The Right Tools for the Job: Making sure the equipment fits the kids

by Paula Holmes-Eber

Screams began to emanate from the back of the brand new yellow plastic-bottomed bicycle trailer that Lorenz, my hot and sweaty husband, was pulling. At first, the cries were sporadic, irritable outbursts, punctuated by lapses of silence. Surprised, Saturday walkers turned their heads toward the screeching in shocked disapproval as Lorenz whizzed by. Then, the shrieks began to build higher and louder into one long, shrill angry howl that carried for miles. Red-faced and frustrated, Lorenz pedaled faster and faster. As he sped off, I was left with the rapidly disappearing image of our three-month-old daughter Yvonne's fists and legs pumping up and down angrily in the trailer, as Lorenz tried futilely to escape from the horrifying yowls, like a cat desperately running away from its burning tail.

Photo by Paula Holmes-EberWe had chosen a hot sunny July day to ride for the first time with our infant daughter in a heat-reflecting, plastic-bottomed bicycle trailer without a sun shade. It was a hard, if not humorous, early lesson on the challenges of selecting and using appropriate equipment for touring with children.

In the ten-plus years, and 5000 miles, we have toured with our daughters Anya and Yvonne through Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest, we have repeatedly been compelled to experiment with new equipment and techniques for taking the children along. Cycling with children demands constant adaptation and flexibility. Each age and stage of childhood typically requires a new tactic, as kids outgrow equipment, and their needs and interests change. Below are suggestions and tips on the different needs of each age group, and the equipment to select accordingly.

Infants and toddlers (ages 0-2)

Cycletouring with infants and toddlers is perhaps both the most difficult, and yet also the simplest, age for taking the kids along. Infants and toddlers require immense amounts of paraphernalia -- such as diapers, bottles, blankets and baby food -- which rapidly fill panniers. On the other hand, most infants and toddlers nap a lot (especially when rocked to sleep by the motion of a bicycle), and are happy to go anywhere as long as they are warm, fed and dry.

Bicycle trailers, as opposed to child seats mounted on the bike, are the preferred way to tour with small children. In trailers, the child is usually covered, protected from wind, rain and sun; the trailer's center of gravity is low, which makes it very stable and easy to tow; trailers have space for toys and books to entertain the child; and a number of trailers provide extra space for gear and grocery storage.

Depending on the model of trailer, panniers can be attached on a rack below the trailer arm (models that connect the hitch to the rear wheel axle, unfortunately, do not work with rear panniers). Sleeping bags, or a tent, can often also be stacked on the rack, or the trailer hitch. Some trailers have space for two children. And most trailers will accommodate a child up to about the age of five or six. In contrast, child seats become more and more unstable as the child's weight increases, making them extremely dangerous for cycling long distances with preschoolers beyond the age of two.

Preschoolers (ages 3-5)

Preschoolers are perhaps the most challenging group with whom to cycle. These kids are much more active, Photo by Paula Holmes-Eberand tend to get bored easily, so entertainment and motivation become major issues, making frequent stops essential. Trailers continue to be a good choice for preschoolers, since they often still need naps. And the space for toys and books to entertain them is now greatly appreciated.

Trail-a-bikes or third wheels are another good option for older preschoolers and kindergarteners. These extra wheels are trailed behind the adult's bicycle through an attachment at the adult's seat post, or on some models, to the rear rack. The child has the option to pedal, so older kids can be a great help on hills; small children can just go along for the ride.

In some early trail-a-bike models (pre- 1997), the attachment of the hitch to the adult's seat post was not always welldesigned, tending to wear and create a dangerous wobble. Although most manufacturers have corrected these problems in more recent versions, the hitch should be checked carefully before purchasing -- especially in used models.

Panniers can usually be loaded underneath the hitch arm of the third wheel onto the adult's bicycle. And if a rack is added to the trail-a-bike, another set of panniers or tents and sleeping bags can be stacked behind the child. Many third wheels do have weight restrictions, however, which should be kept in mind when loading gear. Front panniers are not recommended when riding with a third wheel; they tend to make the bicycle combination very unstable.

Most trail-a-bikes are also a great choice as children grow into the next age level: grade school.

Early grade school (ages 5-8)

Early grade school is a great age: children are now somewhat self-sufficient (they can feed, clothe, and bathe themselves); they have great imaginations, and can entertain themselves for hours with a bunch or rocks or sea shells. Best of all, they have begun to develop enough strength to actually help with the cycling. They still, however, need plenty of breaks to run around and play, or long hours in the saddle will be met with resistance.

Most children this age are too large to sit in trailers for any length of time (with the exception, perhaps, of kinder-gartners). So trail-a-bikes and tandems become the best options in the early grade school years. Five- to eight-year-olds are less likely to jump around and act wildly on the back of trail-a-bikes or tandems than preschoolers. And many children this age are beginning to enjoy the physical experience of cycling, making it possible for them to remain seated for more than 20 minutes at a time.

Photo by Paula Holmes-EberA number of trail-a-bikes are now sold with gears, which most grade-schoolers can understand with a little practice. If you plan to cycle in rainy weather, a fender on the parent's rear wheel is a must; otherwise, as our daughters can attest from personal experience, the child pedaling behind on the trail-a-bike becomes covered from head to toe with a stripe of rain and mud.

Specially fitted tandems are also available for children in this age group -- typically a child crank and chain is added to raise the height of the child's pedals. An adjustable child stoker stem can also be installed behind the captain's saddle and fitted appropriately to the length of the child's torso. As the child grows, the stoker bars and child crank can be shortened, although simply raising the child's seat can often make complex readjustments unnecessary.

Tandems are far more efficient bicycles than trail-a-bikes, where the child's contribution is often negligible. They do, however, require that the child keep up with the captain's pace, which can sometimes be tiring for younger children. Tandems also have the added advantage of being able to accommodate either panniers or a trailer.

Late grade school (9-12 year olds)

The late grade school years are an awkward time. Preteens are usually too large for all child equipment except tandems, yet they are often not strong enough to cycle long distances by themselves. They are also becoming more independent and focused on their peers. Trips with other families with children are an excellent way to motivate and encourage this age group.

Tandems are clearly the preferred option at this stage, although a strong or older child can begin to successfully cycle on her own for shorter tours. Younger children may still need a child crank for the tandem. By the time they are 10 or 11 however, many can easily reach the pedals in the stoker seat without additional child attachments, especially in the newer tandem models, which tend to have a smaller rear frame.

Tom Clune, owner of B.I. Cycles on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and a sixtime cyclist on the STP (Seattle to Portland) event, has cycled the 200-mile ride twice with his daughters: first with Melissa, who was 10, and then with Erin when she was 8. He offers these suggestions for keeping the stoking child happy behind you: install a bicycle computer on the child's handlebars so they can see how their pedaling helps out; give the child tasks, such as watching for pedestrians and other bicyclists with their own mirror, or signaling at intersections; and install a bell (one with a silly tune is especially fun).

As children approach the teen years, the physical strength and cycling skills they have gained from touring with their parents, whether in trailers, on trail-a-bikes or tandems, will begin to pay off. And one wonderful day, you will discover that this time you are cycling behind your son or daughter, laughing as you chat back and forth about the great muffins at the last bakery, the seals you glimpsed around the curve, and the exhilarating downhill ahead. And you will know that all the years of hauling trailers up hills, the hundreds of potty stops, and the constant gear changes and readjustments were just the beginning of many miles of dreams together.

There are two main types of child trailers: those with solid bottoms (usually plastic) and those constructedPhoto by Paula Holmes-Ebercompletely from waterproof fabric. Solid-bottomed trailers are generally heavier, and do not pack down as well as all-fabric trailers. However, personally I prefer them for long-distance touring, since they are far more durable (fabricbottomed trailers often suffer from abrasion holes), do not get moldy when wet for long periods of time, and provide more protection against flying rocks and other debris in off-road conditions.

Here are some features to look for in buying a child trailer: fully waterproof covering; ability of the canopy to open up, allowing cool breezes and views on hot days; size when packed down for transport; attachment to the bicycle (while lower attachments to the rear wheel axle are typically more stable and easily maneuverable than attachments to the seat post, they do not allow room for panniers).

Trail-a-bikes are a fairly new addition to the bicycling market; the first model, produced by Adams, appeared in the early 1990s. Since then, there has been an amazing array of short-lived attempts by various companies to produce competitive models, with new versions arriving and disappearing on the market so quickly it has been hard to follow them.

The most important difference between the various models is in their mode of attachment to the bicycle, which new purchasers should compare carefully. T h e majority of third wheels attach to the seat post of an adult's bicycle; the one notable exception being Burley's Piccolo, which clamps onto a specially made bicycle rack over the rear wheel. Earlier models that attached to seat posts sometimes have a tendency to shimmy, or develop play in the hitch, which should be checked before purchasing.

Third wheels come with a few different features worth considering: gears (essential on hilly or mountainous terrain); adjustable handlebars (so that the bicycle can grow with your child); rain fender (available on Burley's Piccolo, it prevents the trailing child from being splashed); clearance of the hitch arm over the lead bicyclist's rear wheel (if it is too narrow it becomes impossible to attach a rear rack and panniers onto the adult's bicycle).

Tandems are the most flexible of all child bicycle arrangements; having the distinct advantage of being able to grow with your child into adulthood. Custom-made tandems can be made to fit two, three (triplets), four (quads) and even more people, although length becomes a serious consideration with additional people.

Child cranks can be attached to the rear crank, raising the height of the pedals and chain to meet the child's feet. Likewise, adjustable stoker bars with longer stems to accommodate the child's shorter body can be installed behind the lead adult's seat.

Tom Clune of B.I. Cycles on Bainbridge Island suggests looking for the following features in purchasing a tandem for cycling with a child: size of the frame especially at the stoker seat (newer models have shorter rear frames, so that older children may not need a child crank); distance between the stoker seat and the lead's seat (again smaller models may fit an older child without the need for a special child stoker bar); suff icient space for a child crank to clear the stoker crank; suspension systems (especially helpful for children who often experience saddle soreness).

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