Think about it; many of the experiences children have today are essentially passive. On a bike they’re back in control, making things happen, finding out what they’re capable of. And it will make them healthy as well as happy.
You don’t need much to get a huge amount out of cycling; just the right bikes, the right equipment, and a few pointers. Until around the age of four, small children are non-pedalling passengers. Fortunately they’re fairly portable at this age. A large part of cycling with small children is about having the right attitude. Like any family trip out, a bike ride has to be geared around what the children will enjoy. And to cycle as a family you need the right equipment.
Ella, mother of two, from New Malden, takes both kids along and sees cycling as part of a whole life approach. Cycling is much quicker and easier for local journeys even with child and toddler in tow. She feels energized after a journey and swears that the cycling along with tending to the allotment keeps her fit.
“I’ve pretty much gone through all the cycling with children options”, she says. “Front seat, rear seat, tag-along bike and now my eldest daughter rides her own bike. We definitely chat more when on the bike –you notice seasons and the world around you in a very different way compared to when you’re in a car. Using the front seat made journeys especially pleasurable – it was easy to chat and my little girl would do the hand signals with me.”
The right kit
A child seat is the traditional answer and at £50-100 also the cheapest. Most seats are suitable for children between the ages of nine months and four years. It does compromise the handling of the bike, so don’t be tempted to stand up on the pedals to power uphill. The bike handles better with your weight firmly on the saddle.
“A front seat is definitely easier to balance and you can also constantly check if your child is okay”, Ella says. “When my kids were too big for a front seat, I moved them to a rear seat, by which time they were more used to cycling. Whatever you do make sure you have a bike that’s sturdy enough to handle the extra weight. A women’s step-through frame is really handy when using a rear child seat, as you can no longer just swing your leg over.”
A child trailer is a two-wheeled buggy that fixes to the adult’s bike and one or two children sit inside on stroller style hammock seats. It’s the pedallers’ equivalent to the pushchair. Recommended age is nine months to five years. A trailer gives extra room for toys, nappies, spare clothes, even groceries and it provides protection from the weather. Bike handling isn’t affected much, but a trailer does add some drag.
Is it safe? If you use a child trailer another parent will ask you this, or at least think it. The answer is yes. It can look dangerous because children sit low down in a trailer just as they do in a pushchair. But they’re highly visible, because of their bright colours and substantial size of the trailer. Trailers can cost anywhere from £80 to over £600, with most of the better quality ones starting at about £200.
By the time they start school most children are capable of riding a bicycle of their own. A tag-along is essentially a child’s bicycle with the front wheel, fork and headset replaced by a long towbar. You and your child can make trips that are faster, further and safer than you could manage on separate bikes. All one-wheeled tag along cycles will cope with gentle off-road terrain and all can be taken touring. And most bikes can tow a trailer bike. “When my eldest was 3 ½ I moved her onto the tag-along bike. I think it’s been a really good precursor to cycling on her own and be safe. She’s now 7 and makes the trip to school on her own bike cycling ahead of me”, Ella says.
Kids on their own two wheels: Most children can learn to ride a bicycle between the ages of three and six. Even before that they can enjoy getting around on wheels of their own using a tricycle or balance bike. A child who can already ride a balance bike can very quickly learn to ride a bicycle. A child who has a bicycle with stabilisers can’t begin to learn until the stabilisers are removed, because they effectively turn the bicycle into a tricycle. Balancing is a skill that can’t be done for you and the only way to learn it is to do it.
Chaperoned cycling: the perceived risk from the traffic on today’s roads puts a lot of people off cycling on them, especially families. Here’s the thing: it might feel less safe today but it isn’t. You’re actually safer now than you would have been in those halcyon days of 1950.
Traffic awareness develops around the age of 8-10 years old, which is coincidental with when school-based cycle training starts. Up until that time, at least, you will need to supervise your child on roads. He or she might be a proficient cyclist and yet make misjudgements about traffic. Before setting off there are some things that you need to be sure of. One is that your child can stop, start, steer and otherwise be competent at cycling –on a bike that’s road worthy. Another is that your child will respond to your instructions.
When you’re riding, it’s best if your child leads and you cycle a bike length or half a bike length behind. That way you can watch your child at all times and call out instructions. Your child should ride towards the left side of the road, but at least 50 cm out from the gutter, while you ride further out. This means traffic has to come around you and can’t cut in too close to your child. If you need to it is perfectly legal to cycle side by side with your child (Many drivers are unaware that cyclists can ride two abreast, so be prepared for the odd pipped horn. It’s worth moving forward to ride alongside as you come up to a side road. Give encouragement as you ride along and make your instructions calm and clear. If there are two adults, the child or children should ride in the middle with an adult front and back. Start on easier, less trafficked roads and work up. There will be situations in which it is easier or necessary to get off the bikes. Perhaps a hill is too steep or a junction is too complex.
However, you choose to cycle, it can feel like an expedition just getting yourself, your kids out of the front door. Stick with it – it gets easier!
An abridged version of Dan Joyce’s ‘The CTC guide to Family Cycling.
For much more information on the benefits of cycling and how to get started visit http://www.cyclinguk.org/