The family cycles

Biking at every age and stage

Astrid Van Den Broek 0

When Toronto mom Corinne McLean Lynds first put one-year old Ben on her bike in a rear-mounted baby seat, she was so excited. “I had visions of serene family bike rides around the neighbourhood. But it didn’t work out that way at all,” she describes. “Little Ben cried the whole 10-minute ride home.” Fast-forward 18 months. “After I started picking him up from daycare on my bike, he began to love it. And then he’d cry when I made him come off! This summer, I’m looking forward to some longer family rides, although now I’ll probably have to get him his own bike.”

For fitness, fun and greener transportation, many of us are turning to pedal power. Read on for what you need to know about cycling and your children, from baby stage onwards.

Baby talk

How young is too young to cycle? Theoretically, babies can ride on your bike or in a bike trailer at as young as six months when they’re able to sit and hold their heads up, note bike store owners. But as McLean Lynds discovered, the biggest challenge is finding a helmet. “I realized that at one year Ben was still a bit small for the bike and that was most apparent when I tried to buy him a helmet small enough for his head,” she says.

It’s tough, but not impossible. “Often with children under two years old, we have to size the helmets down so we add extra foam to the inside of the helmet. The smallest size in the market is 46 cm. and babies heads are smaller than that,” says William Martinen, owner of West Side Cycle in Toronto. Adjustable helmets often range from $30–$50.

The next decision is the type of child carrying device: a rear- or front-mounted baby bike seat or a trailer that hitches to your bike. “It depends on the situation with every individual family so it’s not so much which one is right, but which one makes sense for your family,” says Martinen.

For instance, bike seats tend to be less expensive, ranging from $120 to $200. They’re convenient to tote a child around in and let your babe tuck in close behind or in front of you. The drawbacks are that they only carry one child and eat up storage room on your bike. Also the seat has a high centre of gravity and if the bike falls, the child goes down too.

A front carrier, such as the Safe-T-Seat for children four years and under, mounts just below your handlebars. Front carriers are about preference and don’t necessarily offer greater safety, says Denyse Boxell, project leader in Toronto with Safe Kids Canada. “The extra weight in front makes it harder to steer and pedal. It’s certainly not better than the rear-mounted seat where there are still balance and weight issues,” says Boxell. “If I were to look at these from a fall perspective, a trailer is safer because it’s lower to the ground.”
Ralph Armstrong, co-owner of Trek Bicycle Store in Toronto also prefers a bike trailer although he notes many parents worry because it places their children so far behind the actual bike. “I think the cart is safer because of its low centre of gravity,” he says. “If the bike goes down, the carts have a pivot and don’t go with them. And because of the cart’s large footprint and bright colours, cars are aware of them.”

Trailers also double as snow defying winter strollers and can carry more than one child. Toronto dad Bud Latanville pulls his two small boys in his Chariot Cougar trailer. “It’s incredibly well-designed,” he says. “It almost pushes itself as a stroller, and it feels almost — but not quite — weightless when you’re towing it as a trailer.” Trailers do, however, come at a cost, often starting at around $450.

Movin’ on up

It’s time to adjust that helmet for new adventures when your little one can swing her leg over a tricycle, at around age two. “At two, they can physically fit on the tricycle, but their legs aren’t usually long enough to push them all the way,” says Martinen. When shopping around, he encourages parents to avoid trikes with push handles attached on the back. “It’ll make them lazy from a very early age,” he says. “You have to encourage them to use their bodies because that’s the point.”

It’s also smart to look for a tricycle with a wide footprint so the wheels aren’t too close together, which makes it prone for tipping. And before your little one hits the streets, make sure it gets a seasonal tune up to ensure no broken wheels or handles are in their future.

I want to ride my bicycle

The tricycle stage can be short-lived, with some children ready to try their legs on a two-wheeler by age 3 ½ to 4 years. If you suspect your child is ready, you might want to invest in a “run bike” first, suggests Chris Cousineau, assistant manager of Sweet Pete’s Bike Shop in Toronto. “It’s a bike with no pedals, so they just ride it Flintstone-style running it with their feet,” says Cousineau. “It helps them learn to balance on a bike.”

Once your child’s mastered that, it’s time to tackle a 16-inch wheel bike with training wheels (kept purposely wobbly to improve balance). While children’s bikes, which range from $180–$400, are also available with smaller 12- or 14-inch wheels, most store owners recommend moving right to the 16-inch. “With those sizes of bikes, they’re problematic because you sometimes can’t get spare tires for them,” says Cousineau. “A 12-inch wheel is so small and for the price and the time period they’ll be in it, we can usually fit to a 16-inch.”

And if you’re buying the bike as a birthday surprise — which many store owners discourage because they prefer to fit a bike to a child’s size — Martinen suggests sizing the bike with a pair of your child’s pants. “If the cuff of their pants is touching the ground and clears the body length, that’s perfect,” he says.

But where should you let them learn to ride that bike? If you’re nervous about city traffic or you’re trying to teach them to pedal without training wheels, Martinen suggests heading to a schoolyard or a soccer field to practice. “Tell them they’ll fall over and encourage them to understand that falling over is a part of learning,” he says.

Ride, Sally, ride

Heading out of town with your bikes? Then you’ll likely want to invest in a bicycle carrier. A rear-mounted one can be easily installed and removed or shifted to another car and is the least expensive way to go for $80 to $120. Know that there is a small risk of scratching your car’s paint job when mounting a rack. “If you put your rack on the ground and then pick it up and don’t clean the pads off with your hand before you stick them on your car, you might pick up debris,” says Martinen.

A roof rack is considered the most secure and stable and can cost anywhere from $60 to almost $300. What kind you get depends not only on what type of car you have, but what’s in place trunk and roof wise, such as spoilers, spare tires and existing crossbars. Ask your local bike store to help figure out what’s best for you — or check out yakima.com or thuleracks.com, two rack manufacturer sites with lots of helpful information.

Tip “Buying bike equipment is absolutely you get what you pay for,” says Ralph Armstrong from Trek Bicycle Store. “With a low-quality bike, it might have lot of plastic parts and you can’t get replacement parts. And you might not get somebody to fix it or order you a new part.”

I Want to Be Free

If you’re worried about riding busy city streets with precious cargo, try quieter side streets first. Local bike stores offer free city maps with marked streets and trails, or you can find a list of bicycle-friendly streets on most city websites, such as toronto.ca/cycling/map.

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