Subversive Suburbanite

The joy of tandem part 2: being THREE


So the whole point of getting the tandem was NOT using the car for short journeys, but that doesn’t always work.

Campaigners for people-friendly streets talk about roads that force you to drive, and that’s what it feels like here in Enfield, especially if you have kids. For many journeys of under two miles there’s no fast, direct or frequent bus or train route; there’s no safe spacefor kids to cycle on the road; it’s too far or takes too long to walk – so you get in the car. If you suffer from car-brain* as I did not so long ago, the other options wouldn’t occur to you anyway. And it seems that most of Enfield’s residents – quite understandably – suffer from car-brain. For instance, people who know that I will not use the car on the school run (a journey with loads of non-car options) have offered to drive my children home for me because it’s raining.

But the big hiccup in my using-the-tandem-for-everything plan, which got round the roads not being safe enough for children to cycle on their own bikes,  is that it only takes one child. That meant for certain journeys with both girls, or one of them and a friend, I’ve had to get in the car. I hate getting in the car. I’ve fought so long to get over my car-centric mindset that I’m now quite extreme in the opposite direction. All I can think when I drive kids around is that I’m robbing them and myself of exercise, robbing everyone of fresh air, adding to the traffic problem, wasting money on petrol and anyway where the heck am I going to park?

Yet in the Netherlands, a normal-looking bike is apparently a vehicle that  carries any number of children, and your shopping too, as this video amply demonstrates (note that this woman is not wearing a helmet but she is wearing heels).

Those Dutch bikes can carry an elephant. Or a family of them

I saw that and thought, if this heel-wearing helmetless Dutch mum can get that lot on her bike, and I feel restricted with a tandem, then that’s ridiculous. At the very least I should be able to get one more child on the back rack.

It took weeks of agonising and research (who knew that you need foot pegs to turn the back rack into a seat? Who’s even heard of ‘foot pegs?’) but with the help and patience of various Facebook groups, and most notably the Flying Dutchman bike shop in Camden, I assembled the various parts. Sturdy seat cushion – foot pegs – a little back rest – and voilà, or however you say that in Dutch – a bicycle made for three!

That’s a foot peg sticking out – it folds up and in when not in use

The agonising was about whether such a thing could really be safe for transporting children on a main road. It was quite scary and wobbly at first. But then I am always very wobbly for the first ten seconds on the tandem with someone I’m not used to on the seat behind. One minute into our test-ride (on the pavement I’m afraid) it was clear that it was no harder or more dangerous than cycling with one child on the back. And a pre-school-aged child who watched us go by said, almost to herself, ‘Three!?’ which made me laugh out loud.

We built up using it gradually. First to take the Cutester and her friend somewhere a few streets away, then every Monday to take the Cutester and her best friend from school to their drama class. (And often I’d then cycle the best friend two miles home, since she loves the tandem as much as the Cutester does). The Redster was less convinced – until last week.

She missed the bus to school. Or, more accurately, she was not allowed on the bus to school because she didn’t have her Oyster card. So she arrived panting and tearful back on our doorstep begging to be cycled. It’s a journey that takes at least 45 minutes by bus but, as I’ve tried to convince her many times before, the bike is quicker – in the event it took us 25 minutes, even with the Cutester on the back seat and going up a steeper hill than the one we’re used to. Although this may have been because the Redster pedalled frantically the whole way saying, ‘I’m going to be late! I’m going to be late!’

I was vaguely aware of being a spectacle, and we’re used to hearing children shouting, ‘Look at them, Mummy!’ from the pavement even when it’s just me and the Cutester. This time as we sailed past an open car window I distinctly heard, ‘Yes, darling, but neither of them are wearing helmets.’ We’d left our helmets behind in our collective panic to get out of the house. I didn’t have time to shoot back, ‘Why aren’t your kids wearing helmets? 50% of serious head injuries happen inside cars!’ over my shoulder on the way past.

The Redster got there early enough to jump off the bike five minutes’ walk from the school because the tandem, despite just having saved her from the wrath of her dreaded form tutor, is ’embarrassing’.

Clearly she wasn’t that embarrassed, because yesterday I got a call from her as she left school (another forgotten Oyster card incident, although this time she’d managed to get the bus to school) and could I come and pick up her – and a school friend? I came straight away – without the seat cushion – but we cobbled something together with two coats and a bungee which the friend found perfectly comfortable.

The play street is a great place to experiment. Note that I am the only one pedalling

Then we divided into what are now the usual roles: front pedaller is the pilot; back pedaller is the stoker; and back passenger is the greeter, who shouts out ‘Have a good day’ or ‘Happy Christmas!’ depending on their mood, to people on the pavement.

Yesterday was glorious. I would not have been anywhere else in the world other than on a tandem, whizzing down Canon Hill in the sunshine, with two giggling pre-teens on the back calling out to passers by. The tandem turns every mundane journey into some sort of magical circus show. My only sadness is that we were the only people on the road having anywhere near that much fun.


*a mindset that causes you to default to driving for any and every journey unless it’s actually illegal or involves crossing a large body of water (such as the Atlantic) – or incurs a congestion charge