When a Passion for Cycling Runs in the Family

In Cycling, Fitness / Health, Outdoor, People / Groups

Cycling, it’s good for your physical and mental health, it’s an eco-friendly way of getting around and it gives you enviably toned calf muscles. It’s also a great activity to share with other members of your family. If you are a parent, teaching your child to ride a bike gives them a valuable life skill and often a bank of fond memories to look back on in future too. It is a pastime that can grow up with them and which you can continue to share (unlike the adventures of Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol, which they will grow out of in no time, thank goodness). 

There are a number of famous professional cycling dynasties, from British mother and daughter, Beryl and Denise Burton, who competed against each other in the same races in the early 1970s and set a 10-mile British women’s record riding a tandem together in 1982, to German father and son, Erik and Rick Zabel. Erik clocked up an impressive 152 professional wins and 211 wins in total in his career and is widely considered to be the greatest German cycling sprinter of all-time. Far from being intimidated by his father’s impressive track record, Rick has followed in his father’s footsteps and is a professional road bike racer with the UCI WorldTeam Israel Start-Up Nation.

Two of the best-known siblings in British cycling are the Brownlee brothers. Both professional triathletes, these Yorkshire-born siblings are training partners and famously took the gold and bronze medals in the men’s triathlon event at the London Olympics in 2012. However, they are perhaps even more famous for a time when they did not win but instead demonstrated that sportsmanship and family values should sometimes trump the pursuit of victory. In 2018, at the World Triathlon series in Mexico, Alistair gave up on his chance to win the running leg of the event in order to help his brother over the finish line.

For most of us regular mortals, without the talent, drive or dedication to take cycling to professional level competition, sharing a passion for leisure cycling or even amateur time trials with a sibling or other family member can be hugely rewarding. It’s always nice to have someone on hand who shares your intimate knowledge of the workings of a bicycle, doesn’t glaze over when you discuss the relative merits of different makes of disc brakes and who is equally keen to spend as much of their spare time as possible exploring the world on two wheels.

We caught up with cyclists from three different families, to find out how the sport has benefitted them over the years.

Bruce Thompson

Collage of images celebrating the legacy of Kirkpatrick MacMillan

Bruce’s cycling heritage is very impressive! His great great great uncle invented the bicycle and his grandfather opened the cycling museum at Drumlanrig Castle. We wanted to find out more about his family’s contribution to cycling and how it informs his enjoyment of the sport today.

Given that the invention of the bicycle is a hotly contested topic, can you give us the lowdown on what your G.G.G Uncle actually created? 

Kirkpatrick MacMillan is commonly acknowledged to be the inventor of the bicycle. A Scottish blacksmith from Dumfriesshire, he had the idea of installing pedals and crank propulsion to a hobby horse and set to work completing his bicycle in 1839. MacMillan didn’t pursue fame or fortune from his creation. Another Scot, Gavin Dalzell, later copied MacMillan’s idea and distributed it widely, consequently leading him to be regarded – until later studies proved otherwise – as the founding father of the bicycle. MacMillan died in relative obscurity after an otherwise modest lifestyle as a rural blacksmith.

In sort of a cliched Scottish Presbyterian trait, MacMillan sought no glory and was a man who kept himself to himself. He didn’t patent the bicycle and for years no one knew he’d invented it. He just built one, someone else copied it, that person told a lot of people and everyone assumed he was the actual inventor. MacMillan never saw himself as a genius - he probably thought someone else somewhere else was just doing the same thing. The plaque on MacMillan’s cottage wall, at the smithy, simply puts it ‘he built better than he knew’.

What inspired your grandfather to open the museum at Drumlanrig Castle? 

It was actually a chance conversation between my grandfather - the local Provost at Selkirk - and the then Duke of Buccleuch. My grandfather knew the duke and told him the story of the family connection with MacMillan. The blacksmiths smithy, which MacMillan worked out of, is next to the Drumlanrig estate. A celebration of 150+ years of the bicycle was held in 1990 at Drumlanrig Castle and it included the opening of The Scottish Cycle Museum there. The event - which was known as KM 150 - attracted cyclists from all over the world and got national television coverage.

Do you think your rich cycling heritage has enhanced your enjoyment of commuting by bike and cycling in your leisure time? 

It’s something I’ve never really given a lot of thought to, to be honest – you jump on a bicycle and you get on with it, but certainly the older I’ve become, I’ve developed a quiet sense of pride in what MacMillan achieved, when seeing all the people out on bicycles enjoying themselves in groups, pairs, or just on their own.

Do lots of other members of your family cycle too? 

No, just me as a knackered old (and retired) rugby player, although it’s my uncle who is turbocharged when it comes to unearthing the family history and the unique connection it has with MacMillan and the collective pride that we, as a family, take from that.

Do you usually cycle alone or with friends/family? Who is your best cycling buddy? 

Both. I enjoy the cycling commute to and from work (it’s good for the soul to clear the mind on the outward journey and declutter the mind on the return journey) but at the weekend’s I head out with my wingman, who is retired, very fit and a UK military veteran. 

Aside from improving their fitness, what do you think the main benefits are for families who enjoy cycling together? 

(i)             It gets everyone outdoors

(ii)            Quality family time

(iii)          Eco-friendly / positive for the planet

(iv)           It’s fun!!!!

In your opinion, what are the three main challenges facing cyclists today? 

(i)             Safety concerns – dangerous driving (and cycling), poor road conditions and social attitudes.

(ii)            Cost of living, verses unexpected cycling expenses.

(iii)          Climate change – wetter weather. 

Jo and Charlie

 Jo and Charlie

Jo lives in Oxfordshire and goes cycling regularly with her son, Charlie. It was something that they both developed an interest in as adults and has proved a valuable bonding activity at a time when many mothers and sons struggle to find common ground.

Ages: 52 and 24

When did you first get into cycling?

Jo: I got into cycling properly when I was in my 40's. Charlie was around 18/19 when he developed a real interest in the sport.

What are the main benefits of being able to share cycling as a hobby with another family member? 

Jo: Being able to share the experience and chat on the way plus motivate each other through the tough parts.

Who are your cycling heroes/heroines and why? 

Jo: Mine is Sarah Storey, not only does she have a disability but she's a woman and mother in her forties and she's a fantastic inspiration with multiple Olympic medals.

Charlie: Chris Hoy, for his amazing Olympic achievements. 

What is your favourite shared cycling adventure so far?

Jo: A ride over to Limes Farm in Farthinghoe, 28 miles in all. Quite a tough route and nice to stop for lunch halfway to fuel the journey home, lots of lovely sights and views on route. We both enjoyed it and was our longest ride together to date.

Alex, Lisa and their four-year-old son

 Alex, Lisa and 4yo enjoying cycling as a family

Alex and Lisa live in a busy town with their young son. They’re very eco-aware and wrote this blog a few years ago, which provides a frank and honest insight into the challenges of trying to drastically cut down household waste and create more eco-friendly living habits. As part of their commitment to living more sustainably, they are both keen cyclists and have enjoyed teaching their son to ride a bike, so that he can share in their two-wheeled adventures. 

Ages: 2 x 38yrs and 1 x 4 and a bit years

When did each of you first get into cycling?

Lisa: I started riding a bike with stabilisers around age 4, no stabilisers from age 5. Rode around all through childhood, up to age around 14. I then got back on my bike to commute to work age 23 and cycling has been my main mode of transport since then.

Alex: As a teenager, to ride around with my teenaged friends and to use the speedway, which was a big muddy hill with a barrier at the end (so maybe around age 10 actually).

Our son got a balance bike age 22 months and started riding pedal bike without stabilisers at the age of 3. He’s now 4 years old and rides 2.5 miles home from preschool. 

What are the main benefits of being able to share cycling as a hobby with another family member? 

Lisa: We agree on the fact we need to store the bikes, which take up most of the garage! We have had a shared attitude to getting our son on a bike early. We both default to riding somewhere. We're happy to spend money on maintenance / new kit etc.

Alex: It's fun! It's nice to be out in nature rather in a metal box. Quicker than walking and it's free (apart from the bike)

What is your favourite shared cycling adventure so far?

Lisa: Getting our son on a bike! It's been frustrating and rewarding in equal measure. We tried to get him on a balance bike as soon as he fit one but getting the balance right between encouraging and putting on too much pressure is hard. For both the balance bike and his pedal bike he was very reluctant for quite a few months, then one day something just clicked and he was off and wanting to ride all the time.

Alex: Pump track with my son! 

How do you think more families could be persuaded to take up cycling as a family pastime? 

Lisa: The easy answer is more safe cycle infrastructure. We are able to cycle together from home to nursery because it's 90% on a cycle path. There's no way we would consider cycling into town from where we live with our 4 year old on his bike because there's no cycle path and he needs space from cars and other road users as he builds his capability and confidence. Also, publicity around options for family cycling. We started out with a trailer for cycling with our son when he was 10 months old but recently, as he's got bigger, we've invested in an electric bike with a rear rack and junior seat for him.

Alex: Everything Lisa said, plus better bike provision on public transport, such as buses and trains, and bike racks as standard at places families want to visit (e.g. the park).

So, there you have it, cycling as a family is beneficial on so many levels and it would only take a bit more investment to make it safer and more accessible for many more of us to take it up as a family pastime, or even adopt it as our principal mode of transport. Cycling has come a long way since Kirkpatrick MacMillan added pedals and crank propulsion to a hobby horse, but we think there is scope to make his invention an even more compelling legacy for Britain. With a few key changes to our transport infrastructure, cycling could make big improvements to our health and to the quality of the environments in which we live.