The Wilbrahams of Bath, Maine, are a family that cycles together.
Jenny, 7, pedals a mile and half to school with her mother, Sharon, 43, who continues on her 6-mile round-trip commute. Dad Derek, 52, has the longest ride to work, 19 miles each way. They ride year-round, putting spikes on their tires for better grip in snow.
Vacations are self-guided bicycle tours that began when Jenny was in the womb, and have taken them as far away as Europe.
"The more you do it, the more you make it into a routine and something you can all do together," says Sharon Wilbraham. "Bicycling gives you transportation and time together."
Families can find such togetherness on country roads, bike paths, rail trails - even ski areas offer opportunities to gear up and go.
The Wilbrahams started Jenny early, pulling her in a kid's trailer. She graduated to training wheels and now routinely rides with her father on a tandem bicycle, fully versed on the rules of the road, hand signals, and bicycle safety. The family looks for events such as the Bicycle Coalition of Maine's annual Bicycle Rally July 11-13 in Fryeburg as a way to see their home state, share tips, and turn heads when they break out the triplet, a bicycle built for three.
"We're always trying to make our weekend rides a destination by going to the beach, the coffee shop for cookies, or to the playground," says Wilbraham. "We'll bring extra clothing and snacks. Instead of riding to ride, we try to go to a special place."
Families wanting to get into the woods do so via mountain bike trails. The New England Mountain Bike Association is a nonprofit organization based in Acton with 4,600 members that promotes trail access, maintenance, and mountain bike education. The group is focusing more on children and families, according to Philip Keyes, its executive director.
Through a program called NEMBA Explorers Kids Rides, families ride together while learning basic bicycle maintenance, trail etiquette, and technical skills, from how to go over a small log to shifting correctly. Distances vary with the age of the children. Keyes says there is a huge disparity in the mileage children can achieve based on their age, and equipment matters.
"The number one mistake parents make is buying something that is too heavy, has lousy brakes, and doesn't shift well," he said. "It is worthwhile to go to a local bike dealer and get a bike that fits the need of kids. There may be sticker shock in paying a couple of hundred instead of $69.99 but the bike can be passed on to the next kid or sold."
South Shore cyclists can find Saturday morning Explorers rides leaving from Pembroke Ski Market on Route 139 at 10 a.m. bound for spots such as Duxbury Town Forest
The woods of the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Stoneham and Winchester are ideal for mountain biking families; Explorers rides are planned for June 21, July 21, Aug. 9, and Oct. 4. Young riders learn the importance of riding only on designated trails - mellow carriage roads in this case - to avoid damaging the precious flora and fauna.
The festive June 15 Blue Hills Mountain Bike Day in Milton features family-oriented, noncompetitive rides, while family novice loops are part of the six-stop Kona Bicycles Mountain Bike Adventure Series across New England. The series stops on June 22 at Huntington State Park in Redding, Conn., and on Sept. 6 in Hingham's Wompatuck State Park for its NEMBAfest.
A handful of New England ski areas serve as mountain biking hubs, providing access to trail networks. Generally, lift-served trails are for more advanced riders seeking a downhill experience that includes wearing body protection. Families are better suited for the wide carriage and forest roads. Rental shops let parents try out different child carriers on the trails.
In New Hampshire, Great Glen Trails at the base of Mount Washington in Pinkham Notch has carriage roads and narrow singletrack while the Thorne Pond system at Attitash in Bartlett contains scenic riding, and Loon in Lincoln provides a shuttle service for adventurous families wanting to pedal the rolling Franconia Notch State Park Bike Path back to Lincoln.
Vermont's heralded Kingdom Trails in East Burke serve up miles of Northeast Kingdom riding accessed by a trail pass.
Biking in the woods gets families off the road and away from vehicular traffic, but rail trails do even more.
"Families that are new to biking often want to ride rail trails because they have the perfect sense of safety," says Dick Mackay of Hanover, N.H., a rail trail advocate and author. Rail trails have varying surfaces from smooth pavement to bumpy ballast, with parking lots for easy access. They are multi-use pathways, used year-round for activities from running to snowshoeing.
"They are flat and they are often fluvial because the railroads followed the path of least resistance, usually a body of water like a river or a lake. They are often particularly scenic," says Mackay, who is chairman of Friends of Northern Rail Trail, Grafton County, a 26-mile New Hampshire corridor between Lebanon and Danbury.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit agency geared to converting abandoned railroad lines into public recreational paths, reports 13,994 miles of rail trails across the country with about 11,000 miles of trails under development. New England has 1,190 miles of rails trails: Connecticut 127, Massachusetts 165, Maine 342, New Hampshire 355, Rhode Island 47, and Vermont 154.
The 20-plus-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail between Dennis and Wellfleet is a Bay State trail for summer along forests, bogs, and marshes. Feel the breeze along Rhode Island's East Bay Bicycle Path. The 14 miles are a wonderful pedal along Narragansett Bay from the streets of Providence to the sands of Bristol. Vermont's 5-mile riverside Stowe Bike Path is a stellar example of how a pathway provides year-round recreational and economic benefits to a ski town.
The seven miles of the Kennebec River Rail Trail between the Maine capital of Augusta and Gardiner passes historical sites. Be prepared for equestrians on southwest Connecticut's Larkin State Park Trail, a wooded 10-mile romp in Southbury. The hilly Franconia Notch State Park Bike Path in New Hampshire winds nearly 9 miles through the wonders of a mountain pass where the Old Man of the Mountain once stood guard.
"The key in general is to get kids outside because there is a growing disconnect with nature," says Keyes. "Biking is just fun to do, instantly grabs the kids, and is a gateway leading to a lifetime of appreciating the outdoors."
Marty Basch can be reached at email@example.com.