Originally published in Bicycle Times #38, our family-themed issue
Words: Adam Newman
Photos: Russ Roca and Adam Newman
For Katie Proctor, the director of the Portland Kidical Mass “chapter,” her love affair with family biking began even before she had a family. A journalism student at the University of Oregon, she interviewed her future husband for a story about sustainable business practices. He told her to look into Burley, maker of kids trailers, which was based in Eugene, Oregon, at the time.
“He gave me this catalog and all of the models in the catalog were Burley employees. Their families would get together and do these big shoots with all their products. And I looked at it—I was 19 years old—and I was like, ‘That’s us. That’s going to be us. I’m going to marry you, we’re going to have babies, we’re going to get a Burley and that’s going to be our life.’”
Fast forward a few years and it all came true. Proctor would find her and her family living car-free in Portland, getting around on a mix of tandem bikes and trail-a-bikes (sometimes together). When the local Kidical Mass chapter was in need of leadership, she didn’t hesitate to step in and begin planning the monthly rides for kids and families.
Founded by Shane MacRhodes in Eugene in 2008, Kidical Mass is more of a movement than an organization. As the Safe Routes to School director in the transportation department of the local school district, MacRhodes wanted to host a family-friendly ride inspired by the famed Critical Mass rides. At the time MacRhodes didn’t even have kids of his own, but now he rides regularly with his daughter and twin sons. “Now communities around the country are holding their own, at times and places that work best for them,” he said. “It will be interesting to see the movement grow and our rides change a little bit.”
Each city that hosts Kidical Mass events has evolved the concept differently. There is no central leadership structure or schedule and the events can vary from city to city. For example, in Portland where large groups of cyclists are a regular occurrence, it’s sometimes necessary to block intersections (known as “corking”) so all the riders can pass through, but the rides in Eugene would never do so. In some cities the rides are on public streets and in others they stick to bike paths.
The group rides are an opportunity for both parents and kids to make new connections in the community. Parents can check out other families’ bikes and sometimes take them for a test ride, while some kids have friends they only know through biking, Proctor said. “When they were babies it was fun because they were chillin’—happy on the bike and it was a chance to get out and be with other adults who had kids. It was very much about having that interaction but also about sharing gear ideas, what’s working for you, test ride each others’ bikes, that sort of stuff,” she said. “In 2009, 2010 there was a lot less gear commercially available, so it was like ‘What hack have you done?’ and ‘How does your hack work?’ ‘How can we make a better hack?’ And also just the support when we are all doing this crazy thing that seems less crazy now, I think, because of the rides.”
Showing people that riding bikes as a family isn’t crazy is part of the mission. Kidical Mass isn’t an advocacy movement, per se, most of the participants agree, but being an active presence in the community can show others that it’s safe and fun. “It’s fun and advocacy all wrapped into one,” MacRhodes said. “What I was advocating for before was pretty much the same but now it’s coming from a whole different viewpoint because I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about my daughter who’s 6 and by the time she’s 10 I want her to be able to ride around the whole city by herself.”
“You sort of fall into advocacy if you’re a family biker,” said Madi Carlson of Seattle. “It’s really hard to make that jump [to family biking]. Friends and knowledgeable people and the whole safety in numbers thing made a huge difference.”
Like Proctor, Carlson was fascinated with the idea of family biking before she even started a family. “My mother is from the Netherlands, so I grew up every few years going to visit my relatives there and seeing everyone on bikes. My uncle rode his bike to work in a three-piece suit and when my cousins started having babies they put them on bikes. I saw that and thought when I have babies I’m going to do this, too.”
And she did. Now Carlson runs a website, familyride.us, where she shares tips, tricks and experiences for families on two wheels. “I love showing people sneaky routes to get to places that maybe they don’t know about,” she said. “The more you ride, the more routes you learn and streets to avoid and I also know the flattest routes to get to any part of town.”
Flat-routing is big in the Kidical Mass movement. “I double the ride times on Google Maps,” said Kath Youell of Portland, who prides herself on knowing the flattest route from A to B. After moving into the city from the suburbs and ditching the car in favor of a bakfiets bike, she had to adjust her family’s lifestyle a bit and she had to keep reminding herself it was worth it. “You can do this. Cargo biking is fun. Slow transportation is fine, just like slow food. That’s the kind of stuff that goes through my head as we are passed by joggers and passed by people on little bikes.”
Transporting her 10-year-old, special-needs son to school is in many ways easier by bike because they aren’t tied to a specific bus schedule and can make stops easily along the way. “A really big thing to me is modeling for Evan that you don’t need to have a personal vehicle to do whatever it is you need to do,” she said.
Teaching kids that cycling is fun, safe and worth continuing beyond their childhood years was the foundation for creating the Kidical Mass rides in the first place, MacRhodes said. “Our goal as parents is to build independence into our children and cycling is an important part of that. I think most people will remember the freedom they felt as kids when they started riding, [and we’re] trying to rediscover that again and help families rediscover that again.”
Learn more: kidicalmass.org
Also in this kid- and family-focused issue of Bicycle Times was a story about bike touring around the world with a toddler, including tips on how to plan and pack for your youngest travel partner. Read it here.
Editor’s note: Bicycle Times Issue #38 has a family theme, and we reached out to one of the most experienced travelers we know about how he has fared introducing his young son Sage to bicycle touring. In this online extra, Cass Gilbert talks about the gear that his family has found most useful along the way.
By Cass Gilbert
My son Sage is something of a seasoned traveller. At the ripe old age of two and three quarters, he’s already chalked up an impressive tally of countries visited, including the US, the UK, France, Chile and Ecuador. All of which have been enjoyed from the comfort of his bicycle trailer.
As the miles have gone by, our gear choices have evolved. Before Sage was even born, we invested in a Thule Chariot trailer, choosing it thanks to its excellent suspension system, its fabled stoutness, and the broad range of accessories available. Summers are hot in New Mexico, so we invested in the more costly CX1, mainly because it features removable side windows. Otherwise, we’d have opted for the Cougar; it’s cheaper, lighter and simpler, yet uses the same well-regarded suspension system.
For the first few months, we used our Chariot exclusively as a stroller, pairing it with the Infant Sling accessory until Sage was old enough to sit up properly. At 18 months, we added a Yepp seat to our rig—first the Mini that mounts up front, then the Maxi that mounts on a rear rack, as Sage grew taller. We found the former far better for interaction (it’s perfect for pointing out things you see), but the latter better suited to longer, hillier rides, largely because you can pedal out of the saddle.
We’ve also experimented with Thule’s excellent RideAlong; it features a dual beam design that helps smooth out bumpy terrain, as well as useful arm rests and the ability to recline. It is, however, bigger and bulkier, and unfortunately the position of its mounting clamp wasn’t compatible with Nancy’s small sized, derailleured Surly Troll. I often ride a fat or 29+ bike, which really helps add to Sage’s comfort off road, and creates a very stable ride.
But as great as seats are, trailers are still the best option for versatility, be it in the height of summer, the depths of winter, or for the inevitable inclement weather on tour. If your child is still napping, a trailer also provides the perfect cocoon; we’ve also noticed that Sage often enjoys having his own sense of space. For an extended trip, I expect a combination of a seat and trailer would be ideal—it’s the setup of choice for most families I met cycling through South America. As an aside, during our own longer journeys, we play music or audio books through our weather- and child-resistant Outdoor Tech Buckshot speaker to help pass the time.
What else? Given our propensity for seeking out dirt roads, we’ve fitted wider-volume BMX tires to the Chariot to increase comfort and stability. The Chariot’s a capable trailer, and handles the roughest terrain with unexpected aplomb—but care has to be taken when riding up curbs or over rocky surfaces, as two wheelers can occasionally flip over.
During the last few months, we’ve borrowing a Tout Terrain Singletrailer. Although this single wheel design isn’t as versatile as the Chariot—it’s only a trailer, rather than a stroller, too—it performs superbly on singletrack, the ride is far smoother, and there’s less drag when accelerating (which, as Sage is now almost 40 pounds in weight, is very welcome). On the downside, the Singletrailer’s load capacity is limited and, although it folds into itself, it’s bulkier to travel with.
Note, too, that if you’re venturing abroad, a Chariot can masquerade as a stroller, traveling for free on airplanes (though I’d recommend wrapping it in a cover to protect it from the vagaries of the baggage handlers). I’d highly recommend both trailers in their own way. Both sport an eye-watering price tag, but if you intend to tour off road regularly, they make great investments and will really broaden the range of places you can explore.
In terms of family-orientated cargo bikes, the only model we’ve tried is Surly’s Xtracycle-compatible longtail. The Big Dummy is a superb vehicle for hauling a family’s worth of gear and food, while its extended deck provides ideal real estate for a Yepp Maxi child seat. Compared to a standard bike, there’s a ton of breathing room between rider and child.
Again, we fitted the Big Dummy with the biggest tires we could find—Surly’s new 2.5-inch ExtraTerrestrials—to help smooth out bumpy terrain. For trips around town and shorter, fair weather tours, an Xtracycle is a very compelling option. Given that Sage is just about three, I expect he’ll be progressing to a tag-along bike in the next year or so, or perhaps a Weehoo iGo. That’s a world we’ll be delving into soon.
As for camping, we use a 3-person Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3. It’s light, roomy, easy to pitch and handles rain well. We also like our Black Diamond Mega Light tarp. Aside from being incredibly light and spacious, it’s perfect for grassy meadows and summer campouts—though watch out for ticks. Sage sleeps on a Therm-a-rest Prolite 3 Short sleeping pad, wrapped up in a Milk and Honey Down Sleep Sack and a down jacket. We’ve found this combination the best solution to his midnight wiggling. If it’s especially cold, he wears a woollen hat and gloves to bed. Much to his delight, Sage has his own headlamp, which he likes to wear when we read him his bedtime story. Gear is organized using Eagle Creek’s superlight Pack-It system—color coding keeps things fun.
We use denatured alcohol to cook as it’s clean and easy. Sage can almost match us for appetite, so we’ve recently graduated from our minimal 1.2 liter ti pot to a 2.8 liter enamel-coated cauldron, made by Evernew. We consider good food a key component to sucessful family camping, so we’re happy to haul the extra weight. Water is filtered via Platypus’ quick and easy Gravity Works, which we can hang off a tree while we’re busying ourselves around the campsite.
Sage’s toddler packlist
- Milk and Honey Company down sleep sack
- Merino wool sleep sack
- Thermarest Prolite 3 Short sleeping pad
- Patagonia down sweater jacket
- Patagonia hooded fleece jacket
- Patagonia Torrentshell jacket
- REI rain pants
- Patagonia Capalene long underwear (used as Pjs)
- NUI merino wool hat
- 1 wool sweater
- 2 pairs cotton sweatpants
- 1 pair cotton leggings
- 4 cotton shirts
- 2 pairs shorts
- 3 pairs of socks (2 cotton 1 wool )
- Hand mitts
- Sun Day Afternoon sun hat
- High factor sun cream
- High top shoes
- 1 natural rubber pacifier
- Favorite soft toy Mono the Monkey
- A couple small toys for trailer and soccer ball for campsite fun
- Occasional Daniel Tiger and Sesame Street episodes on the iPad
- Arnica for falls and bruises
- Hand sanitizer
- Klean Kanteen stainless steel water bottle for in the trailer
- 2 cloth diapers for overnight accident prevention
- Black Diamond Wiz headlamp
- Nutcase Watermelon Helmet