Friday, 3 October 2014

Long distance cycling with two toddlers!

How did you do it? What did you bring? Which routes did you take? How much distance did you cover in a day? These are all regular questions to be answered by those who completed any long-distance multiple day cycle trip. I can usually answer such questions myself, but when talking long distance cycling with toddlers I have to turn to a friend of mine. Tom Burslem is a GIS and mapping specialist who spent the summer of 2014 cycling across The Netherlands, Germany and Denmarktogether with his wife and two small children. This is their story:

We have always enjoyed cycle touring, and have undertaken numerous trips both in the UK and Europe. However since having children we’ve had to hang up our panniers thinking that touring with babies, toddlers and the associated paraphernalia which goes with little ones would be too difficult.

Emily (3) and Sebastian (15 months) are both very used to travelling on bikes in either a seat mounted to the rear rack or in a trailer, and they seemed to be happy to be transported this way for just as long as they are willing to sit in a pushchair. This got us thinking - maybe a cycle tour would be possible.

We were still put off a bit by thinking about how much stuff we would have to take. Clothes alone for 4 people would require pairing down to the bare minimum. But what is the bare minimum? How many t-shirts do you take for a 15 month-old boy who has a magnetic attraction to all things messy? With this, and a thousand other questions in mind, we did a mini cycle tour close to home and decided what was essential and what wasn’t. This trip gave us confidence and we started to think about where else we could go. It needed to be easy to get to. It needed to be flat, and there needed to be plenty of campsites and playgrounds. 


We plumped for the Hook of Holland to Denmark for a number of reasons, the main one being the cycle friendliness of the countries we would go through. With this in mind we booked a one-way ticket from Harwich to the Hook and started worrying about how long we would be able to last. From the Hook we travelled north up the Dutch coast, via the Afsluitdijk to the Frisian part of the Netherlands, and then via Groningen into Germany


In Germany, we took ferries across the Weser and Elbe rivers and then headed north to Flensburg, where we crossed into Denmark. In Denmark we cycled and took ferries via Sonderborg and Svendborg to end up in Rodbyhaven. We then took the ferry back to Germany, got a train back to the Hook and a ferry back to the UK. We cycled just under 1000 km (over 600 miles) and were away 6 weeks.

Equipment

Travelling with kids meant taking a lot of stuff – hence the need for a flat route! We took a bike seat for the back of Tania's bike and a 2 berth trailer (Burley d'lite for those interested in such details) which I towed. Our trial runs taught us that it would be good to have options in swapping the kids around, and they tend to start unsuitable hitting competitions if they are both in the trailer. The Burley was excellent, but not perfect. It is waterproof but water does get in when it is raining very hard. The straps are a bit fiddly and the tyres supplied aren’t great. However the kids are happy in it so must be comfy, and the boot is nice and big, even with two children in the front.

Our decision to take a bike seat in addition to a trailer meant that we could not take rear panniers for Tania’s bike. We therefore needed the boot space in the trailer. We also took a rucksack which we attached to the bike seat when both kids were in the trailer. We allowed Emily one bag of toys and books, which she chose when we were packing. Space was also made for two favourite soft toys, both of which very much enjoyed the experience.

A typical day

We very quickly established a daily routine. Seb usually wakes us up at about 6:15. He is very vocal until he has breakfast so we rush to do this before he wakes the whole campsite. We then packed up and were away by 9:00. Both kids loved camping. However Seb got very nervous when he saw us packing up in the morning. He worried that he would be forgotten so we put him in a sling to assure him he wouldn’t be left behind. This made packing quite a time consuming process.

In the morning Seb went in the trailer and Emily in the bike seat. Seb went straight to sleep and we cycled until he woke up. We tried to get the majority of mileage done while he was asleep. He could easily do 90 minutes. Emily loved the bike seat and was constantly asking questions about the passing scenery, most of which started with 'why'. 

When Seb woke up we would have a long break at a playground and lunch, and then they swapped berths for the much shorter afternoon cycle. The daily distances covered were typically 30 to 40 km. We would arrive at the campsite early which meant we could put the tents up, make dinner, find yet more playgrounds, wash and get the kids to sleep by about 7pm.

The kids' appetites increased hugely on this trip and they started eating - something we didn’t anticipate, and our small Trangia stove wasn’t big enough to cook a meal in one go so we ended up cooking and eating in shifts.

I love cycling in The Netherlands. There cycling is the norm and you become one of the crowd. You don’t get strange looks from onlookers, and your fellow road users are so polite. We’ve never experienced threatening behaviour from drivers, or the impatient revving that you get in the UK. We put this down to cyclists having their own space and the fact that most motorists are also cyclists, but maybe it is just because the Dutch as a nation are not in so much of a hurry to get from A to B.

I find crossing borders very exciting, but the crossing from the Netherlands into Germany was a bit of an anti-climax. It was nothing more than a bridge over a canal and a man gave us a very strange look as we stopped to take a photo. There wasn’t even a sign mentioning the fact we were going from one country to the next. 

I'm always surprised how different things are immediately after you cross a border. The scenery was the same (flat and agricultural) but everything else was completely different. In the Netherlands most villages have a playground, whereas in Germany it is rare to find one. The campsites have a very different feel to them as well. The Dutch use campsites as places to spend a family holiday, but in Germany were quieter and a little run down.

The other main difference was of course the language. We immediately went from being understood by nearly everyone to being understood by almost no one. The Dutch spoke English very well, which made us very lazy about learning their language. We were just catching on to saying ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and simple phrases by the time we left. However in Germany we learnt much more very quickly.

The border between Germany and Denmark was similarly unremarkable but still an unmanned hut on both sides where once upon a time you would have had to show a passport.

The journey home

To get home we travelled by train from Puttgarden in Germany to Hook of Holland. We did it over a number of days to ease the pain. I was expecting problems travelling with two bikes and a trailer on a train, but it couldn’t have been easier. We travelled by Deutsche Bahn Regional train to Hamburg. These were double-decker trains, and they have a dedicated space for bikes on a lower deck of one carriage. You buy a ticket for your bike and can just turn up and get on. There is plenty of space and we didn’t have any problems. We then travelled from Hamburg to Amsterdam on an Intercity service. We had to book this (ourselves and the bikes) but it was not a problem either. We needed to book three bike spaces (two for the bikes and one for the trailer). Amsterdam to the Hook was also not a problem.

The most stressful part of the return journey was wondering whether the British rail network would accept two bikes and a trailer. It is not possible to book and there is nothing telling you whether you are allowed to take a trailer. We were lucky and had no problems travelling on quiet trains in the middle of the day. I would not like to travel on a crowded service however.

Would we do the trip again?


Cycle touring with toddlers is hard work. The cycling was the easy bit as they are strapped into the trailer and bike seat. However once you have done the cycling, they jump off the bikes full of energy, wanting to run around and play just when we wanted to sit and relax.  But we had a great time. The kids were outside almost continuously for six weeks. They became urchins and looked ridiculously healthy. We stayed in 25 different campsites and visited about 50 playgrounds, and Emily learned to say thank you in three languages. We worried that the children would get both sunstroke and hypothermia (though not on the same day). We questioned our sanity on a daily basis, but are very glad we did it. Maybe next year we’ll head for France...

For a full account of the cycling trip see Tom's Cycling Toddlers Blog.

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