By the age of four or five, and sometimes before, children are ready to sit on a saddle and pedal. If you want to go more than a few miles, it's easier to have your child cycling with you rather than independently.
The cheapest way to do this is with a trailer cycle: a tag-a-long that fixes to an adult bike to form an articulated tandem.
Most trailer cycles suit children up to the age of eight or nine, with the handlebar moving up the tow-bar and the seatpost rising to accommodate growth. The child's weight should be no more than half the adult's; otherwise you could get a tail-wagging-dog effect. Those few trailer cycles with two rear wheels (like the rear half of a tricycle)can safely exceed this limit.
Trailer cycles are not a new phenomenon. Older cyclists may remember the Rann trailers of yesteryear. They have enjoyed a renaissance recently, although some of the better ones - such as Burley's Piccolo and Pashley's U+2 - are no longer in production.
Trailer cycles attach to the towing bike via a dedicated rear rack or by a hitch on the seatpost. Rack-mounting trailer bikes handle better than seatpost-mounted ones, period.
Seatpost-fixing trailer cycles articulate on a plain bearing of some kind, often the seatpost itself. There's a fine line between too tight, so the trailer won't articulate properly, and too loose, which gives 'slop' or play at the joint and lets the trailer cycle rock from side to side. Set up the hitch with care.
The best rack-fixing trailer cycles pivot horizontally and vertically on ball bearings. Even those that don't still enable the trailer cycle to follow the towing bike more accurately - without cutting corners - because the attachment point is above the rear axle rather than in front. The 'twist, tug and shunt' effect of the trailer cycle is also reduced with the lower and more solid attachment point a rear rack provides.
Apart from the hitch or rack, which stays behind, most trailer cycles can be easily and quickly removed from the towing bike to turn it back into a solo. Those towing devices that hitch up a child's bike to make it an ersatz trailer cycle can be converted back to two solos, adult's and child's. While that might seem the most versatile solution, dedicated trailer cycles offer much better handling and more robust construction.
On the road
No trailer cycle handles quite as well as a good tandem, mostly because the bike-plus-trailer combo articulates and the weight behind can pull, push or twist the towing bike. Sloppy attachment systems exaggerate this problem; the best rack-fixing models minimise it.
Nevertheless, you should instruct your co-rider to stay seated; out-of-the-saddle pedalling will upset your steering. And if you brake on steep or bumpy descents, be alert for any shunting from the trailer cycle.
Despite this, trailer cycles are a practical way of getting about. Your child is actively cycling yet remains under your control, as only you can brake and steer. He or she can pedal or not - unlike most tandems, which require synchronous pedalling. Your passenger can observe your behaviour on the road, possibly picking up cycling skills and traffic sense. Most of the time your co-rider won't be helping much, but you can ask him to save his energy for when you need it most, like on the hills.
As with trailers or child seats, control is easier if the towing bike has wider, flat bars. Plenty of gears and decent brakes are likewise essential.
Trailer cycle tips
Make sure the towing cycle has a rear mudguard and ideally a mud-flap, otherwise your back wheel will spray dirty water into junior's face. It's also worth fitting a crud-guard to the trailer cycle's 'down tube' if it doesn't come with one. Don't forget a mudguard for the trailer cycle's wheel too.
Any trailer cycle needs a good range of adjustment for rider size. A quick release seatpost makes it easier for different children to use the same cycle. Tyres should be slick unless you really are spending most of your time off-road; it'll reduce rolling resistance a little and make things easier on you.
Gears need to be low, as you'll need the help most when going uphill. However, older children will appreciate being able to change gear and contributing to the ride at other times. Gears don't add hugely to the cost, and using them is good practice for your child's own bike.
Toe clips are surprisingly useful on the trailer cycle. They stop legs flailing and getting bashed by pedals, and they keep your co-rider sitting more securely. Children soon get used to slipping their feet in themselves.
If you want to use the trailer cycle with more than one bike - maybe so mum and dad can take it in turns to do the school run - buy an extra rack or hitch. It adds hugely to the trailer cycle's versatility without adding much cost.
Day to day use of a trailer cycle is mostly common sense, like not leaving a child sitting on the trailer cycle unattended.
A couple of things bear spelling out. First, never put panniers on the trailer cycle itself unless it is explicitly designed to carry them. Second, if you use the trailer cycle at night, you must fit the trailer cycle with a red rear light and reflector.
© BikeRadar 2007