Six Days, Four Countries, Four Bikes and a Toddler

Caution: this post is being written to the soundtrack of the Teletubbies. As parents of a two-year old, free time is a precious commodity. Bribery is frequently required.

Since an episode of the Teletubbies only lasts 24 minutes, we’ll keep this short and sweet. It’s the story of our Easter tour: six days through Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, including most of the Vennbahn rail trail.

We were cycling with two good friends, Shane and Stijn. As a group, we looked a bit like a bicycle circus with touring setups in all shapes and sizes.

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Group photo at the start of our trip.

We started with the Vennbahn because it was easy to reach by train from our home and was supposed to be flat. We aren’t scared of mountains but flat terrain is unquestionably a great advantage when you’re adding a toddler, a bike seat, a trailer and various child-related goodies to the standard bike touring setup.

What’s that? Flat you said? Ha ha. Try again. As it turned out, the trip involved a fair amount of climbing. Our workout began in Luxembourg City — not technically part of the Vennbahn (the trail begins about 70km further north) but a popular kicking-off point for many people.

Climbing a steep hill in Luxembourg - not technically part of the Vennbahn, but a taste of what was to come.

Climbing a steep hill in Luxembourg – not technically part of the Vennbahn, but a taste of what was to come.

For us, the steep climb between the campground and the train station signalled the start of a weekend which was great fun but also harder work than we expected. The Vennbahn is largely flat but it also threw a few curve balls our way: unexpected hills, detours where parts of the trail were closed (this led to more climbing) and strong headwinds.

We look cheery in this photo, taken on one of the Vennbahn’s easy and paved sections, but the truth is that we’ve never been so exhausted from cycling 40-50km a day.

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On tour as a family. Thanks for the picture, Stijn!

Normally we’d manage this distance easily but now we were carrying the extra weight of a toddler and all the associated luggage (toys, clothes, diapers). At the end of the day we weren’t resting, we were chasing a toddler around the campsite. This photo is a rarity: it shows one the few moments when Andrew got to sit down.

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Helping Daddy around the campsite.

Luke could occasionally be bribed into relative quiet with a pastry. As on so many bike tours in the past, bakeries quickly became a mandatory, twice-daily stop.

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Pastries are a great tool for winning over kids on a bike tour.

On most nights, we didn’t make it much past Luke’s bedtime.

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Early bedtimes for everyone….

When we weren’t chasing Luke around, we were marvelling at our different touring setups. We each had a different strategy, to meet different needs. Here’s Shane, with his Brompton folding bike and Cyclone trailer from Radical Design — the perfect combination if you need to take trains and buses as part of your bike tour.

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Shane and his Brompton + Radical Design trailer.

Stijn was riding a titanium tourer of his own design with fat tires and a minimum of luggage. He’s preparing for a trip to Iceland later this year and wants a bike that is lightweight and handles well on dirt roads. In 2011, we interviewed Stijn about lightweight bike touring in this podcast.

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Stijn and his lightweight touring setup.

As for us, Friedel was on a classic steel touring bicycle, built in 2005 by Robin Mather. This is the bike she rode around the world. The bike is great but we had to accommodate Luke’s Yepp bike seat on the back, and this made it complicated to carry any other luggage. To be honest, we didn’t do a very good job of loading up this bike. We’re still working out the best way to pack and carry gear, while also having room for Luke on the back. More on that later.

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Friedel and Luke.

Andrew rode a Santos Travelmaster 2.6 Alu and piled it high with all the junk that Friedel couldn’t fit on her bike, including an 89L Ortlieb Rackpack. Yes, we said 89 litres. That’s not a typo. We should have put a front rack on this bike to better balance the load but ran out of time before we left. Behind the bike is a Chariot trailer — Luke’s place to nap and hide out from bad weather.

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Andrew carrying most of the gear.

A picky person could probably find fault in our packing styles and choices but at the end of the day we all made it and we all had fun. Isn’t that what counts? The most important thing you can pack for a successful tour is enthusiasm and we had that in spades.

Over the next few days, we crossed borders.

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Crossing into Belgium.

We experimented with wild cookery. We picked some stinging nettles and threw them into a pot with red peppers and onions. When cooked, they taste like spinach. What a great base for a pasta sauce or soup!

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Cooking with stinging nettles.

We encouraged Luke to walk up the steepest hills, when pedalling became impossible.

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Climbing steep hills. Thankfully Luke wanted to walk!

And after 6 days and 250km we returned home. We learned a lot from this first cycle-toddling adventure, for example:

  • 40-50km a day is the maximum distance we should plan on cycling. If the terrain is hilly, we need to cut this distance further.
  • Bike touring with a toddler requires a different packing setup. We’re considering a trailer for our next tour.
  • A small bag with toys is a must-have. Luke has a little backpack which he’s allowed to fill with books, dinky cars and other favourite items.
  • Falling asleep in a tent can be difficult for little ones. Be patient and be prepared to extend bedtime.

Now it’s time to prepare for our next tour: Switzerland! Yes, that’s right, after complaining about hills on the Vennbahn we’re going to one of the hilliest countries in Europe. What’s life without a good challenge? We’ll fill you in on that trip when we return in June.

 

Comments

  1. Vanessa
    11th May 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    I am very pleased to see that you have not given up on cycling tours. Travelling with children is difficult no matter what your mode of transportation. The good news is toddlers are so much fun and believe it or not easier to travel with than older children that are 10 and above .I am taking my 18,15 and 10 to PEI this summer and we had decided that we are going to TRY and cycle one of the trails there the one I am looking at is 30 km return trip to the campground. Let see what happens:)

  2. Cass
    11th May 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Great write up! I definitely agree with your recommendations for toddler travel.

  3. sue
    11th May 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Sounds like a good trip. You are very brave taking a toddler, we waited until our children were a bit older before we did our first cycle camping trip to France. We are retired now but still going so look forward to trying this route, we love cycling in Belgium. Thanks for posting this and glad you carried on cycling after having Luke.

  4. Nicola
    11th May 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    Good luck with Switzerland we cycled the mittaland route a couple of years ago which was the flat bit :s found it very expensive the campsites were dreadful and the route hard going and not very pretty 🙁 which way are you going ? We have been out on our bikes for the past 2 years and are currently cycling the Rhine for the second time on route to the Netherlands as my husbands Santos Travelmaster is broken. The frame has cracked by the bottem bracket and is currently heals together by two hose clips! Santos are building a new frame for us which should be ready tomorrow 🙂 we discovered the problem while cycling the Pirinexus route in Spain, will be a lovely route when they finish it !

    • friedel
      11th May 2014 at 4:01 pm #

      We’re going to ignore the budget for Switzerland; currently planning a route to the east of the country, along the Bodensee, down to Lichtenstein and back to Basel. We’re only planning on 30km a day so I reckon we can handle the hills 😉 PS – If you want to drop in for a visit when you go to Santos, email us. We are about a 1/2 day’s ride from their showroom!

  5. Tom Allen (@tomsbiketrip)
    11th May 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    Love the nettle stew idea! 🙂

    • friedel
      11th May 2014 at 4:04 pm #

      We will be picking more of it. I’m also getting into sorrel, which is available for free in a local allotment. Apparently it’s also very often found wild so keep your eyes out.

  6. Jeff
    12th May 2014 at 3:45 pm #

    Nice report, it’s great to see stuff rolling on this website again 😛
    I’ve quickly met these guys while touring in central america, and I was quite impressed with the setup they had for their, if I remember well, 3 kids!
    http://www.pedalpoweredfamily.com/
    I’m sorry I don’t have much time to search the website for pictures, but I remember the way they had a modified cargo bike with 2 kid seats and a roof (a nice build), with multiple toys hanging with ropes around them. Books and pens, and plushies and horns, all safe and accessible for the kids.

    • friedel
      13th May 2014 at 11:29 am #

      We also followed the Pedal Powered Family, and are currently working on a roof for our bike seat 🙂 Hope to keep the blog rolling; it’s tough with a toddler but we do feel that we have a little more time now compared to the early baby days. Fingers crossed.

  7. Simon
    26th May 2014 at 12:01 am #

    Great post thanks for sharing your experience. We have a Burley Cub that i restored from scratch over the winter. So far I’ve found it will happily handle kids bikes and extra kit to be bungied and fixed to it’s cross frames and stuffed in the rear compartment. Now need to convince my wife that a tour is possible later in the summer!

  8. Will
    29th May 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    How apt that your should publish this just three weeks after out first ‘tour’ with our seven month old. ‘That amount of weight is really hard work, possibly too hard’ was exactly our conclusion. Though perhaps we would have been OK on your ‘flat’ route – our write us is here :: http://bit.ly/1poBffa

  9. Alain Wyndenaire
    15th June 2014 at 5:52 am #

    What a great post! The Brompton and trailer is my preferred method too. (Actually a Birdy and a trailer). Your adventures inspire many, me included.

  10. Carla
    26th June 2014 at 2:31 am #

    Hello
    We are planning a family (with a 5 year old) bike trip of the Danube and a rhine rivers in Germany June/July 2015, if anyone out there is planning the same thing please contact me. We would love to exchange tips and maybe even have the kiddos become pen pals and meet next summer.
    Planning a bike/camping trip with maps and websites in German is a challenge for sure 😉

  11. josh tk
    4th September 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    “A picky person could probably find fault in our packing styles and choices but at the end of the day we all made it and we all had fun.” <—- This is what it's all about!!

    Awesome that you guys won't let anything get in the way of getting out there and cycling! Love it. Hope there is more to come. 🙂

  12. Louis-P et Lysanne
    7th October 2014 at 4:00 am #

    Hi travelling three!
    Luke’s is looking so good. You will need a garaf back of mom bike soon.

    Just great to read you.

    Bisous & Taildwind

    On Roule La Boule

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    18th April 2016 at 9:23 pm #

    I really love the article as it’s written like a brief story! Thanks for your effort….

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