Life on bikes

The right tools for the job

There’s more than one way to cycle with kids (anyone who has come along to any Kidical Mass rides will certainly know that!). Young children might be on a bike seat, or in a trailer, or a purpose built cargo bike. As they get older they might transfer to a tagalong or tandem, or ride their own bike (or sit in the amazing sort of halfway house permitted by the follow-me-tandem, where they sometimes ride independently and are sometimes hitched behind an adult’s bike).

There’s different approaches to it too – some people might ride with their kids for fun on a Saturday afternoon, others might do the school run by bike on a sunny day, and some people choose bikes as their main form of transport. We’re in the latter camp, which means we’ve gathered a large collection of bicycles (lovingly referred to by my husband as “The Fleet”) each of which performs a particular job for us.

If you’re new to cycling with children and overwhelmed by the amount of choice there is, I highly recommend the Facebook group Family Cycling UK as a place to ask for advice. I’ve directed many friends who have asked me for advice to this helpful (and large) group. If you explain your family shape, route issues (hills/narrow gates etc), storage options and budget then there is almost certainly someone with similar constraints who can share what works for them. This is much more effective than just asking one person, who can only ever really tell you what worked for them and won’t have tried the full range of options. Of course they might have completely different needs to you, making it a completely useless exercise.

That aside, Dear Reader, let me tell you what works for us!

I would describe our situation as follows: we have two children, six and three, both competent on bikes but not yet able to ride independently on most of the routes we do as the danger from traffic to an inexperienced cyclist is too high. The terrain around us is very hilly (we live by the river and our oldest is at school at the top of Caversham). My husband is very fit and I am definitely not. Both of us need to be able to transport both children. We have secure bike storage covered by CCTV. Bikes are our primary form of transport, so we consider our budget for this to be what we would otherwise spend on a car.

My “family car” is a long tail e-cargo bike, specifically a Tern GSD (shout out to AW Cycles in Caversham who stock them, we’ve seen a few around Reading now, which is really great – I think when we got ours we were the first). Both kids fit on the rack at the back (Mr 6 is on a bench seat and Mr 3 in a bike seat). The centre of gravity is very low so although the bike is heavy it’s the most stable bike I have ever ridden. The e-assist helps me up to about 15mph (after that I’m on my own), and can be set to variable levels, meaning that even with my fitness if I turn it up to max we can always get up the hill.

My husband rides a triplet, specifically one of the Circe Helios ones. This was an upgrade recently from our tandem (much loved and bought second hand in our student days, Daisy is the only bike in the fleet who we’ve given a name that has stuck). The kids were starting to argue over who got to ride on longer journeys and who “had” to sit on Mummy’s bike, so we figured they should both be able to. We have to be careful though, as the little one wants to ride even when he’s so tired he’s obviously going to nap! We haven’t tried it yet, but the triplet breaks down into three and can be packed into bags, which we’re hoping will make combining bike and train logistics on longer trips more straightforward.

Then we have various single bikes, including for the kids. If we want to take their bikes with us (but not have them ride en route) I can either haul them using the kid’s handholds and pannier bags on my bike (referred to as “bag and drag” this method involves lashing the handlebars on, putting one wheel in the pannier and letting the other trail behind) or my husband has special panniers (bakkie bags) which will do a similar job on his bike.

With this bike setup, we can run our daily logistics, and regularly do day trips as far afield as Stonor to the North or Bracknell to the South. Most importantly, the kids love being on bikes. Despite all the time we already spend on bikes they love to use the space near the garages where they can ride around safely on their own bikes (though I often don’t love being begged for “just five more minutes” at the end of the day when I’ve already been stood there for half an hour!). Ah well, such is parenthood.

I wish everyone the best of luck with the Summer holidays!

Life on bikes

Why we’re loud and proud

Kidical Mass rides are now on hiatus for the Summer (we’ll be back on 10th September at Reading Cycle Festival) but this blog is not. Many (but by no means all) of us in the organising team here are car free, and I thought I’d take the opportunity of this quiet period (ha! with the kids home from school!) to write about some of the ways that we make this work, and some of the tricks and tools that help us.

But, before we get into all that, this week I thought I would talk about WHY we talk about it at all. I know that there is a bit of a stereotype around cyclist activists sometimes being, well, to put it politely, insufferable gits. There’s a risk that when we talk about being car free that it comes across holier-than-thou, or judgemental of those who don’t have a decent alternative to car usage. Given that, why bother? Why not just quietly make our choices without feeling the need to shout about them?

I feel that parallels can be drawn here to other forms of environmental activism – many people are vegan for environmental reasons, or feel strongly about being zero waste. Our family are neither of those, and I don’t see us going that way anytime soon. But we have friends in both camps, and we hear them talking about it, and I think even though we haven’t followed suit, it does impact our choices.

We might not be vegan, but we do have a meal plan now that involves no regular consumption of red meat, and regular vegetarian meals (many of which are very tasty and recommended by friends). We might not be zero waste, but when I have recently seen someone sharing something on plastic waste I am probably more conscious of the packaging I choose when I am shopping.

For us being car free has almost become like a game now. We try and do as much as we can without resorting to hiring a car.  We’re privileged to have the resources (both in terms of energy and finances) to work out and acquire the kit that makes this possible and comfortable (more on that in a later article). I will add, though, that even a top of the line cargo ebike is cheap compared to most new family cars, so let’s not overlabour the financial privilege here.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing though. The impact of twenty people who cut back, say, ten per cent of their car trips has a greater benefit on our streets than one person who cuts car usage entirely. Often the first ten per cent is the easiest to cut – short journeys without luggage or small passengers – and being out on a bike can be a bit addictive once you start. If a family decides that they can manage with one car rather than two that is a huge win.

This is why one of the main goals of Kidical Mass is to campaign for safer cycling infrastructure. Safe infrastructure makes it possible for a much greater number of people to take those first steps (pedals?) into cycling. It takes more people out of the bucket of “don’t have a decent alternative to car usage”. And who knows where that may lead? (If you’re very lucky, you might end up writing blog articles for a local cycling group of your friends on your day off! And right now I wouldn’t have it any other way.)


Let them ride to school!

This is part of an occasional series on this blog, where we talk about particular cycling pinch points that we’d like to see addressed, in order to create safe routes through Reading that can be used by vulnerable cyclists.

Today I’m going to talk about a pinch point that doesn’t even exist yet! (Don’t ever say Kidical Mass Reading aren’t forward thinking). RBC are building a new secondary school next door to Rivermeads Leisure Centre. A lot of the catchment area for this school will be in Caversham, and it’s my belief that not enough is being done to create a safe cycling route from North of the river to the school which is suitable for heavy usage at school drop off and pick up times.

Reading the planning document for the school I found that the only adjustments for bike infrastructure were on Richfield Avenue itself. At the Caversham end this risks being another Sidmouth Street, without a good route onto the new path.

Any child cycling from Caversham will have to cross the river. This means, in reality, either over A) the cycle bridge or B) the shared use cycle path on Caversham bridge.

If they come over the cycle bridge, they are going to have to navigate the gates designed to stop motorcycles on the South bank path, which are also pretty inconvenient for bikes. So (unless these are removed) I think most of them will actually come across the shared use path on Caversham bridge (and anyway some will be coming from a direction where the cycle bridge is very out of their way).

The path on Caversham Bridge comes out at the roundabout by the Crowne Plaza, on the wrong side of the road for Richfield Avenue. This roundabout is awful to cross, even as an adult on a tank-bike. The traffic is never clear to enter the roundabout where the cycle path comes out, you take your life in your hands every time. Reading Council’s own cycle map of Reading warns against using this roundabout.

Therefore, if the kids have any sense, they won’t be going along Richfield Avenue, using the new paths built with the funding, they’ll cut straight down to the river (currently involving a blind corner, several tight turns, and a narrow path immediately adjacent to the water which is heavily used by pedestrians).

This isn’t good enough. Here’s what I think could be done better:

One option would be to improve the lines of sight and path width for the underpass and immediate surrounds. Ideally in this case you also want proper bike access to the school from the river path, and bike storage located conveniently for coming from that direction.

Another option would be to add short sections of shared use paths on either side of the road by the Moderation to connect the bridge to the proposed new bike lane on Richfield Avenue by the petrol station.

In addition, if you approach Caversham bridge from the Northwest (either on bike or on foot) you have to navigate the horrible junction by the Griffin. In an ideal world this needs a pedestrian crossing and bike lanes/bike boxes at the front on the approach.

So the actions I would like to see are

At least one of:

  • Reworking of the bridge underpass by Crowne Plaza to make it safe for higher volumes of cyclists and pedestrians, with access to the school from the river.
  • Addition of short sections of shared use paths on both sides of the road near the Moderation to allow cyclists to access the new paths on Richfield Avenue.

And also:

  • Improvement of pedestrian/bike infrastructure at the junction by the Griffin
  • Removal of motorcycle gates on Thames path between the cycle bridge and Caversham Bridge

Many secondary school children are mature enough to cycle to school independently. We are failing if the lack of safe infrastructure is the thing that stands in the way of them developing environmentally friendly and healthy habits.


July 2023 Wokingham ride

We’ve always been lucky with the weather. But today we were very lucky! There was a thunderstorm alert for the whole day, and indeed, we had a nice show of lightning and thunder in the morning, with pouring rain. And we had showers after the ride. But during the ride itself, the sun was shining nicely. Would the planet try to encourage us, there? 🌍

We were about 40 cyclists today, with quite a few new faces. Especially a 4 year old, with pink crocs, pink helmet and a lot of determination! She had just learnt to cycle, and was training for an upcoming commute to school in September. With her tiny wheels, tiny legs and being still a bit wobbly, she had to work harder than everyone else, but she pedalled on, and was very happy to cross the finish line! 🏆

We also had (I think) our very first flat tyre incident… But a providential pump appeared, some air was pumped, and we were able to continue our ride. Everyone safely reached the cakes — thank you Natalie for these! 🧁

After the ride, we had a few requests for a longer route. We will have a think about it. This would require more marshals. But we are happy that people want more, and we will record that as a success! 🎉

The Kidical Mass rides are taking a break for the holidays. We will see you for our next ones: Sun 10/09 in Reading, and Sat 07/10 in Wokingham.
However… we have a lot of ideas for new articles, so come back here soon for more. And have a good cycling summer! 🚲