Hannah offers some hard learnt tips for better family bike rides.
Ah, the family ride. It’s a sunny day. You decide that the day will not be spent in front of a screen. So begins the process of rounding up children, bikes, and accessories. The middle child’s bike has been left outside, the chain stiffened with rust until you coat the whole thing in GT85, in the process rendering the caliper brakes suicidal. Your old bike has a flat, and in any case needs a new BB, so rather than faff any further, you take your latest full sus trail monster. Your partner points out that you will look ridiculous. You let this pass – you are all going to have a lovely family day out and nothing is going to spoil it.
Bikes are put on and in the car. The smallest bike doesn’t fit on the roof rack, so your children sit on the back seat with it at their feet, handlebars digging into the shins of your eldest, prompting the first complaint of the day. The youngest realises they need a poo: half the car gets out to variously allow the poo-er to exit, unlock the front door, and to wipe the bottom. Everyone piles back into the car, and an hour later you make it to the trail centre.
In the car park it becomes apparent that your eldest has grown. The seatpost has no QR, and the stupid thing needs a spanner to put the saddle up – not the Allen keys that you have packed. Having sheepishly approached a better equipped rider, you obtain the required spanner and put the saddle up to its limit. The eldest now looks like a clown on a circus bike, teetering on the extended seatpost with knees round their ears. You tell them if they show more interest in cycling you’ll get them a new bike for the summer holidays.
You lead the way on the blue route. 2 minutes in, you look behind to see no trace of anyone. You wait. Eventually your eldest appears. Then Middle Child, wobbling slightly. Then your partner, pushing their bike and Youngest. You set off again, Eldest in front, Middle Child next with your partner behind them, calling out ‘look where you’re going’ every few minutes (at which, every time, Middle Child looks over their shoulder, says ‘I am’, and veers alarmingly across the trail). You go last, pushing your bike and Youngest up every incline.
Half an hour later, Eldest has fallen off the North Shore and drawn blood, all the mini packet of Haribo has been eaten, and you are in the middle of a loop from which it is at least another half hour to a road, or source of food. It is also starting to cloud over, and is that a hint of rain in the air? You insist that there is no point trying to find a short cut back, the only way is onwards, and in any case there’ll be more of a sense of achievement when you get back having done what you all set out to do.
You push on. Literally – the slightest of inclines is beyond the little legs and single speed set up of your youngest, their bike is too heavy for them to push themselves, so it is easier for you to push them on their bike, while also pushing your (why didn’t you buy a carbon hard tail?) full susser. On the trickier descents you pedal ahead, park your bike, run back up the hill, then run backwards in front of your children, hoping to catch them in the event of any loss of control. Inevitably, your nerve fails at the sight of a high speed Middle Child heading towards a berm – you make a grab in an attempt to slow the child but instead succeed only in snatching the bars from under them. The child flies through the air then takes the perfect high line around the berm – on their back.
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Overcome with guilt, you hug the child and tell them they were doing great, it was your fault they came off, shall we go back and do it again, but just a bit more slowly? Middle Child is not to be persuaded, and having watched the carnage from the vantage point above, Youngest is not having any of it either. You proceed almost exclusively on foot, pushing everything but the flattest and smoothest of surfaces. Except for your Eldest, who says that riding is the only way to avoid the midges – which have emerged in suffocating clouds like something from a Hitchcock movie.
You emerge from the trail, drenched in sweat, coated in midges, utterly spent. For the last, desperate 200 metres, you have carried your youngest on your shoulders while balancing their bike across your handlebars. Sighting the trailhead, you let your guard down, slip in your flats, and remove a good chunk of shin skin on your pedal pins as you offload your youngest from your shoulders. You try very hard not to cry.
Does this all sound horribly familiar? Try these top tips for harmonious family cycling:
Children on bikes are like hummingbirds. Their little legs are going like the clappers and there is no zone 2 endurance setting: just all out, or done in. This kind of frenetic activity needs energy. Lots of it, and often. Take more food than you think you could possibly need, and give them lots of snacks along the way before they complain they’re hungry. Once they tell you they’re hungry, you’re on the slippery slope to misery. Remember how you felt that time you ran out of food trying to keep up with the lycra clad XC boys on carbon hardtails on their pre race season social ride? Yes. That. Now, put that extra bottle of water and that sandwich back in your bag and stop worrying about the extra weight.
2. Stay small
Your kids will grow to enjoy bigger challenges, but start them off small or you’ll put them off before you’ve started. Pavement chalk or poster paint can be used to paint a skills track on the tarmac of your local park. Use spots and lines to mark out gates, stop boxes, and one handed riding zones. You can tailor this to a variety of ages, and your children will delight in you being unable to wiggle in and out of the tight turns that their titchy wheelbase allows them to fit through effortlessly.
Staying small doesn’t need to mean it’s boring for you. Can you bunny hop? Can you really do a rear wheel manual? A proper, controlled, one? If you pump the trail rather than pedal it, can you keep up with your kid on the easiest of routes? Taking the chance to work on these skills could make you a better rider on the days when you’re free to hurtle childless on the trails of your choosing.
Leave your bike at home and run with your kids while they ride. If you’ve got your kids riding while they’re young, the chances are they’re still on a singlespeed set-up when they’re first ready to hit the trails, and they’ll thank you for being on hand to push them up the hills. Your back will also thank you for not attempting the one handed child push hill climb. Running leaves your hands free to catch falling children and pick them up as needed, and you’ll work up quite a sweat trying to keep up with them on the flat. A 5km ride won’t do much for your fitness, but 5km of interval efforts pushing and sprinting to keep up with a child will.
You know all the stuff about how 29ers just roll over everything? Well 14ers don’t. Nor do 16, 18 or even 20 inch wheels. What to you is an oversize piece of gravel, to your child is a huge boulder. What is a little rollover to you is a massive drop off to them. When you’re cruising comfortably at 10km an hour, their wheels are turning about as fast as they can go, and the bike is incredibly twitchy.
It’s not just wheel size that matters. Those nettles that are brushing your thighs as you pass are whipping your child in the face. That waving wheat passing below your handlebars is lacerating the hands of your child as their bars push their way through. Father Ted may have been right that the small cows were far away, but don’t forget that the ones that are near are really big.
Children need tangible things to motivate them. The ephemeral prospect of having ridden x miles will not help them get up the hill, round the bend, over the next hill, and back to home. They also do not find solace in the hypnotic whirring of pedals and chain as the miles tick by. They need regular distraction from the task of turning the pedals. Devising a route that has picnic benches, climbing rocks, play parks, and other landmarks will help them break up the ride into manageable chunks. Ideally these chunks should be accompanied by chunks of chocolate, jelly babies, or other snacks. There needs to be another target destination ahead, or you’ll never get past the first one. A good option is to have a grand finale destination – a cafe is good, but even a supermarket with the promise of your child being able to choose their own treat from the bakery will work.
There’s a much better range of good quality children’s bikes out there now. They’re lighter, they have brakes that children can operate, and they have geometry that suits the proportions of a child. Not everyone will have the money to spend on such a bike, but it’s worth remembering that if you look after it, a quality child’s bike will have a good resale value. Even if you don’t have a sibling to pass it down to, you can easily expect to resell a £250 bike for £150 after two years of use. Put that way, £50 a year doesn’t sound so bad.
If you don’t have that kind of cash to spend, it doesn’t make you a bad parent. A many times handed down bike can still instill enthusiasm for cycling in your child if you remember that they’re riding something that weighs half as much as they do. Imagine how you would feel if you were riding a bike of equivalent proportions and adjust your rides accordingly. Could you ride a rough trail on skinny tyres with only a rear brake, handle bars at chest height, and a dolly seat on the back? Probably not, so you shouldn’t expect your child to either. Just take it easy, follow the tips above, and the more fun you have, the more your child will want to ride and the more they’ll progress. Before you know it you’ll be wishing they didn’t make you look so old and rubbish.