Since I started to cycle with my toddler I’ve learnt a lot, mainly through the medium of making mistakes. This is a brief overview of how to avoid the worst of them..
Getting your child onto the bike is the first task. Gaffer tape was suggested to me, but in the end I decided that a baby seat was probably the better option. In a fit of localism and sleep deprivation I did no research and went to the local bike shop and bought their suggestion – a Dutch Bobike front seat. This has been a partial success. I love the ‘front’ aspect as he feel safe and secure between my arms, I know what he’s doing and we can chat away while we ride. We tried a rear mounted seat in Copenhagen this summer and he saw nothing of the city because pulling my cardigan over his head proved to be more fun.
However, my son seems to find cycling either intensely relaxing or terribly dull as falls asleep quite easily.
Had I done some research I probably would have gone for one of these instead to see if the ‘sleeping platform’ prevents the sleeping-lurching-waking-sleeping cycle.
I found that the timing of rides will have a significant impact on the whole experience. ‘Routine’ is something that all parents have to negotiate – meals, naps, snacks – sometimes it feels like you are running a military regime rather than a family. I have failed on this front regularly. I will not learn that you can only have a pleasant morning ride unless you get up and out by 9am. Leaving the house at 11am means my son is asleep by 12, lurching around in his seat and then complaining about the lack of nap provision for the rest of the day. I have bought a trailer to try and provide a better nap time bike experience, but it has it’s own issues which I’ll explore here when we’ve used it more.
Your route will always be constrained by how long your child will sit for. Mine will not sit happily for more than an hour on the bike in one go, and I’ve not tried more than two and half on any one day for fear of complete meltdown. That gives us a distance of around 20 miles, so cycle touring isn’t on the cards anytime soon. I suggest you slowly increase their time on your bike before committing your child to Lands End to John O’Groats.
We live in a small town surrounded by ‘countryside’ so the main roads are fast and full of people desperate to get to the city. However, this means the local roads are relatively traffic-free, if rather narrow and bendy in places. Being an anxious sort I did quite a few group rides before venturing out alone with my son. At the moment we’re sticking to a couple of routes we know end in a good rest stop before returning home. Conveniently, our routes contain all my son’s favourite things – tractors and horses. If we can find somewhere with a field of dinosaurs we’ll be in heaven.
I cannot overemphasise the fundamental importance of snacks in relation to all aspects of parenting. To many parents snacks fall into one of two categories – snacks you want your child to have and snacks your child wants. I find it helpful to conceal several of both these snack types in your panniers (never let your child see their preferred snack or all others will be rejected) so that they can be deployed when necessary. For example, when they won’t get back on the bike after a ‘rest stop’ as I can’t help but feel that strapping a screaming toddler into a bike seat detracts from the enjoyment of the ride.
I have also learned to take several full water receptacles after a revolting ‘spit back’ incident early on. You get used to all sorts of body fluid experiences as a parent, but sometimes you have to draw a line..
The rest stop
When I was young, free and single a ‘rest stop’ with my bike club was a cafe/cake opportunity and a chance to chat. Rest stops now include playgrounds, beaches, woodland and other areas where my child can run free. The only problem is the lack of the rest for me. Playgrounds near roads have all the usual difficulties, in addition to the ‘will someone steal my bike/lunch whilst I stop my child running into the road’ issue. My chronic sleep deprivation means that I need a cup of tea every hour or so in order to function, so I try to find somewhere with a cafe and a fenced in playground containing lots of other children to entertain my child. The notion of making and packing a proper lunch and a flask of tea is beyond my capabilities at the moment, before anyone suggests that.
We would not be back on my bike at all without the support of the Dunbar Cycling Group. Riding in a group with other families is one of the most joyful cycling experiences I’ve had. Car drivers give you huge amounts of room so you feel like you own the road. No one has any idea of how to ride in a group though, so you need to ensure you are paying close attention to the riders around you – particularly small, competitive people who think they are in the Tour de France – and keep your distance. The popularity of ‘Kidical Mass’ is spreading across the USA and I’ll be nicking some of their ideas for our group next year – who could resist a ride where you decorate and eat cupcakes at the end?
Matters I’ve yet to resolve include: how to get on a train with your bike and a child, without tying your child to a nearby fence; how to fix a puncture and entertain a toddler at the same time and how to pack all the things you need to take with you before you strap your child in, don gloves, helmets and coats and leave the house..