Speeding down the slope of a gently rolling country road, I am riding faster than I have ever ridden with both of my children on my bike. The relief of having finished climbing the first hill on this perfectly sunny day feels incredible. Maybe it’s the endorphins getting to me and affecting my perception because across the sparkling blue water before us, there seems to be the most beautiful view of downtown Seattle that I have ever seen.
My attention is brought back to my bike as a car passes and I am suddenly more aware of the gravel shoulder and the proximity of the ditch only 18” from my tires. I am in the zone between holding the handlebars strong, but staying Zen-like.
I look ahead to see our line of cyclists dotting the roadside like a string of multi-colored Christmas lights. We consist of various combinations of adults pedaling bicycles with one of more children aboard. Many of them are babies, and some are still in utero. Which is precisely how most of these kids have began riding on their parents’ bikes. Sitting perfectly balanced, upright and tall, they absorb the fluctuation of bumps and side-to-side movement like little riders on horseback.
How did I end up here? How is it that I had the confidence to pack my bike using all of our bungee chords to attach sleeping bags, pads, clothes, food and the tent for our first time going bike-camping?
I had to encourage myself all morning. I wasn't sure I could even ride the bike with such a big load. What if I was last? Something was provoking my asthma, and my lungs were extra tight. What if couldn't get up the hills? Would I make friends? My worries and nerves started to creep in, but I was still excited to try this adventure.
It’s just one night without my husband. Bainbridge Island isn’t that far. I’ll be fine, just me with my 2- and 6-year-old loaded on board. Right?
When I joined the group of families whizzing by, we were a train of patterned helmets, bright hats, sunglasses and gear connected to our bikes in funky ways.
It all started when my daughter was 18 months old. I was pushing her in the stroller as a friend rode by pulling her daughter in a bike trailer. She waved and carried on merrily while I thought, That looks hard and somewhat dangerous. How does she know how to ride with a child? What are the rules of riding urban roads?
That summer, I wanted to exercise regularly. I despise running, so I put my fears aside and decided to get a bike and a front-mounted baby seat.
Our condo was mid-way up a hill and it took 23 minutes to ride to the top, so I could get a great workout while running errands!
My daughter and I cycled together into the autumn and experimented with riding at night to visit homes decorated for the holidays. I stayed in our neighborhood and rode on the sidewalk a lot.
Over the next two years, I slowly became more confident and fell more in love with family biking. I even found myself pedaling my daughter to preschool late into pregnancy with my next child. Maneuvering my big belly around her bike seat was became a challenge, and I wondered when I would stop riding.
I was given a bike trailer that next spring and once our new baby was big enough, we strapped him in right beside his big sister. We were off again! Our trips were short, often around Green Lake, but I loved the freedom I felt while being on the bike. We were out of the house, it was fun and we could go anywhere.
As soon as my baby boy was ready to ride in the front-mounted seat, there was extra room in the trailer. Including our neighbor’s boy, I could now carry three kids on the downhill coast to preschool. My rides were frequent, but short.
After one exhausting ride home from Golden Gardens via the Burke-Gilman trail, I mentioned to my husband about the difficulty I was having riding long distance. He suggested we look for a cargo bike — a bicycle with a frame and a drivetrain that are constructed to handle large loads.
I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on some weird super long bike, but I did want to keep biking with my kids. Typically I shun new gear, but I wanted an easier cycling experience. He found a cargo bike on Craigslist for $350.
"Will it really help?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, "they are geared for weight. That's what you need. Your mountain bike is not able to carry everything you want to carry."
For my maiden voyage on my new bike, we all rode downhill to the grocery store and filled the cart with what we needed. I had to stop my husband from putting in a big bottle of liquid laundry soap and reminded him, "I’m biking these groceries home with both kids!"
"It's geared for weight," he said.
"Let's wait until I am more used to it." I replied.
He was right. The trickiest part was balancing it while getting on and off my seat. Carrying the kids and four bags of groceries uphill was work, but once I clicked into super low granny gear, it was smooth, not painful.
That new bike quickly became my bike, our transportation. My previous assumption that families on bikes had some superhuman strength and balance faded quickly after riding my comfy bike that fit me.
With Seattle fast becoming a much more safe and bike-friendly city, there are more cycle tracks (physically separated lanes — by grade or barrier — from motor traffic and distinct from the sidewalk) being built this year and a new family cyclery in Greenwood. It’s getting easier to incorporate family biking into my everyday lifestyle.
That is how it came to be that I am coasting along another massive downhill on my first bike-touring trip with my kids. Because I am the last rider, it feels as if I am being propelled like the rear-end of a Slinky that has been stretched out and is now flinging forward to meet up with the front of itself.
“It’s the accordion effect,” the leader points out. “It can happen in road traffic, marching bands, and bicycle racing.” That explains my exhilaration. I probably was riding faster than I would ever ride on my own.
In the distance, we are quickly approaching another uphill stretch. Like an illusion, it appears to be as high as a roller coaster. I mark a mailbox as my landmark. This will be what cheers me on while I am struggling up that mini-mountain. Passing that spot, I note that I am more than halfway to the top.
That’s when it starts to hurt. Usually the feeling ebbs and flows as I breathe deeper until it gets so intense I feel like I might vomit. When the pain refuses to go away, I have get off the bike.
"Honey, jump off. Help me push."
My daughter leaps off of her platform on the back and grabs a hold as we walk the remaining part of the hill. We made it to the top! I can now ride again during the relief of another long downhill. And, repeat.
The effort of going uphill is getting the better of me and one of the dads offers to take my daughter on this bike along with his son. That's what this group of newly-made friends is like. Whatever it takes, we are all going to get to the campground together.
The kids will run and play on the beach, while we set up our tents, gather around the fire, eat and talk into the night. On the way home tomorrow, we'll stop at a blueberry farm and have lunch at a cafe before we ride onto the ferry. I'll pedal along my favorite waterfront trail in the city lit by long golden rays of sun. As I make my way back to our front door, I’ll be amazed at what one Mama can do with an inspiring and supportive group of families on bikes.
Jennifer still rides her Craigslist-found Kona Ute with at least two kids aboard. She invites you to the Seattle Family Biking Facebook page to find much support, inspiration and camaraderie for biking with your kids. She also encourages you to pop into G & O Family Cylcery in Greenwood to test ride and dream about cargo bikes. Her latest venture is applying to be the new Verity Mom. Watch her hilarious video about family friendly places in Seattle and see her ride with her kids here. It's a public vote for one of the top three contestants and she'd love your support at veritymom.com. She recently decided to publish her writings long held private in journals. Read her blog here.