Nancy Sathre-Vogel loves to ride a bike, so much so that in 2005 her family set off on their first cycling tour in the mountains near Boise, Idaho, USA with their sons Davy and Daryl (then 7 years old). The four day trip was such a success that in 2006 they spent a year cycling around the US and Mexico. Then in 2008 they hopped into the saddle in Alaska and rode 173,00 miles through 15 countries to reach the southern most tip of Argentina. The boys (then 10) hold the world record as the youngest people to cycle the Pan-American Highway. Nancy tells suitcases&strollers about the practicalities of riding bikes with kids.
What kinds of bikes did you ride and what kinds of distances did you ride them?
On our first bike tour as a family in 2005 we took off on our tandems. A few weeks later, we cycled south from Boise, Idaho to the Snake River Canyon and spent the night camped by the river. That time we knew it would be 35 miles each way, but we weren't worried about the distance because our sons had cycled significantly farther than that on day rides.
In 2006, although we started off with longer distances (50 to 75 miles per day), we quickly realised that that pace was unrealistic. We could do it, but it exhausted all four of us. We ended up figuring out that about 30 to 40 miles per day was a comfortable pace for us making sure we took at least one to two days off per week.
On our Pan-American journey, Davy rode his own bike, while Daryl was on a tandem with his father. Our overall average for the entire trip ended up being about 17 miles per day, but that's because we took a lot of days off. On the days we did ride, we generally found 30 to 50 miles a comfortable distance. We could go farther if we needed to for whatever reason. Our record was 95 miles.
Was it physically hard for the kids to cope with those distances?
No. It was difficult to get me to cycle those distances, but the kids did just fine. They were significantly stronger than I was pretty much from the beginning.
Did the kids need to do any form of training to get into shape before each trip?
Not at all. We got in shape on the road by going very slowly and breaking in slowly.
How did you transport your luggage and how much did you pack?
Everything we needed was somehow lashed, strapped, or buckled on to our bikes. We carried a complete set of camping gear, including tents, sleeping bags, stove and pot. We carried spares for the parts we expected to wear out and enough tools to strip the bikes down to the frames and rebuild them. We had clothes for all four seasons and homeschooling supplies for the kids. It all fitted on to the bikes or trailers.
How much food did you carry with you?
That varied tremendously, depending on where we were and how far it would be to the next grocery store. When we first set off from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the closest grocery store was 500 miles away in Fairbanks. Needless to say, we were carrying a LOT of food then. At other times, we knew we would pass a store every day, so I didn't carry much.
What happened when it rained?
We are wimps. We finally accepted the fact that we are fair-weather cyclists and planned accordingly. Although there were times that we had no choice but to ride in rain, we did everything possible to avoid it. If it was raining when we woke up, we stayed put. If it started raining while we were on the road, we stopped and set up camp if it was at all possible. Sometimes, you just forge ahead and get wet.
What is the optimal age to go on long cycling trips with kids?
I think earlier is better than later, simply because kids learn to love what they grow up with. I know several families who have toured with toddlers. We started when our sons were 7. Get them used to the idea when they are young and it'll be smooth sailing when they are older.
How did the kids' change in terms of ability and enthusiasm between your first trip and the 2008 trip?
At the beginning, the kids didn't really know what to expect. When we asked them if they wanted to travel on bikes and camp out every night, they said yes. But they didn't really understand what we meant. It didn't take long for them to realise bike touring was pretty darn fun.
When we started talking about cycling from Alaska to Argentina, they knew what we were talking about and they were totally on board from the beginning.
Was it hard to motive the kids to ride long distances?
We've never had to try and motivate our boys to go a particular distance. They loved riding on the back of the tandem and were always up for longer rides. Of course, we praised them a lot and let them know we were proud of them for doing it, but that's about all we did.
What kind of equipment should potential long distance cyclists invest in?
I would say the best way to know is to head out for an overnighter. Pick a destination 30-ish miles away, ride there for the night, then ride back home the next day. [After that], you now know 50% of what you need to know about bike touring. The learning curve for bike touring is short, but very steep, so you'll learn what you need to know quickly.
Based on what you learned on your overnighter, buy equipment that you think will meet your needs, then head out for a long weekend. You will learn [the other] half of what's left to know.
Be aware that you will never know it all and will have to figure things out when the time comes.
Where is your kids’ favourite place to cycle?
I don't think they have a favorite place to cycle – they have favorite places where we cycled to and they were able to play! They enjoyed Liard Hot Springs in British Columbia, getting out into the jungle in Belize and sandboarding the massive sand dunes in Ica, Peru.
What makes a good cycling destination?
I'm not the best judge of that! I've toured enough now to realise that sometimes you will pass through horrible conditions or boring landscape and I'm OK with that. Another person might not be.
When planning, all we look for is that we can (hopefully) take back roads and not ride on the interstate [highways]. Otherwise, anything goes.
Where are the top 3 places in the world to do a family cycling trip?
I really think the USA is one of the best places for cycling as there is so much variety here. The national parks are spectacular and road conditions are generally pretty good. For one-week family bike tours, I would suggest:
· The Pacific Coast (particularly Oregon);
· Southern Utah/northern Arizona (there are many national parks there, including the Grand Canyon);
· The Katy Trail in Missouri;
· I haven't cycled there, but I hear there are some wonderful places around the Great Lakes;
· The Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Banff in Alberta, Canada. When we cycled there it was raining the whole time, so we didn't get to see its splendour, but people say it's a great ride.
To read more about cycling with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story Le Tour de France with Kids
To read about the adventures of the Vogel family and buy their book Changing Gears go to Family On Bikes