This weekend marks the start of National Bike Week, and two months since I became, reluctantly, a cycling mum.
My disinclination was unsurprising, given my extreme risk aversion when it comes to Little A. If there’s no obvious concern, I’ll search about until I find some obscure possibility to obsess about. With cycling, I didn’t have to search too far.
Not that I’m not a fan. I’ve biked to work myself for years, except in pregnancy, when I was scuppered first by morning sickness and later by the bump-icy cobbles combination. I’ve mostly loved it, weather and taxi drivers not withstanding. (Also not withstanding our city’s unwritten law that no street is complete without at least three large pot holes.) But entrust my perfect little girl to a horribly insubstantial piece of plastic plugged into a not-much-more-substantial piece of metal, then pedal off with her? On actual roads, with actual cars. Terrifying.
What made me do it was the nursery. A depressing circuit of places I didn’t like, most of which didn’t have space anyway. Then, by pure chance, an opportunity to get her in somewhere completely fantastic. The only downside, apart from the soul-mortgaging fees, was that it was most of the way to work, when we’d counted on somewhere close to home. I’d imagined cycling with her as something to enjoy of a weekend (green and pleasant tracks, picnic in the pannier, very much the Famous Five vibe). It became, instead, the most convenient way to get her to and from nursery. My partner, an avid mountain biker, was enthusiastic. I was resigned.
Over the intervening months, cycling moved steadily up the list of things I was nervous about doing with her. To hedge, I did endless research. The route: trial and error to find the quietest back-road option, with the fewest right turns. Baby seats: I took advice from colleagues, searched online, agonised over small differences between the two main contenders. Her dad put an end to this by going to the shop, talking to a man, and buying one. Ditto a helmet. (To his credit, he chose one with sharks on it, and not a lurid pink.)
When we had amassed the kit, we created a fake baby (rucksack filled with books) and practiced with it. I was glad I did. (Extreme wobbliness, but also an undignified struggle on the big hill.) The first time I actually put her in the seat, it was to creep up and down our extremely quiet street. Even then, I made my partner run alongside, ready (presumably) to throw himself heroically between her and any possible danger. The first time he did the nursery run, I insisted on cycling along behind, to keep an eye on her. A long way behind, it turned embarrassingly out, but I could hear cheerful shrieks and see her arms waving about, so I guess she was OK. It was a week before I dared do it myself, and then I was driven to it by the sheer inconvenience of the bus-plus-walk alternative.
When I did, it was pleasantly anti-climatic, as any cycling parent would no doubt have predicted. She’s a less unwieldy shape than the fake baby, which helps, and she was used to being on a bike by then, albeit a rather faster one. (Fortunately, she isn’t yet able to articulate unfavourable comparisons.)
And now? Well, her dad still loves it, and mostly I do too, although there is a constant worry slide-show at the back of my head. We’re both a lot more cautious than we were before, and we both thought we were careful, then. Most drivers are considerate, too, although there is still the odd dickhead. Crucially, she appears generally to enjoy her two-wheel adventures. Even faced with full-on Scottish rain, she seems less miserable than me, but that might be because she, at least, stays dry. (All-in-one waterproof: essential baby cycling kit.)
There are some unexpected hazards. She’s worked out how to get her feet out of the straps and spends much of the journey kicking me in the bum (a strange but not entirely unpleasant sensation, like being pummelled by a baby bear). Less happily, she has discovered that she can also reach forward far enough to pinch me very hard in the lower back. I have yet to figure out how to stop that one.
But enough of the downside. Since the next week is all about getting families out and about on bikes, this is why, for all my initial trepidation, I’m glad we are doing this.
It’s eco-friendly. (Also cheap, at least once you’ve got the kit.) I don’t just mean that we’re not churning out greenhouse gases, although if everyone who could cycle or walk to work or nursery did, that would make a difference. I mean that I like to imagine that little A. will grow up to a world no longer structured almost exclusively around car travel, and that by encouraging her to take these green options now, I’m helping her to be a part of that.
It’s good for me. Much better exercise than cycling on my own, since an extra 10+ kilos (plus seat) is a significant extra load in our decidedly hilly city. It’s also pretty much the only exercise I get, nowadays, and so an essential component in keeping me not only reasonably fit, but also something approaching sane.
It’s good for her. Most important of all. It’s partly the fresh air (and I know I’m lucky, living in a city, to have found a route where she actually gets some of that). But it’s also the idea that I’m introducing her to a healthier lifestyle. No, I’m not suggesting that sitting on the back of the bike is, in itself, keeping her active. And yes we’d have put her on her own little bike almost as soon as she could walk anyway. (Her dad would see to that.) But being simultaneously assailed by childhood obesity headlines, and by a series of media images that could drive any sensitive girl to the opposite extreme, I figure the best I can do is try to teach her to live fairly healthily but without making a big deal about it.
Making exercise fun for children is part of that, of course, and on the cycling front it’s great to see events like this delightful balance bike race, alongside more hardcore biking challenges. But it’s also about making it part of the day-to-day: an unquestioned element of the routine. And I’m hoping that her parents pedalling away with her for fifteen or twenty minutes, four days a week, is helping to accustom Little A. to that.
Which brings me to a final bugbear. It would be nice to see more being done not only to promote but actually to facilitate this kind of exercise-as-standard mentality. Which includes more than lip service being paid to making our cities safe – and, also crucially, seen to be safe – for cyclists. (Bike lanes? Yes, but they’ll just be lines on the road, and we’ll stop them halfway up a busy hill. Oh, and we mustn’t upset the motorists, so we’ll let them park in them. Bike boxes? Here you go. But we won’t actually do anything to stop everyone else using them. And so on.)
Campaigns like the fantastic Pedal on Parliament are working hard to get cycling provision built into road design. If politicians would look up occasionally from their never-ending stats on how we are becoming a nation of fatties, and pause a moment in hunting for someone else to blame, they might actually learn something. If I was borderline petrified of cycling my baby to nursery, as an experienced cyclist in a not-gigantic city (and an occasional eco-warrior to boot), what chance is there that mums and dads without the pedalling practice will be rushing to introduce their children to it?