Beginner's guide to cycling with kids

Advice on finding the right kit, bikes, accessories and where to ride

Riding can be a great way to get some quality alone time, but it’s also a brilliant way of spending some time with your nearest and dearest. We take a look at the best ways to get children onto two wheels and riding safely and confidently, from non-pedalling passengers to independent riders.

Step 1: Get your partner on a bike too

Family cycling isn’t only about introducing your children to two wheels, though — often it’s a time when a non-cycling partner starts riding again.

First things first: make sure you both have reasonable bikes in good working order. If one of you is an experienced cyclist, you can help your partner buy a good bike of a quality you’d consider for yourself, even if it’s different from the kind of bike you’d choose.

It’s also worth ensuring you both have some basic bike maintenance skills. This will help keep all the bikes in the household running sweetly, and ensure if there are any surprise issues, such as a mid-ride puncture, everyone is equipped to deal with it.

Get the whole family involved!
Get the whole family involved!

Let the newer cyclist set the pace and mileage, and you can also level the playing field by fitting any bike trailers, child seats or luggage to the bike of the more experienced or stronger cyclist for the bulk of the ride.

It’s also worth avoiding busy roads, which can be intimidating for new cyclists and aren’t conducive to conversation while you ride. Choose a quiet, pleasant route that’s going to be fun for everyone.

If you live in the UK, Sustrans has a database of cyclepaths, many of which are away from roads completely.

Keep mileages low, especially for the first few outings, and take plenty of snacks and drinks.

Younger children won’t need much entertaining, but they’ll want to stretch their legs, so aim for somewhere with a bit of grass or a play area.

Step 2: Get the right kit

Having the right kit will make the whole experience safer, more comfortable and therefore more fun for everyone. You'll need some specialist equipment such as a bike seat or tow-along, but you don't need to fork out for loads of special kids bike clothing — unless you want to of course!

Helmet

Fit is the most important criteria for a helmet
Fit is the most important criteria for a helmet

The most important criteria for a helmet is getting a good fit, so rather than looking for a specific model, visit your local bike shop and choose one that sits snugly on your child’s head.

It the UK it should be EN 1080 European Standard approved, which covers helmet safety for children; in the US it must comply with the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission; while in Australia the helmet must fit the mandatory standard as set out in this link.

Ventilation isn’t very important though, as passengers don’t generate much heat.

Make sure it’s worn properly, with the forehead protected. Avoid over-tight straps or nipping your child’s neck with the clasp by sliding a finger behind the chin-strap when you’re fastening it.

Summer wear

Avoid sunburn by liberally applying sun block and/or choosing light clothing with arm and leg coverage.

The back of the neck is very vulnerable for children slumped in child seats. Dress your child with an extra layer of clothing because he or she won’t get as hot as you.

Winter wear

Children can and do get very cold when cycling in winter, even in trailers. Wrap them up really well.

Ski-style salopettes make great over-trousers, and a balaclava under the helmet (remove some padding) will prevent painfully cold ears.

Wellington boots are useful even in trailers, which may collect water in the footwell.

Kickstand

It can be difficult to get a child into or out of a child seat or trailer by yourself, so a strong kickstand, such as the Pletscher twin leg, can help. But never leave a child unattended in a child seat, even with a kickstand.

Step 3: Pre-school riding

Up until the age of four or five, small children are usually non-pedalling passengers. Fortunately, they’re fairly portable — with the right equipment.

The most popular choices are child seats and trailers, though cargo bikes are getting more common and many people swear by them for the school run.

Bike trailers

Trailers are safe, sheltered and stable — perfect for younger children and when you need to carry extra gear
Trailers are safe, sheltered and stable — perfect for younger children and when you need to carry extra gear

Bike trailers are usually two- or three-wheeled trailers that will seat one or two children, can be attached to the rear of the bike, and will be pulled along behind it.

They will have a roll cage and covers that protect the children inside from weather, grit from the road and insects. Many often work as joggers and strollers in addition to trailers.

There are a few advantages over a child seat, including greater carrying capacity with room for nappies, groceries, toys and so on, and better bike handling.

The age range is wider than with a seat — from about eight weeks up to six years. The recommended minimum age for most is nine months (the sitting up stage).

They are wider and more visible than child seats, which encourages drivers to give you room.

Trailers are also very stable; if you happen to fall, the trailer should remain upright, and even if it does topple over the children are protected by the aforementioned roll cage.

Also, while trailers may look bulky, most trailers fold flat.

The drag of a trailer is noticeable on even the slightest hill, so the bike it’s being towed behind needs a low bottom gear. Good brakes are essential for descending too, but shouldn’t be used suddenly or the trailer may disconcertingly shunt the towing bike.

Brands to look out for include Thule, Burley, Adventure and Croozer. All the top ones have a range of accessories including rain covers, sun shades and so on, and many convert into strollers/joggers.

Another advantage of a trailer is that you may be able to fit a small balance bike in the storage space. This way, if your little one wants to ride for a bit they can, then jump back in the trailer when they get tired.

Child seats

Make sure that a child seat passenger is well-dressed. You’ll be working harder and might not notice the chill
Make sure that a child seat passenger is well-dressed. You’ll be working harder and might not notice the chill

Most child seats fit on the back of a bike, using an attachment system similar to a rear pannier or luggage rack. You can also get front-mounted child seats that usually sit on the top tube between the saddle and the handlebars.

For the majority of child seats, you’ll need to ensure the bike you plan to use has the right mounts on the frame.

Child seats are cheaper than trailers and require less leg and lung power. They’re great for outings in better weather, and most suit children from nine months to three or four years. A weight limit of 18–20kg is usual.

After fitting the seat, accustom yourself to the bike’s compromised handling by taking a trial run with a big sack of potatoes. Also practice getting your leg over the top tube without swinging it over the saddle, or you may accidentally kick your passenger!

Front seats affect the handling less than rear seats, but force you to ride bow-legged — okay for a mile or two, irritating beyond.

When fitting, ensure the base of the seat back is above or in front of the rear axle. Weight further back can ruin handling. You get better control with wide bars — flat or riser.

Whatever seat you choose, get two attachment systems so you can swap the seat between your bike and your partner’s quickly and easily.

Popular brands include Hamax, Thule, Polisport and WeeRide.

SAFETY NOTE: It’s vital that nothing — wayward clothing, feet, fingers — can end up in a wheel. All trailers have side panels to prevent this, and most seats have foot straps and side panels.

Dangling laces, scarves or mittens-on-strings can still be a risk. Make sure, too, that you periodically check all your family cycling equipment for loose screws, bolts, and so on.

Balance bikes

Balance bikes are also increasingly popular and are brilliant for giving children the feel of riding a bike without the complication of gears and pedals. They’ll get the hang of balancing while moving so the transition to riding a bike with pedals is usually quicker than learning on a bike with pedals and stabilisers, then removing the stabilisers later.

However, bear in mind that kids won’t be able to cover a lot of ground on a balance bike, so these are best for either local jaunts or rides where you’ll be able to carry the child and store the balance bike when they get tired. Or bored.

Step 4: Ready to ride

By the time they start school, most children are capable of riding a bike of their own, but not far and not on busy roads. There are other ways to get them pedalling though.

A trailer bike, which is half a bike plus a towing arm, is the cheapest solution, and many fold for storage. Most suit children from four to nine years. The upper limit is weight: your trailer bike passenger shouldn’t exceed half your bodyweight.

Trailer bikes can go almost anywhere and get your child used to pedalling while making sure they can keep up!
Trailer bikes can go almost anywhere and get your child used to pedalling while making sure they can keep up!

You can also get towing arms that fit to the front of a child’s bike and hold the front wheel off the ground, working in effect like a trailer bike. The advantage here is that you can use them to ride to a destination like a park, then detach it and allow the child to ride free.

When riding with a trailer bike, fit a mudguard to the ‘down tube’ of the trailer bike, up near the handlebars, as your passenger’s face is in the line of spray from your back wheel.

Also, use mudguards on the towing bike and get two racks or hitches so you can swap the trailer bike between towing bikes.

If riding at night, you must fit a rear light and reflector to the trailer bike as it will obscure those of the towing bike.

Because your child is under your direct control, you can ride anywhere. Busy roads aren’t any more dangerous, although conversation is impossible, so quieter lanes are better, while off-road singletrack, bridleways and forest tracks are all possible.

On longer rides you need to check the trailer biker’s morale and energy levels regularly, and, if necessary, boost both with stops and snacks. Adults can feel themselves getting tired; children can tire in moments and suddenly be upset and tearful — or fast asleep!

Step 5: Independent cycling

Children as young as six can ride a dozen miles and by the age of 10 or 11 most are keen to use their own bikes. Independent cycling offers a sense of freedom and achievement. The snag can be finding a suitable bike.

Finding the right child's bike

Finding a good bike is important. A lot of lower-priced children’s bikes are under-specced and overweight; 15kg is typical, which can be half the rider’s bodyweight.

Your child will get more enjoyment out of cycling — and more miles — with a lighter bike. Aim for 13kg or less for 20- and 24-inch wheel bikes, especially if they’re likely to go off road.

Expect to get challenged to the odd race as your child gets more confident!
Expect to get challenged to the odd race as your child gets more confident!

Don’t be tempted to buy a bike your child will ‘grow into’. An over-large bike will be awkward to ride.

As a rule of thumb, 14- or 16-inch wheel bikes suit ages four to six, 20in-wheel bikes for ages five to 10, and 24-inch wheel bikes for ages eight to 12.

A long seatpost and a steerer with plenty of spacer washers, or a quill stem, will maximise growing room. Children often prefer a seat height that’s lower than optimum, and must be able to stand over the bike and dab a foot when seated. Also, smaller hands need to be able to reach the brakes.

The number of gears is a badge of status among children, but too many gears cause mechanical complications. One gear is best for starter bikes, a 3-speed hub for second bikes, and a 7-speed or 8-speed derailleur for pre-teens.

Most children’s bikes have Gripshift, which doesn’t need much hand-strength to use.

Children’s bike specialist Islabikes offers a range of road and mountain bikes with light aluminium frames, simple gearing and easy to reach brakes, ranging from balance bikes right up to its Pro Series bikes for kids who love to race. Bikes include balance bikes, simple kids bikes, hardtail mountain bikes with suspension forks, road bikes, and flat bar bikes perfect for riding to school.

Direct sell company Canyon has its ‘Young Heroes’ range of off-road ready, disc-brake equipped mountain bikes. This ranges starts from a 16-inch wheel Offspring through to the carbon framed Exceed with 24-inch wheels.

Kona, Raleigh, Felt, Charge and Bobbin, among others, also produce children's bikes ranging from balance bikes to hybrids, mountain bikes and road bikes.

Bike rental schemes

One way to solve the problem of children frequently growing out of their bikes is a rental scheme. Two companies in the UK have just started such a program or are in the process of developing one.

The Hope Tech Academy provides access to lightweight bikes with Hope Tech components for a regular monthly fee, plus access to various skills courses and online tutorials.

Isla Bikes is currently working on its Imagine Project. This aims to develop a line of bikes that can be rented out to allow kids to cycle to school, then when a child outgrows the bike it will be refurbished and rented out again.

Areas such as parks, public gardens and forests are ideal for children to develop bike handling skills. Lack of traffic means you can talk more easily, and the riding can be technically interesting.

Sooner or later your child will fall off, but off-road falls at this age are rarely serious because there’s no traffic or street furniture to hit, and speeds are generally low. (It’s worth carrying some plasters…)

As mentioned above, a helmet is an obvious precaution, and cycling mitts can help prevent scuffed hands. Long trousers such as tracksuit bottoms and shirts with sleeves are better than bare arms and legs. They offer protection from minor grazes, scratches and nettle stings. Boots or sturdy trainers are better than sandals or plimsolls for the same reason.

Some clothing companies do offer cycling kit in child sizes, including Polaris, Endura, Specialized, Fox and Madison.

As always, plan the ride so you’re going places that will interest the children; a cafe stop here, a good place for trying to do jumps there, whatever interests them.

Don’t overestimate your speed when planning the route. If they’re on their own bikes you may be averaging only 5mph or so off road.

Above all, relax! This should be an enjoyable experience for everyone. Hopefully, you’ll be cultivating a lifelong love of cycling in your kids.

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