Pedalling the family way

This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 155.

Children can start participating in family cycle trips from as young as three years old. Sarah Hughes explores some of the many cycle options on offer to help them share the ride.

“I love pedalling!” shouts my three year old. She enjoys her first outing on our Circe Helios triplet so much that she insists we go out twice more later that day. I get a sense she understands that she’s just unlocked a new chapter in her cycling life.

Cargo bikes are widespread in Cambridge, but family cycling options that enable children to pedal – trailerbikes, FollowMes, tandems and triplets – are perhaps rarer. Like cargo bikes, they allow families to cycle distances, at speeds and on routes that children would struggle to cope with on their own bikes, but have the important benefits that children build strength and stamina while pedalling and gain road experience. On a trailerbike and tandem in particular, children sit very close to the adult rider, so they are great options for teaching road awareness: you can talk about what you see in front of you as you ride and highlight the decisions you’re making. Perhaps most importantly, though, by pedalling children get to feel that they are fully participating in a family’s cycling life, which can be very motivating.

Local families and members of the Family Cycling UK Facebook Group shared with me their experiences of family cycles for pedalling kids.

Trailerbikes

Anna’s family use an Islabikes trailerbike which requires a spanner to connect it to the permanent rack attachment. (Note also the child-seat attachment and trailer hitch in this picture for fully flexible options!)

Trailerbikes (also known as tagalongs) consist of a single wheel, handlebars, seat(s), pedals and sometimes gears. Most accommodate one child in an upright position, but some accommodate two. They attach to adult bikes either at the seatpost or via a special rear rack (most users I spoke to strongly recommend the latter). They pivot at the point of attachment, can be detached for transport or storage, and some models can be fitted with panniers.

Camcycle’s Anna Williams spoke enthusiastically about the benefits of trailerbikes. Her family initially used a secondhand, seatpost-mounted tagalong, which proved useful, but when they upgraded to two Islabike rack-mounted trailerbikes (c. 1990s and sadly no longer available), they really noticed the difference! She says these are extremely good quality and stay perfectly upright the whole time. Anna’s youngest started riding them at three and a half and still uses them frequently aged five. Anna’s eight year old still fits nicely too and enjoys being stoker, but her ten year old feels a bit too big on them now. Anna’s family wanted an option that switched easily between adult bikes (although she says their models are a bit fiddly to attach using a spanner). They have found having additions to adult bikes, rather than whole extra child-carrying cycles, to be a good option in terms of storage space and flexibility. They have also been cost-effective, particularly as they were purchased secondhand.

Richard and Alice use a WeeRide Co Pilot for journeys around Cambridge.

Richard Atkinson and his daughter use a WeeRide Co Pilot for all their cycle journeys in Cambridge. Richard says “Alice really loves it, she knows it’s much quicker and easier than walking”. He appreciates the fact that it’s inexpensive, light and you can go pretty fast on it, compared with other heavier options, such as cargo bikes. Richard detaches the trailerbike for storage after every journey using its quick-release mechanism, however attaching it only takes a couple of minutes. He says that the adult rider needs to get used to the handling of the bike-tagalong combination. He allows longer stopping distances and adjusts for the bike’s much bigger turning circle. He has also learnt to keep the bike stable if Alice wobbles.

Iona explored Devon and Cornwall using a Weehoo bike trailer.

Tom and Katie Jones and their daughters, then five and four, cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats using trailerbikes. Tom thinks the rack-mounted Islabike is a great option as it is manoeuvrable and lightweight, compared to a FollowMe. Terry Adams from Royston used a Weehoo bike trailer (a recumbent trailerbike with a backrest and seatbelt) with his daughter Iona, before she was confident balancing on a bike to cover 15-20 miles a day, on routes in Devon and Cornwall including the Strawberry Line, Camel Trail and a section of the Tarka Trail.

FollowMe

When Terry Adam’s daughter Iona was approaching five, she graduated to cycling her own bike attached to Terry’s using a FollowMe tandem hitch – a device that tows a child’s bike behind an adult bike. Tom McKeown’s review in Newsletter 126 (June-July 2016) describes the FollowMe in detail. It accommodates bikes with 12” to 20” wheels, so works with children aged approximately three to eight, and is inexpensive compared to a tandem.

The Adams family’s four-day tour of the John Muir way was made possible by the FollowMe.

Terry chose this option as he particularly wanted Iona to cycle independently some of the time, then be towed when she tired. Terry finds it stable and secure and hasn’t found the additional weight on his bike a problem. He attaches/detaches Iona’s bike in about 3 or 4 minutes.
When Iona was five, she and Terry did a four-day cycle tour along the east side of the John Muir Way using the FollowMe. The trip was a great success, made feasible by the FollowMe as Iona couldn’t manage a full day of independent riding. The FollowMe also made travelling to the start of the tour by train hassle-free, as Terry knew the bikes, when detached, would fit on the train. So much fun was had that they returned in 2021 to complete the west side of the John Muir Way and also rode from London to Brighton later that summer. They are avid FollowMe fans!

Why we use a FollowMe

Tom and his daughter using a FollowMeI wanted a cycling option that included the child’s full bike, so we could use the attachment to take them somewhere to ride. Previously our son’s balance bike often travelled with us strapped to the parcel rack.

With the FollowMe we can allow the kids to ride solo on quieter or off-road routes such as the northern busway, but attach them back on for busier routes or to help them once they’re tired of riding alone. With each of our children we started at age 4 and our eldest used it until he was around 7 or 8.

I’ve found that the FollowMe eliminates the leaning movement from other bike towing options. For me the lean from a Tag-a-Long’s connection from seat stem to handlbar stem was alarming for me waiting in traffic and didn’t provide the correct balancing experience for the children to learn from.

Tom McKeown

Tandems and triplets

 

Sarah and daughters ride a triplet on the 2022 Reach Ride.

Tandems and triplets come in many different shapes and sizes to suit different purposes and rider teams, with some accommodating very young children. Although the most expensive option, they often offer the best riding experience and can be great for longer trips and touring. A triplet is also the best option if two children want to pedal with one adult rider (twin trailerbikes tend to be unstable). The users I spoke to mentioned a few practicalities to bear in mind if you are considering acquiring a tandem or triplet. These bikes are longer than standard cycles, so storage, parking, transport by car and train, and routes with chicanes are more challenging, the degree of which will depend on the model, length and weight of the bike. Triplet and tandem users also tend to become familiar with maintaining and modifying their bikes, as they are harder to recover if they break down than a regular cycle, and need to be adapted to fit as children grow.

Tom Jones and family (@FamilyByCycle) from Wellingborough have an Onderwater triplet, a Thorn Me ‘n’ U2 childback triplet and a Thorn Raven childback tandem. Tom is a big fan of pedalling options, over family cargo bikes (he moved his three elder children out of the bike trailer and onto pedals at around three or four), as they give his children a sense of enfranchisement in their family’s exciting and adventurous cycling life.

He says the Onderwater is his family’s “people carrier”: a practical option for short, everyday cycling trips (school run, shopping) of around 1.5 miles with his younger kids aged nine, eight and three. There’s room for an extra toddler saddle in front of the adult rider and a child/junior bike seat to the rear. There’s also space for lots of cargo in the bike’s front box (his addition) and the Croozer trailer he tows.

The Jones boys demonstrate their ‘people carrier’ set up: an Onderwater tandem with front box and trailer, while the girls cycle the Thorn triplet , a lighter and faster option for touring and sport.

The Onderwater is unusual in that the stokers sit at the front of the bike and the adult pilot steers from the back seat (my son loved this design when we test-rode one). Tom says this makes the bike especially good for teaching roadcraft, as the children have such a good view of the route ahead of them when seated in height order. He also notices a difference when three pairs of eyes, rather than one, communicate intent to other road users. Another child-friendly feature is the freewheel mechanism: children can sit with the cranks level while the adult continues to cycle so, the pedals don’t hit them when they have a rest.

The bike is huge, so Tom feels it has great presence on the road when ridden in primary position, which is helpful when the infrastructure is inhospitable. Despite its size, he says it is ‘impeccable’ to ride, and remains well-planted on the road, even when going fast downhill. Tom’s plans for the future include adding e-assist, as he thinks this would make his Onderwater a true car replacement for his family (longer trips or hilly routes are hard work). I would add that the Onderwater tandem is much lighter than the triplet and easier to cycle, and is a much more approachable option without e-assist.

Tom uses his lighter and faster Thorn triplet and tandem as touring and sport bikes for 50+ mile days with his eight and nine year old daughters. He’s used them with children from about four to twelve, with lots of adjustment and swapping of components to get a perfect fit for each individual rider. Of his Thorn triplet, he says: “On a flat road, with your little crew on the back, it’s a rocket ship. I absolutely love the surge of power Ruth and Rhoda can deliver when you put the hammer down. It’s like a human e-assist, and once you get it wound up, it really does motor”.

The Moggridge’s Circe Helios has adapted as their family has grown, transforming from a standard tandem to one with two child seats and then on to a three-saddle triplet.

Geoff Moggridge and family use the extremely flexible Circe Helios, which can adapt as a family grows and carry cargo as well as kids. Geoff originally used the bike as a tandem to go touring with his wife. After his children were born, the bike was reconfigured to fit two child seats in place of the second saddle. Once his elder daughter was old enough to pedal, her bike seat was replaced with a child-size saddle and crankset. When it was time for his younger daughter to pedal, the bike was converted from tandem length to a triplet, with a second child-size saddle and crankset. You can hear their story and watch their bike in action at camcycle.org.uk/videos. For more Helios inspiration, read how Yasmin and Chris Emerson and their three children use triplets and tandems for cycling touring and to enable their car-free life in Magazine 145 (Winter 2019) and Magazine 151 (Summer 2021).

The first try-out of the kiddy cranks was a wonderful eye-opening moment!

Rachel and her husband also adapted their existing tandem – a 1972 George Stratton – for their child to ride. Inspired by her husband’s childhood tandem-riding experiences, they fitted kiddy cranks (a seat tube attachment that allows a child-size crankset to be fitted part way up a rear seat tube) so that their then two and a half year old could ride in stoker position. Rachel says the first tryout was a wonderful, eye-opening moment. She was nervous, but her son, already proficient on his balance bike, coped just fine sitting high up on the bike seat. In fact, he really enjoyed himself and went on to use the tandem a lot with his father. The experiment was such a success that when their second child reached a similar age, they fitted out a second tandem (one her husband had ridden as a child from his parents’ garage) so they could ride as a family. Her younger child also rode a FollowMe, but definitely preferred the tandem, as he sat higher up, could communicate more easily with the adult rider and reach any snacks in the adult’s jersey! Rachel and her husband use their tandems for everyday cycling, leisure rides and camping tours. Her eldest now much prefers riding his own bike, but her youngest still chooses to use a modified tandem.

The content on this page has been produced as part of City Changer Cargo Bike, a Horizon 2020 Cycle Logistics programme delivered in partnership with Cambridgeshire County Council. The project aims to raise awareness and support the uptake of cargo bikes and cargo bike initiatives.
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