The Private Life of a Family Cyclist

Do you love how you pull your bike out of the garage, haul a heavy tot into their seat, get them all buckled in, arrange the helmet, load your bags, throw up the kickstand and sail down the drive, only to realize the neighbors were on their front steps watching, more like a befuddled stare. Then you start clicking through gears trying to find the right one to climb up the hill without seeing the gears at your thumb because the toddler brought along his large stuffed dog. You are weaving up the street as you search and because of all the potholes and broken asphalt, and you are slow, you swerve, a lot. Of course there is a very quiet Prius coming up behind you and you wonder exactly how long they had been watching this scene and decide they don’t look like the type to report you for reckless riding.

After you ascend a couple of hills and you have found your gear changing groove the toddler begins to cry, just as you pass the group of parents waiting on the school bus drop off, some idling in their vehicles, windows down. He’s not feeling well, fever of about 101 and you just woke him up from a nap to make it to the school on time. The whole neighborhood can hear him wailing about you going too fast, yes, he said too fast, as we jiggle our way up those hills. It’s a nice early fall day, so you try to point out the colors on the leaves, but you also notice everyone has their windows open. Great, more cries, more tears, a bit of thrashing around as more cars pass you. They make it look so easy, with their foot on the accelerator purring up and onward. Did they look back in their mirror to see what sort of torture you were inflicting on your son?

You notice they did. Was it really all that crying or was it the sort of cyclist-image you were trying to pull off? Was it the other 26″ bicycle you had stuffed into the side bag? Or the other three helmets and diaper bag strapped opposite the bike? Couldn’t be the helmet you are wearing that everyone always thinks is a “great hat.” Or that one pants leg is rolled over your knee and a camera is slung around your neck. Beet red face, sweat dripping, sloppy pony tail. Naw, you don’t look like a circus on two wheels. That’s how you look when you are returning home with the other three children.

The fourth child is crying about how much she hates that you towed her bicycle up to the school and not her brother’s bike-it’s so unfair. Her baskets are off balance so she dismounts and thinks walking the bike would be easier. A circus-on-wheels-look happens when she throws the bike on the ground, resigning to never bike again and you ask if she knows how to get home because you are leaving with her three brothers, all their gear and trying to stay ahead of the weather. Go ahead and do it with a smile because every teacher and parent is pulling out of the school right now too. The bright orange bike, the fire engine red bags and lime green seat do nothing to let everyone else know you are not a mobile clown unit.

Riding up hills with all that weight and a very concentrated look on your face because you are risking everyone’s life to go up the wrong side of the sidewalk that butts up against a lot of traffic. You love your commute, you love your family and you love your bicycle, but right now you feel like showing up unannounced at city hall and tossing the planning director on your deck and toting him back up this hill and see how good he feels and find out exactly where he might be concerned about cyclist safety. You want to give him an ear-full of the benefits of providing safe routes to schools and better access to cycling and pedestrian routes and discuss traffic calming, while huffing and puffing and maneuvering through the areas where trash bins were left out and cars and trucks take up parking on the sidewalk that is your preferred safe spot for this portion of your ride.

Then you see a little happy. Yes, happy. Two bicycles are rounding the bend toward you, on the street you don’t feel safe to pedal with your children, and one of them has their toddler in a rear seat. They wave profusely at you and your crew and you remember that the life of a cyclist is a private one. No driver could possibly know what is going on on those two little wheels of yours. They haven’t a clue why your contraption looks the way it does or why your children are behaving the way they are. You can’t really see any of the drivers anyway thanks to the sun and constant glare on their front windshield. They try to wave you through at four way stops but you can’t make eye contact to know what’s going on. Those cyclists know, because they are huge part of your private life. They see you and your trials and tribulations. They have had their own. You see them and are encouraged.

**This was a combination of days rolled into one story to illustrate how exposed we are and how some days just compound themselves, but it’s all worth it. There are a lot of people out there that understand us and what we are doing, but sometimes we feel so incredibly isolated and private in our way of life. “Risking my life” is an exaggeration, though there are days when I do feel it is dangerous. Even on those days, I do feel I am making a good choice as explained in this post: Despite the Dangers of Norway.

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10 thoughts on “The Private Life of a Family Cyclist”

  1. I’ve definitely been there (though with fewer kids and more snow). The families in cars have their own tribulations – they just do it behind closed doors and tinted glass. Hang in there – it is so worth it!

    1. Thanks Melanie. Most every day at pick up time the littlest is asleep on the bike and everyone has to make a comment about him always napping. He naps in the car seat at the same time when we need to drive and no one says a thing. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. We could use a bit more snow this year, if you have any of those magic meteorological powers!

  2. I love this post! Sometimes I feel so exposed while wrangling my crew – especially as I’m leaving the school parking lot along with all the fancy suvs and such! But there’s always that little bit ofhappy and that makes it worth it!

    1. I hope there’s more than a little bit Sarah, but I know what you mean. It can be such a spectacle and sometimes you need to know you are not alone in it. Live, laugh, love.

  3. I feel for you. Sometimes I feel the same, with the green ibert, my blue bike, and the red trailer bike. When all the dignified folks pass on their way to church, and I’m just hoping we aren’t too sweaty in the pews, I wonder what I was thinking when I decided to bike. And the dangers of intersections can be heart stopping some days. But mostly we love biking. I’m not as car free as you, but enjoy your blog and send some support from the midwest.

    1. Thank you so much! Any support is well received, but Midwest support has a special quality. And like you, we love our biking, but there are those moments…

  4. I love you guys! I call you crazy all the time and I stand by that statement, but I think it is a good kind of ‘push the boundaries, see if we can do it this way’ kind of crazy that most people (myself included) have too little of. Your kind of crazy makes me proud to call you a friend. :)

  5. I too really know where you are coming from – really. And then I am always so surprise in Montreal, and now in Berlin, to feel like I have somehow lost part of my identity by being one of tens of thousands of families who ride the same way, with the same seats, the same contraptions. At the end of the day, there is something wonderful about the lack of anonymity of cycling – whether we are few or many to do so.

    1. This has me so intrigued to see more about life in Berlin! I added your blog to my blogroll…so maybe traffic will pick up? :) I couldn’t decide on Bike Blogs or Other Interests, but it was family bicycling that brought us together, so Bike Blog it was. I have this fear, that when I am finally able to ride with other families in better infrastructured places, I won’t be able to stop and pick up dandelions with the children, or pause for a photo, or slow it down because I like to peek in windows. I will have to keep up with traffic. So while I want things to get ‘better’ in Huntington, I don’t know if I am ready for it to be ‘mainstream.’ You know?

  6. Funny to see “us” there in your list – I imagine it is your way of nudging me to up my bike content :)

    I will keep you posted on how it feels to ride where it is so mainstream after so much riding where it isn’t. I once rode quite a bit in Montreal – but the question didn’t pose itself, because it WAS mainstream I guess…

    Emma and Will have bikes, we think we found one for Sabri. We will get Ingrid a kickbike (kids her age are much more likely to be on one than in a stroller) and for me some kind of cargo bike (or at least one with a seat for Ingrid) for longer outings.

    More soon – with supporting pictures :)

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