Bicycling with children can be incredibly rewarding. You are spending quality time with them, everyone is getting exercise while enjoying the fresh air, and it's possible to have a conversation at the same time. To maximize your two-wheeled enjoyment, here are a few suggestions.
I break cycling with kids into three main categories: riding with babies/toddlers, riding with young kids, and riding with independent children. Each category has it's own unique tips.
Traveling with infants and toddlers:
Most official agencies do not recommend cycling with children under the age of one. As with many rules, this is to protect all children within a large parameter of variables. By 12 months, 99.9% of children can safely hold their head up. Realistically though, your child will be able to hold it's head up by 4 months of age--if not much sooner.
A safe rule of thumb is: if your child can hold his head up well, it's okay to ride with him. I know many parents who have pushed this rule by rigging a baby car seat into their bike trailer, to enjoy many successful rides with a child as young as two months. Two of my own kids were riding by 6 weeks of age, but note that my children were all born large (over 9 lbs) and were used to being carried in a sling which allowed for strong neck development at a very young age.
Most pediatricians are comfortable with infants from 6 months+ riding in a trailer; nine months to one year+ riding in a bike seat. If you are at all in doubt, talk to your pediatrician about it.
All children should wear a bike helmet--whether they are in a bike seat riding pillion, or in a trailer (exception: babies in attached car seats, inside a bike trailer). "Bubble" style helmets are the best choice since they won't force the child's head forward unnaturally the way a more streamlined adult-style helmet will. Bubble helmets also cover much more of the head. You can purchase these helmets very inexpensively from your local bike shop, most "big box" stores, and even some toy stores.
Be sure to bring along a few treats and/or a drink, as well as appropriate clothing (spare jacket? mittens & hat?).
Tip: Fenders are a really smart upgrade to your bike if you ride with kids. You’ll keep Junior from getting sprayed from puddles whether you use a bike seat or a trailer!
Advantages--light; always attached to bike and ready to go (although many can be easily removed when not needed); easy to take on public transportation; allows for easier conversation between adult and child than a trailer.
Disadvantages-- child is more exposed in any fall; awkward to load/unload child (especially when you are alone); child is exposed to the elements (sun, rain, snow, wind); child bobbles a lot if she falls asleep; limited storage options since some seats eliminate the option of panniers or an accessible rear rack, and backpacks can be right in a child's face (meaning either they don't get much of a view, or that little fingers and feet spend time unzipping and kicking.
Notes: There are some interesting European bike seats that allow the child to sit in the front of the bike. This gives better visibility and contact with the child while also allowing for better handling of the bike. (example: "WeeRide Bicycle Child Centric Carrier (Seat)"
Tip: when loading/unloading, lean your bike against a wall or fence to help stabilize it.
Advantages--*very stable and safe for child*; most can carry more than one child (some can carry three!); lots of room for storage; protection from the elements allowing for year round use; shade and bug protection; most can be folded for storage and travel; very visible to motorists; long life of use as it can be used for grocery shopping, errands, or a pet when the child grows out of it; well-made models have good storage for extras (lunch, snacks, sand toys for the park, spare coat, pillow, blanket, etc.); many models have stroller options (for either a jogging stroller or a regular stroller), allowing you to buy one item for more than one use.
Disadvantages--some can be bulky or awkward to store; many are bad in headwinds; typically not allowed on public transportation unless completely folded up and covered; can be difficult to communicate with child, especially when all the storm flaps are down.
Notes: Good brands have excellent resale value; don't hesitate to spend for a better model if you plan on using it regularly. The design and workmanship of the more expensive trailers are superior (fabrics have UV stability, models come apart easily, they have excellent storage, they have more comfortable seats, tinted windows and sunshades, etc.). However, there are some great, inexpensive trailers available these days for about $100-130 (In Step EZ, Schwinn, LL Bean).
If in doubt, buy the stroller upgrade. My only regret in buying the stroller upgrade for my Trek Transit was that I didn't do it right away! It provides you with a double stroller--handy if you have more than one kid--and it allows a great deal more use and flexibility both when travelling or when biking.
When upgrading to the stroller option, think hard about how you are actually going to use your trailer. If you are really going to be jogging, *maybe* get the jogging wheel. We bought the jogging stroller kit for our Trek, but found it to be a hassle for anything other than actual fast running. It was too long to use in stores, it had a horrible turn radius (you need to pivot the whole trailer off the rear wheels), and it was awful on public transportation since it needed to be completely disassembled before they would let you on the bus or train. The biggest negative by far was that the front wheel was full size, with a long adapter bar; think about having to schlep that around with you on the off chance that you might want to go for a walk at the end of your ride! Two years later we purchased the small, double-wheel "regular" stroller kit. BIG difference! The tiny wheels are nimble, easy-to-use, and they store on the front of trailer (out of the way at all times)--perfect for when a bike ride ends somewhere nice to walk--e.g. Navy Pier, the beach, a museum, etc.). They are pefectly acceptable for running, too, although they do develop a slight joggle at high speeds. For our family, this small wheel option made much more sense, whereas the jogging wheel is never used.
Tip: Even if you don’t get a stroller kit for your trailer, investigate getting a locking brake. I also strongly suggest getting a double kick stand for your bike. ("Harris Cyclery - SKS (formerly ESGE) Pletscher Double Kick stand") A double kick stand and a locking brake significantly reduce the risk that your trailer will destabilize when your child is getting in or out of the trailer.
Tip: A great traveling diaper bag is small, easy to store, and carries the essentials. I've used the handy Ziploc bag for many years, but must admit to falling in love with The First Years diaper bag due to its small size and ability to be velcroed to any handy bar or strap. "http://www.babyage.com/products/4360_the_first_years_the_first_years_deluxe_fold_N_go_diapering_kit.htm?cp=goog16030"> There are others like it as well. ("http://www.babybungalow.com/chngofodikit.html"> Fold n Go diaper bag ) These pare diapering to the bare essentials for on-the-go: diapers, wipes, and perhaps a travel size of ointment. Throw in a spare plastic bag from the grocery and you are well prepared for any diapering needs.
Traveling with small children:
Whether your child is riding solo, on a tandem or trailer cycle, or is still in a trailer or bike seat, there are differences in traveling with an older child.
Trailers and the older child:
Cheap trailers are not designed for carrying big kids; they fall apart. Better trailers can not only withstand the extra weight, they also have more space for larger children. We use the trailer for our two year old, but there are many times on a long ride when our very tall 6 or 8 year olds will climb in for a rest. For the 8 year old it’s a tight squeeze, but he still can fit in there with the toddler. Trailers allow you to expand your range. They also allow you to carry stuff easily. We routinely bring large towels, sand toys, swimsuits, and lunch for afternoons at the beach. It would be hard to do that if we didn’t have the trailer.
Trailer cycles, tag-alongs, trail-a-bikes... whatever you call them, these are a wonderful addition to the cycling world. Trailer cycles convert any standard adult bicycle into a tandem. You get the safety and comfort advantages of a double bike without the transport and storage issues. Most trailer cycles fold, making them even easier to store. Some have gears which allow children to learn about gearing in an easy, comfortable fashion.
Advantages--kids are attached to your bike, therefore they cannot dart into oncoming traffic or perform some other harebrained lack of logic. Kids travel at the same pace as the adult --no lagging behind or rides paced at 3 mph. Kids learn first hand about proper traffic and safety rules by seeing their parent close-up and in action. They can be used for children as young as 4 and as old as 12 (older if your child is slight). They also have good resale value when your child outgrows it.
Disadvantages--they can be a bit awkward in handling. Plan on spending some time practicing before going on busy streets or a major ride. Some are hard to store or transport. It can be hard to find blinkie lights or fenders that fit.
Tip: Burley’s version of the trailer-cycle uses the Moose rack as it’s attachment point. This makes for a much more stable ride (less “squirrelly”)--and it has the added advantage of being a lovely bike rack for when Junior outgrows the trailer-cycle.
Tip: Be sure to go over the basic safety rules: Parent mounts first and dismounts last! Child must *never* get off the trailer cycle unless a parent has told them to dismount (my then 5 yr. old son got off on Dearborn street in the loop, in rush hour, when we were stopped at a red light--yikes!).
Also, be sure to use a safety flag. Motorists are not expecting a “normal” bike to have a kid attached behind. Note: on long rides, our children have fallen asleep on the trailer cycle. We’ve never had a problem with them falling off and have even ridden several miles until we could stop safely. If you notice that your little one is suddenly very quiet, check on them!
Tandems are a long-standing, time-tested option for families.
Advantages--they are safe, strong, and comfortable. They ride well, without some of the quirky wobbles that come with a trailer cycle. Many have adapter kits that make them kid-friendly for the stoker. They are just as fun for adults as they are for kids, so you won’t outgrow a tandem (unless you want a triple or a quad!). It’s easy to fit them with panniers, racks, etc. for storage, and to add blinkie lights.
Disadvantages--they are expensive, they are can be hard to store, they cannot be used on public transportation, they can be very hard to travel with.
Tip: Be sure to go over the basic safety rules: Parent (captain) mounts first and dismounts last!
Traveling with solo children:
Once your child gets bigger, chances are you will want to investigate letting them ride solo, at least part of the time.
Solo bike with training wheels:
Training wheels are somewhat controversial in biking circles. They train kids in improper technique (e.g. lean away from the turn vs lean into a turn). They slow kids down tremendously making family outings plodding affairs (2-5 mph). They also get hung up on holes and ridges in the road and can be downright dangerous on sloping surfaces (tilts the kid way over vs the self-leveling of a bicycle on a slope). However, they DO allow for hesitant kids to master some basic bike and safety skills. One of the big conundrums for teaching a kid to ride a bike is the fact that a bicycle in inherently UNSTABLE at slow speeds. You have to ride fast to be stable on a bike. Some kids are *very* hesitant about doing this when they are just learning.
My son was extremely cautious. There is no way he would have ridden a bike without training wheels. As it was, he became incredibly proficient riding with them, often going 10 miles at decent speeds (6-7 mph). When he finally gave up that crutch, he was able to do 15+ miles at speeds up to 10 mph!
My middle child was the exact opposite. She loves to take chances and is quite an adrenaline junkie. Training wheels for Kate? No Way! When you have a child like this, just remember that *faster* is MORE stable on a bike.
In most communities, kids are allowed to ride on the sidewalk to the age of 12. I suggest they do, EXCEPT when they are riding with an adult. I feel it is important for kids to learn how to ride on the street; doing so with a parent (with constant verbal guidance!) is a good way to make those skills an ingrained habit.
Tip: Giving up training wheels... based on the BBP No-Fall Method developed by John P. Waterman and cited in the wonderful book Bicycling with Children by Trudy Bell...
Stage One: Learn how to brake. It’s not a bad idea to have your local bike shop install kid’s hand brakes. Coaster brakes are hard for little kids to master, not to mention that they are slow (they require a complete 180° reversal of the pedals to engage). Practice on a flat, smooth surface.
Stage Two: Learn how to balance. 1. Remove pedals on bike. (pedal screws always release by turning them toward the back of the bike (regardless of whether it’s the right or left pedal) 2. Drop seat to lowest setting. 3. Allow child to ‘scooter’ on bike. Work on going faster, and then on coasting while scootering (with the feet held up). This stage may take 15 minutes or a few weeks, depending on your child. My experience has been that most kids are comfortable within two or three sessions.
Stage Three: 1. Add the pedals back on (but keep the seat low). 2. Work on mounting and dismounting. 3. Work on teaching the child to keep the left foot on the ground and push the right pedal to get going (this is due to the drainage slope of most streets... the left foot is higher and therefore more stable). 4. Raise the seat for proper leg extension.
Tip: You can practice on riding skills by taking your child to a grassy slope. The hill grade promotes speed which improves balance while the grass allows for a soft landing!
Solo bike: Kids feel very empowered when they are allowed to ride their own bike. Remember your own sense of freedom when you learned how to ride? It’s an exciting time for kids.
Safety is the biggest concern. Don’t trust children under the age of 8 to be able to make good judgment calls about cars and traffic. Brain research says they literally do not have the analytical cognitive abilities to do so. Practice the basic rules of traffic whenever you go out with your children: ride on the right, stop at traffic signals, indicate when you are turning, etc. *Keep a running commentary going between you and your children.* “There is a pot hole up ahead. Be careful.” “A truck coming up behind us, be sure to stay to the right.” “That light just turned yellow. Get ready to stop.”
Young cyclists should ride ahead of, and to the right, of the parent. If there are two adults, the child should be sandwiched between them. Many children are still unsure of left and right, so take that into account when communicating. My six year old needs to be regularly reminded to ride “between me and the curb,” or "ride between me and the grass," vs “ride to the right.”
I like my kids to be incredibly obvious to car drivers. I fit them out in fluorescent safety vests, add flags (when possible... “big” kids may balk), and put both front headlights and rear blinkie lights on their bikes *and* their helmets. A fun activity is giving your kids a roll of reflective safety tape (available at automotive and hardware stores as well as many places online) and having them decorate their bikes.
Don't forget the importance of using your voice and/or a bell. Get kids in the habit of using a bell when they near pedestrians, other cyclists, or parked cars that might have people inside. You'd be surprised how many people are oblivious of kids on bikes--the bell serves as a reminder. "Hey, I'm here!"
Along the lines of safety, a quality bike is worth the money if you plan on doing regular bike rides. I help run a bike safety week at a local middle school. As part of that, we do a repair day after school. You cannot believe how cheap some of the ‘big box’ store bicycles are. Broken spokes, cracked rims, seats that shred, and a *huge* percentage of nonworking brakes--all common problems. A good quality bike means that it will not only be safe for the child you buy it for, it will be able to be passed down to other children or it can be resold. Quality bikes also have better design features, with quick release seats for adjusting after a growth spurt, hand brakes in addition to coaster brakes, and a full set of reflectors.
Riding with your children is a wonderful way to spend time together as a family. You also instill an appreciation for the outdoors, for independent travel, and for self-reliance. My experience has been that kids who bike a lot are kids who have self confidence and show independence. My children are learning about their neighborhood and the city of Chicago, about reading maps, about using landmarks to get around, about history and diversity, about nature and the environment... and a whole host of other subjects, just by riding their bike. And isn’t that what it’s all about?