The other week I had an opportunity to try out a couple of family style bikes at the St Neots Cycling Festival. Overall, I and my daughters enjoyed riding them, but it got me to wondering, why don’t we have one, especially as they are now at an age where we could really benefit from one?
The first bike I tried was a Dutchbike tandem. It can carry 1 adult and 3 children or possibly 2 adults and 2 children, depending on their height. For getting on board it had a fairly stable stand so, provided they stayed still, lifting my youngest on and off wasn’t difficult. Of course a second pair of adult hands always helped. Riding, the bike felt sturdy but not heavy and once I had familiarised myself with the backseat steering I found it handled with surprising agility and confidence. The steering does at first feel a little alien. The bike has two pairs of pedals, but unlike a conventional tandem, by way of some clever engineering, the rear rider controls the steering. The gears and brakes were intuitively positioned and with the gearing I had no problem powering such a large bike with two small children on board. I enjoyed riding it and, judging from the smiles, I think the girls did too.
I next tried a Circe Morpheus tandem. It is designed for either two adults to pedal, or for an adult and child passenger. As with the Dutchbike the steering was controlled by the rear rider. Overall the bike rode well, however, it did feel less balanced and the steering less confident than the Dutchbike. This may have been down to the handle bar set up. I preferred the Dutchbike’s upright handlebars and riding position to the Morpheus’ bullhorn style bars; they just felt a bit too wide, although with a bit more time and tweaking, I’m sure the position could be improved and the bars mastered.
By UK standards, St Neots has a good, comprehensive cycle network and much of it traffic free shared use paths. However, on road sections tend to be narrow painted strips.
Could a family bike work in St Neots? Yes, I think it could, but with a few caveats. First, the cycle network is good by UK standards. That means most of the paths are narrow, nearly all are shared use, they are frequently peppered with bollards and chicanes. They do, however, sort of go where people want to go, namely to the train station, the schools and into town, although sometimes, and quite literally, the routes are round the houses.
Some barriers are forgiving, others are not, and since tandems don’t bend well, some cycle paths are not always accessible. So, depending where you’re going you might need to make allowances and probably divert to the road instead.
When it comes to the road, I’m an experienced cyclist and happy to ride there, provided I think it is safe to do so. I also understand the importance of riding assertively and will employ techniques, such as taking a primary position, to control the traffic around me for my own safety. But that’s me, that isn’t my wife or many other people who probably could ride quite safely on the road, but don’t have the experience and so the confidence to do so. Add in the responsibility of children and that bar to riding on the road is raised a little higher. I know from experience, my own judgement of risk changes if I have one of my girls on the bike – I am more cautious.
Finally, in town I’m not sure where you would securely park such a bike. There are racks but they not designed for large cargo bikes or tandems.
I don’t live in town but a few miles outside, in one of the surrounding villages. The distances into town are not off-putting. I would estimate it’s a 35 minute ride, less if the infrastructure was up to scratch and not significantly longer than driving.
There are a couple of B roads I could use. I know them well and know that at certain times of the day they are quiet. At those times I have no serious worries riding them, even with children. But at other times, such as a Saturday morning or school run/rush hour times they get busy and fast. At those times, if I’m riding, I tend go for other quieter, but longer routes. However, the busy times are the ones when I or more likely my wife is most likely to want to transport the children. If I, as an experienced road cyclist and someone who has planned and risk assessed routes for road cyclists, is saying, no, I’m not riding my girls along that road, my wife and many others certainly aren’t going to give it a go. And if they were to, I’m very sure they would soon come away thinking cycling too dangerous.
So the roads are out because, like many other people, at the times I would want to use them, I think they’re too busy, if not for a safe ride, at least for an enjoyable ride.
I also have a second option, a nearby NCN route that provides traffic free riding for a big chunk of the way into town. It is also the most direct route, but like many cycle paths, it isn’t suitable. The off road sections, of which there are a lot, are mostly mud, gravel or potholed farm tracks. It’s a very uneven surface, I doubt my girls would get a comfortable ride and a cargo bike simply couldn’t use some of the farm tracks. I also know the amount of cleaning and maintenance required for my commuting hack, and that’s only a single speed. The cost of cleaner I would need for a Dutchbike’s metres of chain is, alone, enough to make me want to cut up my credit card. The off-road sectors of NCN are not a cycle paths, they’re off road trails and family bikes simply are not designed for them.
So, if I lived in a town like St Neots, then yes, I probably would buy a family bike, but I accept I would be in a minority; most people are still conditioned into thinking the car is the only way to get around. Until either our urban roads become accepted as shared spaces for all or existing cycling infrastructure is extended, improved and advertised, I fear it is a belief that is bound to persist. Outside of the towns, safe, welcoming cycling infrastructure connecting towns and villages simply does not exist and that is why we don’t own a family bike.