When I asked a good friend of mine recently about her weekend, she told me a story. On the Friday evening she and her partner and their two kids (aged four and six) had slumped together on the sofa and thought about what they were going to do over the next two days. For once, they found they had no play dates, no birthday parties, no haircuts or family visits. They had an unexpected chasm of free time, and my friend at least, was determined not to spend it in front of Paw Patrol.
The kids' first few suggestions were quickly ruled out. The weather looked too changeable for a big trip to the beach, pony lessons were too expensive, and Disneyland was a little too ambitious.
When her six-year-old daughter said 'bike ride?', my friend said she hesitated. She told me guiltily: 'On the one hand I knew it was exactly the sort of thing we ought to be doing as a family. But on the other hand, I couldn't help thinking what a faff it would be.'
I reckon a lot of families - and adults planning their own free time for that matter - find themselves in a similar situation. Most people instinctively grasp that spending time in the fresh air, doing a bit of exercise, exploring somewhere new, and not spending any money doing it, has a lot of wins. But then their minds turn to the shed and the state of their bikes, and they wonder what'll happen if somebody gets a puncture, or who'll carry the picnic, or what if little Maisy gets tired and grumpy, or what if it rains... Sometimes it seems easier to jump in the car and go to the swimming baths, or the soft play centre, or (if we're really desperate) a run around Toys R Us.
On this occasion though, my friend didn't have to decide. 'Great idea!', her partner said, 'let's go and get the bikes ready.' He promptly took the kids out to the shed, where they got all the bikes out and had a game for twenty minutes pumping up everyone's tyres.
And when it came to the ride it turned out my friend needn't have worried either. 'The funny thing was,' she told me, 'we had a bloody brilliant time. I'm so glad we did it.'
It's easy to give in to the voice in your head that asks, 'what if we get lost?', 'what if someone falls off?', 'what if the kids get tired and start grumbling?' And sometimes it's entirely a sensible idea to plan your route carefully and make sure you're carrying gear for every eventuality. But sometimes, the whole joy of bike riding - especially with kids in tow - is just going with the flow and not thinking too much about it. Try to remember what it was like when you were a kid, when you and your mates just grabbed your bikes and pedalled off. You probably didn't plan your route beforehand, or pack a puncture repair kit or first aid supplies (unless you were an unusually meticulous or cautious child). You just went and enjoyed the ride.
On the next morning my friends grabbed some food and drink, some wipes, a few plasters (just in case), and off they went. They didn't drive anywhere first, so they avoided all the business of getting bikes in (or on) the car. They just made sure the kids had their helmets on, and off they rode together.
Now I'm not saying this was a major expedition. They didn't go far - just down some quietish side streets to the local park. They rode round the park, stopped and fed the ducks, and then found a spot to have their sandwiches. When it started to rain they had to reposition themselves pretty quickly under a tree, but of course that didn't dim the kids' enthusiasm a bit. Once they got going again they let the four-year-old lead the way, and everyone who spotted a bird on the ride home got a point.
'In the end it was just so easy, and so...' my friend tried to think of a word to sum it up. 'So much fun,' she settled for. 'It made me think, "why don't we do this more often?"' I think she was surprised by what a simple pleasure it had turned out to be: decide to do it, grab bikes, go. They didn't have to ride somewhere, or do something when they got there - the ride was the something. The kids didn't whinge or get grumpy; the only scratch was a self-inflicted one with a stick (plasters came in handy); and the couple of hours they spent outdoors was a bit of gentle exercise for all of them, didn't involve any electronic devices, and didn't cost them a bean.
It's easy to overcomplicate things by overthinking them sometimes. We all do it. But I'd urge anyone to try and reconnect with that childlike approach to bike riding which ignores all the faff and focuses on the fun. So with the summer holidays almost upon us, next time you're thinking about what to do with yourself and your family, don't let overthinking put you off a bike ride. Rekindle that simple sense of adventure, grab your bikes and just go!