Three hearts, two wheels, one passion

As the distances of their travels grow, so too does the bond formed by a young family on the go.

Words and photos: Cass Gilbert
Originally published in Bicycle Times Issue #38

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My son Sage is something of a seasoned traveller. At the ripe old age of two and three quarters, he’s already chalked up an impressive tally of countries visited, including the U.K., France, Chile and Ecuador—all of which have been enjoyed from the comfort of his bicycle trailer. But first, allow me to rewind a couple of years.

Like any father with a passion for bicycle touring, I was formulating adventures within the first few days of his birth. All the necessary accessories had already been gathered. The intricacies of a whole new world of gear had been duly studied. From what I could see all I needed was to bundle him into the trailer and go!

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Of course the reality wasn’t quite as simple as that. It took eight long months before I was given the all clear to devise our first family trip: a simple overnighter close to our hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I fretted over our route. I pondered the terrain. I poured over our packlist, wishing only that our first trip as a family be as positive an experience as possible. Which, despite its many undoubted challenges, it turned out to be. The fact that we only rode a handful of miles before setting up camp in a swathe of forest I’d scoped out on Google Earth was inconsequential. Those precious miles were, without doubt, amongst the most rewarding miles of all my bicycle tours to date.

Since that day, the reach and breadth of our adventures has grown as the three of us have become more versed with how best to tour as a family. After numerous local jaunts close to home, Sage was ready to take on Chile at the tender age of 18 months. It was there that he earned the nickname El Huevito—the Little Egg— from all the women who scooped him up into their arms, tussled his blond hair and fed him untold amounts of sugary treats. The family bond is especially strong in South America, and the manner in which everyone we met interacted with us, warming immediately to Sage, introduced a whole new richness to traveling on a bicycle. This interaction was just as important as the riding itself, which was as varied as we could have hoped for.

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Over a three week period we camped in the lunar landscape of Conguillio National Park, explored the seaside city of Valparaíso by foot and rode from beach to beach along the windswept Pacific Coast. After our adventures in Chile we progressed the following year to Ecuador, joining forces with three brothers I’d met on previous two wheeled travels through South America. Since then we had kept in touch and we’d all had children.

In any shape or form, our first outing together would have been enjoyable enough. It came complete with dirt roads, singletrack, a hike-a-bike and even a stint bouncing along the sleepers of a disused railroad, set to a backdrop of high altitude Andean páramo and silhouetted volcanos. Factor in no less than eight bicycles and five accompanying trailers, with a payload of 6-month-old to 3-year-old children, and such a journey takes on an even more memorable character.

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Together we blazed a trail of family mayhem through the countryside. We built roaring campfires and drank water that bubbled up from highland springs. We collected watercress and roasted it with garlic. Every moment was a chance to learn and share, from cooking outdoors, to pitching tents, to gathering firewood and purifying water. We explored, we laughed, and we shared a love of bikes, good company and simple living and, of course, we enjoyed some fabulous riding.

Basing ourselves at our friends’ family-run organic farm, Sage, Nancy and I set out on several week-long excursions around the countryside, exploring local markets, feasting on exotic fruit and rubbing shoulders with poncho-clad horsemen. By the time we were done in Ecuador, we were hooked on two-wheeled family travel.

More recently, visiting my own family in the U.K. afforded us another opportunity for a mini adventure. This time it was to Exmoor National Park, a small but enchanting parcel of land located in the rolling hills of the South West. It came complete with quiet back roads and verdant combes harboring secret mossy glades—perfect wilderness camping material. Elsewhere, open and windswept moorland was punctuated by traditional tea houses, serving up fresh scones, jam and dollops of clotted cream.

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Of course, we still enjoy local jaunts as much as those that lie further afield, camping with friends on short overnighters outside of Santa Fe or heading into Colorado when the aspens are ablaze with color. With each trip, and each month that goes by, Sage seems to enjoy himself more and more. He’s now at the point where he actively relishes the whole experience rather than simply tagging along with what his parents are doing. He knows how to scout for a good camp spot, he’s eager to help put up the tent and he delights in studying the map with me. He loves being part of the team.

Indeed, as someone who lives for being outside, it’s been one of my great delights to experience the world through his eyes. We’ll watch him wander off and forage for sticks, or investigate interesting rock piles, or collect pine cones. He sleeps as well in the tent as he does at home, and loves the undivided attention he gets from us when we’re unplugged from our various electronic devices, spending undiluted time as a family.

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Whether he grows into a passionate bicycle tourer is another matter. I hope at least that these experiences are broadening his mind, introducing him to the concept of car-free travel and allowing him to feel comfortable and confident in the great outdoors.

There is, however, a disclaimer. Despite their diminutive distances, I can’t promise that family bike tours are always easy. Without doubt, they have their own set of physical, mental and logistical challenges to contend with. The first few trips will undoubtedly involve a massive learning curve. But I couldn’t more highly recommend trying one out, wherever it may be in the world, for however many days you may have.

So gather the troops and brew up a plan. Choose a route that everyone will enjoy. Enjoy being off the bike as much as you are on it. Above all, make time for family adventures. I can guarantee they will warm the heart and feed the soul. For everyone involved.

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16 tips for touring with a toddler

1. Devise a route that’s as traffic-free as possible. It will be a lot more relaxing.

2. Forget the miles. Focus on having a good time. Take regular breaks and lengthy lunches.

3. Factor in terrain to your expected distances—if it’s mountainous, we rarely cover more than 15 or 20 miles a day.

4. Ride while your child is napping whenever you can.

5. Don’t forget hydration. Initially Nancy found it a challenge to stay hydrated while riding and breastfeeding.

6. Figure on four hours of trailer time a day, split into smaller portions. On longer trips factor in plenty of off-the-bike days too.

7. Pack light. Hauling a trailer, plus extra food, water and baby gear can be a challenge.

8. Leave bulky toys at home. Allow your child to fully be immersed in nature. They’ll find plenty of things to do.

9. Keep it varied, particularly as your child becomes a toddler. After lunch, we often push our bikes and let Sage walk or run alongside us. Sometimes we bring a football to kick around in forest glades. Never pass up a good playground!

10. To help pass the time, listen to music or audiobooks on the move. We use the excellent Outdoor Tech Buckshot speaker.

11. Stop early enough that you have time to settle into your campsite and enjoy some downtime together.

12. Pack delicious, nutritious food, even if it weighs a little more.

13. A familiar bedtime storybook is great for helping your child get to sleep.

14. Engage your children to help out whenever possible, like cooking, setting up a tent, gathering firewood or purifying water. Sage loves helping out.

15. Be prepared for the occasional meltdown! It doesn’t mean your child isn’t having fun. Similarly, always keep your child’s needs to the forefront. After all, if they’re not enjoying themselves, what’s the point?

16. If you can, team up with another family—your toddler will love the company.

Continue Reading: Gilbert also wrote a piece on the “best bike touring gear for family travel,” which is based on his extensive experience. It includes thoughts on kid trailers, bike setup and Sage’s packing list for overnight adventures. 



In Print: Blessed Be Bag Balm

Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #31. Order one here, or best of all, order a subscription and never miss an issue.

By Ann K. Howley. Illustrations by Stephen Haynes.

It was only day one of our five-day, 275-mile bike trip from Connellsville, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., via the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath trails. My husband, son, stepson, stepdaughter and I had only gone 17 miles and already the kids’ butts hurt.

“I don’t think big guys like me are supposed to sit on little bike seats,” my burly teenage son, who played high school football, said miserably. With his wide shoulders leaning forward and bulky torso perched atop a narrow bike seat that looked like a perfect fit for a toddler, he did look a bit precarious as he pedaled down the tree-lined trail.

“Don’t be silly! You can do it! You’ll be fine!” I said, sounding more like a bubbly cheerleader than a rational mother.

I feared this would happen.

I knew they were going to suffer, just like our friend’s young son, who was so proud that he rode his bike 10 miles with his daddy, but came back walking like a bowlegged cowboy and confessed to his mother that his ‘private balls hurt.’

My husband and I had hoped that buying them hybrid bikes for Christmas would give them plenty of time to train and acclimate to their bike seats before our planned ride to Washington, DC in the summer, but apparently “riding bike” wasn’t on anyone’s list of Important-Things-To-Do-Before-Riding-Bike-275-Miles.

I knew they were going to suffer, just like our friend’s young son, who was so proud that he rode his bike 10 miles with his daddy, but came back walking like a bowlegged cowboy and confessed to his mother that his ‘private balls hurt.’ When his mother heard that we were going to ride 275 miles, I thought she was going to accuse us of child abuse.

But our kids aren’t children. Aged 18 to 22, they all had the intelligence, ability, time and warning to prepare, but, like most normal young people between the ages of 18 and 22, figured they could wing it. What they didn’t understand is that nothing can produce more unrelenting and agonizing pain in your nether region than a saddle sore — except childbirth.

Trust me. I’ve experienced both.

So a week before our trip and sensing impending doom, I conducted a frantic Internet search to find a way to figuratively and literally save the kids’ hides. I scoured the Web for advice, only to be reminded that the number one recommendation to toughen your bottom is to “build up miles slowly.”

Too late for that.

Although I haven’t the slightest clue what a “caked bag” is, I was sold.  My husband and I drove to the pharmacy and bought a little green tin.

Bag Balm

Then I read about a product called Bag Balm, sold in pharmacies, which various cycling websites and blogs suggested as an effective lubricant to help prevent chafing. This is what I read on the Company website:

For CATTLE: Helps soothe small injuries, rash chapping; massage on caked bag.

Although I haven’t the slightest clue what a “caked bag” is, I was sold.  My husband and I drove to the pharmacy and bought a little green tin.

On the morning of our departure, as everyone was securing their panniers and sleeping bags onto their bikes, I held up the green tin and suggested that everyone use it before we started riding. The kids didn’t even have a chance to crack a butt joke before my hygiene-conscious husband hastily blurted, “Wait! We need to set ground rules.”

He then described, in remarkably well-thought-out detail, what he viewed as the only proper and acceptable methodology with respect to the application and reapplication of Bag Balm, which basically boiled down to this: NO DOUBLE DIPPING.

It didn’t surprise me. My husband can kiss me full on the lips, but pass on the buffalo dip if he suspects I got a speck of slobber in it. Despite the fact that they had all lubed up prior to starting, the kids had sore bums by the time we made our first official stop for lunch.

“There is no way I’m going to be able to ride 76 miles,” my unhappy son predicted, referring to our fourth day of riding, which was supposed to be our longest.

But now when the kids complained, I said, “Hey, you guys accepted the challenge. You’re committed.” I no longer sounded like a cheerleader.

But even my husband and I, who were the only ones who attempted to train ahead of time, were saddle sore. The heat didn’t help. Forecasters had predicted it was going to be the hottest week of the summer — 95 degrees with 100 percent humidity. Even though the canopy of trees along the trail sheltered us from the direct sun, we still couldn’t escape the heat and humidity. When pedaling for hours, the sweat, salt and road grime must have been fermenting like a wicked witch’s brew in our private parts.

“Start at ‘A’ and go through the alphabet and try to think of different alliterative names for Bag Balm,” he said.


I began to think that Bag Balm was the only thing that was going to save us from taking an early ride home on Amtrak. I don’t know if the rest of my family was thinking that too, but everyone was digging frequently into that little tin and Bag Balm became a bit of an obsession for us.

My husband playfully suggested a game to pass the time as we rode in the afternoon heat.

“Start at ‘A’ and go through the alphabet and try to think of different alliterative names for Bag Balm,” he said.

This was exactly the kind of mind activity that would appeal to our brainy, witty kids, who, recognizing the potential hilarity of it, jumped eagerly on the suggestion.

I always rode in the rear of the pack, heeding my maternal instinct to be able to help if anyone had trouble. (I’m also just slower.) But on that day, I must have felt particularly tired because as my family pulled out ahead of me, enthusiastically rattling off substitute names for Bag Balm, my brain process went something like this:

“Ass Aid …Bottom Balsam… Can Comfort… Derriere Dip…End Elixir…”

That was it. My mind went blank and for the next several hours not a single thought crossed into my consciousness. My autonomic nervous system must have taken over because my legs still moved the pedals and I apparently made forward movement in the stifling heat. But it wasn’t until I caught up to my husband and kids at a rest stop and drank some water, that I snapped out of my semi-vegetative state and remembered that we were trying to think of names for Bag Balm.

“Hey, did you guys get something for F yet?” I asked.

My stepson looked at me. “F? We already got to Z,” he said.


“What?! Even Z?” I asked, flabbergasted.

“Yeah. Zipper Zapper… we cheated a little on that one,” he said. I was too exhausted to ask any more questions.

On the fourth day, the “long” day we had all been dreading, a minor miracle happened.  Having successfully completed 142 miles in the prior three days, the kids must have felt stronger and better and even though their bums still hurt, they toughed it out… without whining.  On that day, we laughed a lot as we fixed a flat tire and played a 60-mile game of Tag with 32 Boy Scouts.

Though riding 76 miles may not be a mark of distinction in the cycling world, for us newbies, it felt momentous and we celebrated by having dinner at a nice restaurant in Brunswick, Maryland. With only one more day of riding, we knew we were going to make it to the Mile 0 signpost in Washington DC, and we couldn’t wait to whoop and holler and snap lots of obligatory pictures to prove it.

We all agreed that we couldn’t have come this far without Bag Balm… the Fanny Fixer.

Feeling exhilarated, I was swigging my beer and enjoying a delicious meal when I took a deep, relaxing breath. Suddenly I realized that while it was okay for the five of us to ride our bikes and camp outside in the wide open world, maybe it wasn’t a good idea for us to sit in an enclosed public place where people were eating dinner. Our collective stench appalled me.

I’m pretty sure we smelled like a herd of cattle with caked bags.

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