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Family and Children's Cycles
Take the whole family with you when you cycle. The range of good quality bikes and equipment expands every year and there has never been more awareness of the need to establish good healthy habits at an early age. But whatever your motivation, saving money or saving the planet, your kids will have a blast. What better reason to get them on a bike?
Any cyclists who regretfully hang up their wheels with the arrival of children are doing both themselves and their kids a disservice. Children enjoy cycling and need not be shut away from fresh air, sounds, scents and sunlight. There are other options to the stuffy depths of an estate car. Purpose-built machines and devices for carrying children are enjoying a renaissance. It's no longer difficult to cycle with children of any age. Family cycling doesn't begin and end with the childseat. Children of different ages and sizes demand different means of transportation. Your typical daily ride and your purse will dictate which you choose, but be aware that there is a good range of alternatives, if not in the bike shops then from specialist sources. Trailers, for instance, can keep a couple of little ones warm and dry in the winter; while trailer cycles or kiddy-cranked tandems allow older children make a real contribution to the ride.
Whatever you choose, never compromise on safety. Child-carrying devices are not intrinsically dangerous, but they are only as safe as the quality of their construction, the safety of the bike to which they're attached and the common sense of the rider. Ride a bike which is suitable: that has low gears, a stiff frame, good brakes and which is well maintained. Keep all bolts tight and straps secure.
Slings and papooses carry the child on the front or back of the parent. They're suitable only for confident parents with very young (ie light) children for relatively short and safe journeys. Safety and comfort demand that the parent rides a stable, upright bike, preferably with a step-through frame. A tricycle is better still. Slings are cheap and convenient and are equally useful off the bike, but the child needs to be protected against wind-chill. The young one is at risk in the event of an accident, but no more so than when he or she is being carried by a pedestrian.
Trailers attach to the seat-post, the left-hand chainstay or the rear axle of the lead bike. They usually have two wheels, a rain hood (with windows) and seat two children. They're suitable for children from newborn (though you may need to improvise by strapping in a carrycot) right up to six-year-olds. Other than an increase in drag, trailers have a negligible effect on bike handling, but you do need low gears and good brakes. Check that the trailer's hitch is compatible with the particulars of your bicycle's rear end. Features like hub (or disc) brakes or smaller than usual wheels may cause fitting problems. Although children are low down in a trailer, and behind the bike they are not vulnerable. The frame of the trailer forms a rigid roll-cage which will protect your valuable cargo if it comes into contact with another vehicle. More importantly (and in the experience of anyone who has towed one) because a trailer is unmissable on the road cars will treat you with much more respect than usual and give you a really wide berth. Good quality trailers aren't cheap but do hold their value very well so you can be confident of selling your trailer easily when your kids eventually grow out of it. Most trailers will handle two children and also carry goods, such as nappy changing equipment or a week's groceries. All fold down for storage.
Rear childseats fit over the back wheel, either to a compatible pannier rack or by means of an integral seat rack. Attachment methods vary, but tend to be at the seat post or brake bolt and either on the seat stays or rack eyelets at the rear axle. Sturdiness is essential. Some childseats only fit with difficulty to certain bikes. To avoid incompatibility, take both bike and prospective passenger to the shop. Put the seat on the bike and the child in the seat. Childseats can't be used until the infant can sit up and show adequate head support (usually by nine months). The upper limit is set by weight: around 20kg, depending on the seat. Even tiny children affect bike handling as the weight is far above, and perhaps behind, the rear axle. Step-thru framed bikes may flex alarmingly; a diamond or mixte frame is better. There are numerous childseats on the market. Choose one which has some support for the child's head - many don't - as even older children will fall asleep on rides. Dangling over the side is distressing for children and also affects bike handling. Other essential features are: footrests, which should be adjustable and have straps; waist and shoulder straps; and infallible spoke and wheel protection. Any luggage is best carried in low-rider front panniers to stabilise the load. Be careful to cover saddle springs as probing fingers can easily get caught in them.
Front-fitting childseats are either small saddles which bolt to the crossbar, or smaller versions of rear childseats which fit to the stem or head tube. The former are suitable for children aged from about two to five years; the latter for children from about nine months to two-and-a-half years. The advantage of having the child in front of you is that you can see the child and that he or she is between your arms. Although you may have to ride with your knees out (not good for you long distance or long-term), bike handling is good. You will need a bike with upright bars and handlebar-mounted gear levers. You will also need to ride carefully and confidently. As the child grows older, if the footrests aren't equipped with straps, you must protect the front wheel to prevent small feet from getting caught in it.
Tandems are an excellent family investment. In the early days when your children are smaller, they'll take one or two childseats (the second precludes a stoker). Alternatively, they are useful for towing trailers along, since no one parent is burdened with the load. When children reach three or four they can take the role of stoker. They are then actively cycling, but remain under your control and don't have to pedal if they don't want to. Many modern off-the-shelf tandems are low enough at the rear to accommodate children from around seven-years-old. Any standard tandem can be adapted by the substitution of a smaller saddle and the addition of kiddy-cranks and/or crank shorteners. As well as these you may need child safety bars to prevent the child slipping off. Kiddy-cranks are a small pair of cranks which clamp onto the tandem's rear seat tube. A chain links them to a freewheel sprocket of the same size at the tandem's bottom bracket. Crank shorteners make tandem cranks suitable for shorter legs. They are basically steel blocks which screw into the pedal hole; the pedal then fits into the inner end of the shortener, about 3.5cm further up the crank.
Purpose-built child-carrying tricycles are stable and sociable workhorses. Most carry two children in rear or forward-facing seats, with space for luggage in the tray below. Unlike a bicycle with a child seat, trikes don't present problems of balance. You are safer on slippery roads, can ride easily at very slow speeds and you can park anywhere with the child in situ. A trike is heavier and slower than a bike, but is probably no slower than a bike plus trailer.
Tandem trikes (see first image)
The ultimate pedal-powered family transport, tandem trikes aren't cheap, but they are a snip compared with the price of a car. Carrying capacity and versatility are good. Tandem trikes will take two childseats between the axles and can take kiddy-cranks and crank shorteners in the same way as conventional tandems. Although heavy and relatively difficult to store, tandem trikes will outperform the traditional solo family trike, and are therefore more useful for wide-open-road touring.
A trailer bicycle is essentially the back half of a bike which attaches to a conventional bike, trike or tandem via the tractor bike's seat-post or a special rack. Available in single or two seater versions and with one or two wheels, trailer bikes are suitable for children aged between four and 10 years, rather like a junior back tandem. The difference between a junior back tandem and a trailer bike is that the trailer bicycle is articulated and has its own gears which are under the child's control. Separate brakes are rarely fitted. The real bonus is that the trailer bicycle can be fitted to and removed from any existing bike. Once the rack or bracket is in place, it takes almost no time to switch the trailer bicycle between bikes.
A fairly recent innovation in pedal-powered child carrying, specially adapted heavy-duty load-carriers can carry up to six kids and their school bags in a dedicated passenger compartment. Available from a few forward thinking Dutch, Danish and German manufacturers these school-run behemoths feature super strong brakes, very robust componentry, weather-proof roofs and even Ackerman steering. Big Rigs are expensive to buy in bicycle terms but a fraction of the price of any new seven seat motor vehicle (even when the cost of all the extra breakfast cereal is accounted for!).
Always err on the side of caution with all child-carrying devices. Check nuts, bolts and stress points regularly.
Take care to prevent straps, scarves or gloves on strings from dangling into a wheel.
Practise on quiet roads when you first try out any child-carrying device, particularly childseats.
Never leave a child unattended in a childseat on a bicycle.
Remember that children can easily become cold when you are cycling, because they are not doing anything to keep warm (ie pedalling).
Be aware that children can easily become bored on longer journeys. You may need to stop every few miles to let your child play. If you carry on regardless, your child could come to have a real antipathy toward cycling. If you have a trailer taking along your child's favourite toy may help.
Cycling is a life-long activity and children need to understand that their bicycle is not only a toy, but a means of transportation. Get involved, if you can, in your children's cycling. Teach them how to care for their bikes and they'll develop a knowledge of how things work.
Cycling to School
More children need to cycle to school. Fifty percent of children in Denmark do so. It improves children's health and development, and reduces traffic congestion and pollution. It's only by encouraging youngsters to cycle more that cycle usage will grow in the future. Indeed, the present level of cycle usage will drop if today's children don't stick with cycling as they grow into adulthood.
Learning to balance
For most children, a tricycle is the first step in learning to ride. The most useful tricycles are the smallest ones. A tricycle has only two things to teach a child: steering and pedalling. The steering usually comes first, because the child can stand on the back step with one foot and push along with the other. Some children will be able to master this even before learning to walk. Once the basic concept of steering has been learned, the child can start to use the pedals. Tricycles are best suited for indoor use, or in a level, closed-off outside area.
A common mistake is to add a set of stabilisers to a two-wheeler. They prevent the child from experiencing the balance the bike requires.
The key to bike riding is balance and making it fun. Do you remember when you learned to ride a bike? Teaching children to ride bikes is one of life's most memorable experiences.
For learning purposes, the rider should be able to sit on the saddle with both feet flat on the ground and the knees slightly bent. The bike can then be used as a hobby-horse or scooter, with the feet always ready to stop a fall. Remove the pedals at first, so that the feet can swing freely. Start the beginner in a park, on an open, gentle slope. By riding down the slope, a young rider can learn to balance and coast before pedalling.
For two to five-year-olds miniature two-wheeled ‘hobby horses' some made of wood, some of metal, are the perfect early introduction. They are propelled simply by pushing feet against the ground, teaching balance from day one. Once they've outgrown it they'll take to riding a full bicycle instantly.
Here are some exercises to help youngsters learn to balance:
• On and Off. Have your new cyclist practise getting on and off the bike until it can be done easily.
• Start and Stop. Practice starting and stopping until it can be done without wobbling or swerving.
• Straight Line. Lay down a piece of tape or draw a chalk line on some open ground. Have them ride without going off the line, first fast, then slow.
• Figure Eight. Practice turning by doing figure eights. Your child should lean into the direction of the turn and keep the inside pedal up, so that it doesn't touch the ground. This will teach kids how to dodge road hazards like rocks and holes.
• Quick Stops. It's a good idea to practice quick stops by using both brakes. Make a mark on the pavement, then have the novice try to stop on the mark without swerving or skidding.
Allow your child to learn at his or her natural pace, and it is more likely that cycling will become a fun family activity for all of you.
Make sure your child has a bike that fits correctly, not one too big with the idea if growing into it. A bike that is too big cannot be controlled properly and can be dangerous. A child should have both feet flat on the ground when standing straddling the top tube of the bike. The child should be able to touch the ground with the toes of one foot while sitting on the seat without leaning the bike.
Tips for safer cycling
• The bicycle is a vehicle: children must obey the rules of the road like everyone else.
• Give them high visibility clothing.
• Wear a helmet, one that fits snugly and comfortably.
• Check they have the strength and finger reach to apply the brakes fully.
• Buy your child bike gloves. They will look cool, and protect their hands if they fall.
• Encourage your child to practise looking back while riding in a straight line. This is important when signalling and turning.
• Make sure the bike is in good working order, especially the brakes.
• Help children learn that they are responsible for their own vehicles and must make good and safe decisions for themselves.
• Few children below the age of nine are competent on roads.
• Get your child some formal training by enrolling in a safe cycling skills course.
• Be a good role model.
Riding on pavements is not always safe
For young cyclists pavements may be the best place to cycle. At first, be with your child as he or she cycles on the pavement, encouraging him/her to respect pedestrians. Help them identify possible danger spots. Driveways, alleys, doorways, paths and intersections on pavements are all areas where conflict and injury can happen. Beware of stabiliser wheels going over the edge of the kerb.
Other places to ride include cyclepaths, canal towpaths, forest tracks and routes through country parks. They provide an ideal place for children and new cyclists to practise their cycling skills. Many of the routes go from town to town or from city centres into the countryside and make a great choice for a day ride.
How to Buy a Child's Bike
Children need and deserve good quality bikes. Give a child a bike that is too heavy or too stiff to ride, and it will be too quickly discarded. Buying cheap is a false economy and could even put a child off cycling for life.
For best advice go to a proper cycle shop and NOT a toy shop or department store.
Bicycles bought for children need to fit them properly, both for safety reasons and to allow for maximum rider growth.
Because bike shops offer many more wheel and frame size choices, they can often fit a child to a bike that will last and fit safely for several years, more than ‘toy shop' bikes can!
The longer a bicycle lasts and safely fits, the more economical it is.
For children ages 2 through to 5 or 6, bicycle wheel diameter is the main differentiating factor, with 12" and 16" the most common wheel size.
For larger 4 to 6 year old children, bike shops have 20" wheel-sized bicycles with steeply sloping top bars. More unisex in appearance, they enable a shorter-legged rider to fit a larger-wheeled bike at an earlier age, and to fit the bike for longer.
Full-size 20" wheel bikes with higher cross-bars and longer crank arms are usually purchased for riders 6 or 7 years of age or older. Often called dirt bikes or BMX bikes, these are principally designed for frequent, hard, recreational use. Usually the less expensive they are, the heavier they are.
The next size bicycle after the 20" will have 24" diameter wheels.
Some kids, depending upon their leg length, may fit small frame size adult bikes with 26" (or greater) diameter wheels.
Supermarket or chain-store bikes which must be self-assembled. It takes a qualified cycle mechanic around 45 minutes to assemble a bike properly from a box with all the facilities of a bicycle workshop to hand. What hope does mum or dad have of getting it right when assembling a bike on the kitchen floor? It cannot be stressed too strongly just how appalling most of these bikes are. Certainly they are cheaper than the bikes in the window of your local bike shop but they are cheaper for a reason and it's because they are rubbish. Just don't go there. Really.
Plastic body panels and wheel discs. They add weight, make the bike more difficult to assemble or to work on and will invariably fall off within the first few weeks. Such features have no performance benefit except to alert you to the fact that what you are looking at is a toy rather than a real bike.
Excess weight. Many kids bikes weigh more than an adults bike. Your child is a very small motor with significantly less stamina than an adult. Don't handicap them with a heavy lump which might be better served as a boat anchor. Everyone deserves a nice light bike, kids particularly.
Look out for:
Reach adjustable brake levers. Do not allow a child to ride a bike with inadequate brakes. Brake levers must be small enough to fit small hands. Adjustable reach allows them to be set up properly.
Ball bearings rather than plain bushes in pedals, bottom bracket, headset and wheels.
Long seatposts allow for a lot of leg growth and the bike will therefore last the child longer.
Types of Children's Cycles
BMX Bikes: Real BMX bikes are very solid and robust, due largely to their small frames and superior build quality designed as they are for extreme riding. Cheap BMX bikes are not as indestructible as they appear, beware of budget bikes which look like a BMX but which are not suited to any form of hard riding. Having only a single gear, they tend to need less maintenance. Smaller wheeled (12", 14" 16" and 18") BMX style bikes are purely children's' cycles. BMXs are fine for cruising around the neighbourhood but not suitable for riding any long distances due to lack of gears and small frame size.
Junior MTB: These are currently all the rage. Front and rear suspension is in vogue. For cruising round the streets it has no advantages. The weight penalty will make any journey very hard work and the added complexity of moving parts mean that there's more to wear out and go wrong. So poorly designed and manufactured are many of these bikes that it's impossible to make them work properly at all without a degree in mechanical engineering.
Quality Bikes: Fortunately the availability of better quality bikes improves year on year. Designed with high grade parts and materials, they are a pleasure to use, and retain a high second-hand value. Most major manufacturers now offer a selection of quality cycles for youngsters.