Adaptable cyclists cope with abysmal Cambridge road layouts

This article was published in 2003, in Newsletter 51.

I live in Cherry Hinton and my daughter goes to the Spinney School. She would love to cycle there, but over this 2 km distance she would be exposed to abysmal Cambridge ‘traffic calming’. The planners for this route obviously felt that using a cyclist’s body to retard the speed of cars, vans, buses and trucks is acceptable.

Having ridden a few tandems in the past (including up Ditchling Beacon three times without putting a foot down) I knew this was a good way to control my daughter’s position on the road. A trailer bike is just too unstable for my liking and seriously saps power. The trailer buggy that we have is now getting a bit too small for her, and on too many badly designed cycle routes, old and new, it is now just too much hassle. It is narrower and lower than a wheelchair, but often does not fit safely into painted cycle lanes, is still almost unusable through all the ‘pram handles,’ and is very tedious to walk through thoughtlessly positioned chicanes. A tandem is about the same length as a single bike plus trailer, so the same chicanes will stop me again.

Kiddie cranks.
Image as described adjacent

The one problem with tandems and children is how to get them to pedal. In tandem circles (a seriously dedicated group) there are two options: kiddie cranks or kiddie back tandems.

Kiddie cranks are great because you can use a full size tandem and even use it with another adult by swapping the pedals to the lower cranks while keeping the upper kiddie cranks in place. They do cost around £135 plus about £40 for cranks the right length for children (about 140 mm or less for a six-year-old) as the 170 mm cranks usually supplied are hopelessly too long (see my daughter’s leg travel in picture). However you would easily sell these on in the tandem world once your child has outgrown them.

The option I have gone for is a kiddie back tandem (see photograph). This is the cheaper route if you want a more modern tandem, but one point to note is that they may not take a rear child seat. I will be looking into making an adapter for mine, but the stability with the middle stoker missing may be an issue.

Kiddie cranks are great because you can use a full size tandem

Second-hand ‘proper’ tandems a few years old start around £400, add to this the kiddie cranks and the outlay is around £550. Although hard to find, second-hand kiddie back tandems cost around £300. I believe only Thorn and Dawes make them at the moment and if you wanted to buy new you would find there is quite a waiting list. It is like buying a Morgan car!

Hired Dawes TwoCan child-back tandem.
Image as described adjacent

I was lucky and located a Dawes TwoCan at a hire centre, immediately put a deposit on it, and will be its new owner very soon. The hire centre put an order in for this bike six months before it turned up, so I was very lucky and saved a few hundred pounds over new. The outlay on our tandem is the same as the true running costs of our two cars in a month.

Now I have my daughter in a safer position my next trick is to escape the ‘triangle of steel’ (the M11, A11 and A14) with her. While I can brave the very fast A-road junctions to the south-east, there is no way I would subject my daughter to this. This is a problem because I would like to challenge her to cycling to Ipswich on the tandem. A route I often travel on, all of the twisty 65 miles are fine except for the first five out of Cambridge. I believe it is possible by a long easterly byway detour but how muddy this will get remains to be seen.

Our household has two cars, two children and two working parents. We are discouraged from cycling very far by poor road layouts, even the 2 km to school, yet so desperate are we to cycle safely with our children we have become adept at coping with the difficulties.

But please note, if you see a yellow tandem in your mirror – move over!

Matthew Polaine