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Why a top tube child seat is our favorite way to bike

Photo of a road bike with a top tube child seat and an electric cargo bike. A child and adult are in the background putting ballots into a ballot box.

OK, don’t get me wrong. The electric-assisted, weather-protected cargo bike is without a doubt the workhorse for our car-free family. We put thousands of miles on that thing every year, hauling everything from lumber to groceries to camping gear. And, of course, hauling our preschooler. It is amazing.

But whenever I ask the kid whether she wants to ride on Big Bike or on Daddy Bike, she always answers, “Daddy Bike.” And that’s because my city bike has a simple and affordable top tube child seat that allows her to ride in front of me so we can talk about the world around us as we go. She loves being in front, and I love having her between arms and hearing all her thoughts. It feels like very special and meaningful time spent together rather than just wasted travel time spent close together but in different spaces.

It also feels very stable to have her weight near the center of the bike frame rather than suspended above the rear wheel in a more typical rear-mounted child seat (which are also wonderful). And unlike with a rear-mounted seat, I can still use panniers and my front bag while carrying her at the same time. The seat mount does not even block my water bottle cage. This makes it much more practical to carry her and run errands at the same time.

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A one-year-old on a front-mounted child seat with the author behind.

We have enjoyed riding with her in front of me since the very beginning. As soon as she was strong enough to sit up and wear a helmet, I was biking her around using a Yepp Mini seat. And while I do recommend that style of seat, it has a couple major problems. The biggest issue is that kids grow out of it and similar seats quickly. So get this early and use it as much as you can while you can, because it is a great time. The other issue, at least for me and my bike, is that the seat left very little space for my legs. I had to lower my saddle to an uncomfortable height in order to use it. Your mileage may vary.

Photo of two adults with bikes loaded with camping gear. The author's bike is a Brompton that is also carrying a child.

After she grew out of the Yepp Mini, we went a year or so without a way for her to ride in front of me, and I missed it. Then a wonderful reader gave me an IT Chair child seat for our Brompton folding bike (thanks, Ben!), and this thing revived our love of biking with her in front. She loved being able to climb on the bike herself (with me holding the bike of course), and she loved holding onto the handlebars with me. She was old enough by this point to reliably hold on without being strapped into a seat, which is of course a necessity for this style of seat. We even rode it to go bike camping along the Palouse to Cascades Trail. The experience sent me looking for a way to make this happen on my road bike. After all, if a Brompton can do it, surely my road bike can, too.

Having a kid ride in front is not a new idea. One of my most cherished family artifacts is this photo of my great-grandfather biking with my grandma, who is sitting on his handlebars in a child seat he designed himself:

Old black and white photo of a child sitting on a seat on the handlebars while a man bikes.

My PaPaw’s do-it-yourself approach is unfortunately not far from the modern day experience of trying to do this. This probably needs to be in bold: There is no one-size fits all top tube child seat. I cannot simply recommend a product that will definitely work for you and your bicycle. And figuring out what will fit before buying it is not a simple process. There has been a recent surge in interest in top tube child seats, though most of the seats seem designed for and marketed toward mountain biking. The problem is that many often only work on bikes with a mountain-bike-style suspension fork, which allows extra space between the child’s foot rest and the front wheel. I do not have a mountain bike, so those weren’t going to work.

After spending a lot of time doing online research and calling around to some local shops, I finally just gambled and ordered the Do Little Bike Seat online (they are not sponsoring this post.). The Do Little is designed to make contact with both the top tube and the down tube, which makes it feel quite sturdy once installed. And most importantly for me and anyone with a for typical road, hybrid or city bike is that there is clearance between the bottom of the mount and the front wheel.

This brings me to the biggest caveat with top tube child seats: You must have a sturdy front fender because there will be contact between the front wheel and the kid’s feet. I don’t find it to be a problem because I never remove the beefy metal fenders on my bike. If the fender nudges her foot with I turn, it’s not a big deal.

My bike also has swept-back handlebars that allow me to sit more upright while riding. People with drop bars or with a shorter top tube may find that their riding position does not leave much room for for a child. Most bikes, especially in the U.S. market, just weren’t designed with this in mind.

A top tube style bike seat designed for a step-through frame.

But on our recent family vacation to the Netherlands, we saw simple top tube child seats everywhere. Some were little more than a metal clamp that connects a saddle to the top tube paired with a separate piece clamped to the down tube that held simple foot pegs. We even saw seats designed for step-through frames such as the one pictured above. It’s worth noting that in the Netherlands, the vast majority of bikes have upright sitting positions and fenders, both of which are key for this style of child seat.

I think there’s huge potential for top tube child seats, and there is a ton of room for improvement and innovation in the U.S. market. It could be worthwhile for bike shops to stock options that work with their most popular bike models. And as much as I enjoy using the Do Little seat, I wish it were easier to install and remove, had better foot pegs and featured saddle adjustability. And though my road bike is not electric, it’s worth noting that many of the currently-available seats don’t work well with e-bikes that position their batteries in the down tube. The Do Little design attempts to accommodate at least some e-bikes, but do your research and get out the measuring tape. And in the end, you may just have to take the gamble that it won’t work for you and you will need to return it.

But if you can get a top tube seat to work, it’s just the best way to share your time and your city with your child.

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