Cycling Into Fatherhood
By Joe Diomede
January 10, 2012
Bicycles have always been a part of my life. My childhood days in The Bronx seemed to be spent on the seat of some sort of bicycle or another, delivering meat for the local butcher or building ramps to jump off with my friends, the bicycle was ever-present. Many people have childhood memories of their first bike, but I seemed to have kept alive that child in myself, and although I’m now 50 years old, I still love the two wheeled invention that has literally shaped my life as a person, a partner and a father.
I have probably taken my love of cycling to extreme measures. I have done three very long journeys around this planet of ours. On those long multi-year adventures, I made friends, lived in foreign lands, and even met my English wife Angie while pedaling in China. The simple machine is an inexpensive, self-sufficient, healthy means of transport, as well as helping to re-shape the way we think about personal mobility, plus it can also instill a powerful feeling of freedom and love of the outdoors into your children – at any age.
Shortly after having our first child Louis, we moved to the Loire Valley in France to house sit in a small house with a big garden. What a way to start our lives as parents! We had decided that living without a car would be possible but we hadn’t yet summoned the courage to put six week old Louis into the second hand children’s trailer we’d purchased. Angie and I were missing our cycling together but we had lots of other things to do; staring in awe at our newborn son took a lot of time! We also prepared the earth in our backyard for a veggie garden, got to grips with the language, and once in a while would do the five mile return walk to the nearest town with shopping bags in hand and Louis in his sling on one of us. It was hard going until finally at a robust eight weeks old we decided we’d try out Louis in the trailer. I made a frame to secure a car baby seat into the trailer and Angie busied herself bulking up the padding. We strapped him in and took off for our first bike ride as a family. It was fantastic! Louis loved it. He was rocked to his first of many naps in his “Chariot” as it quickly became known, and our family life was transformed. We were now able to cycle everywhere together, quickly becoming known as the quirky foreigners in our day-glo jackets. Louis was completely oblivious to becoming somewhat of a celebrity in the local outdoor market as we packed our provisions in around him. Our sling was always tucked in somewhere so we could carry him close to us whenever we stopped. Sometimes I would take him out for a short siesta ride and Angie would cook the dinner and have some time to herself. On longer rides though, breastfeeding complemented and indeed simplified the logistics, a feast for our hungry passenger awaited whenever needed.
That first magical year in the Loire Valley hardly saw a day pass when we did not go out for a ride. We cycled to friends’ houses, to lovely surrounding villages, to wooded areas for walks, and had picnics on the lawns of all the lovely Chateaux which dotted the area, so instead of giving up cycling when our son arrived; we were riding more than ever before. Cycling has the added benefit of keeping parents fit as well. Angie quickly found her pre-pregnancy fitness return.
We went to live in New York for Louis’ second year of life. He needed to meet the American side of his family. We were still car-less, and now Louis had graduated to a baby seat on the bike. We were living in Westchester County, and would sometimes cycle the twenty miles to Manhattan. He loved the stimulation of the cars and buses passing close by. Once we decided to take the loop through Central Park so it would be calmer. Louis let us know, through the baby signs we were using, that he wanted to be out on the street looking at the cars and buses - he was a boy after all. Living without a car was tricky; the suburb we were in, like too many others, was based on the automobile, but we managed to do our shopping, and with creative use of the commuter train, were able to visit friends and family who were scattered around the area. If we were heading somewhere too far to make it back in the same day on the bikes, we would arrange to stay over and ride back the next day. Life slows down when you live on a bicycle, but you quickly realize that less is actually more, and as far as a one year old is concerned, life is great getting to go lots of interesting places on the back of mom or dad’s bike!
We moved back to rural France after that year in New York. Louis loved his baby seat but still enjoyed getting into his trailer once in a while for old times’ sake. At three he started pushing himself along on a pedal-less bike (we called it a scooter bike) to teach himself equilibrium and it seemed to come naturally. He progressed quickly to pedaling his own bike at just over three years old. Maybe he had absorbed the ability after spending his first three years being mainly transported on two balancing wheels.
When little sister Francesca arrived she was put into a newer-style trailer we were given as a gift from the shop where I had worked in New York to explore the Breton (northwest France) countryside we were now living in. Louis was now four years old and quite a strong cyclist. Always having had some connection with bike shops we always had good quality bikes. It makes a bigger difference than you can imagine. Louis was riding a geared bike by this time, as well as riding stoker (the rider behind) on the tandem I had custom-fitted to us. He loved it, and it was a great way for him to learn the rules of the road, how to negotiate traffic and acquire good cycling habits. When Louis was five and his sister was one we took off for our first cycle-camping adventure. We pedaled in the south of Ireland. The tandem was fitted out with Louis behind me, Francesca in his old baby seat behind him and the new trailer carrying all our camping gear behind us. Angie was on her own bike pulling our old trailer. We were quite a sight! We covered 450 miles in a month. We mostly camped and were blessed with great weather. We loved it so much we wound up moving to Ireland for a couple of years where I opened a bicycle shop in a small village. I sold lots of trailers, and only high quality bicycles. People thought I was foolhardy selling no cheap bikes, but sooner or later people appreciate quality, and on a nice bike the riding, although still challenging, is definitely more pleasant allowing the wider benefits of cycling to come to the fore. For instance nature is best observed walking or cycling through it. Pulling a child along in a trailer or in a baby seat you constantly hear their comments on the bird that flew by, or the lovely tree. Your observant toddler might comment on an old barn or horses in a field. Many a time I have been stopped by Louis or Francesca to listen to the buzz of bees in a bush, or observe a sunset over the horizon, and it always makes me smile. In the city you might even hear comments on the makes of cars or the interesting statue you are cycling past. Architecture one hundred years ago was meant to be observed at walking pace or from slower moving vehicles so the intricacies could be observed and appreciated. This can still happen on a bicycle. In a car moving past buildings or countryside at speeds of up to 60 mph, we all miss quite a lot.
In Ireland Louis was quite the cyclist and even started his own little business at the monthly market doing deliveries and giving rides to little kids in the trailer he was pulled in as a baby. He made his own sign and charged twenty cents a ride. He loved it and so did all the kids. His confidence grew so much in that time, he was now known as Louis with the trailer, and was now becoming his own person with a distinctive personality. Both of our children’s love of outdoors had been nurtured while we pedaled through varied landscapes in all the places we had been privileged to live or travel. Our family reputation as the bike family amongst the locals in all those locations gave Louis and Francesca a sense of uniqueness and pride to be known as a family unit with a common interest to bind us together. “FBR” - short for “Family Bike Ride” - became the term we often, and still use till this day. Today, at the utterance of those three letters, Francesca, our daughter, rushes to get her helmet gloves and glasses on. Louis? Well, he probably had them on already. Our kids always seem to smile as they pedal down the road with us, feeling a part of a strong tradition and a close knit family. The confidence our kids exude is palpable and when they cycled around our small village in Ireland on their own they helped others to become proficient riders because of their raw enthusiasm. I knew deep down the love we all shared as a family, and our common interest in cycling had greatly helped them to become self-assured children willing and able to share that with other people their age and older.
My entering into fatherhood was on a bicycle and the love and passion I feel for that simple two-wheeled invention has now been passed down to my children. We tried never to push them into it and incorporated their feelings into all decisions. Today Louis is eleven and Francesca seven. We do many of our school runs by bike where they slowly cycle from groggy morning sleepiness to fully alert children waiting to see what the day might bring. The morning rides give us a chance to chat, and because we live in a rural area the countryside around us seems to be awakening along with us; roosters crow, cows munch their dewy green breakfast and the sun slowly creeps over the surrounding hills to greet us as we continue our family tradition of riding together.
I hope that the bicycle will regain its place as a viable option for transportation especially as fuel prices keep on mounting. More of us out there and the roads become even safer; awareness works in favor of us cyclists. Conversely to what many people seem to think, riding with a trailer made us feel on a more equal playing field as cars gave us a wider berth while passing, and certainly many more friendly smiles and waves. On any bicycle it is important to hold your place on the road. A confident rider is always much safer, and indecision causes everyone to feel skittish.
When I look back at that first trailer and car seat, it nearly looks archaic compared to what is available now. Today there is a range of ready-to-go products for every requirement with no need for all the adapting and finagling that we had to do in the beginning. Plus trailers never lose their value; as well as Louis’ human haulage business, we even once moved house with the trailers, have carried firewood, watering buckets, gardening tools, lots of shopping, camping equipment and our trailers are still well-used today. Some people balk at the high prices of trailers or a good quality bicycle. Even the highest priced trailer along with a nice quality mid-range bicycle and all the wet weather gear your family will need to cycle through the elements will not cost nearly as much as a new car loses in price as soon as you drive it off the lot! So why not join the two-wheeled revolution and heed the words of Queen’s Freddy Mercury and, “Get on your bikes and ride!”
Joe Diomede lives with his wife and two children in the foothills of the Pyrenees in Southern France. He has published a book, “Cycles of a Traveler”, about his own adventures throughout the world on his bicycle. Visit www.cyclesofatraveler.com .