bikes and Trailers hitch to the rack of the towing bike, and this system tends to be more robust.

Trailer bikes can come in a tricycle formation too, like the Pashley Add-1 - two wheels at the back give even better stability. And even the recumbent family can join in, with the Hase Trets which converts from a recumbent trike to recumbent trailer bike.

family bike image

The other option for an adult cycling with a child is a tandem, where the riders' cadences are linked and the pilot makes all the gearing decisions. The lack of articulation makes the tandem more efficient and responsive than a bike and trailer bike, while still evening out the power of the riders. Depending on the degree of adjustability, a tandem might see a child through from starting school to leaving college, assuming they want to be seen with a parent for all that time of course! Some family tandems come equipped with smaller wheels to accommodate smaller riders, so with larger wheels but a frame that drops down at the back - a 'childback' or 'ladyback' style. Extended seatposts may be needed as the child grows, but this is a minor extra investment.

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An alternative when a child is small is to fit a set of 'kiddie cranks'. This is a clamp-on 'bottom bracket' which allows an additional set of pedals to be fitted part way up the stoker's seat tube fro short legs to reach, connected via an additional chain to the conventional rear chainring. The clamp on bottom bracket can be bought new from SJS cycles, or sets may come up on auction sites or Tandem club small ads.

Most conventional tandems put the pilot in front and the 'stoker' behind, but this does have to be the case. Tandems like the Onderwater or KidzTandem take advantage of the adult's greater height to put them behind, and the child stoker in front. This allows both riders to get a good view, and gives the stoker more of a feeling of participation, without staring at the pilot's back all the time.

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The Hase Pino also puts the stoker in front, in a recumbent seat, which makes conversation very easy, and it can be adapted for children or handcycling.

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Of course, with a tandem and a trailer, or trailerbike, it's possible to transport Mum and Dad and a little one at once, or a parent and two siblings. Or you could splash out on the Me'n'U2 triplet from Thorn and St John Street Cycles. And if you need even more saddles, Santana Cycles in the US can build what you need. Special couplings even allow for a bike that converts from triplet or more, back to a regular tandem!

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It's well worth trying out a few tandems if you can - some dealers specialise and can give the best advice - these include JD Cycles in Yorkshire and The Tandem Experience in Shropshire. The Tandem Club will also be a useful source of advice, and possibly sales of secondhand machines. They will also be a mine of information on storing and transporting a tandem.

Whatever options you choose, cycling is a great way to transport the family, keep fit and have fun together. Pack a picnic, or go on a touring holiday!

Note that each of these guides is something of a work in progress: we'll be updating, adding links to relevant reviews from the magazine and more as time goes on. Please do get in touch or leave a comment below if you have any feedback or suggestions!


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