Cycling for the family. There is something for children every age: tiny tots travelling, safe seats, trailers for tiny toes, cargo coolness and the first bike. Here is a review of the options.
Tiny tots travelling
If you are a cyclist and want to get anywhere fast, the first step may be to take your kids in tow. This lets them experience cycling and normalises travel by bike – and you can establish a cycling family culture.
Once a child can stand you can take them with you on a bike. There is a good range of bike seats that attach to the back of your bike in a range of sizes. The seats are comfortable and secure and provide a soft ride. We had ones that reclined a bit and our boys (9-22kg) often fell asleep 🙂
These seats are great for going places in a hurry. Dress them warmly as your little ones, unlike you, do not get any exercise. Having said that, they tend to be in your wind shadow, which gives them a little protection.
Children up to an age of about 5 years can be carried in one of these seats. You will never wear them out and may be able to sell it again. Once the kids approach primary school age, their weight will destabilise the bike, and make riding hills more difficult. By that time they are more than old enough to peddle themselves. For mountain bikers, a child’s saddle post can be attached to the frame between your legs. This works well with toddlers but will end once their legs get in the way. The weight in the centre of the bike improves its stability which is why even an adult pillion passenger can ride this way, admittedly with difficulty – and discomfort.
Trailers for tiny toes
With more than one child you will need a bike trailer. For small children, they are wide and flat with a wind and rain cover so that nothing and nobody gets out. The kids are nice and cosy in the back.
Once the kids are big and strong enough they might like to help to push. They will enjoy this first bit of independence and collaboration. They will learn to peddle over an extended period of time with a bike trailer. A bike trailer looks like a bike without the front wheel and attaches to the back of a normal bike with a long arm. They are not more expensive than a normal kids bike but weigh about the same and have no gears. The biggest benefit is safety, as you do not constantly have to watch them.
Cargo bikes are quite a wide category, but unlike normal bikes, are designed to be stable when carrying a load. The cyclist sits at one end of the bike, the load on the other. They are typically electric bikes to offset the weight and provide a normal ride. In European cities they are extremely popular for carrying the kids or shopping. Currently, they are not common in Canberra, but that will change.
A very popular design has the kids sitting in a bucket at the front with the shopping at their feet. This model is unfortunately very expensive.
An alternative design has the kids sit on the back. There is plenty of room for two children of primary school age on this bike.
Something for every age
The first bike
Once a child is old enough to walk they can ride a bike. A good first bike is a “walking bike”. These bikes do not have pedals but rather are pushed along with the feet on the ground. Very little balance is required but the child will learn about steering, balance, and breaking. There are footrests instead of peddles where the child can rest their feet. Quickly they will learn to coast once they have some speed and at that time they are really riding a bike.
At this age balance and steering is what it is all about. A few years on a bike like this provides a good foundation. The steering of a bike is counter-intuitive and creates problems with even inexperienced adults. A bike turns left by steering right. Once the bike is leaning it will turn. Steering into the corner will straighten the bike up and end the turn.
Wobbly training wheels
Children of early childhood age will at some stage have the coordination to peddle. They won’t be very good at it and that is why training bikes will have two wheels at the back to keep the bike upright when they get on or stop to get off. A bike is most unstable when it is not moving and does not gain stability until is has gained some speed. At first, the children will likely ride so slow that the only thing holding it up will be the wheels at the back. Training wheels are a great confidence booster and give you the opportunity for lots of praise!
For very small children there are training bikes with handles at the back. The carer can push, brake and steer the bike along in safety whilst walking behind the bike. When they are good enough, or when you have reached the playground the handle can be detached and they can have a go at it themselves.
Children of early childhood cannot judge distance or speed, so riding a bike is bumper car exercise. Thankfully they do not go too fast. They cannot brake and do not see danger. Leave the playground or home and off-road bike paths are essential. Separation from the road is also essential as they are likely to exit the bike path accidentally. Turning is difficult and they wobble around obstacles. The terrain needs to be pretty flat. On a downhill slope, they can quickly gain more speed than they are comfortable with. If the bike runs away down a hill the situation can quickly become dangerous.
Buy a training bike with brakes. At the beginning, they will not be used. Peddling comes first but as their confidence rises they will begin to experiment with the brakes. As they get older and more experienced and their judgement improves, they will learn to use the brakes to control speed, avoid obstacles, and stop when required. This can take a few years.
Primary school age
Primary school includes children that are still in early childhood. The children’s balance, coordination, and judgement of distance and speed quickly develop. Developing these skills is a very important part of the primary school curriculum. They will not be able to judge the speed of cars until they are about 14. The control of the bike is still poor, which makes roads and road crossings most unsafe for primary school kids. For the motorist kids are small, hard to see, and unpredictable.
What children of primary school age will learn is how to ride a normal bike. Combining peddling, braking, and steering become increasing routine. Primary school kids become good enough to instinctively react to avoid obstacles. They will get so good that they can stand while peddling and some will get bored with all this easy stuff, and put bricks and boards in the way to make jumps. Given the opportunity, they will build mounds and other challenges to practise their skills for hours. For this reason, primary schools are building elementary mountain biking tracks in the playgrounds. BMX riding is also popular at this age, and many areas of Canberra have local BMX tracks.
The bikes do not need suspension but may have suspension at the front. For this age group, their bikes should have gears. The gears will not be used at first but that will change, after steering, braking, and peddling have been mastered. Once your child has learnt to use the gears they can ride up hills and travel much greater distances with you. Bike touring of 20km per day becomes possible with the family. Not a lot of gears are required.
They will now have two brakes for both the front and back wheel. Twin brakes are required for faster and safer stopping. The coordination for the twin brakes will need to be learned. It is easy to mix up the front and back brake. Locking up the back brake can be fun and creates a great deal of dust – locking up the front is a disaster!
Riding on paved surfaces will become routine but loose surfaces are bumpy and irregular, and remain a challenge.
Train your child early to be heard and seen by other cyclists and pedestrians. There are some fun bells and helmets around, and again, let them choose them themselves.
Children will often grow too big for their bike in the primary school years. The replacement bike should be chosen in preparation for high school. So, apart from front and rear brakes, full front and rear gears can be considered. With the additional speed and coordination, front suspension is useful, as old Canberra bike paths can be very bumpy.
High school and beyond
The better bike will now have disk brakes on the front and back. Disk brakes provide superior and more controlled braking, particularly for children. Good brakes are essential for crossing and later riding on local streets. Once they go to secondary school they are likely to experience this sort of thing regularly. The bike should have brakes that an adult cyclist would expect. From upper primary and through adolescence, only the frame size gets bigger but the features of the bike and safety requirements remain the same. Maintenance costs are independent of the size of the bike. Note that better quality bikes are more durable and you will get a lot of use out of them.