Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading, Riding, no Rithmetic - two great reads for younger riders

The bead on our studded front tire on the box bike broke and stuck out through the rubber, popping our tube and putting us on the train these last two icy days awaiting its replacement. Two of our favorite winter reads came out.

The Bear’s Bicycle by  Emilie Warren McLeod and illustrated by David McPhail is a new absolute favorite. It is a wonderful book about biking from 1975 that is actually very current. It covers everything from making turns and checking tires to not getting doored, as a young boy (a clever rider) and his brought-to-life teddy bear (rather reckless) go off on their daily ride. Perfect for the learning rider, it says it all with sly humor and clever pictures. My kids crack up at the Bear’s cycling antics every time.  Though it’s pre-helmet era, the boy’s puffy cap looks suspiciously like a chic Yakkay hat helmet.

You can probably find it at the library or order it from your trusty neighborhood book store — like Sandmeyer’s or Women and Children First.  (link here)

Usually there is plenty to watch on our wintery city rides, be it a new building going up or the perennial hit — some gigantic machinery next to a huge hole getting dug in the road. More than buildings grows in Chicago, and a nice trip game we play is to spy winter trees we pass on a ride and identify them from their shapes. Carole Gerber’s Winter Trees was our original inspiration for this game. A book perfect for the younger rider, Leslie Evans’s sweet linoleum block, watercolor and collage illustrations bring the shapes of winter trees to life. They especially piqued my middle guy’s curiosity about which trees we passed on our daily rides. It’s a nice counterpoint to the bulldozers and street cleaning machines! I like that Winter Trees gently describes the difference between deciduous and evergreen trees and gives tactile clues for telling seven different trees apart — a good number for the budding arborist to remember.

Sometimes we ride by trees in a place a few times and try to guess as we go by what the trees are from their shapes, then go back, when we have time, to check the bark and branches, to see if we were right. If you get really good at the tree game, tree guides can be fun to have around. We have a Peterson’s Guide to North American Forests but there are plenty of other good ones to be found at the library or book store.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Make your own Balance Bike

The blue one is the homemade balance bike.

There's no better way to learn how to ride a bike than a balance bike (or toddler bike). That's one of those little bikes with no pedals, no training wheels, and no brakes that you see more and more lately. They are good for early practice learning to stop, go and make good turns in a park or playground, way before your kid ever tries out intersections and stops on a sidewalk ride.
This is a homemade balance bike, though you can't see it well, ridden by this
2 1/2 year old all the way from the Art Institute past North Ave,  in
Chicago's Bike the Drive a few years ago.  I think he got up past
the zoo (about 4 1/2 miles) and then he rode in the trailer and fell asleep.

Our now-10-year-old played around with one for a few months back when he was 3, then suddenly hopped on an older friend's Batman bike and roared off on his own around the park. Other kids we know have done the same. Our 6-year-old liked the balance bike so much he wouldn't get off it, and he refused to take a pedal bike long after he was able to ride up and down our sidewalk on his own. The 2-year-old isn't quite big enough to fit on it yet but he calls it his bike already.

You can get them as adaptive bikes for grownups, old-fashioned velocipedes, or for kids, made out of hardwood plywood in fancy toy and stroller stores. Even Target has them. There are a few metal ones for kids now becoming available. The wooden ones that are common are light enough to pop under one arm and carry back from the park if your small person gets tired of riding, and many have a limitation built into the steering to prevent the wheel from turning so far to the side that it causes a fall. None that I have seen have any brakes, so they are only for use in flat or slightly sloping places that are safe for kids to be running around. Playgrounds are good, parking lots and sidewalks downhill to big streets are not. Kids this age can't (in my opinion) really use brakes that well anyway yet. The bikes are toys and teaching tools, not real transportation. Yet.

The original wooden balance bike for kids that we know about, the Like-A-Bike, was made by Kokua, a wooden toy company in Germany, and was probably priced to provide its manufacturing workers a living wage, health care and a safe working environment. In other words, it was way too expensive, but it was the only one for a long time. It was made better than most others are now. You can still get one.

I guess that many clever penny pinchers in the bike or toy industry realized that by copying the design and getting it built elsewhere by people without those protections, the bike would be a lot cheaper, and the manufacturer could get a great big nice profit and the consumer could save $50.  I can't think of another reason why these things cost as much as they do considering where they are made now.

But you aren't limited to those choices. How about a recycled one? It is really easy to make your own if you have friends with old bikes, access to a used bike store that carries children's bikes, or a cheap 5&10 nearby that has tiny pink and blue kids' bikes with roughly 10 inch wheels (though that isn't recycling really). You need only a wrench or two, a chain tool, and pliers or something to bend wires, on most bikes, or unscrew the thing that holds the cranks on (the bottom bracket) on others. Eyes glazing over? You can just take your chosen bike to your favorite neighborhood bike shop and ask them to take off the cranks and chain for you. But let's say you have your tools ready:

This is a cheap lightweight baby bike with
10 in wheels and solid foam tires bought new
for $10 at the Maxwell St Market and
adulterated as described in this post. 
Look how his R foot is flat on the ground
(low seat!) and he can step comfortably with
the other foot.
First, make sure you are wearing stainable old clothes, then go to the store or junkyard or thrift shop or Working Bikes and pick out the bones of a little metal kid's bike that takes your fancy. You just need the frame, wheels, seat and steering to work - it doesn't need pedals, cranks, chain or brakes. I suggest getting a really little one that's lightweight enough to want to carry it home from the park, maybe with 10 inch or 12 1/2 inch tires.

(If you need a bigger version, for an older kid or a grownup to learn how to ride a bike for example, you can of course use any larger bike instead. Remove any gearing, but I'd probably leave the brakes on. The rest of the post assumes you're building a bike for a small child.)

Make sure it's small enough for your child to fit on it (bring the child with you?) and put his or her feet down at a comfortable angle to the ground.  Remember, your small person will be walking with big, long steps like Groucho Marx while resting weight on the bike, so the seat has to be a lot lower than he or she would need it if actually bicycling. It takes them a few tries to get comfortable enough to actually rest their weight. Note that homemade balance bikes don't have the built in limit on the steering, but that hasn't been a problem for our guys so far.

If the bike is covered with stickers and brand names you don't like, check that they are removable before you buy - most in this class of bikes are easily peeled off. Or, with a little reflective tape you can make a nicer design than what it came with anyway. Black bikes look good with yellow stripes - a bumblebee bike! Multicolor - a rainbow bike! And so on. You can put a big piece of reflector tape over the picture of Tinkerbell or whoever if you think she's not a good role model for your child. Make the bike look appealing and cool for your kid.

Take off any training wheels. Next, remove the non-drive side pedal. It should have a 15 mm wrench size, and it's threaded backwards - with the wrench pointing up turn it toward the back of the bike like tightening a regular bolt- and use penetrating oil if needed. This is a good time to use a real wrench, not an adjustable one. Then break the chain with a chain tool. Or a chain saw. Just kidding. Remove the chain and set it aside. (A big pliers can mangle a chain apart too; a hacksaw won't usually work well.) You won't likely need it again, but who knows? You can take off the chain guard now, too.

Most of these little kids' bikes, if not all of them, have a one piece crank shaped like a Z with the chainwheel stamped on, like the old Schwinn "Ashtabula" cranks. You can usually find out how to remove the cranks by looking at the non-drive side - there is a bent wire retainer or a (probably backwards threaded) screw-on nut that holds the crank bottom bracket, such as it is, to the frame. Remove it and loosen the other side if you need to, then remove whatever you can of the bottom bracket. Often on those we've done this is just a piece of plastic on each side with a hole in its center. Greasy metal ball bearings might jump out at you if someone built it a little better than that. See the pictures for an example. Now, hold the drive side pedal arm, the one with the chainwheel, and move the zigzag crank out of the bottom bracket opening of the bike until it's free of the frame. Clean up the grease, if any.
1, loosens clockwise!

2, crank arm with outer nut removed - see the washer?

3 Under the washer (fits in that slot!) is another backwards threaded thing. This is the cone.

4, The cone comes out, also clockwise, by hand or with a screwdriver or punch

5. The ball bearing cage just slides out (goopy grease!)

Ta-Da! It's off. Now (when the chain and guard are off) you can ease the
cranks out of the frame by pushing them through from this side and wiggling them.
Remove any brakes too, if desired. You may need to reattach the plastic bottom bracket covers or put some duct tape over the holes or glue in corks or something so nobody gets scraped. Adjust the seat to be low and comfortable, pump up the tires and you are done.

It might not be birch plywood, but it's not bad either, and it's waterproof enough to be left outside. If your kid ever needs it, you can reverse the above steps and reinstall everything. Set the pieces aside now.
If you reassemble it, this is the order. Use new grease, and it tightens backwards!
Get a helmet that fits your kid, grab your new balance bike, and head to the park!


4/10/12: Recently we've noticed that a lot of people who come to this site are looking for ways to make one of those wooden bikes. There are instructions on line, I think. But since kids often learn how to balance within a month or two, after which they are ready to ride a real bike, you might consider saving your woodworking effort for a project that will be usable for a longer time. It'd be a shame to spend time making something handmade and beautiful if Junior isn't going to enjoy it for long.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Carrying Kids on Folding Bikes

A lot of young people have folding bikes for commuting or travel. Then along comes their first baby and they don't see how their flimsy folder can possibly get them around together. But don't throw the bike out with the bathwater! You can get a kid seat onto most folding bikes safely and easily. Possibly expensively, too, but we'll get to that.

Most of this information applies to regular nonfolding bikes as well.

We usually carry our brood and kilos of assorted garbage I mean cargo around in a big, heavy cargo bike. It's terrific for what it's designed for. But if you want to tootle off for the weekend for a bike ride through beautiful Oskaloosa with your happy threesome, unless you have a truck of some kind you're not bringing the cargo bike with you. 

We didn't think you could get a kid on a folding bike the time many years ago when we went to Holland for my friend's wedding and a week or two on bikes in Friesland, the northeastern part of Holland. We went with a Birdy and a Bike Friday New World Tourist, each in a suitcase (the Birdy packs smaller), and a Burley D'Lite two kid trailer. You can hook a trailer to most folding bikes pretty easily. (We quickly found out how unpopular a trailer makes you in a country with bike paths, however, since you block the lane nearly completely and all the commuters stuck behind you call you names.) We also wanted to try out the odd bikes they have there and rented every cargo bike and tandem we could find, which were pretty popular with the kids. 

The Onderwater Tandem we rented was a big hit.

But we took our folders and the trailer for our longer ride. Well, after a few days sitting squashed next to each other in the trailer with clothes and food, the kids didn't want to get along with each other anymore and no number of windmills or piece of yummy cheese or stroopwafel was going to calm them down. 

You can't hear the kids in the trailer in this picture, so it looks peaceful. 
This is a bike route in Friesland, not a picture from Chicago.
In desperation, we dropped by a little hole in the wall bike shop in a smallish city in Friesland and waited for a few minutes while two blue-gray overalled mechanics dug through decades of Sturmey-Archer parts and came up with a Bobike Maxi SC rear seat. A few more minutes and they found the ATB Adapter for it, then proceeded to bolt it on to the Bike Friday. Here's how it goes on:

The adapter is the curved arm that clamps to the seat tube, and the seat attaches to it with the little locking pin, then the supporting posts from the seat itself slide onto clamps on the seat stays. There's a lock wrapped around the seat tube in this picture but it's not related to the bike seat. You just need a hex wrench to attach the seat. It does make it impossible to fold the bike without removing the seat, but that is quick and simple, and you can't actually fold a Bike Friday quickly anyway. They're more disassemble-able than foldable.

The Bobike Maxi seat is a really good solution, but not completely perfect. Unless you cut the bolts shorter on the seat stay clamps or adjust your spacing just right, the bolt on the drive side can hit the chain in some gears. Which ones depends on the gearing system on your bike -- ours has a SRAM/Sachs 3x7 and it's the lowest (biggest) gear on the cluster that is tricky. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Oh, grow up, Chicago! (Or, we can't all move to Amsterdam!)

The way from here to a future Chicago with enough bike oomph to be on the map of cycling cities seems a long way off on a knuckle-cracking cold day in January.

Staying on a bike in the winter for me isn’t so much about the cold as the extra work it can take to stay on two wheels with three small people and a city of raging traffic. My oldest son is growing up through the bike box cover with his helmet on. It’s pretty cramped if anyone is in a cranky mood. On went the cover this week and many-brother mayhem ensued. Morning grumps felt packed like sardines. Insults and punches were flying. 

The winter ninja riders in all over basic black and Bern got to hear me threatening everyone at the lights (before ninjaing on through the red). 

You might wonder what that has to do with anything, but I know that the fact that my son is able but unsafe riding on his own to school is a growing pain for me and for Chicago. In any EU bike nirvana he and the middle guy would be rolling under their own power on a cycletrack, heeding the bike stoplights and eating butter pretzels on their way to school. Perfect expat photo fodder for Amsterdamize, Copenhagenize or Heidelbergeirung to taunt me. 

Bakfiets en Meer recently posted a pic of a crowd of boys mugging for the camera on a blissfully empty Dutch bike path. I wanted to photoshop in a nice lane eating CTA bus, nefarious taxis and a few crazed car commuters just to spice things up a little for those guys. I’d even add a couple of wacky jaywalking pedestrians here and there. Sound familiar? As inspiring as the Ize sites are, I sure wish they came with an owners manual for building the great cycling society. It looks like we are going to have to do it without a map. The ThinkBike workshops and the Bike 2015 Plan left us some clues but we need more.

A few hardy Chicago family-toting (kids and/or dog) polestars — Jane Healy of Active Trans, Kathy Schubert of Cycling Sisters, and Gin Kilgore of Bike Winter and Break the Gridlock — keep me from crying into my coffee. They ride everywhere with their kids and make the city a better place for me to ride. The most I’ve done in ten years besides riding around Chicago is stumble into one or two of the Mayor’ s bike meetings and keep my CBF/Active Trans membership up to date. Not much to hang a hat on but this year could be different. Herewith in their spirit my four pronged plan.

I’d like to learn more about CMAP — The Chicago Metropolitan Planning Commission — and their committee on bikes and pedestrians. Their blog is Soles and Spokes for news on planning, projects and grants in the Chicago Metropolitan Area Planning District. 

I want to go with my family to the National Bike Summit in March. The League of American Bicyclists is hosting it in Washington D.C.. Check their site for news on the Summit and why funding for cycling and pedestrian projects is due for radical cuts under the new Congress. They estimate needing at least a thousand cycling advocates this year to flood the Capitol and influence transportation policy.

I need to make my vote count. Chicago’s new mayor will have a seismic influence on anyone out there that rides, walks or trains it here in Chicago. Many aldermen are also defending their seats. I need a way to find out which of my aldermanic candidates and who of the people running for Mayor will make this the decade Chicago meets its promise. One new organization formed around the election is Walk Bike Transit. WBT is a PAC — political action committee — that can advocate with money and time for purely political change. They are a natural partner to Active Trans, who is always working to benefit pedestrians and bikers, but not allowed to lobby or spend money in political races to influence outcomes.

I want to get schooled by Streetsblog. It shows how brutally organized, hard nosed cycling advocacy gets done in New York, DC and SF. Their daily sidebar of every cycling related civic meeting in New York is amazing. It can flood a civic meeting with hundreds of cycling advocates. I wish Chicago was on Streetsblog with that little sidebar box too. Imagine what we could get done. (more about them here)
Come on, Chicago! Get these kids some infrastructure to ride on!

Got any other good ideas? If you see something missing here feel free to add it, please!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

To the Movies at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Just this weekend I found that the Notebaert Nature Museum will be showing films from the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival on Saturdays and Sundays this winter for toddlers to about 8 years old. What fun -- a ride through the wintry city and a stop at the movies! The screenings are on Friday mornings at 9.45 am for the youngest children and Saturday mornings at 9.45 for 5-8 year old early risers.  The films look to be a good mix and admission gets you into the Museum for later if you wish. Shows begin late in January but it’s a good idea to get tickets early as seating is sparse.

Hmm, but how to get there on two wheels?  Check out the Good Routes page here to look for a good ride or to share one.

Some ways we go are:
From Humboldt Park or Logan Square going west I try to take little streets and eventually reach Belden or Webster streets going east. From Bucktown I follow Cortland or Webster and go north on Racine to Belden, which is quiet and all stop signs and lights from just west of De Paul all the way to the lake. Once at the Lake just turn north and coast up to the Nature Museum. The Belmont bus also runs east with room for two bikes or as many people as you can fit, and it stops right in front of the museum.

From Hyde Park (south) or Rogers Park (north) there’s the Lakefront Path. The LFP can be challenging in winter for family riding, but the Chainlink now has an update forum for riders that are curious about the condition of the trail, commented on by fellow winter cyclists. I rarely take the path myself; definitely look at the Active Trans info page or the  lakefront path information wiki.

From the South Loop I would take Peoria to Lake, cut along Wacker by the river on the sidewalk, and then go north on Wabash all the way to the Gold Coast. I cut east to State from Wabash as it disappears just by the Sofitel, then walk/ ride State or the sidewalk on Astor or Lakeshore through the Gold Coast to Lincoln Park. I ride in the park past the zoo and up to Fullerton and the Nature Museum. This route is mostly a quiet path through a busy area.

There are lots of good places for an emergency bathroom stop heading both east and north on these rides and of course the museum has plenty of bathrooms.
Goodies at Bake

Bake is good but hard to see without a big sign. It's on
the north side of North Ave near the Handlebar.
A winter ride is always fun when there are delicious hot drinks or a treat for a morning bite. Food and coffee is available at the Museum but it isn’t my favorite spot. Coming from the west, we stop early in the ride at Bake on 2246 W North Ave,  Floriole Bakery on 1220 W Webster, a quick jog from Belden, or try Sweet Mandy B’s next door.  Coming from the north, Bittersweet Bakery is at 1114 W Belmont. The Red Hen Bakery on 500 W Diversey (just north of the park/museum and about two blocks west of the giant Goethe statue) does breakfast, coffee and sandwiches. North Pond Cafe has fancy brunch on Sundays but it’s too fancy for kids!  These places take care of a morning treat, but for later I’d pack lunch and a snack so I don’t have to depend on the food in the Museum cafe. And a thermos of something hot and cheery can be a big help on a cold morning ride with kids. 

Bike parking is good at the Museum or along the park that surrounds it. You can bring your unsorted recycling to the bin out front. Don’t forget to bring some crumbs for the ducks and geese and walk around North Pond, which has one of the best views of the city and a playground.