Last fall I set a goal of biking to school with the kids—ages 10, 7, and 3—and then on in to work myself. It is a 7 mile bike ride to the school, and another 7 to work for me, then 7 miles home. So, 21 miles round trip for me. Mrs. Mortimer or grandpa picks up the kids, so they get a break on the return trip. (More on how their bikes get home later.) It took a few months to overcome my fears and concerns and to feel comfortable doing it. Now I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you because commuting with your kids this way is possibly one of the most fun things I’ve done as a parent. This post is going to focus on gear and training; I’ll leave the bulk of maintenance for another post. Let’s talk through the steps to going from zero family biking to a 7 mile trek being easy and fun.
Convincing Yourself You Can Do It
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen on personal finance/frugality blogs is about the benefits of cycling, both for your health and your wallet. But it’s one thing to look at the numbers and the potential benefits, and another to convince yourself you can actually start—especially when your commute involves (safely) moving a group of children from point A to point B. Inertia can be overwhelming.
The first step in that direction is actually getting on a bike yourself—without kids—and tackling some minor issues that come up on rides longer than around your neighborhood. You need to get a sense of how much water you need to comfortably make it through a ride of 20, 40, and 60 minutes. What happens if you get a flat tire? Do you know how to change it and do you have the tools to do it? What will you carry those tools in? How fast do you bike? Is the route you’re going more difficult than you planned? How quickly do you get fatigued from hills? How quickly do you recover?
All questions that should be answered, but they don’t all need to be answered at once. To start with, let’s talk about getting your wheels set up for durable commuter biking. This isn’t regular road race biking and it isn’t meant to be the absolute fastest setup. But it is meant to reduce your risk of flats significantly so that you can focus on riding and not changing tires while on the road.
Tires & Tubes
Here in the desert, we have all kinds of thorns. Damn near everything that grows here has thorns. The trees, the bushes, the cactus, weeds in your yard. Sometimes I think my children are growing them. That means the potential for all kinds of flats, and inventive and spontaneous cursing for the unprepared. But a good set of tires and tubes can basically eliminate your risk of flats for huge periods of time—a couple thousand miles of cycling or more. Like any good investment strategy, you want to mitigate risk from several directions all at once.
The best combination for flat protection I’ve used so far is the Continental Touring Plus Reflex tire (outer layer) coupled with a Bontrager Thorn Resistant Tube (middle layer). For a triple layer of puncture protection, I use Slime Tube Sealant (inner layer). This combination is featured in the victory picture above. I’ve done so many rides with these babies and come home to pull out a half dozen thorns from each tire without the slightest hint of trouble. The idea here is to give yourself protection on three levels: deflect as many thorns as you can on the tough outer layer; if a thorn makes it through that, make it equally difficult to puncture the tube; but if the tube is punctured, slime kicks in to seal it up, enabling you to reach your destination on time. Learn how to install all this great stuff, and change the flat you get once every three years, right here. That site will also help you consider some other options that may be more appropriate for you if you don’t live in thorn hell, like I do.
Finally, you want to check your tire to see what the proper PSI is. Tires that are not inflated properly cause several problems. They make it harder to pedal. They are more prone to flats. And they make for a slower ride. Do yourself a favor and inflate right up to the max on the tire for a more efficient and safer ride. Beware of overinflating, though, as it can cost you important traction which will be important if you’re biking in rain or snow. (Not the “life barely exists here” scorched earth of the desert.)
Gear to Strap Onto Your Bike (Necessary and Optional)
For serious commuting, you need to have a few basics. First things first, serious commuters equip their bikes with safety lights so (1) you can see where the hell you’re going in the dark, and (2) other people can see you in the dark and get out of the way. A good one to consider, at a fair price, is the Bright Eyes 1200 Lumen light, which currently is bundled with a tail light as well.
Next, a couple other obvious features: a bottle bracket. If you buy your bike used, as you should, it may already have one. If not, pick one up from a bicycle store, or Amazon. An adequate one is cheap and easy to install. Next, this being a guide to biking with children, I highly recommend getting a bike rack to strap a bag, your lunch, or a child onto (kidding—mostly). Next, a small hand pump you can use to bail yourself out of a flat the anti-thorn fortress above somehow fails to prevent after several thousand miles of riding, if you absolutely have to.
After ensuring you can see and have water, I recommend setting your bike up with a solid bike rack. Because things made for children to ride in have ridiculously strict safety requirements, you can cautiously assume any bike rack meant to support a kid’s bike seat will be sturdy and tough. I’ve had great success with the Topeak rack. If you are also going to be carrying your little bundle of (sometimes screaming) joy with you on your bike, the Topeak Babysitter II has been awesome for us, and comes with the rack. (More on child hauling equipment below.) Once they grow out of the seat, you can still use the rack. My now 3.5-year-old daughter has been enjoying it since she was old enough to fit in it the first time. And it still seems rock solid.
A word of caution on the bike seat. At least for the Topeak brand, it is extremely important to ensure that the small yellow bar you see protruding below the seat in the picture above is properly inserted below the bike rack to hold the seat in place. I say this after having had the spooky experience of realizing I had not done this after returning from a (mercifully uneventful) 10+ mile ride with my youngest.
A few miscellaneous items you may not have considered include a mount for your smartphone (who needs a bicycle “computer” in this day and age?!), and a mount for a lock.
Your First Ride
As mentioned above, if you are totally new to biking longer than six blocks, I recommend going on a few rides yourself to get a sense of your own capacity. A five mile ride is a decent start and should be doable for just about anyone in reasonable health. Doing the route to the kids’ school would be a good place to start, too, although depending on your situation, that may work out to be quite a bit more than five miles round trip. (When you bike regularly, you will think much more about round trip mileage!) When you get comfortable doing a five to ten mile ride, I’d move on to the next step.
If you have a very little one you plan to use in a bike seat, I’d still leave them at home the first couple of times. If something goes wrong with your new rig, you want to be able to handle it without also having the stress of a sleeping/crying/1,000-question-mode child. When you’re experienced you will be able to do that with grace and aplomb, of course, but I highly encourage setting aside some breathing room for the first few rides until you get more confident.
Your First Ride With the Kids
Make the first ride with your kids short and fun. About a mile to a local park with a break to play is ideal. This gives them an easy victory to build their own confidence, and that feeling of “biking is easy!” will stick with them as you move on to harder rides. If you don’t have a park near your house, pick somewhere else fun. Failing that, bring some good food for a picnic and pitch a blanket wherever you go. (Not a bad idea for the park, either.) Do that a couple times. Most likely it will be so fun and easy that your kids will be asking when and how you can do more biking together—exactly what you want.
Building Momentum: Building Up to Your Commute Distance With Kids
Working toward your commute distance with the kids is a bit harder, especially if you like the sense of achievement that getting from home to a specific destination gives. Someone will be cranky. Someone will whine practically the whole way. You’ll have to take breaks really frequently. (At this traffic light too?? Seriously?!) But here are some tips for staying positive. First, when you can see one of your kid’s moods starting to shift, distract them! Ask them to sing a silly song, or make one up and ask them to sing along. Start asking them about things you know they love talking about. Maybe that’s ice cream, Lego, Star Wars, or motorcycles. It doesn’t matter. Your goal is to get them in a positive feedback loop instead of getting sucked down into the “this is awful” loop. This strategy is surprisingly easy to implement and extremely effective. (And works on grown ups, too!)
You will need to take breaks. That’s why you should have lots of water available and also a snack or two. On longer trips, most kids will hit a hunger wall at some point. Giving them a snack is kind of like swapping out batteries. Let them sit for a minute and eat something, and they will spring back way faster than a grown up who is actually exhausted will. Kids are extremely resilient.
Finally, if you are biking on a trail or setting where you are comfortable letting them take the lead, keep this in reserve as another way to turn things around. Letting them lead is confidence building for them and a good life skill to encourage more generally. And sometimes changing positions or reordering who is biking next to whom can be all that’s needed to change the dynamic of the group for the better.
It took us a little over a month to build up to where the kids seemed comfortable enough with a 7 mile ride that I felt confident they could wake up early and make the ride into school without falling to pieces. We spent a couple weeks doing 1-3 mile rides, a couple more at 3-5, and then the final two at 5-9 mile rides. I didn’t want the training to max out at 7 miles because we weren’t prepping for one big race where you go the maximum possible distance you think your body can handle. Rather, I wanted them to get to school and still have energy and be excited. Building up to going farther than your typical commute distance will give you the confidence once you decide to bike in to school that they can handle the distance, and you can handle the kids.
Safety is also important to consider. The good thing here is that a small pack of bicycles is usually pretty easy to see for those in cars. I have almost never had drivers not see us. The hard part though is that you are dealing with different skill levels. What happens if a kid loses control and swerves and falls? Or if they had a bump that throws them for some reason? Or they are looking at a beautiful cloud and are just plain distracted? If we lived in a less busy area and were riding on streets with slower moving traffic, I would probably still ride on the side of the road because it is generally much safer for bicyclists. Unfortunately, the streets we ride next to often have cars going 50+ miles per hour. If a kid falls off a bike and out of the bike lane into the busy road, it’s almost certain they would be hit. Luckily, the streets also have generously wide sidewalks (and sometimes horse trails) that are offset even farther from the bike lanes. Given the need for frequency of stops with kids and my desire to have an additional buffer should someone fall, we have opted for riding on the sidewalks/horse paths for the most part at this point. However, we fully obey all cross walk signals and give cars every opportunity to see us. For our town and bicycling routines, this seems to be the best compromise for safety.
Sometimes on these longer, strength building trips getting to a certain destination means the kids will be too tired to make it home. This is where a good car bicycle rack comes in handy. Owning a hatchback vehicle myself, I recommend the Saris Bones series. It’s immensely flexible and fits a variety of vehicles, including the Prius. I found mine used on Craigslist for $75. It’s very good at holding the bikes in place, can fit three bikes, and is rock solid even going on the interstate at 75+ miles per hour. Here it is in action:
The arms are easy to fold up when not in use so they don’t accidentally maim you when you’re closing the hatchback. I would avoid roof mounted racks unless you are extremely tall. It’s difficult to lift bikes up there with any frequency, and with an equally good, if not better, alternative that puts the bikes in the car’s slipstream, I think the choice is pretty easy.
It is ideal to have a family member or good friend who is willing to be on standby for these early rides either to help you in case of unexpected weather or mechanical problems. It’s also helpful if you want to do the long rides to a certain place, and then get picked up for a victory ride home, or the opposite. Although I don’t recommend wasting car miles this way (which the IRS now pegs at a cost of $0.54 per mile), it’s a good option to have for these first few confidence building miles. And a lifetime of bicycle riding is certainly worth this relatively minimal cost, in my view.
The Ride to School!
So, you’ve been preparing for a few weeks, you’ve got the gear ready, you’ve talked yourself and your kids into biking to school, and you’ve picked a day to do it. Congratulations! You are 90% there already. Here are some ideas for helping this trip go smoothly.
To begin, wake up early. You want to give yourself plenty of time to get up, and if you’re waking up earlier than normal for school, which was our case, you want some extra time to deal with extra groggy kids. You also want to allow more time for your ride than you think you really need, so you can deal with any issues that come up. Giving yourself this buffer will reduce your stress and actually make problems less likely to occur!
Make sure the kids eat something. Sometimes my kids don’t want to eat breakfast if they get up too early. But if your bike ride is longer than a couple miles, you must make them eat something before you get started, or they (and therefore you) will be miserable for the whole ride. Scrambled eggs are a great, high protein, kid satisfying, easy to cook meal early in the morning. Stay away from overly sugary cereals which will give your kids a quick boost of energy but won’t sustain them through a longer ride.
If possible, ask a family member to be available to pick you up (with your car bike rack!) in case something happens when you and the kids actually need to be somewhere by a certain time. Again, this will reduce your stress and make the ride easier. You almost certainly will not need this person, but better to have this safety net in place at first and ease everyone’s tensions than for some unforeseen mini catastrophe to strike and be scrambling.
You should have a pretty good idea of how long the ride will take you before you set out if you’ve been preparing for a few weeks beforehand, but even so, give yourself extra time. The kids are nervous, and you may be too. Everyone’s excited. Will we really be able to do this? Yes, you will. But not feeling hurried, and thus having the time to offer extra breaks for water, snacks, tying shoelaces, or dealing with a fall will make everything easier.
Before you know it, you’ll have made it there. The kids will ride in triumphantly on their steeds. Their friends will be jealous of their incredible independence. Your friends will think you are some kind of bionic superhuman parent.
Because I’m the one in our family with a job with mostly regular daytime hours, Mrs. Mortimer or grandpa picks up the kids at the end of the school day, taking advantage of my unused car and bike rack to load up the kids and their backs quickly and easily for the return ride home. If I weren’t working, I’d either do the same, or more likely bike back to the school and ride home with them—after giving them a snack to boost their energy. (Remember, kids are almost always hungry after a school day! It’s hard work.)
Setting Yourself Up for A Work Commute After Getting the Kids to School
But now that they’re at school, you still have to get to work. The first time you do this you will be riding the high of your awesome parenting and will break all expectations for how quickly you could make it to work. You will walk into the office and your coworkers will cheer your name and, rather than continue working, compose odes to your ridiculous awesomeness. Well… not exactly. But they will be impressed, as long as you show up looking sharp and not drenched in sweat. Here’s how to do that.
If your office actually has a gym with showers that is provided as a perk to you, congratulations! You’ve hit the jackpot. All you need to do is find a place to store your clothes at the gym so they’re ready for you. Bring them to work on a day you’re not biking (or a day you’re not working, if necessary) and put them in a locker. If your office doesn’t have one and you work in an urban area, it should be pretty easy to find a gym within a mile of your office. At least where I am, the market seems to be glutted with them and the basic memberships are now as little as $10/month. And that’s all you really need if you’re just looking for a place to store clothes and shower.
If your gym doesn’t offer permanent lockers, never fear. If you live in a temperate climate, your ride is short, and you are not required to be particularly dressy for work, you might consider just wearing them on your ride to work, if the ride is not too taxing. Barring that, you can fold your fancy clothes in a way that will prevent them from getting wrinkled during your ride, and place them in a small backpack. I’ve been able to fit shirt, shoes, socks, and pants into the Osprey Daylite Backpack. (Osprey is a great company—they guaranty their products for life, so if 20 years from now the zipper malfunctions, they will fix it or give you a new backpack, for free.)
If you are storing clothes/shoes in a locker, I recommend you make use of a few gallon sized zip lock bags to prevent it from getting too funky in the small space. Put your dirty ride clothes in one. This will basically prevent them from getting any fresh clothes funky; if you’re really worried about it, you can take that zip lock bag with you and put it under your desk or in a drawer, where no one will notice it. I usually travel with my shoes, but if you plan to keep them in your locker, you should consider getting some Dr. Scholl’s deodorizing spray to use on them before they sit. Alternatively, another gallon sized zip lock bag, if your shoes are small enough, will work as well. Finally, a cotton-scented car air freshener will keep any extra work clothes smelling freshly laundered. I’d stay away from any other strong smells, as it might get overpowering if your clothes are staying in the locker for a few days.
For the ride home, I will usually wear my undershirt from work along with the moisture wicking shorts I wore on the way in, and a fresh pair of socks. This prevents the need for bringing a bunch of extra clothes with you, but saves you the discomfort of putting on a wet shirt for an evening ride home. That can be particularly uncomfortable in colder weather.
The Gift of Bicycle Freedom
For older kids, once you’ve given them the confidence that they can get to school on their own, seriously consider encouraging them to bike to other places, too! Local parks and libraries are great, free destinations for all ages and give them something to do outside while also feeling independent. My view of parenting is that it’s my responsibility to teach my kids how to survive independently after they leave my care. Giving them the gift of self-transportation goes a long way to achieving that goal.*
Good luck, and leave your own tips for biking with kids and to work below! I’ll incorporate the best into this guide.