Riding can be a great excuse to get away from the kids and the other half, but it's also a great way of spending some quality time with your nearest and dearest. Here we look at the best ways to get children onto two wheels and riding safely and confidently.
The family way
Children love cycling. It’s time spent with you, talking together, discovering things and enjoying fresh air and exercise. They pick up on your enthusiasm. And as they get older, a bicycle is their independence. 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.
If one of you is an experienced cyclist, buy your other half a reasonable bike – one of a quality you’d consider for yourself, even if it’s different from the kind of bike you’d choose. And keep it running as sweetly as one of your own, giving it a spin around the block periodically to check.
Let your partner set the pace and the mileage, and level the playing field by fitting the trailer, childseat or luggage to your bike. And stay away from busy roads, which are intimidating and prevent conversation.
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. If you live in the UK, Sustrans have a database of cyclepaths at www. sustrans.org.uk. Keep mileages low and take plenty of snacks and drinks.
Up until the age of four or five, small children are non-pedalling passengers. Fortunately they’re fairly portable – with the right equipment.
Helmet fit: This is the most important criteria for a helmet, so rather than looking for a specific model, visit your local bike shop and choose one that sits snugly on your nipper’s noggin. It should be EN 1078 European Standard approved.
Ventilation isn’t very important – 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.
Child trailers: If you can afford it, get a trailer. Advantages over a seat include: much greater capacity (two children, plus room for nappies, groceries, toys…), better bike handling, and protection from weather (sun, rain, wind) and insects.
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), but you can secure an infant’s car seat in some trailers using luggage straps.
Trailers are safer than seats, they’re more visible and wider, which encourages drivers to give you room. If you should fall, the trailer should remain upright, and even if not, the children are protected by a roll-cage. Also, they may look bulky but most trailers fold flat.
The drag of a trailer is noticeable on even the slightest hill, so the bike needs a low bottom gear. Good brakes are essential for descending, but shouldn’t be used suddenly or the trailer may disconcertingly shunt the towing bike. Brands to look out for include Croozer and Adventure (available from Madison in the UK). All the top ones have a range of accessories and many convert into stroller/joggers.
Child seats: These are cheaper than trailers and require less leg and lung power. They’re great for outings in better weather. 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 spuds. And practise getting your leg over the top-tube without swinging it over the saddle – or you’ll kick your passenger in the head!
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 bikes. Check out the Hamax Kiss – its one-point mounting system means you don’t need a bike rack. The WeeRide Co-Pilot Limo available from Madison comes with a rack.
Summer wear: Avoid sunburn by liberally applying Factor 30 and/or choosing light clothing with arm and leg coverage. The back of the neck is very vulnerable for children slumped in childseats. 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. Wellingtons 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 and a strong kickstand, such as the Pletscher twin leg, can help. But never leave a child unattended in a childseat, even with a kickstand.
Safety: 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.
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.
Trailer bikes: A trailer bike, which is half a bike plus a towing arm, is the cheapest solution. Prices start at about £100. Most suit children from four to nine years. The upper limit is weight: your trailer bike passenger shouldn’t exceed half your bodyweight. Check out the Adventure Echo Six (available from Madison) or the Ultimate Hardware Hitch Hiker. Both fold for storage.
When riding with a trailer bike, fit a crudguard to the ‘down-tube’ of the trailer bike, up near the handlebars – 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 offroad 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 conk out in moments and suddenly be upset and tearful – or fast asleep!
On their own
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.
The right bike: Most 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 24in wheel bikes, especially if they’re likely to go off-road.
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 16in-wheel bikes suit ages four to six, 20in ages five to 10, and 24in 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 causes mechanical complications. One gear is best for starter bikes, a three-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 offer a range of road and mountain bikes with light aluminium frames, simple gearing and easy to reach brakes. Luath road bikes start at £399.99 for the 24in wheel model, Beinn mountain bikes from £299.99. Ridgeback’s £229.99 MX24 (Destiny for girls) and £209.99 MX20 (or Harmony) are also great starter bikes.
Riding off-road: Such areas 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 offroad 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…)
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 plimsoles for the same reason.
As always, plan the ride so you’re going places that will interest the children – a café 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! If nobody’s enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong.
Want more beginner tips? Then make sure you pick up On Your Bike! Your Complete Beginner’s Guide to Cycling.