Biking with kids is all the rage in Portland these days, but biking with six kids between the ages of 2 and 11? That’s something I never would have thought possible before I met southeast Portland resident Emily Finch.
Finch, 34, is a powerhouse. Watching her pedal her bakfiets cargo bike with four kids in the front, another one in a child seat behind her, and another one on a bike attached to hers via the rear rack, is a sight that not only inspires — it forces you to re-think what’s possible.
A few days ago, I rolled over to the Finch house in Ladd’s Addition to join Emily and the kids on a trip to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). I pulled up to a scene of five kids (and one doll) already strapped into the bakfiets and three others milling about. Hey that’s eight! I thought to myself. It turned out Emily invited a few neighborhood kids to come along.
Before we rolled out, I met the young Finches: Nathan, 11; Mary, 9; Lucy, 7; Ben, 5; Olivia, 4; and Maya, 2.
Emily’s usual set-up is three kids up front, one on the child seat, one pedaling an attached bike (usually Mary), and Nathan riding by himself. As we set off toward OMSI, I got to observe the Finch-mobile in action. It was massive and it was alive with sounds and movement. Heads and arms bobbled while music blared from the on-board sound system.
“I thought I’d made the biggest, stupidest, most expensive mistake in my whole life. I thought I couldn’t ride it. It was seriously exhausting.”
— Emily Finch
Emily was wearing a dress, a black leather vest, a Bern helmet with built-in visor, and stylish, open-toed shoes. She’s a relatively small woman, which made her command of the vehicle — and the style with which she operated it — all the more impressive.
Faced with pedaling several hundred pounds (she once estimated a load of groceries, kids, and gear at 550 pounds) she has perfected a technique to deliver maximum power to the pedals. With that large a load, just sitting down won’t do. When needed, Emily rises out of the saddle, grabs her handlebars like a weightlifter grabs a barbell, and stands over her pedals with a pumping motion that keeps her moving at regular biking speed among city traffic. The bike attached to the rear of the bakfiets is a key part of the motor. “I rotate kids into pumping position to keep them fresh,” Emily tells me.
As we ride up a slight incline, Emily barks orders to her rear, “Pump Mary, pump!”
For someone who looks so comfortable commandeering this large, wheeled contraption, it’s hard to believe Emily never really biked at all in her adult life until a few years ago. How she ended up here — both in Portland and as captain of a human-powered mini-van — is a story worth sharing.
Emily grew up in a Catholic family, with what she described as a “very conservative” mother. She got married, started having kids in her early 20s, and settled down in the small central Pennsylvania town of Williamsport. When she was 28, Emily re-kindled a relationship with her father whom she’d last seen when she was only 12. It was his influence that steered her life toward a different course. “I didn’t get to know my dad until my late 20s,” she shared, “And he was like totally left-wing and telling me about peak oil and everything.”
Around the summer of 2009, with her father’s perspectives firmly ingrained, Emily said, “I started looking at my life… I was living in a giant house and had a nine-person Suburban. I remember thinking, there’s no reason I can’t walk or bike around town.”
Williamsport was a pleasant place with a grid of interconnected streets just waiting to be walked and biked on. Emily first got a triple jogging stroller because, she said, “I didn’t think it was possible to bike with my kids.” Then one day, still searching for an alternative to her huge SUV, she Googled “family bike” and a bakfiets appeared on the screen.
Later that night, when her husband Mitch (a neurologist at Providence Hospital in Milwaukie) came home, she broke the news: “I told him I’ve found something that is going to change my life.” Emily called Portland bike shop Clever Cycles that same night, ordered a bakfiets, and had it shipped to Williamsport.
A switch had flipped for Emily, and you could blame it on a bakfiets. “I was at a time in my life when something had to change,” she said, “When I saw that bike, I knew it. I said, ‘This is it. This is going to change my life.'”
And it did.
When the bike showed up in front of her house, it came off the truck bubble-wrapped and, the way Emily tells it, made for quite the scene. “I was already the town freak,” she remembered, laughing, “I’d had three home-births and now this… People thought I’d had a DUI or something! They asked, ‘Is that a boat on wheels? Are you going to carry your kids in that!?'”
At that time, Emily had five kids and she was pregnant with little Maya. She couldn’t wait to give this new bike a try. Mitch worked just a half-mile away, so Emily piled the kids in and started riding over to his office to show it off. Then, she recalled, “I thought I’d made the biggest, stupidest, most expensive mistake in my whole life.”
With all that weight (the bike itself weights well over 100 pounds), Emily could barely pedal it. “It killed me,” she said, “I thought I couldn’t ride it. It was seriously exhausting.”
But Emily was committed. There was no going back. “I just kept biking… I got used to it and I’m one with the bike now.”
The bike changed Emily in many ways. “I was really depressed before,” she shared, “But I was so happy after I got the bike. I just loved it.” It also led her to realize she would never be happy in Williamsport. In spring of 2010, she decided she wanted to move. They considered Boulder and Corvallis; but her dream, she said, was Portland.
For many reasons she knew this town would fit her. “And the biking is accepted here, and it’s easy. There’s such a difference.”
Soon she’d sold that big Suburban (Emily’s name on Twitter is @1lessgmsuburban) and moved to Portland. (The Finch family owns a car. It’s a sedan and only Mitch drives it. He takes it work everyday.) Emily knew that without a car in the driveway, she’d be forced to learn how to get around without one, and she wouldn’t be tempted to hop in it.
“I haven’t driven once in Portland… [Not having a car] has pushed us to do a lot more than I would ever do if I had a vehicle sitting there in the driveway, especially when it’s pouring down rain and everyone’s angry.”
When it rains, Emily said she just puts on wool and gets wet. The kids put on boots and jackets, and huddle under the bakfiets’ rain cover. Don’t the kids ever want to just hop in a car? I ask: “They’ve lost that sense of driving,” Emily replied, “My kids have forgotten what it’s like to even be in a car.”
It helps that many of Emily’s new friends bike with their kids too. That kind of support has made it much easier.
“Coming from Pennsylvania, It’s mind-boggling to me that kids come over and they’ll already have a helmet and be all set for biking… If we bump into someone, we can switch kids and be on our way.”
But if you’re think Emily’s life is easy, you’re wrong. “It’s hard,” Emily says.
“The Suburban had thick walls and tinted windows, and you could turn the radio up so that when everyone’s screaming no one could hear and nobody knows all the drama that’s going on in that bubble. But on the bike, it’s all out there, for everyone to see.”
There have been some embarrassing and trying moments for this biking family. As expected with kids, tantrums happen. Often it leads to one of them refusing to get into their seats. When that happens, Emily says bungee-cords are her savior.
“I have literally bungee-corded my 5-year-old to the back of the bike. He wouldn’t get on. He was screaming and everyone was staring, so I stuck him on the seat and bungee-corded him in and just started pedaling really hard… He screamed all the way home.”
She shared several stories like that.
And then there’s the time it takes just to get everyone ready and the fighting from being in such close quarters. Emily says it takes at least an hour from when they think they’re ready to go somewhere to when they’re actually rolling out. “It’s total chaos… We can’t find somebody’s helmet, someone’s missing a shoe… Then by the time we get that sorted out, the kids in the front of the bike are killing each other.”
Tempers also tend to flare after long distances. Emily says 20 miles in one day is the limit. After that, everyone is tired and grouchy.
Bungee-cords help keep unruly kids at bay and they can also come in handy for strapping on cargo. Emily shared a photo with me of a recent trip to stock up on food for the freezer: There was five chickens, a duck, a “ton of bacon”, a five pound pail of strawberry preserves, five pounds of coconut oil, a “big thing of hot dogs.” It all fit, thanks to a combination of bungee-cords, room under the seats of the front bakfiets’ cargo bin, and some dogged determination.
From a financial perspective, the bakfiets as family vehicle is an astounding bargain. In three years, Emily estimates she’s spent about $135 dollars maintaining her bike. For some reason, people are always curious about how much her bakfiets costs. “It’s funny how many people ask me how much it costs,” Emily says, “If someone’s driving around with a $4,000 car, no one asks, ‘Oh, how much does that cost?’. Really, it’s such a bargain in the long run. It’s amazing.”
It also saves her money on exercise equipment or a gym membership. She’s lost 25 pounds since she got the bike in 2009 and says she never thought she’d get back to her pre-birth weight after having six kids. When I asked her why she doesn’t get an electric-assist system, she replied with a big smile, “Because I like chocolate!”
While she credits bicycling for restoring her happiness and maintaining her sanity (if you have kids you’ll understand that), there’s one thing she feels like she’s missing by not having a big family car. “I sometimes feel like I’m not giving the kids enough. I can’t just pile them in the car and go to the coast. We just don’t do stuff like that.”
Emily isn’t anti-car or opposed to driving one because she feels she’s saving the planet. That idea is laughable, given the immense carbon footprint of an eight-person family. “I cancel out my bike riding every day with all the other terrible things I do,” she admits. “I don’t compost, I stink at vegetable gardening.”
Emily bikes for a simple and somewhat corny reason. It makes her happy. And she and Mitch love the sweet chaos of children and family. “I love my bike,” she insisted repeatedly during our conversation, “I really do. Because it’s changed my life. I can’t really explain it. In the end, my bike just brings me happiness.”
Follow Emily’s trials and tribulations via Twitter @1lessgmsuburban.
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