A First Multi Generational Bikepack
Cass Gilbert reminds us that it’s never too late to start bikepacking. In his first multi-generational tour, he, his six-year-old son, and his seventy-three-year-old mum enjoy three days bike riding and camping around the gravel paths of the New Forest. Plus, hints and tips for planning something similar, and a map of the route.
Over the years that I’ve bike toured, my mum has always watched me from the sidelines, with the trepidation and concerns that every parent likely feels. In part, this was because she grew up in a generation where holidaying meant trips down to the English seaside at Westgate; walks on the promenade, ice creams by the beach, sandcastle competitions, and the occasional big dipper ride at Dreamland.
Later, our own family holidays took place on canal boat trips across Wales, Scotland, and France, or beach holidays in Spain. But aside from a couple of visits to the US, she hadn’t travelled to far-flung destinations. So, as my passion for exploring the world on my bicycle deepened, she began to use my trips as a later-in-life excuse to visit places she might never have experienced. We’ve met up in India, in Thailand, and in Peru, and whilst she wasn’t riding a bike with me, each trip proved a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the beauty and diversity of such countries. In seeing the kind of places I love, the people I ride with, and even the spots where I tend to stay, it also helped demystify the whole bike travel experience.
Last year – much to my surprise – she suggested we go on our first bike tour together. I need only the slightest modicum of interest from anyone to spring into action and put a ride together, so you can imagine my delight when it was my mum that stepped forward to sign on the dotted line. We decided upon a well-known stretch of the Danube river, between Passau and Vienna. Since her childhood, my mum’s barely ridden a bicycle, so being her first tour, it was a sedate affair. We followed a flat bike path that flitted by riverboat from one side of the Danube to the other. We picnicked by day, stopped for coffee and cakes, then booked a guesthouse at lunchtime when we had an idea of how far we might get.
Flushed with the success of the trip, she suggested we try a camping trip the following year. This being that next summer – and keen to ensure that her good intentions didn’t slip us by – I suggested a couple of nights in the New Forest. I’d also secretly set my heart on a multi-generation bike trip, so I was especially thrilled when our plans coincided with my son Sage’s annual visit from the States to see his grandparents. Obviously Sage adores his grandmother, especially given how much attention she lavishes on him. So when I pitched him the idea of a trip together before he returned to New Mexico, he didn’t hesitate for a moment to agree.
Now, to the families who live close to nature or are endowed with athletic prowess, such a relatively mild-mannered undertaking might not seem particularly remarkable. But my mum’s upbringing was in London and this would be her first real campout, at the age of 73 no less. So again, we set our sights somewhat modestly. We booked her an e-bike. Sage loaded up his own bicycle with her tent and all his personal gear, in hand-me-down panniers I gave him, while I carried the rest. Keen that she enjoyed herself, he painstakingly prepped her a hand-written menu that included options for breakfast and dinner; a combination of food we harvested from my parent’s garden and easy to cook, rehydrated meals from a local company, Firepot Foods. I wanted to make sure we all ate well, as it can be the difference between recovering the next day and enjoying the ride, or waning.
As luck would have it, my mum’s range on the bike was similar to that of Sage’s, which made our riding logistics relatively easy – we aimed for about twenty miles a day. But more than distance, our intention was to stick to car-free routes wherever possible. This was as much for my mum as for son, as her confidence on a bicycle isn’t quite robust enough to handle the reality of general cycling in the UK, which isn’t always the most relaxing experience…
Being the summer, with long days at our disposal, it was very much an amble; a chance to explore, hang out, and use our bikes to move our bodies around gently rather than cover great leagues. By the time we arrived at the New Forest’s Wood Cyclery, collected her bike, and gleaned some advice for where best to ride, there was just time head to a campsite that lay seven miles away, a beautiful ride through old woodlands on soothing forest roads. Sage pitched her tent and set her up with her mattress and sleeping bag, and we retired for the night.
I was awoken the next day by my impatient son prodding me. Was Grandma Joannie awake? Should he start on her coffee and breakfast? As readers of this website may well know, six-year-old Sage is no stranger to camping, so quickly had our freshly ground coffee on the go. Then he whipped up some granola, strawberries, and coconut milk, before helping to pack away her tent. Leaving the campsite, the two of them paused to commune with ponies, en route to the first cream tea of the day. And such was set the tone of the tour.
Although the riding in the New Forest is fairly restricted in scope, it suited our needs perfectly. The main challenge emerged in the way its cycling network has a tendency to begin at a car park, often located on a busy A or B road. This is all very well if you arrive by car, but not so handy if you’re trying to make one big, family-friendly loop. Still, we managed to keep to gravel for much of the time, riding as a tight peloton when forced onto a paved road. Thankfully Sage is becoming increasingly more confident and his road sense if developing well; it was more my mum that I worried about!
Our few days of cycling were certainly challenging enough to imbue a real sense of accomplishment to the experience, whilst remaining mellow enough to allow plenty of time to stop and hang out in the forest along the way. The riding itself was exactly what we were after. Big, wide gravel roads with no traffic. Glades to build fairy houses, or play in forest structures. A few manageable undulations. The last day, we set our sights on cycling along a disused railway, via a route that crossed wild tufts of heathland, with some surprisingly sharp pitches and a narrow trail that Sage loved but my mum struggled with. Still, she pushed stoically onwards, always a smile on her face, me dashing back to give her a hand. As her first bike camping trip, there was the inevitable learning curve; like figuring out the things you want to have to hand in the night, or getting used to confines of a sleeping bag. I gave her a tent to herself and the thickest air mattress I had and she reported back that she’d slept better the second night than the first… especially once she’d figured out how the zips worked so she could get in and out!
Really, the only issues that presented themselves were busy junctions and roads in and out of towns, where drivers seem blissfully unaware of their impact on more vulnerable road users. Riding with both my mum and my son reminded me how accepted it is for cars to jostle for place alongside cyclists. It also made me realise that we still have a tendency to compartmentalise cycling in the UK, especially when approached from a family perspective: load up bikes, drive to trailhead, ride, load up bikes, drive home again. Mainland Europe remains significantly more advanced in the way in which bike paths from town are meshed with networks beyond, with predominantly bike-friendly public transport options to dip into when needed.
Still, I wouldn’t want these gripes to muddy the value of such a trip. As a bikepacking destination, the New Forest felt almost ideal for our needs, especially given its position within such a population-dense area. We were all flagging by the end of the trip, in part due to the heat. But as we headed home, there was a real sense of shared achievement and a new bank of collective memories to draw upon and to smile about. Our first bikepack excursion together had offered my mum and Sage a particularly special way in which to spend time together and I was proud of us all for making it happen. And like our trips to India and Peru, it’s given her an insight into the bike tours Sage and I enjoy together, and a way to more clearly picture them in the future too.
As soon as one trip is over, it’s inevitable I’m pondering the next. Rest assured, I’ll be recruiting extended family for a bigger, multi-generational bike tour next year!
Tips for organising a MGB experience
- I’ve learned over the years that whilst the intention is often there, following through with an idea is the real challenge. Pick a date and book accommodation if needed. Lock yourself into something; you can figure out the finer details closer to the time.
- Less distance is better than more – it’s easy to fill your time with off-the-bike activities, rather than trying to crunch the miles, especially until you have a better idea of a realistic pace.
- Pick a route that avoids paved roads as much as possible – it will make a massive difference to your general sense of relaxation. Even quiet roads require heightened vigilance. Converted railways are often a good bet.
- When riding as a family on main roads, we do a ‘Sage Sandwich’, with a rider in front and one behind. We always carry a reflective jacket and daytime lights.
- If your child isn’t comfortable riding on a road, consider a FollowMe tandem, or a tag-along, depending on individual ability and age. Find out more about these on our Mini Vuelta de Vasco trip.
- A tow-whee is a great device for bridging the generations. It’s a bungee cord that allows bikes to be gently towed, for offroad use predominantly.
- If you’re coaxing non-cycling family members into joining you, try and get out to ride a couple of day rides first, so you can see how the pacing works between you, and build confidence for everyone involved. My mum prepared herself by using an exercise bike regularly beforehand.
- Carry enough food and water for a ‘varied family’ pace; probably more than you think you’ll need!
- Step-throughs bicycles are recommended for older, less limber folk.
- An e-bike comes into its own for this kind of trip and depending on the family, the age of your parents, and their athletic ability, could make it a reality.
- Don’t forget that older bodies need more rest. Camping for those who aren’t used to it can take its toll too.
- It doesn’t have to be family. It could be friends of different ages. A perspective viewed through both younger and older eyes is priceless.
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