Biking with Kids | Interview with Madi Carlson

Madi Carlson of Family Ride | Biking with Kids

It seems that being the primary caretaker can be a huge barrier to biking for a lot of women. So this week, it’s all about the kiddos. Madi Carlson of Family Ride is one of the most inspiring women on wheels in Seattle, making most trips (all over the city) with two little ones in tow. That’s why we’ve asked her to answer a few questions about biking with kids, get ready to feel motivated…

How long have you been biking?
Since shortly after my *younger* brother learned to ride a bike–at age six or seven. I think my excessive biking now may just be very drawn out sibling rivalry.

What made you start biking?
A lot of reasons – friends, easiest way to get around, finances, health – but also it really feeds into my laziness. I abhor looking for/paying for parking, walking from my parking spot, convincing kids to get into car seats. The bike is right there when I need it and I can always park right in front of our destination. And it’s fun! And it’s the only exercise I get. When I wasn’t yet at the point of biking everyday, I soon noticed that my mood was elevated on the days I rode. It’s amazing the difference it makes.

What kind of bike(s) do you ride?
Mostly a Surly Big Dummy longtail cargo bike. It’s really a life-changing bike. I love that I can carry both kids (and even a third in between them!) and all their stuff…or the kids plus six grocery bags. I don’t want to imply one needs a cargo bike to make family biking work. I still have and use my previous rig, a Bianchi Milano city bike with front Bobike Mini seat and rear Bobike Maxi seat. We primarily use “the little bike” if we want to utilize the bus or train for destinations too far or hilly for bike alone. On the rare occasions I ride alone, I have a Specialized Dolce Elite road bike upon which I feel so fast!

Who is in your family?
My husband, Dan, was a bike racer and bike messenger before we met. Now he telecommutes and doesn’t get to bike daily, but he has a lovely Trek Portland touring bike he grudgingly lets me borrows sometimes (I recently spent my first night away from the kids to take it on an overnight trip to visit my aunt and uncle on a Canadian island 135 miles away…ferries did most of those miles). Brandt is six, and Rijder (means “rider” in Dutch) is almost four.

Bettie is an elderly 11-pound chihuahua mix and only recently started riding on the bike. I use my bungee net to attach her shoulder bag carrier to any free spot on the bike. She really seems to like it and the kids love having her along, though they really want me to figure out a way to carry Dan as well, so I’m hauling everyone in the family at once. (Spoiler alert: it’s not gonna happen.)

How old were your kids when you started biking with them?
Brandt started in the Bobike Mini front seat when he turned one. For Rijder, I felt his core strength was sufficient at 10 weeks to put an infant car seat in a trailer–it wedged snugly into our Burly single trailer.

What is the best way to ride with your kids?
There are lots of options and I really think you can’t go wrong with any of them! I love front seats for small toddlers. Having the baby between ones arms and experiencing the ride together and the ease of communicating is really special. Trailers are very convenient for naps as well as toy and snack containment, though you lose out on easy conversation and tight spots can be hard to navigate with this longer setup. Rear seats provide close contact (though also wedgies and cold hands up one’s shirt) and now that my kids are a bit older/taller/heavier, I really like having the front of my cargo bike all to myself. Trailer bikes bikes are fun for pedaling together for kids starting at four or five. We have a Burley Piccolo, which I quite like because it comes with a rear rack attachment, making it very stable. I often see the seat post attaching trailer bikes tilted to the side. A step up from this is a tandem bike (with kidback attachment to raise the pedals higher for smaller kids). I hope to graduate to a tandem at some point. And of course there’s riding separately! We don’t do too much of this yet, but on kid-friendly group rides, like Kidical Mass, it is so fun having them in the street with me. We’re doing more and more separate riding our our local multi-use trail, but it’s slow going with many stops for water sips and stopping to watch boats or pick up rocks.

How does it change as the kids get older?
Not having to work around a nap made a big difference in how far we could venture. Kids certainly can sleep on bikes and Rijder did a ton of napping in the trailer, but at a certain point, neither of them napped very long if we were out and about. I know some awesome family bikers who keep pedaling while their kids take lengthy naps, but I’m not that hardy.

Some kids are content to stay passengers as they get bigger (and heavier), but many want to participate in the biking, which is where trailer bikes and tandems can come in handy. In our case, we’ve gotten in the habit of traveling fairly far from home and not always on the most friendly of roads. I’m not ready to let my little guys loose, both because of our bicycling infrastructure and because our travel time will increase tenfold. I make this work by carrying both kids and their bikes around on my cargo bike and let them ride around in parks and sometimes on paths or sidewalks in transit.

So many parents are concerned about safety, do you have any advice on how to keep you and your kids safe when biking?
I bike very defensively and in doing so, I feel as safe as possible. Of course, obey all traffic laws–always. Stop at all stop signs and red lights. But beyond that, look both ways, even when the light is green. It’s appalling how many people in cars run red lights or don’t look for bicyclists or pedestrians while turning, but by moving slow and cautiously, we always have plenty of time to make room for other road users not as law abiding as ourselves. I matter-of-factly point out traffic infractions to the kids, both to keep myself from getting angry about it by sharing calmly and also in the hopes that they’ll get into the habit of thinking about always checking for traffic, even when the light is green.

I recently let Brandt pedal five miles home from a park, including a stop for lunch in a shopping center. As we navigated our way through the parking lot (statistically a very dangerous place to drive, walk or bike!) and I called to him to turn right, I discovered he doesn’t reliably know right from left! So that’s new to my list: make sure they know right. Neither kid has had any trouble with “Keep to the right!” reminders along the multi-use trail, but that’s a different feeling than the open parking lot road.

And of course it’s important for the parent to feel comfortable biking. Group rides are terrific for building and practicing skills. Family-specific rides are wonderful, but most easy-paced group ride works well for biking with kids.

Do you have any favorite resources for parents getting ready to bike with their kids?
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Family Biking Guide (free download) is a comprehensive how-to manual for all stages of family biking. Totcycle’s Family Biking Ages & Stages is a great read, too. If you’re ready to ride or want to meet family bikers, see if your city has a Kidical Mass ride. If it doesn’t, consider starting one!

Do you have any recommended products or bikes that make biking with your kids easier?
As with any activity with kids, having lots of snacks along is the most important thing to ensure happy campers. I think my favorite product is the balance bike. We used Kinderbikes for both kids and love them, although neither kid bothered with the nifty hand brake. I think any balance bike is a great tool for getting a kid started on two wheels. Some parents take the pedals off a small bike (or pedals plus cranks, ideally), but that’s not quite as small, so not all kids can fit that as early. As for on-bike front seats, I’m partial to Bobike Mini and Yepp Mini because they each have an optional windscreen attachment that was a big help for both mine when they were little. Shielding my front passenger from rain drops and wind on downhills made for a much happier ride. And nowadays I love love love cargo bikes. All of them! Box bikes are nice for having the kids in front – bakfiets, Bullitt, Metrofiets and more! Madsen bucket bikes can hold four passengers in the back, and my personal favorite – the longtail: Surly Big Dummy, Xtracycle Edgerunner, Yuba Mundo, and more.

What is the best part of biking with your kids?
Every little trip is an adventure. We all see the same things (Rijder is still rear facing in the car) and point exciting things out to one another–birds, boats, trains, dogs, Rijder’s favorite tall building! And we all interact with the community in a wonderful way. We often see friends en route and have quick conversations with other bicyclists or people walking dogs at red lights. They don’t seem to register the double-takes we get from road bikers upon their 20-pound bikes (I think my bike is 70 pounds before adding the kids) or appreciate the shouts of “Yay, Supermom!” but I do.

What is their favorite part?
It’s not all puppies and laughter, but they report that they like that we get to see so many trains (Brandt) and yellow things (Rijder). I value and treasure the way we all interact on the bike, even if they don’t appreciate how awesome it is yet.


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