Cycling At All Ages

We hear from cyclists of all ages about their experiences of riding, and teaching their children to ride.

By Amy Walker

If you look at most mainstream cycling publications, you’d think that the only people riding bikes in North America are youthful, fit people from 20 to 45. It’s rare to see the rest of us: cycling kids, teens, grandmas and grandpas, represented in the media. But biking is not just for thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies. We are not all messengers and triathletes. People at all ages and abilities, and at all phases of life choose cycling for everyday transport – because they enjoy it and because it makes so much sense. But when the media only shows the hipsters on fixies and the sporty-looking young athletes, the rest of the population gets a skewed image of what cycling is all about. Learning from the experiences of cycling families, and elder bikers, and making our roads and cycling culture more inclusive will help us create cities and neighbourhoods that invite everyone to ride.

For this issue we wanted to learn more about cycling at a variety of ages and stages of life. What we found is that this subject is huge and there’s way more here than we could possibly fit into one magazine. We acknowledge that this is the tip of the iceberg – about cycling with children, about cycling as we get older and about all the ages and stages in between. We’re very inspired by what we are learning – and we’ll continue seeking out the stories of children and families – as the safety and education of young cyclists is a fundamental part of transforming our society into one that considers cycling first and foremost as a great way to get around.

Infants

When should you bring your baby into the world of biking? Many parents we spoke to began bringing their children in a trailer or bike-mounted seat when their infant was about 10 months to one year old – or when the infant’s neck muscles were strong enough to hold their head up. A helmet adds extra weight, which can put too much stress on the infant’s neck – especially with any jostling movements. Decide the right time based on the child’s development and strength, not their age. While some prefer the trailer as a more stable option and some prefer the bike-mounted child’s seat to keep kids close while riding, ultimately it is a personal decision based on what the parent prefers and what the child will accept. Here are some of the experiences we heard about in the parent’s own words.

There is such a great feeling of anticipation and excitement when heading out for the babies first ride. It’s a rare thing to get to enjoy something we love so much for the first time all over again.

—Charles Johnson, 34

Minneapolis, MN

My advice for starting with infants is to start easy, ride slowly, look for a trailer with good suspension, and choose your route to favour smooth roads at first, but don’t necessarily wait for the recommended one year before riding with the baby.

—Selena Lam, 35

Vancouver, BC

We almost always ride as a family. Having a wing man (or woman) to help negotiate traffic takes away some of the stress of sharing roads with cars; you also have someone to help load and unload the child seat. Most child seat accidents occur when not moving – NEVER trust a kickstand to hold your bike up while loaded with a child.

I have also found that having a good, heavy-duty basket on the front of the bike is awesome when using a rear mounted child seat. You need somewhere to put the diaper bag / toys / picnic basket.

Lastly, Have fun. Our kids LOVE travelling by bike, and prefer it to any other type of transportation.

—Justin Shufelt, 31

Vancouver, BC

Be confident that you are doing a good thing for your child, yourself, and your community. Don’t be afraid (where it feels reasonably safe) to take your place in traffic, instead of relegating yourselves only to sidewalks and bike trails. Dress your child in layers, and bring extra provisions like snacks and small toys. Affix a bell or horn to your child’s seat that only s/he can control.

Point out fun things, sing silly songs, count birds…

—Lisa Phillips, 37

Chicago, IL

If I had to do it again, I’d use the trailer and perhaps the Xtracycle with the infant seat attachment. We’ve been using the Xtracycle for two kids, now aged five and eight. I cannot overstate how useful I find the Xtracycle. With the centrestand attachment, it is much safer to load kids than any bike with a regular kid seat.

—Jun Nogami, 49,

Toronto, ON

It is a FANTASTIC way to get around, to show your children the neighbourhood they live and go to school in. This is the most fun way to get around, to work, school, etc. I think the fact that he was always out with us on the bike seat when he was little primed him to become a real bike commuter by the time he was eight.

—Rebecca Margulies, 37

Berkeley, CA

About riding with kids: You need to use your parenting instinct – I know four-year-olds who are able to sit on an Xtracycle without a kid seat and I know six-year olds that I would only take in a bakfiets (preferably sedated!).

—Martina Fahrner, 43

Portland, OR

Children – Learning to Ride

These days, using training wheels is almost unanimously discouraged in teaching young children to ride, as kids do not learn balance and can become dependent on the training wheels. Instead, parents prefer the pedal-less Runner Bike, Like-a-Bike, or Skuut at first to teach balance. Another approach is to remove the pedals and cranks from a small child’s bike until they are able to balance and cruise. Then replace the pedals and cranks and see how they do at pedalling. Find an open space like a schoolyard for practicing to give your child more freedom, and you less worries.

NickWilson, a mechanic at Rapid Transit Cycles in Chicago and father of a seven-year-old, says: “A bike is a transitive thing. Kids are going to outgrow it.” Your child will go through several bicycles. The initial bike will probably be a 16″ wheel bike with coaster brakes as young children’s hands are not strong enough to squeeze brake levers. Over the next couple years they can move through a 20″ wheel – and possibly a geared bike at around age eight, a 24″ wheel around age ten and by the time they hit five feet tall they can get into adult-sized frames.

Nick recommends teaching kids early to keep their fingers out of the moving parts and not to drop the bike: “I tell them it’s like a horse and will get hurt like a horse.” And some more words of wisdom from the parents:

Teaching balance separately from pedalling makes so much sense. Both our daughters went straight from the Like-a-Bike to a regular bike without training wheels.

—Jun Nogami, 49

Toronto, ON

A key prop in the teaching process is something we called the “Fred-stick” named after my dad, who used it to teach me to ride when I was growing up in NYC. The Fred-stick is a long, thin piece of wood attached to the kid’s bike seat. The parent can run along with the kid, and doesn’t have to break his/her back by bending all the way over. When the kid seems fairly comfortable, let go of the Fred-stick, and watch your baby fly away!

—Rebecca Margulies, 37

Berkeley, CA

Making sure they can stop at the corners is job one. Watching your child roll through an intersection into the path of a car is a nightmare – I know!

—John Robert Williams, 54

Traverse City Michigan

Children – Learning to Ride with Traffic

Making sure children have the riding skills, as well as the attentiveness required for the road are important. Using a trail-a-bike attached to the back of the parents bike, an Xtracycle, or a modified tandem can give young kids the experience of riding in traffic without the responsibility for their own safety. At about 7 to 11, once they have learned to ride a pedal bicycle, kids are probably ready to start learning more riding skills and street sense. Enrolling children in a streetwise cycling program avoids parent-child stresses around biking, and leaves the job up to the experts. These courses should teach bike-handling skills and introduce common hazards. They can usually be found through local cycling advocacy groups. Cycling with kids is a great way for them to learn about their neighbourhoods. Being ferried around in a car is no match for riding and discovering on a bike. Small steps in orientation and independence also make for an easier transition when children are older and ready to to explore on their own. More thoughts from the parents:

Both my kids were about 10 or 11 when they learned the traffic laws, and would ride into town to the library or to visit the toy store. My son rode two miles each way to school when he was about 12. He wore a helmet, had a headlight and a rear blinking light, and rode with the morning traffic.

You teach kids how to ride safely, and to ride defensively: never assume drivers see you or will stop. It is important to obey the traffic laws and be courteous to pedestrians and drivers.

—Wendy Peabody, 49

Monterey Bay, CA

My husband, Hugh, and son, Max (9), have a language of hand symbols when Hugh rides in front of Max. If Hugh rides past a parked car and notices a person inside the car, he will point his right pinkie finger at the car and shake it to make Max aware that someone’s in the car, and that the door could open at any time. Another game we played was giving Max “points” every time he noticed a person in a car and shouted it out. Max is now a great street rider and commutes to school with his dad (six miles each way) three days a week.

—Rebecca Margulies, 37

Berkeley, CA

We take part in the Kidical Mass rides that are really helpful and a lot of fun!

kidicalmass.org

—Martina Fahrner, 43

Portland, OR

Elders

I ride with cyclists as old as 80. I wouldn’t speak of seniors in terms of limitations – not seniors who ride bicycles, anyway. I had to train for two years to keep up with one 74-year-old woman. Most of them have been riding since the 1960s. Many put thousands of annual miles on their bikes.

— Diane Strock Royal, 57

Washington, DC

My dad is now 89, he still rides – a stylin’ recumbent trike. He was having balance problems after an illness and he fell off his bike. My long-time friend had this cool 27-speed recumbent trike. I brought it home for my dad. He thought we were trying to put him in a wheelchair and resisted. But everyone loved the bike and asked him questions. He realized it was a cool bike. He could sit and chat and not tip over. He’s got a remote for the garage door mounted next to his headlight and speedometer. We put a basket on the back, he shops with it and goes to meet the guys at the coffee shop every morning, instead of driving. The nice thing about recumbent trikes is the low step-over height.

—John Robert Williams, 54

Traverse City Michigan

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