Riding with Kids: Trailers, Tag-a-Longs and First Bikes

A first “real” mountain bike: the author’s son on the then recently-opened I-40 bridge over the Durham Tobacco Trail.

THE BIKE BEAT

By Adam Searing

One of the great joys of being a parent for me has been riding with my kids over the years. Our children create the opportunity for amazement in addition to often being a handful, and bikes have figured prominently in the former category for our family.

As a former bike shop mechanic and longtime cycling advocate, the most asked questions I get from friends involve getting kids out on bikes. From carting children around when they are still at the tot lot stage to getting on their first real bike, there are lots of choices out there from the wildly expensive to quality hand-me-downs just waiting for some more use. Just remember that helmets are required regardless of age.

Although I last wielded a Park Tool wrench for pay way back in the late 1980s, here’s my completely unscientific and opinionated guide to what works:

  1. Really young: Bicycle trailer v. kid’s seat.

This one’s an easy choice. The best and safest way to introduce your kid to riding is to put them in a bicycle trailer. First, make sure the pediatrician is OK with your timing — kids do get jostled around and they really need to be old enough before you tow them down the road.

Second, adding a bike seat for your kid either on the rack or in front of the seat puts the child up high, raises the center of gravity of the bike making it less stable, and ensures if your bike falls either with or without you on it, your kid will fall, too.

In contrast, most trailers remain upright regards of the bike’s status (stunt rider Danny MacAskill ). You can stuff plenty of extra toys and snacks for the playground in the trailer, too. literally everyone gives way to you.

  1. A little older: Training wheels v. balance bikes.

This is a raging debate. Balance bikes are lots more popular now and I see plenty of kids out there learning to balance as they zoom along, pushing off the ground without pedals or training wheels to get in the way. And if you feel unsteady, just put your foot down.

Riding the Trek Grommet on the Bolin Creek Greenway

That being said, both my kids learned on a Trek Grommet with training wheels we took off when they were ready. I have two boys and their top priority was speed — something only pedals can give you on the Bolin Creek bike path.

In the end I think both methods work. My advice here is go with the highest quality kid’s bike you can afford. Absolutely buy it at the local bike shop and think of it as a purchase not just for one child, but to hang on to for multiple children. Our Grommet went to multiple families after ours and was part of teaching many kids to ride over the years before we finally donated it.

 

  1. Even older: The tag-a-long question.

A tag-a-long is basically an extra kid’s bike that replaces the front wheel and fork with a solid bar designed to attach to an adult’s bike. It has an independent crankset, chain and pedals so kids can pedal and add speed to the adult’s bike or just sit and coast. It’s great fun and some kids love it while others find it disconcerting.

A tag-a-long bike is fun, but make sure your stoker is fueled up with plenty of snacks. The author and his son ready to explore.

The advantage is it allows older kids who don’t want to ride in a bike trailer to get out for longer trips and they can also get some exercise, too. The big disadvantage is that you have to be a pretty good rider yourself to deal with the extra weight, especially if someone back there delights in “slamming” into the turns.

My verdict is that these are great fun as long as you are a strong and confident rider on your own bike. I’d stay on greenways and residential streets and make sure your stoker has fueled up on snacks before you go so they don’t leave you being the only power source.

 

  1. Ready to ride: The first “real bike.”

Baseline advice here is to buy a quality bike that fits at a local bike shop. We’ve got great shops in town from Back Alley Bikes, the Clean Machine/Bicycle Chain to a newly-opened Trek store.

The reason has less to do with shopping local and more to do with getting a properly sized, high-quality product that your kid will actually be excited about riding. There are lots of cheap kids bikes out there but I’d look to the used market before buying something at a big box store. A high-quality bike is easier to ride, goes faster, is faster to stop and as a result is much more likely to encourage a kid to become a lifetime rider than something that doesn’t feel that great.

Finally, resist buying “a size up.” Safety comes first and a bike too big is a bike that’s easier to crash and harder to handle. Quality used bikes from friends are a great option too — all our kids’ bikes went to multiple families.

In the end, I may have needed new wheels after jumping my Raleigh 10-speed down the dirt trails we made behind Ephesus Road Elementary school back in the 1970s, but boy was it worth it. A quality bike and good places to ride made me a lifetime cyclist and the opportunity to pass this love along as both a father and a coach has been a great experience.

Picking the right equipment is important but the real trick is making the time to get out and ride. Let’s go!


Adam Searing is a lifetime resident of Chapel Hill, a mountain bike coach and attorney. 

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