Thursday, 26 May 2016

Cycling With Children, Part III: Problems (and Solutions?)

The Netherlands. It's flat and you are certain to be able to borrow a bike and carrier but only the Brits wear helmets.
So you've earmarked your perfect velocipede, you've set up a Facebook account purely so that you can join a local 'Buy and Sell' group and keep an eye out for bargain-basement second-hand bike  trailers and you've unearthed your old school rucksack from the cupboard under the stairs. Purchasing apart, you're ready to get out there with the kids and go biking.
Or are you?
Generally speaking, cycling with a child on board is simply an exaggerated version of cycling alone, with a few other unique complications thrown in. With this in mind, are you already quaking at the thought of all the hills you'll have to cycle up? Are you waking up screaming at midnight because you dreamt that you had a puncture 23 miles from home? Or are you simply in fear of The Unknown? You're not alone.

Unforeseen Problem #1: What happens when I get to a hill?
Ah yes, hills. Keen cyclists love 'em and take a morbid interest in pedalling up the biggest ones they can find as fast as possible. Not so, your average Joe. He's quite content to find the flat way round and where he goes, the kids go too. Unfortunately for Joe not everywhere is flat. Hills, of whatever size, are an unavoidable part of cycling and they're even tougher with a kid on board; so when he gets to a hill what should Joe do?
1) Sit down by the side of the road, burst into tears and phone someone to pick him (and kid) up in the car.
2) Pedal grimly onward, reminding himself how good it will be for him in the long run and what a nice view he'll get from the top.
3) Go home and join a gym. Then attempt the same ride six months later.
4) Give up cycling completely and explain to his children that it's really much more fun to explore the countryside by car, bus or with somebody else doing the pedalling.

Unforeseen Problem #2: What happens when I go downhill?
When I was much younger I used to cunningly devise cycle routes that ensured I went down all the big hills and only had to pedal up the small ones. My horizons have expanded since and this is no longer possible but going downhill itself is still good fun...or terrifying. You will find it particularly exciting when the child in the seat behind starts jigging joyfully from side to side and your bicycle begins to swerve uncontrollably across the road. Sure does help to up the heart-rate, especially when there's a car coming the other way.

Unforeseen Problem #3: It's flat.
Surely that's a good thing, right? After all, that's why everyone in the Netherlands rides a bike.
No hills = no effort. Well, not entirely. Flat countryside can, alas, be dreadfully exposed.
I took my eldest for a ride by the sea one day. It's lovely and flat there and the sea wall that runs along the coast is ideal for cycling. Great, I thought, hitching the bike trailer on the back and swinging merrily into the saddle; one beautiful, mega-easy cycle ride coming up. Heading roughly West to East the cycling was a doddle, the prevailing wind was behind us, the trailer's extra weight added momentum and we sailed along at a rapid pace. Life was wonderful. Then we turned round and suddenly it felt as though I was trying to cycle through a wind tunnel. The gale howled in our faces - well, my face anyway, Sonny Boy being comfortably seated in the trailer - and every thrust on the pedals was an effort. It didn't help that the trailer was increasing wind resistance. Cyclists going in the opposite direction whizzed past at unimaginable speeds, looking hale and hearty. I viewed them sourly. muttered rude things about them under what breath I had left and wished I could see their faces when they had to pedal back. Most of all, I wished I was going the same direction they were.
Next time I cycle by the coast I'm going to make sure the wind is behind me all the way. Someone can drop me at one end of the route and pick me up at the other.

Unforeseen Problem #4: What about potholes?
If you live in a place where there are a lot of potholes in the road then the cycle trailer is not recommended. Unfortunately, because the trailer is quite wide it's not always possible to avoid going into a pothole, or even off the side of the road when cars are around, particularly on narrow country lanes. Trailer suspension is limited so this will give the occupants of the trailer a very bumpy ride. Some children like that, some don't so it very much depends upon your passenger's temperament too. 

Unforeseen Problem #5: What if it rains?
You get wet. If the child is strapped into a rear-mounted seat then they get wet as well, unless heavily swaddled in waterproofs. If they are in a trailer it's a different story. Trailers come equipped with coverings that can be pulled over in the event of bad weather. This keeps the child or children dry. Check the weather before you set out.

Unforeseen Problem #6: The child falls asleep.
Yes, it may sound extraordinary. How could a child possibly fall asleep while sitting in a hard plastic seat bumping along on the back of your bike? Believe me, it happens. Suddenly you will find that your routine enquiry of 'You alright, Jack/Fred/Emily/Florence?' receives no answer. You glance over your shoulder and see, out of the corner of your eye, the little passenger slumped sideways, eyes closed and head bouncing up and down like one of those nodding dogs that people have on the car dashboard. If this happens I prefer it if the child falls asleep leaning towards the side of the road; if they go the other way I always have an irrational fear that a passing car is going to whack into them. Unfortunately, children, even when asleep, are obstinate and it doesn't seem to make any difference if you stop the bike and shift them to a safer position; as soon as you start off again they immediately return to where they were.

Unforeseen Problem #7: Luggage.
Cycling is a great way of finding out what things really are essential because you have to carry everything. It's amazing how much stuff you can suddenly find you don't really need when you realise that every bit of it has to go in the rucksack on your hot and sweaty back. Even so, there are still a lot of things that simply can't be left behind and water, which is about the heaviest thing of all, is one of them. You might think that you, as the one doing the work, are the only one who needs liquid refreshment but try telling that to the kid when you stop and take a swig. Unless you want to share your bottle (cue reproachful "Daddy, can I have a drink please?" from behind) and drink the bubbly remnants of your little one's backwash, the transport of at least two bottles is essential.
As an example, here is my basic luggage for a morning bike ride with Isaac:
1) Helmets (x2)
2) Waist bag (from Mountain Warehouse,, containing: 
* Nearly-empty pack of wet wipes (takes up less space than a new pack), 1x nappy, 1x nappy bag and 1x dummy.
* 2x cereal bars
* Mobile phone
* Water - Isaac's cup and a bottle for me.
There's even a bit of space left over for a set of keys and some loose change. And an extra jumper/waterproof can be carried in the bike's water bottle holder if you need to.

So there you have it. For the ideal cycle ride all you need to do is pick a fine day and locate a place which has nice views, very few hills (and no big ones), is sheltered, has very little traffic and where the roads are well looked-after. And has refreshment stands every two miles. Do let me know if you find it, won't you.

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