Don’t think bringing children along for the ride means you have to miss out on one of cycling’s true pleasures. You just need to do a bit of extra planning
Mon 11 Jun 2018
One of the great joys of riding a bike is touring – pedalling from place to place, without a fixed timetable, ideally with camping gear and everything else you need strapped to your bike. So that poses a question: can you do it with children?
The answer is a qualified yes – qualified in the sense you just need to do a bit more planning. We recently tried out a first brief family cycling tour with our son, now seven, and learned a lot in the few days of cycling through the Surrey and West Sussex countryside.
After seeking advice via Twitter we tackled the Downs Link, a 37-mile route from Guildford to Shoreham-by-sea, which mainly follows the path of a rail line which was dug up amid the Beeching-era rationalisation of the 1960s.
For those tempted to follow suit, the Downs Link – so called as it connects the much longer North and South Downs Ways – is child-friendly, mainly flat (as you’d expect from a former rail line), beautiful and largely along a bridleway, with a few short connecting sections on minor roads.
The one caveat is that it is not surfaced, and even during a prolonged May dry spell it was occasionally muddy, so would make for much trickier riding in worse weather.
So what did we learn? Here are a few brief thoughts – let us know your own insights below.
You can carry a lot in a cheap bike trailer
With three people’s camping gear to lug about, this seemed the only option. I’d bought a slightly rickety £60 cargo trailer a few years ago for supermarket shops and had my doubts as to a) whether it would carry everything and b) if it would then survive two days of being bumped around muddy lanes. Luckily both proved unfounded.
Riding with a trailer can feel odd at first. On a flat road you barely notice it, but meet a hill, or some gravel, and it’s like someone has hooked a rope to your seatpost and is trying to pull you backwards.
That said, it is gratifying to arrive as a family on a packed half-term campsite on your very slightly circus-like procession of bikes and loudly-rattling trailer. At both overnight stops, people asked if we’d really carried everything this way.
Getting to the route can be the tricky bit
Arriving at the start of the Downs Link involved a back-streets ride from our home to Waterloo station, hoisting three bikes and a laden trailer on to a train, and then cycling two miles out of central Guildford. At the end of it I could understand why so many people drive to the start of such routes.
There’s two main issues. One is that off-road paths are rare and generally brief, meaning they’re surrounded by much less friendly roads. Overcoming this generally involves patience. A fair bit of the route to Waterloo saw one of us ride slowly on the pavement with our son (in my experience most people are pretty tolerant if you’re with a child and are obviously being careful).
The other hiccup came from our decision to use the River Wey towpath to get out of Guildford. This was generally fine, if bumpy, until we reached successive sets of cumbersome wooden gates separated by a sort of a pen through which the bikes had to be pushed.
As with so many cycle route barriers designed to keep out motorbikes these mainly make it almost impossible for anyone not on a standard bike, for example a tandem, a trike, a handcycle or, indeed, anyone with a trailer. Each gate took about five minutes of squeezing, shin-bashing and muffled swearing to negotiate.
Children can ride further than you might think