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BTSD Spotlight: Seattle Tornado of Fun!

In honor of National Bike to School Day yesterday, we’re showcasing stories of family biking this week.

A Seattle mother of two and founder of the popIular blog Family Ride, Madi Carlson is a longtime leader of Kidical Mass and Critical Lass ride — but this year’s BTSD was her first time as a conductor. In this guest post, she shares the joys — and challenges — of this “tornado of fun.” 

I celebrated Bike to School Day by leading my first bike train yesterday. I’m not a novice when it comes to leading group rides, with two years of Kidical Mass family rides and Critical Lass ladies’ rides under my belt, but this bike train was a beast of a whole different nature.

I arranged to launch the bike train from a playground about a mile from my first grader’s school, John Stanford International School. We’d have lots of room in case a large crowd showed up (which I didn’t really expect, thanks to my last-minute planning) and the kids could run around in case the half hour I scheduled for DOUGHNUTS, SNACKS, BIKE DECORATING! wasn’t exciting enough.

The kids and I left home an hour earlier than normal and arrived to a barren playground. I figured I may as well go through the motions of setting up, because I knew at least one other parent planned to come. Despite my minimal effort, I had some great stuff: the Cascade Bicycle Club Bike to School Program provided a wonderful free kit filled with Clif Kid Zbars, fruit leather, stickers, my snazzy “Get in gear” t-shirt, and more; and with help from our local parent-run Walk.Bike.Schools! group I scored a Seattle Department of Transportation Safe Routes to School minigrant which paid for five dozen mini doughnuts and many copies of the Bike to School Month Calendar.

On a nearby rock I set up a simple helmet-decorating station, just a pile of pipe cleaners and my pipe-cleaner-heart-topped helmet as inspiration. And then we waited. And someone showed up! I’m lucky I didn’t scare mom and daughter off as I profusely thanked them for coming out and tried to force mini doughnuts and pipe cleaners on them. And then a few more filtered in! And Julie of arrived with kids and bike-decorating supplies. Before I knew it, the park was teeming with people!

I was lucky to have a couple of extra adults on hand — I conveniently happened to be in the Cascade Bicycle Club office to pick up our Bike to School Day prizes (spoke lights!) when Robin Randels, Cascade’s Community Advocate, was deciding which school’s bike train to join. I warned her ours would be small, but she was welcome to come. And Mr. Pat, who regularly bikes to school came, too.

We ended up with 91 participants — a couple on scooters, a couple walking parents, but primarily bikers. Ninety-one!!! I’m not sure when JSIS last had a bike train, but this was the first in our two years of attending. I can only think to describe it as a tornado of fun.

It never occurred to me to request parents ride along with their kids — an honest mistake, coming from a Kidical Mass background where parents are always along for the ride. As we started queuing up to leave the park I realized there were a lot of kids and not a lot of grownups. After the fact I read the Safe Routes to School Guide recommends one adult for every three to six children and had a little laugh. I gave a quick safety speech about riding slowly, sticking together, kids to the right/grownups to the left, and although there were a couple, “Can we go now”s it appeared as if everyone was paying close attention.

But as soon as we crossed our one and only busy intersection next to the park my train threatened to derail. I started out the engineer of the train, but the bigger kids weren’t keen on riding slow — especially once we reached the steep downhill portion of the ride. I watched in vain as they gleefully chugged ahead, not wanting to abandon the cautious smaller kids behind and beside me. I stopped my portion of the train to regroup with the caboose after turning right off our original street and tried to summon the big kids back, but their momentum carried them onward and we didn’t see them again until we reached the station.

While we didn’t all arrive in one big blob of bikes, but the fast kids made it in safely, the cautious and correctly positioned kids made it in safely, and all their brains were primed to concentrate thanks to our ride. It was so much more chaotic than I had anticipated, but our 0.9-mile ride from park to school was mostly along the Wallingford Neighborhood Greenway and then in our school zone where drivers are used to seeing kids on bikes (though certainly not so many all at once!) so I didn’t feel the same sense of anxiety I sometimes experience when leading a big group or even just one friend along one of Seattle’s less bike-friendly streets.

It was the most giggly ride I’ve ever been part of and I have to say I can’t wait to do it again!

Read more from Carlson at or follow her on Twitter @familyride.