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Thursday, August 08, 2019

Tour Across Bavaria: Thoughts

One big thought that crossed my mind in April and before the trip was "How young is too young to go touring?" Now I've heard of people who've taken their toddlers on a bicycle tour in a trailer, but Bowen had raised such a ruckus in a day ride in the bike trailer that we never even tried. Bowen did so well on his first bicycle tour that I thought that if he'd been tall enough at age 4 he would have thoroughly enjoyed it. Boen at age 4 was physically tall enough to ride on the back of the triplet without the kid-back stoker kit. During the Spring tour, he didn't fall asleep even once on the triplet, so I thought he was ready.

Well, on this trip during several occasions, he fell asleep in the afternoon. On the ride into Salzburg, he did so twice! That last time I thought I was going to have a heart attack during that last kilometer. In retrospect, I should have just eaten the weight penalty and brought the stoker kit and seat belt and secure Boen in the middle seat. On the other hand, we were already having trouble getting up some of those hills, so I'm not sure the tour would have gone well with extra weight.

Now, the big factor was Boen himself, who enjoyed the trip enough that whenever he was asked if he wanted to stop he never wanted to go home. (Bowen went through something similar from age 3-4, where he never wanted to go home) To the extent that he enjoyed the trip, I felt like he belonged on tour. Bowen as usual enjoyed bicycle touring. 8 days after we returned home, he said to me: "Did you know that none of my friends have done backcountry camping? Or bicycle touring? You must be the best dad ever!" The flood of emotions that rise up in you to have your 7 year old say that (whom just 2 months ago was writing "I hate daddy" on notepad paper to leave on my pillow!) is indescribable. Over the cause of discussing parenting, I've frequently had people not believe me when I told them about the trips I'd taken with Bowen (and now Boen). Frequently, other parents would assert that there's no way their kids could stay put on a bike for even as much as an hour. Yet whenever I managed to get that same kid on the triplet or tandem, I would discover that the kid was just as engaged in cycling as Bowen and Boen were, despite their parents' assertion otherwise. This leads me to believe that the real barrier to enthusiastic cyclists touring with kids isn't the kids --- it's the huge amount of work the parents do have to put in to make the tour work: from acquiring a tandem to putting in the time to learn enough bike handling skills to handle the big bike, it's something that most parents wouldn't be willing to do, so it's just easier to blame the kids for not being able to do it. I'm now much more willing to dismiss parents' complaints about their kids asking for screen time as a result: on the tandem, no kid has ever asked for screen time. Outdoor cycling time with parents is so much better and more stimulating for them. It's the parents that aren't willing to do it, not the kids.

What I was unprepared for was how much Bowen regressed  in behavior when traveling with his brother. The same kid that climbed Stelvio, the Sella Rondo, Hahntennejoch, and Albula pass without complaint would moan and groan when asked to walk a couple of blocks. He would turn around and mess with his brother, and the two of them would continually shake or manhandle the bike. And of course, there's the continual monitoring of both brothers for privileges one would get but the other wouldn't. Thus, having 2 kids along isn't twice the work of one, it's 4 times the work, since instead of having a 7 year old and a 4 year old, you're getting two 4 year olds!

Despite all this, the biggest challenge wasn't the physical challenge of riding the bike. I always had plenty of gas left in the tank, and at no point couldn't have ridden another 20 miles at the end of the day. With 2 kids, you always have to have something in reserve because after you're done with laundry you still have to entertain the kids, either by taking them swimming, taking them out to ice cream, or walking them around town. (As you can surmise, the kids were never exhausted, either) And of course, with a bike this long, any physical exhaustion was limited to core body strength and flexibility from fighting the kids' shaking the bike, not aerobic capacity or leg strength.

I wouldn't bother buying cycling gloves for kids riding on the back of a tandem. My wife reported that their time on the bike was spent mostly with hands off the handlebars, except on descents, which were of course in short supply on this trip.

Overall, I was surprised by how challenging the Bodensee-Konigsee bike route was. I'd pigeon-holed designated bike routes as being flat and unchallenging (the Rhine river bike path in Switzerland is a prime example), but this one is definitely worth doing. If you're in decent shape on a single bike it probably wouldn't take a week, but obviously anything done on a triplet would take far longer.

This was Xiaoqin's first bike tour of any length. The e-bike was a good idea --- I don't think she could have made the trip without electric assist, and the rental bike was of surprisingly high quality and reasonably cost effective ($560/19 = $30 a day, about half the price of renting a car, but without toll fees, parking fees or fuel costs, which would have been substantial). I kept her bike as lightly loaded as possible, but she too had to learn that on a steep hill you cannot stop, or it'll be impossible to get started again: the assist isn't enough to start on anything steep or on dirt. Other than the fiasco at the start of not actually  having a decent reservation, I would rent the same bike again --- it was useful for running errands, which would have been much more challenging with the triplet.

One of the biggest burdens of the trip was the heat wave. There are few places with AC in Europe (and we were lucky to have found one of them), and my favorite solution (climbing to about 6000' in elevation) was denied to us since we weren't anywhere close to the mountains and even if we were we probably could not have done that much climbing. Staying near lakes was good, but not nearly as good as it being higher in altitude would have been.

I think a much more enjoyable trip would have been that rather than having both kids on a bike at once, would be to take turns having the kids on the back of the tandem, and switching them out at intervals of a week or so, maybe swapping out with mommy who might prefer a different type of trip. You might think that a mini van follow vehicle would work, but my spring break trip proved that when given a choice, the kids would just take the lazy way out and ride in the mini van, so that's not a good idea either.

During an overhaul done before the trip, I opted to use single-speed chains for the timing chains rather than 8-speed chains. This was a mistake: the chains interfered with each other in the middle timing ring if anything was even slightly off (which happened after the train ride to Zurich). You can use single-speed chains in tandem mode or as one of the two timing chains but not both. Upon my return to the USA I replaced the front with an 8-speed timing chain and the problems went away.

All in all, I'm happy we did the trip, but the expense, effort, and the challenges might cause me to experiment with some different configurations of the two. And a lot of it is driven by how much less I like Bowen when he's with his brother and reverting to being 4 years old, rather than anything else. None of the parenting books I've ever read have described this phenomenon, and I have no clue as to how to overcome it, whether it's a desirable behavioral phenomenon or whether it's harmful and should be minimized.


Ben Lev said...

Another wonderful report! I admire your willingness to try new things with your boys. Funny about they sometimes regress - my daughters did that too, but it doesn't last. Wht's your next adenture?

Piaw Na said...

Obviously we want to do a sailing trip in the Carribean. Next year is a toss up between Spain and a return to Alto Aldige. Alto Aldige would have to be with the tandem since I'm not about to bring a triplet over the Stelvio.

Real-Liberal said...

You don’t really have to do the Stelvio for Alto Adige, that might be a day for Dad to rent a bike. Elsa and I did our tandem trip two summers ago but it has been hiking in the Alps since then. The lower elevations are too hot and hiking to cabins allows new experiences for the family experiences and high up in the Berber Oberland escapes the heat. She is ready for a serious touring bike (her old SOMA Lisa would fit Bowen perfectly) and early June in Northern Europe may avoid the heat.

Piaw Na said...

I don't have to do Stelvio, but Bowen will want to. And anything Bowen gets to do, his brother will want to do as well. I'm not going to take the triplet over the Stelvio, though actually, it's not that steep and we could descend the Umbrail pass... Hm...

Sojka's Call said...

Obviously, safety is the primary concern for the children and falling asleep on the bike - well, you really can't put yourself in that situation if at all possible. Maybe at the age they are right now, cycling has to be the secondary aspect of the vacation and not primary. That also allows you more mental time and energy to deal with the brother dynamics and their decisions deciding on what level they will interact with each other.

Probably what is happening is Bowen and Boen take turns operating at each others age. And, when Boen is acting three years older, you don't notice. But, when Bowen regresses to his younger brother's level, that becomes more noticeable. That kind of behavior sounds normal to me. And, though they may not even be conscious of it, they probably do experience a certain amount of mental and physical stress being on the bike and the behavior swings are just one natural expression of dealing with it. All healthy and normal stuff when seen from a big picture perspective.

Those are important life skills they are developing and will have forever. Good stuff Dad!

Unknown said...

On the subject of regressing: when my son was 8--he's the baby of the family, now 10--he and I took a 200+ mile tandem trip through some very hilly parts of NYS and Connecticut to grandpa and grandma's house. He instantly matured on the road, taking responsibility far beyond what I was used to seeing. My theory is that it was the difference between "stop playing video games because they will rot your brain" and "stay on the right side of the bike when we stop, because on the left side the cars zipping by at 60 miles an hour will hit you and you will die." The latter tends to concentrate the mind. But when we got to grandpa and grandma's and met up with mom and older sister, he instantly regressed to the baby of the family. It was fascinating to watch.

Piaw Na said...

Yeah, Bowen's very mature when it's just him and me. Boen, however, doesn't always do that, so kids have very different responses. Bowen's been doing long distance tours since he was 5. (He started doing overnights with me at 3.5)