Thursday, February 10, 2011

Children and cycling

Modified tandem proved a perfect solution to adult-child cycling dilemma

You can see them on any given sunny day: a frustrated parent begging a tired, cranky child to pedal their tiny bike just a little bit farther.

It’s a no-win situation. The parent less than a mile into what they thought would be a much longer outing, the child seeing bicycling with Mom or Dad as a no-fun experience. The bike trailer solution is adequate while the kids are very young. It’s less than ideal, however, when they are bike-riding age, bored with slouching in a trailer and should be exercising anyway. A tandem is an excellent alternative.

I started thinking of the options 20 some years ago because I was ready for a change from pulling my daughter—and later my son—in a bike trailer. Today the kids are grown and the device I fabricated many years ago has been borrowed over and over. Upon its recent return, I decided a story was in order.

At first, I played with different tandem stoker kits offered by the major tandem makers. Unfortunately, they put children a mile from the ground and their instinctual security. That was not what I wanted. I wanted the child to be able to have the same experiences on the bike as I did. The child should be able to touch the ground, mount and dismount easily and enjoy a few creature comforts like variable hand positions and foot rests.

Eventually, I found a 1970s Jack Taylor tandem made for boys to ride in the front and girls in dresses in the back, no real top tube just an open space. Schwinn made a 5-speed like this for 30 years and they are still pretty easy to find. The Jack Taylor was bent and cheap, but it was also a classic with 650 B tires and wildly designed stock accessories.

Friends shouted, “Stop!” after I pulled it from a grave of bent metal tubing, “Don’t cut that bike up, you #$%*$*. Find a junker.” I did not find a junker so I cut up the Jack Taylor for my young daughter, Taylor, who at the time was 4 years old. I lowered the seat to child height by cutting out the top set of seat stays (both the Schwinn and the Taylor have four) and dropping the seat. I also retrofitted the cut out parts so you could make it a standard size again (the missing triangle has never been used—or found, for that matter—and the bike has stayed a lowboy/lowgirl).

I then removed the crank and built up the sides so I could drill holes through it so I could move the pedals up and down on the crank, adjusting for the child’s leg length. On the standard stoker kit a crank add-on bolts to the outside of the crank arms. This pushes a child’s legs wider apart than what I considered was normal. As a first-time Dad, I was paranoid about this and could only imagine my child being bowlegged for a lifetime.

My best idea was bolting a couple of motorcycle foot pegs on the downtube in a comfortable position as a rest for tired legs, or just relaxing fun.
I also spun the rear drop bars around and made them close to the rider for comfort. So I welded and drilled, cut and brazed, bolted and hoped.
In all, I spent about 75 bucks plus a few hundred for the bike. But the big questions still had to be answered. Would she ride? Would she last as long riding the tandem as in the trailer? Would she fall asleep and fall off?

Well, almost two decades after Taylor’s maiden voyage, no child has ever been injured on the bike. Both of my children rode thousands of miles on it and another pile of kids did the same. I never had a bad day on Jack with the kids. The strangest occurrence was when Elliot, my son, once saw a friend in his trail-side yard as we rode by and simply jumped off the bike without notice.

After the resulting boyball stopped tumbling I thought it necessary to explain that just jumping off could most likely lead to injuries one day (he was four at the time and I most likely spoke needlessly; he eventually earned the nickname, Boyzilla). Some of the fun came in speed and racing others, for example we kicked butt beating former Bike Florida’s Director Greg Wilson (kids love beating up on adults. Oh, Greg wasn’t an adult then, was he?)

Other good things come from riding a tandem. Taylor rode the tandem 6 months, then wanted to try her own bike. After 10 minutes and only one mouthful of dirt, she was on her own. That was cool since she had never before even tried to ride alone. The balance and coordination was learned behind me on the tandem.

Taylor also learned to read like a maniac on that wonderful bike (so long as she kept her balance, she could hold and read book after book while pedaling).
She and many of our friends’ children learned to ride with mentorship, comfort, and an easy reach to the ground that was just under their feet. I hope I never find that missing part that would take this bike from the kids’ world to the one of adults again. I hope my kids use it when their children are that age. It will be here, ready for action, waiting for the call of great healthy family fun.

I came up with a few other cycling solutions over the years, the very best may have been a bike trailer with car seat suspended in it for young children and fast downhills. Kids are used to car seats and they give great support. Just make sure they have a shield to protect them from flying objects and that no overprotective mothers are on the ride.

Later Taylor and I rode RAGBRAI on a tandem. She had long outgrown the Jack Taylor but the books and conversation were the same and the pace much faster due to the awesome power of two longtime tandem riders. We traded leg burn back and forth for recovery and flew by single riders, exhilarating in a certain power undiscovered by others. No foot pegs or reversed bars were in evidence that week, but Jack was there in spirit.
I hope he lives a long, long life with many children. Maybe he too has found his youth and place in immortality.

In hindsight, refitting the Jack Taylor for a child to ride on the back was one of the best projects I ever conceived and executed.

Kids are kids and not little adults. They need frequent stops, things to do and plenty to eat and drink.

If you treat them correctly maybe you’ll get to ride behind them someday. And besides all the great function and fun it provided, it always led to good conversation and great health .

Jack is now being packed up for delivery to Montana where Roger DiBrito (Bike Educator Extraordinaire) will be training his 5 grandkids for the new vision of transportation.  

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