On test: Bicycles to fit the family
Cycling may be better for the planet but what if you've got children or shopping in tow? Adharanand Finn takes the family for a ride
Thursday 12 October 2006
Cycling is great. It's green, healthy, and in the city, it's probably the quickest way to get around. Except, that is, for those of us travelling with two or more small children and all their paraphernalia. For us, walking, driving, or squeezing on to a cramped bus that barely leaves the doors open long enough to get everything on are usually the only options. And how do you to carry the shopping home?
That's where family cycles come in. While not yet popular here, cycles that can carry two or more children are a common sight in countries such as Holland and Denmark. I decided to see if my family was able to put the cars keys in quarantine for a week...
The first cycle we tried was the Christiania - a sort of backwards tricycle (with two wheels at the front and one at the back), with a large square box on the front with a little bench for children, and a red, convertible, soft-top hood. It certainly looked sturdy enough, although riding it took a bit of getting used to.
I like to think I'm quite nippy on a bike. But with this thing I had to become part of the traffic, rather than weaving through it. This meant making a space for myself in the line at lights, and using the main road instead of narrow cycle paths. As a result, I had to rely on the fragile patience of drivers more than on a regular bike. On the other hand, the extra size meant I was more visible and was given more space.
At home, one of the biggest problems with the Christiania became apparent. It didn't fit through our front door. With a bit of lifting, we did manage to get it in to the front garden, but while it comes with a wheel lock and is heavy, I was nervous leaving it out overnight.
Being good, aspiring greenies, the next morning our first proper trip in the Christiania was to the nearby farmers' market, a journey we usually make in the car. My daughters Lila, aged nearly three, and Uma, nine months, loved it. As we rode we got lots of smiles. You could hear parents saying to each other, "That's just what I need." Riding it was easier with the girls inside - it felt less likely to tip over going around corners. And the weight was not really a problem - the tricycle's Shimano gears did their job.
In fact, apart from the odd scuffle between Lila and Uma (they had to sit pretty close together), the journey was straightforward. Without the cover on, the children are within easy reach for sorting out any disagreements. But the seat is not exactly refined, and any potholes and speed bumps made for a rattly ride as Uma began to fall asleep. In the car she would have sunk dreamily off, but there was no chance of that here.
We rode the Christiania around everywhere over the next few days. I soon got used to it and my partner, Marietta, took to it easily. Despite a rainy weekend, we managed a couple of trips to the park, and an outing to a nearby museum. At one point one of Lila's friends hopped in, too, so I had three children on the little bench. Marietta also travelled inside it a couple of times alongside the girls.
The last trip before handing the Christiania back was to Lila's playgroup. Despite having to lug it over the gate each time we wanted to use it, we'd begun to feel attached to it: the stately pace, the smiles, the sense of adventure on every trip, as though we were rigging up a mast and setting sail in our little urban boat. Still, it was only day three. Let's see how romantic it felt by the end of the week.
This Dutch bike is in essence a streamlined version of the Christiania, with just two wheels. This makes it ride more like a conventional bike, especially with no-one in it. But once Lila and Uma were strapped in on a bench in the boat-like wooden box, the weight began to tell. Balancing was fine while in motion, but the minute you stopped and put your feet down, you had to hold everything steady with your own weight. Waiting in line to make a right turn amid the rushing London traffic with two children in the box was a bit hairy.
The narrowness of the Bakfiets meant it fitted through our gate, but its length meant we couldn't get it through our angled front door. Despite the wobbles, we decided to brave the traffic and do our weekly supermarket shop in it. Although it's not far away, the trip is along busy main roads. Just as we were about to leave, it started pouring down with rain, and for a second we contemplated hopping in the car. But we resisted the urge, hoisted up the cover and strapped the girls in. The cover is similar to the soft-top on the Christiania, but more stylish - it made the bike look like the Batmobile. There was also plenty of clear plastic so the girls could see out and, more importantly, I could see in.
The shopping plus the girls made for a heavy load. The Bakfiets is less stable on the road than the Christiania, which seems to get easier to ride the more you put in it. But with its two wheels, the Bakfiets is a faster machine. Over the next day we grew to like the Bakfiets almost as much as the Christiania. On our final ride, Lila even managed to fall asleep.
The Kangaroo Bike
The next bike was another Danish offering - a three-wheeler that again looked like the Christiania. However, the lightweight materials used for the front compartment meant that it felt more like a three-wheeler buggy you could pedal than a small boat with wheels on. The lightness, and a rolling centre bar that counterbalances the tricycle going around corners, also made it easier to ride.
Like the Christiania, it was too wide for our front door. But the woman who lent it to us said that she leaves it in her front garden, locked and with a cover over it - a bit like a motorcycle. All these bikes are too heavy to simply walk off with, so they're pretty safe outside.
Day five was sunny, so we took it out for a spin by the river. The novelty was definitely wearing off, and Lila was beginning to pass the time pulling Uma's fingers. Uma's woes were compounded by the fact that the seats were designed for older children and she kept sliding into uncomfortable positions. Rather than a bench, the Kangaroo has two separate seats, side-by-side, so lifts are out of the question.
The Chariot trailer
For the last two days of our car-less week, we tried a Chariot trailer. This is a much cheaper option, but you'll need a bike to attach it to.
The first advantage was that it fitted inside the house. It also converts into a double buggy, and you can even put skis on it if it snows.
The big disadvantage is that the children sit behind you, which means you can't see or hear them. Marietta, particularly, didn't like this. As well as feeling safer with them sitting in front of you, you can talk to them and point things out.
By the end of the week, we were sorry to see the last cycle returned. While they would struggle to replace our car, for any family thinking of buying a second vehicle, they are a serious alternative. They force you to brave the elements, and to have fun. And while it sometimes seems like too much effort, it always feels good afterwards.
The Christiania (from £1,250) and the Bakfiets (from £1,150) are available from Velorution ( www.velorution.biz, 020-7637 4004). The Kangaroo Bike (£1,695) is available from www.kangaroobike.com (07952 382 479). The Chariot (from £365) is available from Bikefix ( www.bikefix.co.uk; 020-7405 1218)
The best of the rest
The Triobike - from £2,000 ( www.triobike.com)
Similar to the Christiania, but made of lightweight materials. The front box detaches to form a buggy and a two-wheeled bicycle.
The 8 Freight - from £1,250 ( www.bikefix.co.uk)
Children, as well as shopping and other objects, fit into a box situated just behind the rider. Custom-built in London.
Nihola bikes - from £1,665 ( www.nihola.com)
Again similar to the Christiania, but with an oval box. The Nihola Big tricycle fits up to six children on three benches.
The Gemini (left) - £1,160 ( www.velorution.biz)
This is an extremely well-balanced bicycle designed to fit a child seat on the front and back. Front and back suspension makes for a smooth ride, although you still have the problem of what to do with all your bags.
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