Paul Howard gives you the lowdown on the many alternative ways of mobilising your family.
It's one of the unexpected challenges of having a large and still young family - how to get all of you out on the bike together. I know that it is possible. Having been to India and witnessed the local extreme sport of balancing an entire family on one bicycle, I know that our own equation of 'four children + two adults + two bikes' should really = 'cycling anywhere we want, whenever we want'. After all, you don't have to go as far as the subcontinent to see large family bicycle outings. In Holland, so personal experience and a Dutch sister-in-law informs me, family cycling is de rigueur.
Yet even for one and two-child families, the logistics of cycling as a family unit can seem overwhelming. This should not really come as a surprise; simply going to the shops in the car or with a pushchair can feel like an Antarctic expedition when you've a toddler or two in tow.But the apparent extra effort of having to incorporate a bicycle into your preparations doesn't have to be the stumbling block that it can sometimes seem. There is, in fact, a wide variety of alternative solutions that can be tailored to meet every individual family's requirements. The real challenge is to work out which it is that best suits you so that practical concerns can be put to one side and enthusiasm can take care of the rest. Here therefore, is a guide to some of these alternatives, split into two general types.
Mounted on your bicycle
Rear-mounted child seats - This is the modern equivalent of the time honoured tradition - at least in Yorkshire and India - of giving someone a backie. Although it is probably still the simplest and most widely available option, it is nevertheless a considerable improvement on the rather crude process of sitting precariously on the saddle (or pannier rack if you were unlucky) while your mate stands up to pedal. Instead, youngsters now enjoy the all the benefits of having someone else do the pedalling for them with the added luxury of a moulded, padded seat and straps to prevent them from falling out. Most seats can also be detached from the bracket that is fitted to the host bike, meaning Mum or Dad doesn't have to carry it around with them all the time when little Jonny is at school; an extra bracket also means the seat can be swapped between bikes if necessary. Concerns are limited to the addition of seat and child moving the bike's centre of gravity backwards, creating what can be a slightly disconcerting feeling, at least to start with, and questions over how much children can see/enjoy beyond the back of their parent. The popularity of such seats suggests these concerns can be exaggerated, however, and it would be a shame if these minor quibbles deterred people from cycling altogether while they prevaricated, as I have done, debating the benefits of alternative solutions.
Forward-mounted child seats - If the rear-mounted bike seat is the modern equivalent of a backie, this is the latter day counterpart of having someone sitting on your cross-bar as you wobble along, bow-legged, in your finest Last of the Summer Wine style. Actually, though some designs do require you to splay your knees while pedalling, others are mounted sufficiently far forward to avoid this (minor) problem. As this suggests, there are several types of seat and fitting that can accommodate almost all bike designs (from cross bar-free women's bikes to full-suspension mountain bikes). These include designs that are mounted on the cross bar, those that are mounted on the head tube below the handlebars, and even those that are mounted in front of the handlebars - which may be worth it if only for the look of surprise on the faces of passers by as a bike appears to be being ridden by a two-year old. The centre of gravity of the bike is distorted less with such designs, the child can certainly see more (though they are also more exposed) and there is a greater feeling of control as your child is between your arms. The flip side is that such designs can normally only accommodate children up to a younger age than their rear-mounted counterparts.
Towed behind (or pushed in front of) your bicycle
Trailer Buggies - There is no doubt that a lot of people look at bike trailers as either exceptionally dangerous contraptions that expose your precious cargo to the thoughtlessness of modern drivers, or the reserve of slightly hippy parents with a resolutely anti-car agenda, or both. The reality is reassuringly different, however, as the growing popularity of buggies testifies. They are certainly very practical and fun conveyances, (as my two-year-old twins will testify - 'more please Daddy') and can solve the problem of how one adult can accommodate two non-cycling children. They also feel much less exposed than you might imagine when cycling on the road - maybe drivers revert to cautious mode when they see something so obviously vulnerable. In fact, exposure to the elements is considerably less than on bike seats, as most models come with some form of mesh (to keep insects at bay) and wind/rain cover. Useful storage pockets for essentials or toys and lots of reflective strips and/or a flag to increase visibility are other fairly standard features, while more refined models include suspension. Also look for designs that allow the easy removal of wheels and will fold flat for storage.
Forward mounted 'trailers' - If you think trailers towed behind a bike are risque (or even risky), I am reliably informed by my Dutch sister-in-law that they have already become passe over in Holland. The latest craze to sweep the Netherlands is in fact a type of trailer - a more accurate description would be a big wheelbarrow - that is mounted in front of the bike (think an old butcher's bike and you'll not be far off). To call it the latest craze is a slight exaggeration; the ingenious Dutch have in fact been using similar, often home-made, contraptions, almost as long as there have been bikes. But apparently their popularity is growing thanks to widespread availability from manufacturer Bakfiets, which offers two and three-wheeled machines.
Trailer bikes/ tag-alongs - Going back to behind-the bike options, trailer bikes or tag-alongs have also established a good degree of popularity (at least among those with slightly older children). The benefits of adding an articulated third wheel to an adult bike are numerous: a feeling of involvement in the riding process, the opportunity to pedal (or not) when desired, a controlled introduction to the use of brakes and gears; don't forget to make sure you have a mudguard on the bike in front, though. There's also the chance to introduce road and traffic awareness without the same level of risk as leaving your child solely in charge of their own destiny. Variants include those with a rear-mounted seat and tandem trailers, both allowing three people on one bike.
Trail Gator - Similar to trailer bikes, this is a mechanism - a folding or telescoping steel bar - that connects a child's bike to your bike. When connected, the front wheel of the child's bike is raised off the ground so the overall effect is similar to a trailer bike. The extra benefit of this set-up, however, is that the two bikes can be disconnected, allowing the child to ride under their own steam as much or as little as they like.
And finally, don't forget to consider the most obvious solution of all for those keen to encourage long-term cycling enthusiasm, at least once those dreaded stabiliser have been removed - your child's own bikes!