23 May 2016
5 things you need to know before cycling with your kids
Please forgive the clickbaity-title. I've been thinking about this post for a while, and got inspired by a discussion on the Family Cycling facebook group. On the one hand, I think we're probably just lucky - our kids rarely whine that they're tired (refueling usually helps) and really seem to enjoy going places by bike. But, a bit a parental strategy helps. If you're going to cycle regularly or any distances, you'll end up on the roads at least some of the time. These are my tips for happy family cycling:
1. Accept that it will be stressful Yes, riding bikes is fun and good for you and a speedy way to get around, but riding on roads with your kids is incredibly stressful. It helps if you have two adults. It also helps to keep on quiet roads as much as possible. Around Edinburgh we can easily ride 10 miles in all directions with 90% on off-road paths, but even then the remaining 10% is exhausting. On the plus side, your kids will grow amazingly in confidence and skills.
2. Don't try this until you can trust your kids to listen to you and do what you say. This is a pretty big caveat. You do have to have kids who stay (mostly) tuned in, and alert to your instructions. It helps if they know their left and their right too (this also goes for parents...). You also need to be sure that everyone understands the rules. We had a disaster once when riding with friends whose son wasn't all that confident. I started through an intersection that I've taken my kids through dozens of times. I made eye contact (think Paddington stare) with a car that was indictating to turn across us. I told the kids - behind me - to go as well. I was shielding them from the car, but moving. Then my friend, bringing up the rear told the kids to 'watch out for the car'. So the non-confident child braked and froze in the intersection, my daughter ran into him and came off in the junction, and I cycled off, not knowing what had happened. There are two lessons here: (1) I shouldn't have tried to go through the intersection. We should have got off and walked. Or, I should have stopped my bike and blocked the turning car. (2) Make sure that kids know that only STOP means stop, and that you have to keep going when there are other cyclists behind you.
3. Always keep the kids in front of you This is the one big rule that I frequently want to shout at parents I see on the roads. You need to be able to see your kids. Yes, this can mean that they're riding in front of car doors and other obstacles. You don't want them too far in front. But you need to be behind them and, if possible, a little to the right (for those of us who drive on the left). The ideal situation is two experienced/adult riders, with the most confident bringing up the back, but that's not always possible. So, remember, kids in front, but it's your job to tell them to 'start slowing down' / change gears/ get ready to go because the light's changing etc.
4. Have a get-out clause, but don't let them know! if they're small start by taking your normal bike-seat, tandem or trailer along as well. That way if it's too much, you can still bungee their bike on and take them back home. Trailgators accomplish this too. But the real trick is not to let them know that the tow home is an option. So, make the trailer look really full of picnic blankets or siblings or whatever and don't offer 'do you want to get in and ride home' unless you have to. If you don't mention it, they may not twig. We've done this with both our kids and never had to use the emergency escape route. With our first, we just assumed she'd get in the trailer on the way back after pedalling 2.5 miles to Duddingston Loch on a 10" wheel bike. But nope, she rode all the way home too. With our second, we were a bit savvier. We didn't bother with the trailer, but we did take the tandem and bungees. After a couple of months we left the tandem at home and all rode 'normal' bikes. Another clever wheeze is to always plan rides that intersect with train lines, at least for the first few months - we've only bailed once, when we'd badly underestimated the weather and had a very cold toddler, and then my daughter wiped out (she was looking at the Forth Bridge and went off the path...). Luckily we were near Dalmeny Station, so we abandoned our planned ride, jumped on a train (thanks to an understanding guard) and went happily home.
5. Peer pressure is the best: Organize a ride with some friends and your kids will be amazed to find they've cycled 10 or 15 miles easily in a day. Seriously though, not only will they think if he can do it, so can I, but they'll also ride twice as fast with a friend their age as with you.
Finally, to combine all these things -- go somewhere fun, but have a back up plan, and some rewards. My daughter managed over 25miles on a 20" bike when she was 7 - it was also the 3yo's first long ride as stoker on the tandem. We had an incentive that we were meeting friends for a cool event out at East Fortune (the National Museum of Flight), and that we could easily get the train home. It was a fabulous ride, much longer than we'd have done if we hadn't known there were train stations all the way along. We also took the child seat and knew that we could always put the 7yo on the tandem and the toddler in the bike seat if we needed to. We had a great ride, a fun train ride home, and then dinner at our favourite restaurant as a treat.