Biking with kids and without - getting your dependants independent on the road

Many of our guest blog posts are written by 'experts' or campaigners in some way - but those of us who also simply ride are probably the real experts when it comes to what gets people cycling. Here's one perspective from Catherine Wilks:

Hello! I’m very excited about this opportunity to share my cycling enthusiasms and disappointments; all the more so as I am new to your site and to blogging in general. My first reaction to being asked to contribute to your invaluable efforts was that I am hardly qualified, not being a seasoned campaigner or a hardcore road cyclist. That didn’t last long, however, and I soon realised that there was no way I could pass up the chance to witter on about something that matters to me. So...I’ll try to set out why I cycle, why and how my kids cycle, and how I think we could cycle more. I’m a single mother of 2 daughters aged 10 and 14. I’m 44 and live in Surbiton, and cycle regularly to work, into Kingston, to visit friends, and also once a week for fun. I’ve got a mountain bike which weighs a ton, and am currently sniffing around road bikes... but that is for another time.

Cycling? I absolutely love it. It is of course the nearest thing to flying I can think of (apart from skiing- a less virtuous pleasure of mine) without leaving the ground. It also happens to be about the best way of getting around my area of south-west London for pretty much any purpose (OK, maybe not the weekly Waitrose). I have always used cycling as a means of transport, and really it is only comparatively recently that I have approached cycling in any other way. Having grown up in York, where cycling is extremely well catered for, it has always been how I insinuated myself into city centres, smugly leaving the traffic standing. It just seems natural.

Even during my university years in Manchester I used my bike to cover the greater distances and more urban terrain, feeling distinctly less vulnerable on a bike than I might have done on foot or even on a bus. Maybe my youthful feeling of immortality contributed to this! It was certainly a different experience from my cosseted York days, as during my teens the head of transport for the York City Centre moved into the house behind ours. A keen cyclist, he rode to work every day. Within a short time, (as if by magic) a marvellous cycle path along the riverside from our street to the city centre had sprung up: smooth tarmac, completely traffic-free, well- lit, swift and just all-round excellent. Naturally it linked into a pretty seamless network of almost equally gorgeous cycle paths. This is surely the dream.

Alas, not every neighbourhood can be gifted a pro-cycling visionary with total power over local authority transport budgets. Now I have children of my own who are becoming independent on bikes, I am viscerally aware of the gaps in the local safe cycling network, despite having chosen my quiet little backwater neighbourhood with more than half an eye to the lack of traffic when we moved here 11 years ago.

As a teenager, cycling gave me independence and freedom just when I needed it (if your parents are picking you up, how can you go to the pub when you’ve told them you’re at the cinema?) As a student, it gave me cheap transport, and a feeling of belonging to the city. In my twenties, I didn’t even have a bike for much of the time- I moved house every year, and hardly touched ground before everything had to be packed in to the boot of my car again. I returned to my bike in my thirties, with two small children, a bike seat, and eventually a series of decreasingly pink and sparkly small bikes tootling alongside. I now want my children to have what I was lucky enough to have as a child - access to freedom and independence by means of a bike. But safely.

I am hopeful that this is achievable in the long term, as near traffic gridlock approaches London. Boris bikes have to help here, as more people are tempted by the convenience. Cycling as sport/ leisure seems to be on the rise, safely absorbing and defusing he mid-life crises of a largeish fraction of my male acquaintance. This can only be a good thing.

Nonetheless, it’s not always entirely straightforward to use you bike regularly, especially with children. Provision is distinctly patchy. Cycle networks are pretty good at directing you via quiet back roads; much less impressive when it comes to making space for bikes on main thoroughfares. Sharing bus lanes as an adult might liven up your commute with the awareness of your own mortality: with kids it is just scary. So many more people would surely feel able to use their bikes if we were given a better share of the road.

In the meantime, we are reliant on teaching our children to cycle safely, for which the splendid Bikeability scheme deserves tremendous thanks. For myself, this has meant shedding a number of terrible cycling habits which my thrill-seeking streak had allowed to creep in. - I now wear a helmet (most of the time). I have always been a fanatical hand-signaller. I always cycle on the road and use the additional height we have as cyclists to dominate and look confident, taking up the space on the road that is my due. I abide by traffic lights (mostly). This is what I try to teach my children.

Sometimes my heart has been in my mouth. Confidently moving into the middle lane at a junction (Villiers Road across the Ewell Road to go down St Marks Hill into Surbiton, if this means anything to you) can be tricky enough for inexperienced road cyclists. Doing that with your precious brood tailing you is quite another thing, and requires considerable acting skills! Very often, however, the only alternative is a narrow pavement where bike, buggies and pedestrians are all battling it out. It would be so great if timed pedestrian crossings routinely allowed separate space for bikes, where a bike lane on the actual road is not practicable.

So far, though, it seems to have worked, and my 14-year-old now cycles to school and also into Kingston for her no-doubt innocent social activities. Hooray! My 10-year-old looks pretty confident on local streets, having just passed her Bikeability. She can go out on her bike with friends, and I’m fairly safe in the knowledge that she will be aware of traffic and other dangers. There is no escaping the element of risk involved, however, but as parents we start making these calculations from the moment the blue line appears on the stick.

So anything which helps more people calculate the risks as low enough to tolerate has to be welcome. If I had to isolate one thing which would really help, it would be better provision at junctions; these are the real weak spots in the networks. Let’s hope that we soon get a critical mass of regular cyclists out and about to increase our presence.

One last thing: if only it would stop raining! A bit of help from the climate is surely the least we can expect in return for the favour we cyclists are doing the environment...



Hi.  Thanks for a fun post.  But as a Dad who is wondering how to fill the chasm between the child seat the little one is fast growing out of, and the confident bikeability trained 14-year-old I was hoping for the story of how your cycling with kids developed, rather than your own cycling history and more reminders of how bike-unfriendly our roads are. :(

I'm currently wondering about tagalongs, or maybe even a tandem, or bigger seats on cargo bikes?  What age can they realistically use their own bikes in earnest, and for what kind of rides?  I've seen parents ride on the road with little ones on the pavement.  Does that work?  When and how to go from child as passenger to child as independent cyclist alongside parent.  I guess it's a gradual thing we'll work out as we go....




Hi there Biguana

To my mind there are really only two options in the bikeseat-to-bike transition: A tagalong or a Trail-Gator:

We have owned a Trail-Gator for a decade, and have used it both on- and off-road for hundreds if not thousands of KM, on several different adult and kids bikes. It's now lent out to a friend long-term as their kids make the transition ours did. Here's a piccy of it in action in New Zealand - (note helmets for all, on a Sunday morning, on a waterfront shared path with no cars)

It's up to you to decide when your child is ready for the transition. For us, it was at around three years old, that you can trust them to sit still and hang on. Giving them their own bell (or squeaky green frog) helps.

The upside of the Trail-Gator over a tagalong is that you can swap bikes easily - both the child and the adult. They sell extra adapters for both the parent and child bikes. We have swapped the brackets on and off 4 different bikes as our girls have grown through different frame sizes. As the Trail-Gator folds up and clicks onto the frame it is easily transportable, and you can then ride alongside the child at the park, etc.

Can't recommend one highly enough. They are heavy, being made of steel, but you really do want something strong for this job as there's a lot of force going on. You need to do up the child headset bracket really, *really* tight to prevent it slipping and putting the child bike on even the smallest of angles. I've padded the bracket out with mild steel shims to protect the frame, even on an Aluminium-framed Isla bike there were no problems.

It also helps to put a 'mudguard' on the lower section of the Trail-Gator arm, to save the child from a faceful of muck. An A4-Size bit of Coreflute ('Real Estate sign') and two hefty zip-ties works brilliantly for this.

With care it is possible to do some quite gnarly off-road trails with a Trail-Gator, if you pay attention to the ramp-angle and don't go over anything high enough to catch the front wheel of the child's bike.

Good luck - it's a wonderful time.





Thanks for the brilliant feedback! I think KiwiMike's response is probably as comprehensive as it gets; but just to answer, here's my own experience. Tagalongs seem brilliant but were pretty rare when I was at that stage, so I never used one. Instead it was all about having the kids riding along parallel on the pavement. I think this is a necessary stage, but one that requires a lot of patience: every side road has to be dealt with by stopping and doing a crossing drill. At least it builds awareness of what is going on to the left, however! I'd love to see Bikeability introduced from an earlier age. Currently it's about age 10, but younger kids would get so much from learning with peers from an experienced instructor, rather than a terrified parent!