Jo Somerset from BikeRight! the UKs largest cycle training organisation gives us the lowdown on how and where to ride safely with the whole family.
The prospect of a family ride conjures up a host of feel-good images, think The Waltons on wheels. What could be better than all going out together on a healthy activity where everyone’s under their own steam? There are many great traffic-free routes in the UK, courtesy of Sustrans, the Forestry Commission, the Canal and Rivers Trust (ex-British Waterways) and local authorities.
The reality of family rides
That’s the theory. In practice it takes a large dose of parental determination to make it happen. The tasks of planning where to go, preparing the bikes and clothing, sandwiches and drinks might seem daunting but the rewards are well worth it. Trust us, getting ready does get easier with time, as the whole family becomes familiar with the routines.
The trick with family rides is to choose a destination and stick to it. Once decided, try to prepare everything the night before. Don’t be swayed by lack of enthusiasm or downright opposition. It’s like a family walk – you drag the children along, doggedly ‘enjoying’ yourself while they grumble. Then at the halfway point their imagination takes off, they play smugglers or alien invasion or fairy castles and wood elves and call it the best day ever.
The same is true for bike rides. Normal sibling behaviour can be guaranteed. On a family holiday with our children we hired a 6-person bike buggy – unfortunately family cohesion fell victim to bickering about who was to sit upfront front or at the back, who was steering, who wasn’t pedalling hard enough. Nick from BikeRight! said of his family
Our youngest daughter doesn’t need any persuading but I have to bribe our 14-year old by taking over her job of feeding the rabbits.
Whatever works for you, follow your instinct.
Don’t let the children’s different ages put you off. Nick’s neighbours bring their little ones in a child seat and a tagalong. We used to go out with our 6-year-old on the back of a tandem while the others aged 8,10 and 12-years-old rode their own bikes.
We have to live up to our responsibility for the safety of our children, so think these pointers through first.
– How far can your kids ride?
– Are they at different levels of competence?
– How confident or nervous are you about your own riding ability?
It’s better to do a short and achievable ride, leaving everybody keen to do more, rather than overdoing it. If possible, have several options for finishing. On our biggest family ride, the children were truly exhausted after 32 miles so my partner rode ahead and picked up the car to save them the last 5 miles.
You’ll instinctively do what we call a dynamic risk assessment. The weather or a child’s sore throat can make you change your mind. Please don’t take your family on a canal towpath ride if one of your children can’t swim. I don’t know anyone personally who has fallen into a canal, but it has happened. While cycling on the road, ride behind the children so you can see them. If there are two of you, the children should be sandwiched between you, single file.
Then think through the line you’ll take in persuading the children they want to come. You can disguise the whole event by saying you’re going on a picnic – but don’t promise too much, remember you’ve got to carry everything. Riding to an outdoor swimming pool or the beach is another favourite. Or you can dangle the carrot of an adventure playground or a children’s farm. In our experience, there are always tasty treats, usually ice cream, involved.
The key to success lies in the preparation. The bikes need tyres pumped, chains lubricated, brakes and gears working. Pack bike essentials: pump, tyre levers, spare inner tubes (assume the worst – one per bike), multi-tool. Add child essentials: water, flapjack or cake, fruit (assume a stop every half hour). Oh yes, and the baby wipes – we can guarantee that someone is going to need a poo at least once during the day. Then weather essentials: waterproofs, sunglasses, sunscreen. Lastly, the riding essentials: helmets, gloves, locks. And finally don’t forget the map.
The longest trail we’ve ridden is the High Peak trail, Tissington trail in Derbyshire for 30 miles of flat traffic-free heaven. Derbyshire County Council have put a lot of effort into making this an inclusive venue, and there are adapted bikes for hire for disabled people where the two trails meet at Parsley Hay. But be careful not to over-stretch yourself. A short ride could be your first step.
Aimee, BikeRight!s business manager, remembers hiring a child seat at Tatton Park in Cheshire when she was cycling while pregnant, and having a lovely day out with her husband and their two-year old daughter. “Now she’s older and my son is two, I want to build up my riding confidence again,” says Aimee. “I’ve had a Level 3 lesson so I’m plan to start commuting when I get my new bike, and get out with the kids in the summer.”
If you’ve got this far, well done. Now you have to get out of the front door. Ignore cries of “it’s too wet”, “don’t wanna go”, “I’m watching this”, “I hate him” (innocent little brother) and firmly bundle everyone onto their bikes or into the car. If it’s raining, get out the cagoules – and remember at least some of the time in Britain the rain eases off. “Rain before 7, fine by 11” is top of my list of infuriatingly cheerful mottos as we all pile into the car and turn on the windscreen wipers.
The beauty of riding an off-road trail is that there aren’t many rules. You know your children best, but we found that taking our children aged 8 – 12 on the Tissington trail in Derbyshire gave them great freedom. We could let them out of our sight knowing there was nowhere for them to go except up and down the trail. There were plenty of other people around. The younger ones stuck with us parents, and we were absolutely certain the older ones who went ahead would be waiting at the cafe at the top of the trail for ice cream.
Ben, one of BikeRight!s cycling instructors, had the same experience as a child.
I used to love family cycling trips around Rutland Water. My Mum and Dad would hire bikes for the 25 mile round trip: pottering along with a trailer for our youngest sister while us three boys raced ahead up and down the hills.
Once your children have had that feeling of exhilaration, and you’ve all piled home dirty, tired and satisfied, there’s nothing like the feeling of having been “out there, done that” together. For Nick “It’s all about chatting and mingling, bringing families together, having picnics, drinking tea and eating cake.”
It’s as simple as that.
So what are you waiting for? Why not get planning for where your next family’s cycle adventure will take you?