Family cycling is great fun. It's precious time together, enjoying fresh air and exercise. That's why families already flock to cycle routes on summer weekends. The key to making such rides work is, literally, to think small.
Limit the distance to what you could cover in an hour or two. Focus on what your children will get out of it. Think of it as an afternoon out with added cycling and not as a cycling trip punctuated by impatient interludes. (If you're the kind of bloke who puts six goals past his son during a Saturday kick-about, stick to cycling alone.)
Plan to stop often. A small park with play equipment can invigorate and entertain small children. Or perhaps there's a nice café, a family-friendly pub, or some picnic benches? If there's something more exciting, like a castle or a beach, that's all to the good. But smaller children need patience more than high-octane entertainment and will take pleasure in the smallest things: bread for the ducks; horses running across a field. Don't race by. One of the benefits of cycling is that you can stop when you please, so stop.
If your children are happy on a ride, you will be. So please them. Children are often more impressed with the cake they can have in the cafe than with nice scenery. A ride that's a washout because of the weather can be saved by a surprise treat that you stowed in a pannier.
Planning the route
Websites and printed guides are useful for planning routes. It pays to have a decent large-scale map too. Not only can you plot the trip in advance, you can use the map en route for shortcuts. And if anyone's getting tired, it helps to be able to say: 'Look, we're nearly there. Lunch is just round this corner.' In the UK, the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger or even 1:25,000 Explorer maps are ideal for the distances you'll be riding and they cover the whole country. In the United States, the USGS Topographical Maps (1in to 1/2 mile or 1in to 1 mile) are best, possibly in conjunction with a state or country road map. (While the Adventure Cycling Association's linear route maps are excellent, they might not go where you want to go!) In Australia, use the 1:100,000 National Topographic Map Series. This scale covers settled areas only but you're not going to be riding in the interior.
Even with a good map, it's worth checking out the route yourself beforehand. You'll know what to expect to a level of detail that no map or guide can provide. You'll know that you might spot deer in such and such spot, or that there's a cafe serving hot chocolate just over the next hill. This knowledge can be invaluable. Lightly-trafficked roads or traffic-free routes are your best options, even when they're less direct. They're less intimidating, and there's no background noise to obliterate the conversations that cycling together provides scope for. Ten minutes on a busy road can ruin your whole day, so string your route together using the lowest priority roads you can find.
Off-road routes are ideal when your children graduate to their own bikes. Ex-railway paths are perfect. Trains don't do hills so the route will be fairly flat. It will likely have an even, hard-packed surface that's easy to ride on. In the UK, Sustrans have a searchable database of routes on their website: www.sustrans.org.uk. In the United States, see www.railtrails.org; in Australia, see www.railtrails.org.au.
Forest tracks are another good choice, although some are hilly or roughly surfaced. The Forestry Commission have created miles and miles of waymarked cycle trails in the UK, graded from 'easy' - suitable for families - to 'severe'. Search their online database for routes near you: www.forestry.gov.uk/cycling. Canal tow-paths may be suitable, so long as they're not too narrow or overgrown - and everyone in your family can swim.
Whatever route you choose, don't over-estimate how fast or far your family can ride. Assume an average speed of 5-8mph (8-13km/h) plus stops, and be prepared to take stock on the ride itself. If it's harder than you thought - maybe it's hillier or the weather's against you - revise your route. Turn around. Take a shortcut. Quit while you're ahead.
We've picked out four of our best family routes here – have a look and see if any of them are near you.
Mountain biking with kids
'My bottom hurts!' You don't want to hear this. So make sure everyone's got the right clothing, riding position and saddle.
Avoid trousers with thick seams, like jeans. Tracksuit bottoms are better. The most comfortable shorts are Lycra ones with a padded insert. But Lycra isn't for everyone, especially anyone who is broad in the beam or self-conscious. Suggest they wear Lycra shorts under tracksuit bottoms, or else mountain biking shorts with a padded insert.
Children and new cyclists, especially women, are often comfier sitting fairly upright on the bike. Upright is fine for short distances. It takes the weight off hands and wrists, prevents back muscles aching, and provides a head-up position that's good for looking at the scenery. But it also puts more weight on the backside, so a hard, narrow saddle meant for sporty riding won't do: fit one that's wider and either sprung, well padded or both.
To sit more upright, the handlebars need to be higher and closer to the body. Fit a shorter-reach, steeper-rise stem and/or a stem raiser. Change the handlebars if need be: old-fashioned backswept 'all-rounder' handlebars and modern 'butterfly bars' both reduce reach.
Make sure all the bikes are in good running order by checking them at least the night before - or earlier, if you'll need spares. Check that the tyres are properly inflated, that all bolts are tight, and that brakes and gears work okay. If you fuss around fixing things before you set off, children get fractious.
As the strongest rider, you'll be carrying the luggage - everything from jumpers and jackets to the toolkit and picnic. You can carry light loads on your back, but a better idea is to let the bike bear the burden. A pair of large rear panniers will carry everyone's gear. You'll need a sturdy, four-point fixing rear rack. To fit this you need threaded eyelets on the bike frame. Many entry-level hybrids and hardtail mountain bikes will have them. If not, there are workarounds involving P-clips and/or a threaded seatpost collar; your local bike shop can advise.
What kit you'll need
- Plenty of drinks. Water in bicycle bottles is best: it can also be used for washing hands or cooling down.
- Snacks. Cereal bars, fruit, fig biscuits, cakes: energy and morale boost in one.
- Extra layers. Windproof, showerproof jackets all round. Fleeces or jumpers for the kids.
- Spare clothing. Spare nappy or two for tinies, spare pants and trousers for the recently potty-trained.
- Toolkit. Pump, tyre levers, puncture kit, spare innertube(s). Ideally a cycling multi-tool.
- 'First aid' kit. Plasters, antiseptic cream, painkillers, high-factor sun cream, wet wipes. Any required medication.
- Mobile phone. For unlikely emergencies.
- Distractions. For the children, e.g. tennis ball, Frisbee, action figure.
Great Family Rides in the UK
The Camel Trail, Cornwall The UK's most popular tourist cycle route attracts 350,000 cyclists each year. It's a 17-mile ex-rail route beside the river Camel from Bodmin to Padstow.
Hartington, Peak District The village of Hartington gives easy access to three excellent old railway paths: the High Peak Trail (17.5 miles), the Tissington Trail (13 miles) and the Manifold Way (8 miles).
The Cuckoo Trail, Sussex A 13.5 mile ex-rail path from Heathfield to Eastborne, via Polegate. It runs through farmland and deciduous woodland, with interesting sculptures en route.
The Taff Trail, South Wales Ride from Cardiff city centre beside the River Taff to Castle Coch (12 miles return) - or stay on NCN Route 8 all the way to Anglesey.
Glasgow to Loch Lomond, Scotland Escape from city to country on roadside and ex-rail paths by the Clyde estuary and River Leven. It's 20 miles each way so get the train back or ride back and pick up the car while the rest of the family has lunch.