Life on bikes

Out on the Monsal Trail

In my previous blog post I confessed that sometimes we go away without our bikes. We did this very recently when we went up to visit family in the Peak District. Our reasons for minimising car usage are two fold. The slightly more high-minded one is that we try to be conscious of our environmental impact. The slightly more practical one is that Mr 3 is sick every twenty minutes in the car (like clockwork) if he’s awake. For this reason we always travel after his bedtime if we can, especially for long distances. Anyway, the morning after we arrived we gave the children a few options of things that we could do in the local area (sadly, we would have to drive to all of them).

They voted to go and hire some bikes on the Monsal Trail.

The Monsal Trail follows the path of a disused railway line. The tracks are no longer visible, but it passes through some very atmospheric (but adequately lit) tunnels. This is a source of much joy to Mr 6, who loves all things trains. It is open to walkers, cyclists and (according to the website) horse riders (though we didn’t see any), and about 8.5 miles long end to end.

Bikes can be hired from the “Monsal Trail Cycle Hire Centre” at Hassop station, which is about a mile from the Bakewell end of the trail. They have a great range of bikes, including kids bikes, tandems, tagalongs, trailers, bikes with child seats and even an electric box bike. The front of the shop looks like all it needs for an epic Kidical Mass ride is a few willing cyclists (speaking of which, Dear Reader, if you are willing we would love to see you at our next ride from Reading Cycle Festival at midday on Sunday 10th September).

We went for a kid’s bike for Mr 6, and a tagalong for Mr 3, as he was too small for the available tandems and we intended to go further than his range. It’s the first time we’d used a tagalong. Mr 3 did seem to enjoy having the option of sitting and not pedalling (which isn’t possible on a tandem) but I think as a consequence his bottom did get uncomfortable on the saddle a lot more quickly than it does on the tandem at home. When he’s pedalling a lot more of the weight ends up being carried by his legs. However, we were out on the trail for about two hours, so a few breaks to rest his bottom (and play at being trains) was hardly unreasonable. Our conclusion was that as a compact and cheap way of taking a bigger child along with you for short hops, tagalongs work really well – but on balance we won’t be replacing Daisy (our tandem) with one.

Hassop Station is perfectly located as a starting point for a bike ride. As you might expect from an old railway line, the trail is pretty flat, but heading out onto towards the Chee Dale end of the trail there is a gentle and almost constant incline. This has the beautiful result that when you start to think your legs are tired and maybe you ought to turn around, things get markedly easier. The first time we went for a ride on the trail, I insisted we turn around at the forty five minute mark (wanting to be sure of being back within the two hour bike hire). It took us fifteen minutes to get back. Especially for little legs, which sometimes get unpredictably tired, this can be a very welcome discovery.

It was notable that, although we didn’t make it to the end of the trail before we turned around, we got about twice as far as when we did the trip last year with Mr 6 (then Mr 5). I was also pleasantly surprised to find that although I hired an acoustic bike rather than an electric one, I was able to keep pace with the rest of the family pretty comfortably. I guess cycling on the flat not pulling kids without assistance from the bike is about the same as cycling uphill with two kids with assistance from the bike! And it’s nice to see that even on an ebike the regular cycling I’m doing is good for my stamina.

At Hassop station we indulged in tea, cake and ice cream (and the children had a run on the play equipment) before getting in the car. Thankfully Mr 3, worn out by all the cycling and playing, went down for a nap on the return journey in the car well before the twenty minute mark. All in all, it was a very successful day all round.

Life on bikes

Train tracks and car clubs

My long tail cargo ebike is great. On it I can (and often do) comfortably day trip with two children from our home in Reading to Stonor Park in the North, Bracknell in the East, Wellington Park in the South and Beale Park in the West.

However, unlikely as it may seem, we do occasionally desire to go further than fifteen miles from Forbury Gardens. Trains are great if there’s a station close to our destination (the museums in Oxford and London are popular with the kids, and easy to get to). Bikes are only Mr 6’s second-favourite form of transport, and we often go to Didcot to see the steam trains. But what if end to end public transport isn’t practical or even possible? Not everywhere we want to go is on top of a train station or bus stop.

We do sometimes carry our bikes on the trains. However, many of the trains from Reading are run by GWR, who seem to take pride in making this pathologically difficult. Their storage often requires you to lift your bike to vertical and hang it off a hook. As soon as you have a heavy e-bike (as you might if you were carrying children), or an unusually shaped bike (as you might if you were carrying children) or any form of child seat on the bike (as you might… oh, you get the idea) it becomes difficult or impossible to use. There’s not much hope for us in the future when the kids are big enough that we’re all on “normal” bikes either, since they often limit bikes to three per train. I guess we could just decide which kid has annoyed us the most that day and leave them behind.

The shining exception to the trains being problematic for bikes is the Elizabeth line, which has the rule of “off peak, if you can get it on you can travel with it.” We’ve made copious use of this to take the bikes into London, and then on to other places from there where we’ve been able to find train operators that are more accommodating than GWR. We love having the freedom of having our bikes with us when we’re staying away from home. Still, it requires a lot of research about the routes we use, and it isn’t always possible to find a suitable one. So what happens when public transport and bikes have failed us?

I’ve made a big deal in this blog of being car free, but perhaps it’s more truthful to say that we are car ownership free. Co wheels car club operates in Reading, and we do have membership. We pay a small fee per month (which gets deducted from any hire charges if we use the car – we don’t every month). Then when we need a car we can just book one online. We don’t have to do the admin on insurance, etc. every time that we would under more traditional hire arrangements. There are several cars stored within a short bike ride from our house, and we’ve always found that at least one of them has been available when we need it. My husband goes and grabs the car, then brings it back so we can load up the kids. Probably the most unsatisfactory part of this whole arrangement is the fact that about half of our bedroom cupboard (by volume) is given over to car seat storage.

Kidical Mass Reading are a campaigning group, but as well as speaking up where we believe things need to change I think it’s also important to recognise where Reading Borough Council are pushing in the right direction. I note that a lot of the new housing that is being built in Reading is flats in easy striking distance (on foot) of the station (which is very well connected for buses and trains). It’s notable that these new buildings do not include as many parking spaces as some people in local Facebook groups think they should, but they do have allocated bays for co wheels cars. Especially as it’s likely that many of these flats will be bought by commuters moving out of London (a demographic that isn’t traditionally big on car ownership), if we can avoid building car ownership dependency in then that is brilliant.

Dear and Sensible Reader, if you too would like to campaign for a Reading where more people can be free of car dependency, come and join us for our next Kidical Mass ride, meeting at midday at Reading Cycle Festival on Sunday 10th September.

Life on bikes

We’re off on an adventure

One of the “comforting” things that lots of people say to you as a new parent is:

As soon as you think you know what you’re doing then the kids will change and you’ll be totally lost again! Hahaha it’s so funny!

Whilst it is true that the game keeps changing, and of course all children/families are different, for our family we found that the “terrible twos” were much easier than coping with the endless sleep deprivation of a newborn. A “threenager” who could now communicate effectively was easier again than an irrational two year old, and I haven’t worked out yet why people use the phrase “fournado” (though my wildfire youngest is still three).

Cycling for logistics as a family has been a bit the same. It changes constantly. The solutions that work with a three year old and a baby are quite different to the solutions that work with a six year old and a three year old. It has, however, by and large been easier and more fun with bigger, more independent and cooperative kids.

This was bought home to me recently when we went on our now-traditional annual car free holiday to the New Forest. We take our bikes (including my husband’s bike, two children’s bikes and my long tail electric cargo bike) on the train from Reading to Brockenhurst, along with luggage for a week’s stay in self catering accommodation near Lyndhurst. We pack as light as we can, because the most difficult bit of the logistics is getting the bikes on and off the trains and through the stations. We’re careful that the trains we choose have bike storage we can use.

Here are five things I noticed this year that were related to the kids being older.

  1. We could pack a lot lighter for kid entertainment. Their attention span for playing with a particular toy is much longer, and they can now make a game out of household items (pots/pans/cushions) without me worrying they’ll break something.
  2. More bikes, fewer pushchairs. Last year when our older child rode his bike it was walking pace for us and little one was in his pushchair. This year it was bikes for everyone and we left the pushchair behind (but on the uphill bits littlest and his bike were carried on our bikes).
  3. Mr 3 is more reliable. Last year when we were in train stations loading bikes on/off the train, he went in the sling to stop him running away. This year he loaded his own bike and managed it through the stations.
  4. Mr 6 is more patient. He understood that when Mr 3 is riding with us on the forest paths then we let Mr 3 lead. I credit some of this attitude to Kidical Mass rides, where we always try to go at the pace of the slowest rider. (Oh, before I forget, Dear Reader, I should tell you that the next opportunity to ride with Kidical Mass Reading will be at 12pm from Reading Cycle Festival on 10th September).
  5. Everyone has more stamina. I remember last year letting Mr 6 (then Mr 5) ride his bike on the road from Brockenhurst to the woods and it feeling like a long slog for him. This year it was trivial.

Riding through the woods with the kids was a real joy, though sadly even when they weren’t tired we carried them on many of the roads which were difficult, even as an adult, on a bike. It’s a bit strange for a place which sells itself to tourists as a great place for a cycling holiday. Perhaps they need a Kidical Mass group to encourage them to make it more accessible.

Life on bikes

In which our local bike shop does a very good RAC impression

My husband, Simon, has been a keen cyclist all of his life. He’s so keen that I’ve sort of become a cyclist by osmosis. In our second year of uni, not long after we’d got together, he taught me how to ride a bike well enough to get to my lectures. In the years after uni when we lived in separate cities, he would ferry me around on a second-hand tandem when I visited. After we’d settled down in the same city (hi Reading!) and had our first kid (occasionally referred to in this blog as the older Kidical Mass Intern) a bike seat was added to the back of the tandem. For a brief while, when the younger intern was still “in Mummy’s tummy” the tandem carried all four of us. However, it was a setup we were clearly outgrowing, and besides, whenever I went anywhere without Simon I had to walk or take the bus.

Simon started trying to persuade me that I needed a electric cargo bike of my own. Obviously I told him, very clearly and firmly, absolutely not. I’m not very fit and I was worried about being able to get up hills without him on the bike as well (that’s what the battery is for, he argued). I thought I wouldn’t be able to balance a heavy bike and with our children on the back I didn’t want to fall over.

Then he noticed that Reading Cycle Festival was coming up. Have I mentioned, Dear Reader, that Kidical Mass Reading returns after the Summer with a ride from this year’s Reading Cycling Festival on Christchurch Meadows at midday on 10th September? AW cycles, a Caversham-based independent bike shop, were going to be there with some electric cargo bikes. I agreed to go along and test ride one, but I warned my husband that no way was I going to like it.

Well, Dear Reader, if you’ve been reading this blog for more than about a week, you can guess how this goes. We went and spoke to Rob, who owns AW cycles and is the most enthusiastic person about bicycles that I’ve ever met – and a lot of my friends help organise Kidical Mass rides! I test rode a Tern GSD for about a minute round the field then came back and told Simon we had to get one. We ordered through AW cycles a few days later, and we’ve been very glad both about the ordering and about it being through our local bike shop. Here’s my favourite AW cycles story, which illustrates how supportive they’ve been.

One Friday night, we had both batteries stolen off my bike (that’s not what I like about this story). The mounts were damaged by the thieves. It happened on our local high street, so I posted in a local Facebook group to ask if anyone saw anything. We were annoyed about the cost of replacement, and really worried about being without transport for who knew how long.

One of the mechanics at AW cycles (Lewis, God bless him) saw the post and took it upon himself to check they had the stock in to fix it, then texted us that night to say we could bring it in on Saturday morning. They had us back on the road by Monday morning, and sold us the only battery they had in stock at cost. We were very grateful.

Not everyone who wants to cycle wants to or can do their own maintenance on their bike. If you get a flat tyre by the side of a busy road with a kid on your bike it may not be safe to stop and fix it. Society isn’t properly set up (yet) for people who use bikes as their primary form of transport. Quite apart from the issue of safe infrastructure the idea of a “courtesy bike” if yours goes in for service hasn’t generally caught on, and next day turnaround on urgent maintenance can be hard to find.

I think in the future, as cycling becomes more prevalent, we will see cyclists being able to acquire the equivalent of the breakdown cover that motorists have. I’m grateful that, in the meantime, AW Cycles have us covered.