Getting the family bike fleet ready for spring

Our garage. Don’t judge! (Shannon Johnson – BikePortland)

Did you enjoy the sunshine last week? It’s been beautiful! (I think the rain is beautiful too, but it’s nice to change it up, yes?) I was so excited to get outside. I wanted to take the whole family for a long bike ride, but I realized we weren’t really ready. So instead, we went through our entire family bike fleet and began getting everyone set up for Spring and Summer riding.

We pulled every single bike and scooter out of the garage, pumped all the tires, test-rode everything, and figured out who fit what, what to keep, what to give away, and what needed some maintenance TLC.

Here’s what we did:

We figured out who fits what

The kiddos keep growing and it’s important to check their bikes for a good fit. I try to go through all the bikes the same way I go through all the clothing: every fall and every spring. What fits? What needs to be passed along? (You should check helmet fit too, while you’re at it.)

Getting each kid matched up with a well-fitting bike they like can make a big difference in our family rides. Kids on a too-small bike may be slower and uncomfortable. I first noticed this when I had a kid rider lagging behind. The problem was that the bike was too small or the seat too low. Raising the seat can give a kid a lot more power on each pedal stroke. A too-low seat makes pedal strokes less efficient and less comfortable because of the deep bend in the knee. Sometimes a loose seat post just falls down and needs to be raised and tightened into place. Other times, it’s necessary to size up to a larger bike. For one of my kids, we just needed to raise the seat and he noticed an immediate difference: he was much faster and less fatigued, no longer struggling to keep up. I still remember the smile on his face: with the simple lift of the seat, biking became so much easier and more fun for him.

Lately, our newest independent rider has been pretty slow, so he hasn’t been given much riding time because he can’t keep up. We thought he had a good bike fit, because we raised his bike seat such that he was on his tip-toes, but that was with the highest seat height on a very small bike. This weekend, we found a bigger bike and lowered the seat down so that he was also on his tip-toes. The seat heights were about the same, but he will be much faster and more efficient on the bigger bike.

I find that kids are a little nervous and very wobbly when they size up. A bigger bike feels very different from the one they outgrew, and it takes some practice in a safe spot to get the feel for the bigger bicycle. Less confident riders will be more hesitant about sizing up, as they often feel more in-control of a smaller bike. And it’s a good idea to keep the seat a bit lower for less-experienced riders, such that they can be flat-footed while seated, instead of tip-toes; this gives them more security about putting their feet down to stop themselves and keep from toppling over or crashing (especially if they are learning to ride without training wheels.) 

Sometimes the style of bike makes a big difference too. My daughter (above, right) had two good-fitting bikes, but she refused to ride the mountain bike because she didn’t like the feel or riding position. She prefers riding in a more upright fashion, as on a leisurely stroll. The handlebar style/position makes a big difference to her. On one bike she’s happy. On the other bike, she feels uncomfortable, even scared. That makes for a pretty easy choice. We’ll keep the bike that makes her happy, and pass the mountain bike on to someone else.

We assessed our family biking situation

Kids grow and change, and so do families. Sometimes, you need to reassess your entire family biking situation: Are any of your kids newly independent riders? Do you have a new infant or toddler passenger? Are there destinations you want to bike to, but don’t? Is there a solution that would allow you to bike there? Or maybe you have a kid in-between, almost independent but not quite. These family changes may suggest a change in your bike set-up.

Or maybe you need to think outside of your current set-up. You may even need a whole new bike or one with e-assist, or perhaps a trail-a-bike for the almost independent rider. If you’ve been using a bike trailer but you are adding a third kid passenger, it might be time to get a box-bike. If a tricky section of traffic is making you nervous, maybe a trail-a-bike would allow your little rider to pedal, and give you the peace of mind knowing they won’t be able to veer off course.

Finally, how do you envision your riding situation to change in the next few years? Will you have more babies and little riders? Or will you be graduating riders to ride independently? What bike investment makes the most sense for you now and in the years to come? Does it make more sense to get the bike and accessories with the longest use-life? Or do you prefer to get a bike that best meets your current needs, and trade it in when your needs change?

The “family bike situation” is sometimes the most stressful for me, because it centers around the bike I am riding, and how I will transport the littlest people in our family along with our huge load of “stuff” — diapers, picnic supplies, library books, water bottles, etc. I say “stressful” because any change is usually quite expensive — or rather, it’s a large investment — so I want to get this part right. I’m still adjusting to the fact that my “Momma bike” situation has evolved, and will continue to evolve, and that may mean letting go of my first cargo bike, which is sitting unused, to make room for a bike we will use. I might even make a big change this summer, as I consider our new biking configuration of independent riders, those who need carted along, and what we hope to achieve. (I’ll explain this evolution in my next post!)

Let the un-needed bikes go

It’s really hard to let go of a bike you loved, or your kid loved. And if you have a small budget, sometimes it’s hard to let go of anything. (Someone might need it someday! Trust me, I know.) Yes, we save bikes to pass down to our sibling riders, but I also have a tendency to take whatever used bikes friends or neighbors are giving away, “just in case” we need it. As a result, our garage has been such a tangled mess of bicycles that it has been hard to even pull out the bikes we want to ride. Bike-hoarding, you might call it. I have some bikes that have been in the garage over a year, not used, and I finally decided it’s time to part with them. Our local bike shop is a non-profit that will take used bikes and fix them up to donate to kids in need. Bikes beyond repair will be stripped of useful parts and the rest recycled.

Once we got all the kids set up on their bikes, I took a load of un-needed kid bikes to the bike shop to pass on to other kids. It felt refreshing!

To do: Build a repair kit

I admit that I have been really bad about this. We’re just plain lucky we haven’t had a flat more than a few blocks from home. But with hopes for longer bike adventures, and more independent riders, I am trying to finally prepare an “emergency bike maintenance kit” to have with us so we can fix some basic problems and not get stranded with a flat tire miles from home. (And I need to practice fixing flats, because it’s a skill every biking mama and papa should have!) 

With that, we feel ready to go riding. With a big family, it can take a bit of preparation to get everyone’s tires, bikes, and helmets fitted and checked. (And anything involving toddlers takes at least twice as long.) Make a long morning or afternoon of it if you need to. It will give you the confidence that you are all ready-to-go for the next opportunity, the next time the sun peeps out, you can hop on the bikes and get rolling! 

My son just crawled onto my lap and said, “it’s such a beautiful day. Can we pack a picnic and bike to the park?” Now, bikes at the ready, I can enthusiastically say: Yes!

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of  five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via

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1 month ago

Here’s a “pro tip” for flat fixes that’s especially relevant for kids’ bikes with chain guards, cargo bikes, and any other bikes with a wheel that’s laborious to remove: You can patch the tube without actually removing the wheel. Same procedure as a normal flat fix except it all happens within the bike’s frame. Also make sure to have a pair of nitrile gloves in your toolkit so you don’t get your hands filthy.

1 month ago
Reply to  Matt

Yes, IF you can find the flat without taking the wheel off.

1 month ago

“The problem was that the bike was too small or the seat too low. Raising the seat can give a kid a lot more power on each pedal stroke. A too-low seat makes pedal strokes less efficient and less comfortable because of the deep bend in the knee.”

This can also be very hard on young little knees and may not manifest until later when the damage is already done.

Many little ones just push through having had many too small bikes.

Erin Bailie (Columnist)

The instinct to bike hoard is so real. For me, it’s all of the parts I’ve swapped out to make bikes more comfortable. Why do I hold onto saddles that were so uncomfortable I decided to replace them? I’m still not sure. Thanks for the reminder to take a batch of parts to the co-op