Guest post by Dr Ivor Kovic
I have been cycling in London with my son for the last 2 years. He has been riding with me in his seat ever since he was about 1 year old. He is 3 now, and we still go on rides at least several times a week.
Just recently I had a look at stats in a cycling app we used on our rides and discovered that we covered over 500 miles across London!
During these rides, we rarely saw other parents riding bikes with their children. It is also very uncommon to see a locked bike with a child seat anywhere in the city. So I can only conclude that very few people do this. I think that is a shame. Cycling bonded us, brought us immense joy and led to many London discoveries.
With this article, I aim to encourage other parents to start riding with their children in London. I am sharing my personal experiences and tips, as well as advice on equipment, in the hope that we will see you on the road soon 😉
Cycling in London
London is great for cycling. It is mostly flat, and boy is it vast. There are so many things to explore. Urban jungle, parks, gravel paths, river Thames paths, canals, you name it. Not to mention that you can reach most places on a bike quicker and easier than with any other mode of transport.
Alright, alright. I hear you. Yes, London is not Copenhagen. Infrastructure is not that great. Too much space is still devoted to cars. Not all cycling paths are good, and frankly, some are a bit dangerous. But things are continuously improving. Despite a lot of push back, there is a noticeable increase in the number of cyclists. And this is the way forward. One thing leads to another. You know what they say, showing up is half the battle.
If more of us give cycling a chance, things will have to change. I dream of seeing fewer MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra) and more regular people riding their bikes. To commute to work, to explore this beautiful city with or without kids. Everyone would benefit from such a transformation.
Does anyone really want to cycle in London with their children? Sure they do. Just join the Prudential RideLondon FreeCycle event next year, and you’ll see for yourself. During this event, London’s roads become traffic-free for the family-friendly ride that draws around 70,000 cyclists. The number of smiling families you’ll see is unbelievable.
Finally, before we move on, I want to emphasize that I am just a regular rider. I am not a risk-taker. I am a responsible parent and would never put my son in danger. So if we can do it, you can too!
Why cycle in London with your kids?
There are literally hundreds of reasons to choose cycling.
Here are just a few:
- health benefits – think mind, body and soul (yes, even with the polluted air the benefits outweigh the risks)
- convenience – get to most places faster and easier
- exploration – experience your city in a whole new way
- environmental benefits – reduce your impact on the environment
- social benefits – interact with and meet new people
- save money on transport
- bond with your kids
- influence your kids’ future choices
What do you need to start cycling with your kids?
Cycling appears very simple. Jump on a bike and push the pedals. Just like when you were a child. But it is a bit more complicated than that, especially riding a bike with a child in a big city. You need additional equipment, various bits and pieces. This might make you feel overwhelmed, especially if you are new to cycling. Like anything else in life, it’s a learning curve. But in no way does it have to be steep.
Here are my tips on choosing the right cycling equipment for cycling with children.
Almost any bicycle type will do the job. Of course, assuming the bike is functional and safe to use. If you already own a bike, chances are it will be just fine. You do not have to buy a new one just to go riding with your child. Likewise buying a used bike is a smart move.
The majority of bikes will take a child seat without any issues. But some are overall better suited for this task than others.
Ideally, you are looking for a bike that puts you as a rider in a more upright position. Something like an urban bike or a hybrid bike. An old mountain bike works a treat as well. On these bikes, you will sit tall. This position makes the bike more comfortable to ride and gives you an unrestricted view of your surroundings. Opposite of a super aero racing bike, where your head is almost touching the handlebars.
There are, of course, many variations among such bikes, including different frame designs. A lot of them have a straight top/horizontal tube. To mount such a bike, you would usually swing your leg back over the seat. But wait, there is a child seat there now! So to get on the bike, you will have to get your leg over the horizontal tube. This takes some flexibility, let me tell you. But more importantly, there is a risk of pushing the bike to the floor. And you child with it.
A better-suited frame is the one they commonly call “step-through”. Such bikes have a low or absent top tube. They offer many advantages when riding with a child, but also in general while riding in a city. It is much quicker and easier to mount and dismount such a bike.
Do you need gears? No, not really. In fact, I am riding with my son on a single-speed bike. Why? As I said, London is pretty flat, I am in decent shape, and I appreciate the low maintenance of such a bike setup.
Your circumstances might be different. But I would say that an ideal number of gears for this task would be something around 3. You really do not need more. Three speeds allow you to start quickly from a standstill, have a big enough gear for the flat and a bit more room if you get tired or the road gets a bit steeper.
Of course, if you already have a bike with more gears, that’s absolutely fine. Leave it. But if you are investing in a new bicycle, research your options for 3, 5 or 7-speed bikes with internal hubs. They offer a sleek design, simple operation and less maintenance in the long run. Combine this with a belt-drive, instead of a standard chain, and you’ll pretty much service the thing once in years.
What about an e-bike?
I am all for these bikes in general. They have the potential to get more people on bikes. For example, elderly or people doing longer commutes etc. I personally don’t want one at the moment. The magic of a bicycle for me lies in its simplicity. Your body is the engine. Also, you are getting more of a workout, which can only be a good thing.
But by all means, there is nothing wrong with an e-bike for riding with your kids. Just bear in mind that they can be much more expensive than your regular bike. Like this VanMoof bike on the photo below.
If you pay closer attention to cyclists in London, you’ll notice that some wear special cycling shoes. These shoes attach to so-called clipless pedals in a similar way to ski boots connecting to skis. Actually, that was the inspiration for their invention. There are many reasons why people use them, but this is the last thing you want to do. Even if you are very skilled, there is just no point risking an unclipping accident. It can lead to one thing only, a fall!
One of the advantages of using these clipless pedals is that your feet cannot slide off the pedals in wet, slippery conditions. This is something that can undoubtedly happen on the cheap flat platform pedals. The middle ground, in my opinion, is getting some entry-level mountain bike pedals. Affordable plastic mountain bike pedals with pins will offer a stable platform and fantastic grip. Also, compared to the ones with metal pins, they won’t cause massive bruising if one ever hits you in the back of the leg.
Tyres come in various sizes, materials, threads, and even colour. Your wheel size dictates the diameter of your tyre. This is simple, and nothing to worry about because there are only a few standard sizes out there. But you will also be able to choose the width of the tyre since your rim will be able to accept a range of widths. My advice is, go for a bit wider tyre, just check if your rim and frame can accommodate it. Wider tyres allow for lower air pressure and ultimately offer a comfier ride.
You can also have a look at airless tyres. As the name suggests, these tyres are solid without an inner tube that you need to pump air into. This ultimately means no punctures and no roadside repairs to slow you down. They can be more challenging to find, may not be compatible with your wheels, and probably don’t have the same feel. But if a prospect of changing an inner tyre makes you anxious, they just might be worth it for you.
What else do you need for cycling?
Helmets are not mandatory while riding a bicycle in the UK. People have various and usually extreme opinions on this topic. I will assume that you still want one for yourself, and particularly for your child.
Helmets can cost peanuts or literally hundreds of pounds. What do you do? Does more money mean more safety? Hmmm, not really in most cases. You see all of the helmets in the UK must meet specific standards and levels of protection to even appear on the shelves of bike shops. So they all do the essential job just fine. Therefore choose the ones that fit well, look good, and that you are likely to carry and not leave at home.
Another thing to mention is the life span of a helmet. You see, their structure changes if you hit or drop them, but also due to exposure to elements. So it is advisable to change your helmet at least every 5 years, or even more frequently. This is another argument why it’s better to get a cheaper helmet replaced every couple of years than owning a super expensive one for ten.
Learn more about helmets and how to choose one in this handy guide.
In most areas of London, you’ll find dedicated bike stands to lock your bike. Some areas, for example, like Soho, are not that great but improving. Be careful of signs threatening the removal of bikes, like for instance private fences.
So now that you plan to leave the bike out of sight, unfortunately, a bike lock is a necessity. Locks come in different shapes, weights, sizes, and features. The most crucial element, however, is security. The best locks are rated to specific industry standards, like Sold Secure, on a scale from less to most secure. That score does come with the price, both in money and usually weight. Lock manufacturers also offer guarantees and sometimes insurance for your bike. So it’s worth investing in a good lock, but don’t buy a lock that is more expensive than replacing your bicycle.
The best bike lock website is a good starting point to find, well, the best bike lock.
Locks also usually come with some sort of a mechanism to attach it to your bike frame while cycling. It is undoubtedly better to connect it there than to carry it in your backpack, for example. You can also get creative with the child’s seat and attach it there. Or, as mentioned before, choose a lighter lock altogether.
Finally, please please please learn how to lock your bike correctly. No lock in the world can keep your bike safe if you don’t know how to use it. Have you ever seen a lonely bicycle wheel attached to a stand with a lock? The owner basically handed the bike on the plate. The thief simply removed the wheel setting the rest of the bike free.
You’ll rarely need lights to see where you are going while cycling in London, even at night. But making yourself more visible is always a good idea. During the day, some reflective materials on your clothes, backpack, child seat, bike, or similar will do the trick. But when it gets darker, a good pair of lights is a must. At least front and rear light.
Lights different in their brightness, design, modes of operation, modes of control, etc. One of the things to consider is battery and charging. I particularly like the lights you can recharge at home or even on the go by plugging a charger or external battery to their USB port.
There are also other cool gadgets on the market. Things like wheel lights, which not only make you more visible from the side but also look super cool and will surely entertain your child. Additionally, you can buy smart helmets with lights or lights systems with turning indicators, just like the ones used in cars.
Tools and spares
Even a minor issue can make your cycling ride a pain if you don’t have simple tools and spares. You don’t have to carry a mobile mechanic’s workshop of course. A simple multi-tool designed for bikes, a small pump and a couple of spare inner tyres will cover 99% of your needs.
Of course, you don’t need to carry these always, for example, while popping down to your local shop. But when going on a longer trip, you can attach them to your frame, saddle or slip them in your bottle holder. Another option is to carry a backpack or bags.
It’s really worth investing in a good backpack that you will use for cycling and exploring the city with your child. Not only can you permanently keep your tools and spares in it, but it will also serve you great for all the other things one needs when out and about with a child. Bottles, snacks, change of clothes, nappies, toys, you name it.
You would be surprised home much stuff you can carry in a well-designed backpack, and how it would not feel that heavy on your back if it also has excellent straps. Top of the line backpacks will also offer protection from the elements, think rain. Some will have features like improved breathability, so your back doesn’t get super sweaty when pushing a bit harder.
While riding, the backpack does not necessarily have to stay on your back. You can mount a pannier rack to your bike allowing you to attach your backpack/bag there while riding. You’ll have to see what type of rack your bike can accommodate and if it’s at all possible to use it with the child seat. It is definitely something worth exploring if you plan to carry a lot of stuff, for example, go shopping, or venture on longer trips.
Finally, on this subject, something I found incredibly useful is a packable backpack. A simple and light pack made of nylon or similar material that can literally fit in your pocket. It can be used as a standalone backpack or and additional carry bag if you run out of space. Something that often happens to us after stopping to by some groceries on our way home.
Finally, the child’s seat. You can choose from the rear or front-fitting child seats, or both if you ride with two kids. In most cases, you will select the rear-fitting seat, which is, in many ways, superior.
There are numerous seats on the market, and the vast majority are perfectly fine and safe. It is worth, however considering which ones will fit your bike because different models have different mounting mechanisms. There are two main categories. Ones that attach to your seat tube, and the ones that require a pannier rack to sit on.
Also, you need to consider how much weight the seat can carry and what is the maximum allowed height of the child. This will, of course, determine how long you will be able to use it.
As mentioned for helmets, the same approach applies here. It is really not about money, and a more expensive seat does not always justify its price. Use a common-sense approach. Go to a shop where you can see and try them. If you can get to a bigger Decathlon shop, that would be great. They offer their own branded seats and the ones made by other manufacturers. Also, the staff are helpful, and a lot of seats are displayed for you to try and test.
Make sure the seat you buy has straps to secure the child’s feet, chest straps of good quality that you can adjust and are easy to use, and that it does to an extent wrap around the child’s body.
Other alternatives to a child’s seat include trailers and cargo bikes. Probably not the best choice for riding on city roads, especially in the case of bike trailers. Cargo bikes, on the other hand, come in various designs and are surprisingly easy to ride. The type on the photo below can be used in the city since it is not much wider than the normal bike. You’ve probably seen these on London streets, mostly used for deliveries.
Cycling UK has a great guide to child bike seats if you want to learn more.
Where to buy a bike and cycling equipment?
The UK has fantastic cycling shops ranging from small and independent ones to big nationwide high street retailers. The online market is even better. There is literally nothing that you can’t find online, and often at very competitive prices. If you know where to search and shop around, I promise you’ll never pay the full retail price.
Mobile apps for cycling
If you are like most of us, then you probably never leave your home without a mobile phone. When cycling, that is actually a good thing. A mobile phone is, of course, beneficial to have in case of an emergency. Still, it can also make your ride more enjoyable.
Here are a few apps you will find useful:
Navigation – Bikecitizens
I’ve tried more or less every navigation app for cycling. But when I cycle in London, and particularly with my son, I exclusively use the bikecitizens app. I find it superior to Google and Apple maps, but also for this purpose, the other specific cycling apps. What I particularly love about it, apart from a simple interface and accurate maps, is the ability to choose easy, instead of the balanced or fast route to any destination in London. Your journey will be longer, but the app will determine the safest and calmest roads, often navigating you through parks, pathways and other ways without cars.
Weather – Dark Sky
It’s certainly useful to have a good weather app on your phone. I think Dark Sky is excellent, mainly because of its real-time notifications. This app has access to UK weather radar data, so it will inform you of upcoming rain with incredible accuracy.
Air Quality – BreezoMeter
BreezoMeter shows you hyper-local data about air quality and pollen concentrations.
You can also glance at a map of the whole of London. This information can help you avoid polluted areas, or potentially even cancel your cycling plans on bad days.
Bonus tip – how to mount your phone to the bike?
While riding, you want to see your screen clearly, mainly when using the navigation app. You also undoubtedly don’t want to keep taking this thing out of your pocket, while manoeuvring your bike with one hand. The solution is mounting it to your stem or handlebars.
There are many gadgets out there that will do the trick, but the ones I love the most are made by Quad Lock. Their smartphone mounts are among the lightest, strongest and most secure on the market. But what makes them truly unique is the simple twist and lock way of attaching your phone. Detaching is just as easy and quick, so you won’t miss any photo opportunities along the way.
How to start cycling with your kids?
Now you got your bike and all the bits and pieces you’ll ever need. But how to get started? If cycling is new to you or you are just a bit worried about riding in London, here are some tips to get you going:
- Start slow and without kids
Put the child seat on, but leave your child at home initially. Go on a ride to get that feeling of riding a bike back. Get to know your new bike and how the child’s seat influences the ride.
- Go to a local park
The last thing you need to be worrying right now is cars. So go to a local park or segregated cycling lane first and build up your confidence.
- Ride with a partner
Maybe you have a friend who rides all the time? Go on a ride with them. Let them guide you and share useful tips.
- Join a course
Numerous urban cycling courses are available in London for all levels of cyclists. Nothing wrong about joining these classes, even if you are a tough and experienced cyclist. You’ll learn valuable lessons from qualified instructors.
Check out Cycle Confident and Bikeability.
Practical tips while cycling with kids
- Always ride passively
It does not matter if you are right or wrong when it comes to interacting with heavy vehicles. They will always win. And it’s of course not about winning, but being safe. So slow down, let others pass, take your time and anticipate things looking forwards.
- Don’t push yourself
Yes, this can be an excellent workout for you. And that is absolutely fine and welcomed. But don’t push yourself too hard or get overtired. In such a state, you are more likely to make a mistake.
- Don’t be lazy to stop
If you are in a rush, it is probably better not to go riding with your child anyway. Don’t cut corners, don’t jump red lights, and don’t try to outpace cars. Take your time, enjoy the moment.
- Don’t race other cyclists
There is no such thing as bike riders vs car drivers. There are friendly, considerate and kind people and others. Meaning bike riders can also be proper douche bags, really. Some resemble wild animals released from years of captivity at the end of their working day. These people often turn cycling paths into velodrome tracks probably venting their frustrations. Ignore them, don’t get caught up in racing. Take your time, ride at your own pace. Don’t feel pressured in a race.
- Don’t be lazy to climb off the bike
Jumping off the bike and pushing it for a bit sometimes feels like the most significant punishment to a cyclist. Totaly stupid I know, but sometimes you try to find every possible way not to do it. So you will try balancing on a narrow path, ride over curbs, and other unnecessary acrobatics. An additional minute will not change anything but will keep you safe.
- Avoid rush hour – don’t avoid rush hour
During rush hour, roads are full of cars, but cycling paths are also cramped. People are often nervous and make mistakes. So I usually try to avoid cycling during rush hour. On the other hand, however, if we need to travel during rush hour, the bike is probably the best option. Before we started cycling, we used to cancel some of our plans, so we don’t get stuck in traffic. No such thing on a bike. You’ll always be quicker and have an enjoyable journey.
- Don’t suck wheels
Wheel Suckers are riders who ride closely behind another rider to gain an aerodynamic advantage by reducing the amount of work they need to do. Again, you are not in a race, and you really don’t know the person in front and the level of their bike handling skills. Give yourself plenty of room and time to react.
- Feed and hydrate yourself
Always carry bottles of water and some snacks. Not only for your child but for yourself. The fruit is good, and so are some nice raw energy bars.
- Use public transport
Did you know you can take your bike on public transport in London? Trains, tube, even river services allow bikes during certain times and on particular routes. This can allow you to explore areas you never considered before.
Check out TfL’s cycling website for more information.
- Look out for
Pedestrians – often jumping on the road or paths without looking.
White vans – maybe it’s just me, but they do seem to drive more carelessly.
Santander bikes – a lot of inexperienced riders and tourists ride these bikes. I find that they are more likely to do something completely unexpected.
- Maintain your bike
Keep it running smoothly by regularly performing simple tasks. Simple things like checking the air pressure in tyres, lubricating your chain and just giving it a visual inspection ever so often.
Nothing beats riding a bike, except for riding a bike with your kids. Benefits to your children, you and the environment are immense. And there is really no excuse not to give it a shot. Start slow and build up your strength and confidence. Don’t spend money on shiny new things. It’s really not about that, but quite the opposite. It’s about simplicity, freedom, your legs, your lungs and your journey. Think about sustainability when buying additional equipment, like clothes or backpacks. Teach your kids to love life, to be present and respect our Planet.
I hope you found this guide useful. It would make me extremely happy if after reading it you start cycling in London with your kids.
Please leave any comments or questions below.
And by all means, make sure you say hi to us on the road.