By Karen Gee, founder and editor of family cycling website Cycle Sprog
When a parent with a young child discovers that I run the Cycle Sprog family cycling website, I usually get one of several responses. The most common, sadly, goes like this: ‘My Freddie/Freda hasn’t taken to cycling – they won’t ride the bike I bought them.’ Sometimes they go on to inform me that they won’t be buying the next size bike unless this changes, and this really saddens me. They then ask for advice on how to get their little one to enjoy cycling.
When this started happening, I’d offer hints and tips about having fun, practising lots, and being patient. Then it began to dawn on me there was a common theme. Now I ask one question: “What bike are they riding?”
Usually, it’s a ‘bike shaped object’ purchased from the toy section of a non-cycling retailer – at a significantly lower price than a similarly sized bike from their local bike shop. The parent always confirms the bike is very heavy. It’s often been purchased because it’s their child’s favourite movie character, or because it has cool stickers. However, in other cases it’s all the parent could afford.
The other answer I sometimes get is that the child has been bought a bike ‘a size too big- so it lasts longer’. Often, I get told they were doing so well on their little bike, but for some reason, they just haven’t taken to this bigger one.
I have yet to meet a parent who has bought a lightweight, decently specified bike in the correct size who complains their child doesn’t enjoy riding it. Instead, these parents lament about one of two things – unsafe roads, and the costs of keeping their offspring on bikes.
Kids grow so quickly and as families find their finances increasingly stretched a bike can become a luxury item rather than a necessity if not used for daily transport, especially once the child has ticked off that crucial milestone of being able to pedal. Add in the worry of older kids demanding the freedom to head off on their own, mixing it with traffic, it’s not surprising a lack of bike can seem tempting.
This results in a situation of great inequality. Children in families who can afford to buy the quality brands and replace a bike every time it’s outgrown are the lucky ones. Not only do they have the fun of riding a bike, but they may also join their local cycling clubs, start racing, commute to school (safe routes permitting) and will have been gifted one of the most precious of things – a lifelong love of cycling.
Then there are the other children who, because their parents either couldn’t afford a quality bike or didn’t realise the enormous difference one makes to the enjoyment of cycling, don’t receive that gift. It goes without saying that for children without access to a bike the presence of safe places to ride is immaterial. These children are unable to benefit from the physical and mental health benefits cycling brings.
Thankfully there are a growing number of initiatives that tackle this inequality. Retailers who, in the past, have been associated with lower quality kids’ bikes are starting to introduce improved ranges with a lower price point (and shorter warranty) than some of the more established kid’s bike brands.
Bike leasing schemes, with monthly payments and the ability to swap the bike every time the child grows, are an increasingly popular way of spreading the cost of a quality kids bike (with the Bike Club leading the way). However, leasing is only suitable for those able to meet the credit requirements.
Because a quality kids bike is likely to be outgrown rather than fall apart (one of the other sad things I hear about “bike shaped objects”) there is now a thriving market in second-hand kids bikes. There’s a number of Facebook groups for parents seeking preloved bikes, with brand-specific groups including Frog, Squish and Islabikes. Local second-hand groups, plus eBay and Gumtree are also popular.
As well as the financial benefit of leasing and buying second-hand, there’s also the environmental benefit, something playing an increasingly important part in purchasing decisions.
There’s the potential for local bike shops to lead the way in this new economy. By offering trade-in deals and a good stock of serviced pre-loved bikes they can take away the worry many parents have of being sold a “dud” through a private sale – plus help ensure a child is riding the correct sized bike. Frog Bikes are about to relaunch their “Leap Frog” programme which will reintroduce pre-loved bikes traded-in through stockists.
However, a preloved quality bike costs more than many parents can afford. This makes schemes offering free access to bikes so important. One of the most successful is the Yorkshire Bank Bike Library scheme (a legacy of the 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ) which aims to give every child in Yorkshire free access to a bike.
Last summer, British Cycling launched a scheme to provide 500 bikes and equipment to some of the most disadvantaged children in Birmingham. There’s also a growing number of Go Ride cycling clubs with bikes to loan out.
Another barrier to family cycling is the cost and complexity of purchasing equipment needed to cycle with babies and young children. Initiatives such as the Hackney Family Cycling Library and Bambino Biking in Manchester give parents the chance to try cargo bikes, seats, trailers and tagalongs. They have acted as a catalyst in helping families with small children switch to cycling as a mode of transport.
There’s still a huge way to go until every child in the UK has the option to cycle safely wherever they want to go. Most campaigning is, quite correctly, focused on investment in infrastructure, but we mustn’t forget that accessibility also means having a bike to ride. Wouldn’t it be incredible if every child was gifted a lifelong love of cycling?