Biking with the Family

family biking

Biking as a family can be fun and rewarding, but preparation is crucial.

Looking for a fun activity that the whole family can participate in? Look no further, bicycling is an exciting way to get the whole family moving and build some lasting memories. After the initial cost of purchasing a bike, it’s also a frugal activity and arguably pays for itself in health benefits down the road.

I have an 8 and a 3 year old and we average over 700 miles a year on the bike, most of that in commuting to and from school. That’s 4200 miles in the last six years! 

Getting Ready for Biking as a Family

Now before we get into what sort of equipment you’re going to need to get the whole family biking, riding with kids may require a paradigm shift in your biking habits.  When my wife first suggested that it would be fun to be able to go on a family ride, I naturally agreed.  Accustomed to all-out rides of over 50 miles with a few 6% graded climbs followed by white knuckle descents, it would be great to have someone to ride with, that’s what ran through my mind.  I happily tuned-up my wife’s mountain bike and attached the trailer to my ultra-light racing bike and off we went.  It wasn’t fun — largely because of my expectations.

First, when riding with kids or a significant other who is not a serious cyclist, start out slow and keep the distances short.  This was my first mistake.  I planned an invigorating ride along the river, about fifteen miles round-trip.  My son in his trailer was bored because the river in Los Angeles is really a flood control channel with absolutely nothing to look at.  Every time we passed a patch of green, he was screaming at me to pull over so he could play at “the park.”  The wind was blowing against us, as it always does, and my wife, who was not in bike fitness, was struggling.  And I was upset because each time I looked down at the computer I could see we weren’t even averaging 10 mph.  When I started thinking of this as long-term training for the whole family, I realized I needed to change my expectations

Plan your ride around a destination your kids want to visit.  For us this usually means a park or the beach.  We bring a lunch and snacks, plenty of water and make a picnic out of it.

We began our family bike rides when my son was about two, so that meant having toys in the trailer and snacks to munch on.  Now he’s eight and he’s riding his own bike.  At this age, perhaps the most important thing you can teach your young rider is — predictability.  My son has figured out how to do powerslides, jump curbs and how to dart around like a dragonfly.  But on the road or bike path, it’s predictability that we preach.  Of course he wants to do all the tricks he’s learned so the best thing is to include a part of the bike ride where he can practice his new moves safely.  If he knows he’s going to get a chance to ride reckless, he’ll ride predictable when we need him to.

Let your kids set the pace.  It’s usually not a good idea to let them ride in front, but letting them set the pace is crucial.  If you keep looking over your shoulder only to find them falling behind, slow down.  On the other hand, if they keep trying to pass you or edge ahead, pick up the pace.

Plan your route so you can avoid busy streets and try to include as many bike paths as possible.  We ride just about every Saturday; traveling almost the entire way along quiet residential streets that run parallel to the big, busy commuter arteries.  People expect kids and bicyclists and drive slower.

Finally, increase mileage slowly.  Counting on kids to keep you informed about when they are tired or hungry or thirsty is asking for trouble.  When you get to your destination, make sure they eat and drink before they run off and play.  Increase mileage only when your kid gets home from a family ride and has plenty of energy left.  That’s when you know he/she is ready to ride a couple of extra miles.  Using this process, my son has gone from 10 mile rides about five months ago to our most recent 20 miler.

Equipment for Biking with Kids

When bicycling with kids, as just about anything else with kids, having the right equipment is usually the difference between an enjoyable experience and disaster.  First, and most important, is a helmet.  This is so common-sense that I shouldn’t even need to mention it but… A helmet isn’t just for the kids.  Your kids are a whole lot more likely to wear a helmet if they see you wearing one.

My family's 'commute to school' rig.

For the youngest children who still aren’t ready to pedal, you’re going to need a children’s bike seat or a trailer.  Personally I find the trailer a safer way to travel.  They are stable, comfortable and attach quickly and easily to just about any bike.  The downside?  They are expensive running up to $600 and they act like giant sails slowing you down (although for me that makes it a great resistance training tool).  Bike seats are considerably cheaper, about $100, and they are lighter.  If your bike tips however, your child tips with it.

For kids who aren’t ready to ride their own bikes but are able to pedal and balance on a seat, consider a Trail-a-Bike.  These attach right to your seatpost and have handlebars for your youngster to hold on to and pedals, but only a back wheel.  I found this to be a great way to introduce my son to balancing on a bike, leaning into turns and demonstrating safe cycling practices.

When your child is ready to ride alone, there are dozens of choices.  For learning purposes, I suggest something smaller and maybe even used, as your child is likely to outgrow this first bike very quickly.  Garage sales are a great place to find kid bikes.  As for training wheels, I recommend you get rid of these as fast as possible.  If kids become accustomed to them, getting them to ride without them can prove very difficult.  Anyone can learn to ride a bike, it just takes some patience and parental support.  The most common mistake made at this point is buying a bicycle that is too big with the hopes that the child “will grow into it.”  The problem with this is that they tip over often and fall hard.  Training wheels actually make this more likely as even small bumps can send them over.  That’s why a smaller, even used, bike is better.  If your son or daughter can put their feet down without getting off the seat, they will feel much safer.

The ‘just learned to ride’ stage can be the toughest on family rides as your newest cyclist is usually limited to very short rides.  But this is the most important time to ride, as it will instill confidence in your child and help to make bicycling a regular part of your family’s life.  When they move to bikes with multiple gears, that’s when the adventure gets really exciting.

About Peter Dopulos

Peter Dopulos is an avid cyclist and the author of Where to Bike Orange County. He is also the co-host of the Long Beach radio talkshow Swoop's World and a co-founder of GreenWorld365.com.

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