When my first child was born I was only twenty-two years old. I had no intention of waiting for him to grow up before I continued with my life. Modify, certainly, but quit riding my bike? I don’t think so. The first life modification we tried was a trailer. We took several long trips with Shawn in a trailer that I built. My wife, Trisha and I rode a Gitane tandem that we’d purchased for the then princely sum of around four hundred dollars. It seemed to make pulling the trailer less of a drag, and turned cycling into a team/family sport.
Domestic tranquility didn’t last long however, by the time Shawn was three, he was tired of being a passenger while the rest of us rode. While I appreciated his sentiment there was no way I was going to put a three year old out in traffic. Somewhere I saw a picture of a tandem being ridden with a child on the back. It had been modified with a device called a “kidback conversion”, which was basically a bottom bracket shell which clamped to the seat tube, and could be moved down as the child grew.
Bicycles and bicycling were different in America in the seventies. It was basically a European sport that a few of us were trying to transplant. Nobody knew anything about “kidbacks” or kids riding them.
By this time I’d replaced our Gitane tandem with a new Jack Taylor, so I had a spare Gitane sitting around. Shawn unwittingly became the test pilot. There were no “kidbacks” available at the time so I made one that clamped onto the mixte tubes of Gitane. By the time we realized that Shawn looked like a small frog on the bike because the cranks were too long, Phil Wood had started making crank shorteners. When he looked like he was too stretched out I made an extra long adjustable stem. I found a set of kids drop bars.
We started to ride the contraption when Shawn was just about three-and-a-half. Frankly I was scared to death. I wondered if he’d fall off? Or if he were to young? I put toe clips on his pedals and tightened the toe straps up tight. I was relatively sure that if he was injured his mother would kill me. I shouldn’t have been concerned. He took to it instantly. He loved to go really fast and complained on long climbs that we could walk faster. Initially, I’d been concerned that if he let go of the bars he might fall off, he learned quickly that not only was it possible to ride without holding on, but you could sit up and flap your arms if you wanted to.
He rode his first century (100 mile ride) before he was five years old. He rode to San Francisco in the middle position of a triple bicycle the summer he was seven and eight years old. About that time he came into the frame shop with a confused look on his face. I ask him what was going on. He told me that his friend John was going on vacation. I ask him what was so weird about that? He said,” Dad they don’t even have bicycles”! One of the few times I felt that I may have got parenting right.
Tandeming has always been special time for my son and I. If you read the other article I’ve written for this blog, you’ll see we still ride together, and that Shawn’s now forty-one. He doesn’t need a kidback anymore, and hasn’t for a long time. The time we spend riding together is still a team sport, and very much one on one. A tandem and a kidback aren’t inexpensive. There are other ways of riding with children that are much less expensive, but none of them teach a child to be a cyclist, or are as safe a way to ride with children. I won’t even try and place a value on either, or the thousands of hours of one on one time that can result.