The first step to biking with kids often starts with a question: How do you carry them?
I’ve had several family bikes over the years, with some overlap because redundancy is awesome if you have room to store it. I’ve since learned about bikes that work for babies through big kids, but I liken my multi-bike journey to the car seat progression many families follow: infant car seat to convertible car seat to booster seat. Even though some of those seats aren’t used for a long time, everything feels like an eternity when it’s baby-related and seems well worth it.
By sharing what has worked for my family, I hope it’ll help make carrying kids easier for you. Below is the progression of our bike set-up journey over the past 10 years…
My only exposure to kids on bikes before becoming a parent was while visiting family in the Netherlands. My cousins put their nine-month-old babies in Bobike Mini front seats so I knew that’s what I would one day do, too. I had never noticed babies or small kids on bikes in America and didn’t think to look for other options. I found a new Bobike Mini on eBay and it wouldn’t fit on my beach cruiser, but it fit on an old two-sizes-too-big beach cruiser collecting dust in the garage so that was my first family bike. The Bobike website said to start at age one (I figured the American requirement for a helmet necessitated the extra three months of neck strength) so that’s what I did. We both loved it and rode like this for six months. Guess where we lived back then:
We moved to Seattle and I wanted gears for the hills. And a bike that fit me. And hand brakes! It was time to move beyond the beach cruiser. So I got an eight-speed city bike from the neighborhood bike shop and moved the Bobike Mini over to it. That bike stayed with me through a dozen iterations over seven years, some of which I’ll detail below. But for one year it was just me and the toddler in the front seat.
Two-year old and 10-week old
Seattle was the most bike-friendly city in which I’d lived to date. I’d gotten hooked on not needing the car and didn’t want to give up biking for a year when the second baby came. This was a tiring (for me) toddler age for using the bus so I didn’t like that as my only other option. Initially I couldn’t find anything online about putting a baby under one on a bike, but I kept looking as labor loomed and I finally found one article written by a bike racer who put her baby in a car seat in a trailer. I found a trailer on Craigslist and when I determined the baby had sufficient core strength, I stuck him in and he loved it. This was at 10 weeks old, and I know some people start earlier (and some later), but even with a text book home HypnoBirth I didn’t want to put my butt on a bike before 10 weeks postpartum. This was our ride for a year.
Three-year old and one-year old
Once the baby hit a year, I buckled him into a helmet, put him in the front Bobike Mini, and ordered a rear Bobike Maxi for the three-year old. I loved the small footprint of the bike, that it fit on the bus (though at 50 pounds it was a bear to heft up to the rack), and as I later learned to appreciate and greatly missed, my body kept the siblings physically separated. Twice I had longer stems put on the bike to accommodate lengthening toddler legs.
Also at this point I also found a cheap double trailer on Craigslist and used that as a backup, hooked behind my old road bike I previously hadn’t liked riding.
Four-year old and two-year old
Years into my family bike life I learned about cargo bikes and knew at some point I’d want a Surly Big Dummy longtail (I had two friends with two kids each and Big Dummies). I found the cargo bike liberating. No more wondering how to fit both kids and stuff onto the bike (although it was fun to find creative ways to make everything fit back in the day). And to have the front of the bike all to myself and be able to stand in the pedals to climb hills! I started with the two-and-a-half-year old in a Yepp seat at the back of the bike and the four-year old holding handle bars attached to my seat post. Later when the little guy outgrew the Yepp seat I got a Xtracycle Hooptie rollcage to give them both something to hold onto, and that’s how we still roll now.
Five-year old and three-year old
I added a used trailer bike to my fleet. To this I attached the double trailer and my five-year old dubbed it “Engine-Engine-Engine.” We mostly used it as a novelty thing because it was heavy! As a neighbor once said, “It’s really more like Engine-Anchor-Anchor,” but it was useful when friends visited because I could carry three kids with it and let the friend use my Big Dummy for whatever kids were left.
One year later I replaced the seat-post-mounting trailer bike with a more stable one that attaches to a rear rack (also used), the little kid outgrew the front seat of the city bike so it became a one-kid toter, our double trailer was stolen (unlocked in the carport), and I invested in the kids’ first brand new bikes (Islabikes from the Portland warehouse).
Eight-year old and six-year old
Our local tandem shop had a bike that fit me on consignment and it was too tempting to pass up. At one point I thought we’d graduate from the cargo bike to a tandem plus trailer bike, but my timing was such that the kids were riding their own bikes too much by the time I found the tandem. However, it was five pounds lighter than the Big Dummy so even though there wasn’t as much help with pedaling as I would have liked, it made bike camping a tiny bit easier. I’m not sure what the future holds for the tandem, but I really like riding it with just one kid and no camping gear. I think it could be fun for the middle school commute next year. Three minutes into my test ride the day I met the bike a guy leaned out his car window to laugh and shout, “You lost someone off the back!” which is probably the most important thing to be prepared for with tandem bikes.
Ten-year old and eight-year old (now)
The kids are mostly on their own bikes these days, their third Islabikes each. I always take the cargo bike along just in case one or both needs a lift or I spot a free bookcase on the side of the road. For Sunday’s Worst Day of the Year Ride (my recap here) I brought my cargo bike so I could carry a friend’s kid whose bike was in the shop. My eight-year old crashed as we pulled into the rest stop (but what better place to crash than in front of a cookie sundae bar?) so I finished the ride toting two kids and one bike (longtail cargo bikes are especially good at hauling kids and bikes at the same time). Heading home after second lunch, my eight-year old and our nine-year-old house guest both tired out so I toted them and their bikes the last five miles.
Enough about us, what about you? What works well for your family?
We’d love to see your set-ups. Please send a photo and brief description to me before Monday (2/19) at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com. If we hear from enough of you we’ll feature them in the column next week.
Browse past Family Biking posts here.
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Madi Carlson (@familyride on Twitter) wrote our Family Biking column from February 2018 to November 2019. She’s the author of Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living (Mountaineers Books).
In her former home of Seattle, Madi was the Board President of Familybike Seattle, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting bicycling as a means for moving towards sustainable lifestyles and communities. She founded Critical Lass Seattle, an easy social group ride for new and experienced bicyclists who identify as women and was the Director of Seattle’s Kidical Mass organization, a monthly ride for families. While she primarily bikes for transportation, Madi also likes racing cyclocross, all-women alleycats, and the Disaster Relief Trials. She has been profiled in the Associated Press, Outdoors NW magazine, CoolMom, and ParentMap, and she contributed to Everyday Bicycling by Elly Blue.