Introduction: You are a true Portlander, right? Let me ask you, are you ready to start biking with your kids? It’s one of the first things I noticed with our first child – in Portland so many parents share their love for biking with their children. If you’re feeling a bit of trepidation, I’d like to share some of advice – advice gleaned NOT from reading a bunch of biking websites, product brochures, listening to expert testimony, sales representatives, or even using common sense! Rather, this advice comes from putting hundreds and hundreds of miles on my bike with my son. Hopefully, this advice will get you up and pedaling with your kids.
If you want a more objective opinion, here is the link to Consumer Reports. Plus, I also noticed a feature article in NW Kids for the month of July, 2008. Here are my two cents…
Getting Started – Biking with infants: I don’t think we started biking with our son until he was about 18 months. With our second son, we are already getting itchy about biking with him, and he’s only 1 month old! My wife is anxious to get back on the bike, and she has heard that it’s okay to bike with infants as long as they are in a car seat, which is then situated inside a trailer (e.g., Burley – see pics below). I’ve seen this on two separate occasions in Portland.
After hearing this idea, I was completely against it. Then, I remembered being against the idea of riding with kids in a bike seat (e.g., Co-Pilot – pics below). I have to admit, it looked safe while watching a mother ride with her infant recently (car seat and Burley); however, I just don’t think it’s a good idea. The fact is, trailers are often hard to navigate around corners and tight turns – you may give it a hard bump, and (conceivably) it could tip over, which would be a disaster.
Personally, I like the idea of “…kids are old enough to ride when they can fit into a bike helmet and comfortably hold their heads up,” which is around 12 – 15 months. So, my personal recommendation is to hold off riding with a new born/infant.
Biking with kids (helmet on a controllable head!): What is the best option as soon as you’re ready to ride with your child? Basically, there are 3 main options: 1) Bike seat mounted above rear wheel; 2) Bike seat mounted on handlebars and; 3) Chariot or trailer that connects to the bike (kids along for the ride). I’ve argued endlessly with friends about the pros and cons of these setups, and everyone seems to think their way is the best way. Let’s look at these options a bit closer.
Bike seat mounted above rear wheel: For beginning rides, this is the best option. Your child is behind you in case of a head-on crash, and you can talk to them easily while they’re sitting so close. The bike can be a bit “tippy” with this setup, but if the bike does fall to the side, there is pretty decent protection. There is room for error with the setup, and with re-inserting the seat on the bike rack. So, my advice is to have the seat installed at a bike shop, and have an expert walk you through the steps of removing and re-inserting the seat.
With a trailer, your kids could topple over, and you might not even know it! I’ve also whacked the trailer I use a few times against telephone polls on sidewalks and/or turning around in tight places. The trailers are low to the ground with poor visibility for kids and drivers. My friends with trailers would disagree, but I do not recommend them as a way to get started biking with toddlers.
Bike seat mounted on front handlebar: When I first saw this setup, I thought it was the way to go. I heard that the seats had been used in Europe for years and years with a great safety record. Your child is so close to you, and it’s very easy to have a conversation; plus, with this option, the child probably gets the best view.
However, they are certainly more vulnerable in crashes (i.e., little protection). Also, if the back wheel flips up (front flip), the toddler is the first thing to hit the cement, which would be a terrible accident. In a rear-seat setup, most likely, the child would hit your back first.
Certainly many people use this setup without incident, and friends of ours have always given positive reviews. Your biggest problem – you may have trouble finding them. They are not as common as the other options for riding with toddlers. Check the Internet – there are several models available.
Bike trailer/chariot: Okay, so I’ve knocked the trailer quite a bit, even though it appears to be the most popular choice with parents. There are obviously some big pluses to using a trailer setup. Most people like the convenience of having a compartment to place backpacks, groceries, sporting goods, and anything else you might collect on your ride. Also, trailers can easily accommodate two riders, which is a big plus, if you have two kids! When we started biking with our kids, it was mainly for fun. It wasn’t about replacing a car and/or running errands. If you want to add this practical element, obviously, a trailer is a better option for you. Just a warning – they are not cheap!
Finally, it’s likely that you’ll get far more use out of a trailer as your kids get older. I opted for a rear bike seat early on, but now, I use the trailer as a place to put my son’s bike when he gets tired riding (more on this later). When your son or daughter is riding their own bike, you will still be able to use the trailer for many purposes. This is probably the biggest advantage. There are also Burley trailers that can double as a stroller, which is another plus!
Biking independently: So you’ve mastered riding with your young child, but your young child wants to ride by him/herself. What do you do? Of course, there is the common path that dictates a small “two-wheeler” with training wheels. Seriously, is there anything more dangerous than a bike with training wheels in a tight turn? I don’t think so…
For absolute beginners, a Kettler tricycle is hard to beat. They are a bit pricey, but have a sturdy metal frame with several options for adjusting the fit, wheels and steering. Even though my son is 4 and rides without training wheels, he still loves riding the Kettler bike around the yard.
Before your kids can actually steer or pedal, you can lock the front wheel and push/steer the bike from behind with a detachable metal pole. This is great when kids get tired. There is a small compartment to carry along a hat and/or other riding accessories. This is simply one of the best bikes made for beginning cyclists.
A friend told me to avoid training wheels altogether and stick to either a “Balance Bike” or “Trailer-Bike.” This was the best advice I’ve received while biking with kids. Training wheels offer plenty of security on flat-straightaways but lead to dependency that’s often hard to shake. Balance bikes (picture on the left) let kids place their feet firmly on the ground while seated. There are no pedals to get in the way while they are merrily kicking away down the sidewalk. It gets really fun on a slight downhill grade where they can put their feet up, balance, and coast. Skuut is a popular brand, but the steering is limited. We used the Strider Push Bike, which has better steering and looks cool too!
The fact is “Balance Bikes” and “Trailer Bikes” help build core strength and balance. When our son started using a “Balance Bike” setup, it was only a matter of months before he was riding his two wheeler with confidence. If you can’t afford a Balance Bike, just lower the seat on their two-wheeler, remove the training wheels and the pedals. Presto! You now have your own Balance Bike. The picture on the right shows my son’s first two-wheeler, which would have been perfect as a Balance Bike.
Our Trailer-bike (often called a “Tag-a-Long” has proven to be the best piece of biking gear we’ve purchased thus far. We got ours for $75 on Craigslist. There are many different styles. Our trailer bike attaches to the seat post via a semi-permanent quick release. It feels very secure to us, but we cannot use the trailer with other bikes. Some trailer bikes have a quick release clamp that can be attached quickly to any seat post while others attach to a rear rack. I’ve seen about half a dozen setups, and they all seem to work just fine.
If your child is older, you may want to get a trailer bike with shifting gears. This will give him/her plenty of time to practice shifting, which is something they’ll have to learn eventually. We stuck to a basic (freewheel) single speed design, which was both cheaper and easier for a 3 year old to figure out. If you’re starting your kids around 3 or 4, I wouldn’t recommend multiple gears – it’s just not necessary.
Even though we love the Trailer-bike, there were some serious concerns when we purchased it. At first, we thought we would only use it on our street – we were both so scared that our son would let go of the handlebars. Obviously, there is nothing securing the child to the bike. So, if they let go, they will fall hard. Also, we were paranoid about the Trailer-bike detaching at high speeds, or low speeds for that matter! These are all valid concerns when venturing into the world of Trailer-bikes. My advice is to make sure your child can hold on firmly, even when the terrain gets a bit bumpy. I overheard an REI sales rep tell a customer that kids should not use Trailer-bikes until they are at least five or six years old! Please use your own judgment.
Riding without training wheels: I’d been waiting for the day where my son and I could ride bikes together. Yes, it has been an incredible experience, but it’s also stressful. I want to give him independence, but I also don’t want him to fall over, or get hit by a car. I always think he’s going to run into somebody – the worry seems endless on my part. Of course, my son doesn’t have a care in the world when he’s pedaling away on his bike. Besides the obvious safety issues, several other dilemmas have crept onto the road.
Paved bike paths are a great way to get started, but often times, road travel (sometimes, very busy roads) is inevitable in getting to the paved path. Or, you’re out for a ride, and your son or daughter cannot finish the ride for whatever reason. What do you do?
A friend gave me the answer to this question with his solution – the Bakfiets (Bach – feets). The Bakfiets has a big box in the front that is big enough for two kids and groceries. It’s also big enough to fit a child’s bicycle when they poop-out! Personally, I never saw the advantage to a design where the child is along for the ride. This “Clever Cycle” helped change my mind. My friend said, “Our son likes to ride, but when he gets tired, we can put both him and his bike in the box!” Brilliant! However, this option is VERY expensive, and we had to figure something out using what we had in our household.
Therefore, I now bring the Burley trailer along on longer rides, or rides where I know it will be too dangerous for him to ride on the road. This solved some major issues for me; however, it didn’t fix everything. The Burley trailer we use could barely fit my son and his bike – it was uncomfortable for my son. Plus, I thought, “Why should I be hauling him around when he’s perfectly capable of helping me out!” Biking while pulling and/or pushing weight is difficult work. That’s when I decided to add the Trailer Bike into the mix, and our bike train got much longer!
For long and/or dangerous sections, my setup looks like this: My bike, trailer bike (son rides and pedals along), and the Burley trailer with his bike bungeed in for security. When we get to a safe section, it’s very easy to detach the bungees and pull his bike off. This is such a great setup, and I’ve seen a few families using it as well. If you can afford this rig, I highly recommend it.
Of course, there are countless other specialty bikes on the market now. Clever Cycles (SE Hawthorne) has some wild tandem bikes, and they sell the Bakfiets. They also have some great pictures and videos on their website. I just read that they are closing temporarily because they are sold out of products! They could not keep up with the demand – family cycling is really catching on! Anyway, I hope they open up again soon, because they have some cool bikes, and they are a very friendly store.
Closing Remarks: I vividly remember my first bike – it remains one of my fondest childhood memories. We lived in a small town, and my friends and I biked everywhere, even when it was dark outside. To this day, I have a love for cycling, and for the longest time, my bike was the most expensive item I owned (it’s still close!). I try to bike everyday with my son, because I want him to love it! We don’t talk about all the practical reasons for biking or the politics of gas and oil consumption. We all know there are many admirable reasons to ride bikes, but I want him to ride simply because he loves it. That is the primary reason I ride to this day – I still get a kick out of pedaling away the miles. Happy trails!
Here are a few of my favorite biking clips: Plus, much more available on my YouTube site!
Sunday Parkways Ride:
Powell Butte Mountain Biking:
Pedalpalooza Bike Ride
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