I’m about to set off on a big, blow-out bike trip with my son. It’s a legacy thing; something I hope he’ll remember for the rest of his life. Family bike tours to the Netherlands no longer cut the mustard. At 14, I think he’s ready for a tough trip. We’re prepping for a trip to Iceland.
It’s pretty easy to pedal around the perimeter of Iceland. Too easy. I want Josh to be challenged. We leave on Sunday, pick up two Trek mountain bikes on Monday and, once equipped with racks, and a Bob trailer fitted to my bike, we’ll be venturing into the interior, cycling on a rippled dirt road, making for the hot springs at the Landmannalaugar mountain hut. We’ll pitch our all-weather Nemo tent next to the geothermal rock pools, and wonder that we ever made it at all.
The gravel road to Landmannalaugar is only open for three months of the year, in the Icelandic summer. We’ll be following a wind-blasted track into Europe’s only desert, a sub-Arctic volcanic-ash wilderness.
Sand and cycling don’t mix. It’s almost impossible to pedal through sand. For impossible read challenging.
I’ve done this journey before. 15 years ago. I brought my then girlfriend on her first ever bike tour. Rather a baptism of fire for her, but she survived. We married, and Josh is one of the three walking-talking results of our union. (The mag extract below is from MTB Pro, August 1996).
When I say survived, I mean it. The interior of Iceland is unforgiving, with raging glacial rivers to cross and weather that can be as fierce as it is volatile. Jude cried a lot. It’s very possibly a daft ask to expect a 14 year old to manage such a journey, but we won’t know until we’ve tried.
In the 1960s NASA shipped the astronaut corps to Iceland. Prior to the Apollo moon landings, NASA’s would-be spacemen simulated collecting rock samples here: it was the best place on earth to mimic the geography, and geology, of the lunar landscape
All this week I’ll add details of the kit we’ve chosen to take on this trip.
Shoes and socks
Travelling light we’ll have just one pair of shoes each (plus surf shoes for river crossings) so they’ve got to be a MTB and walking shoe hybrid. We’re taking Lake MX100’s. They’ve got walking boot style Vibram soles but with MTB features and SPD cleats. As it rains a lot in Iceland we’re packing SealSkinz socks (and gloves and hats).
And as it rains so much it makes sense to protect electronic kit such as the iPhone, the iPad and the SLR camera. All will be kept dry with Aquapac bags.
This 250,000-scale map of the interior of Iceland is available from Ferdakort.
We live in an urban country park in Newcastle upon Tyne. Jesmond Dene is beautiful year round (if you can block out the white noise from the Cradlewell bypass bridge) but it’s a steep valley and a bugger to get out of when it’s icy.
This morning’s snow flummoxed a few rat-runners in their 4×4s but the bicycle version of this all-wheel traction saw us safely to school. My 13-year old lad went one way to his secondary school (past the ‘road closed’ sign above) and I accompanied my 11-year old daughters on the tough ride up Benton Bank to their primary school.
We got up no problems. All our bikes are now fitted with studded tyres. I have Nokian spike tyres, my kids have 24-inch spike tyres from Schwalbe. Lower the pressure and you can climb up sheet ice (which is what we’ll be doing tomorrow when the snow and slush freezes).
We left for school early to get to badminton club at 8am. It was cancelled: the teacher was snowbound and stuck in traffic. Maybe she could get herself a more reliable form of winter transport?
I’m all for ridding the world of stabilisers (US = training wheels). They prevent children from learning how to ride their bikes. The Gyrowheel wants to change all that.
I can’t say that it will. Learner ‘running bikes’ are much more fit for the purpose, of which the Like-a-Bike is still the cream of the crop despite many and varied imitations.
The Gyrowheel is a child’s bike wheel stuffed with electronics, a battery and some seriously clever gyroscopes. It ain’t no Segway but at $100 a pop, it’s a lot cheaper.
But at one hundred bucks it’s about eighty five bucks more than most people will pay for a child’s front wheel.
Sadly, I can’t ride the 12-inch Gyrowheel. Even though I’m small, I’m not that small. However, at Interbike, I was able to feel the wheel and can report that it’s pleasingly odd to hold. It wobbles and wants to pull out of your grip.
Alongside Cannondale’s Simon, a neat piece of electronic suspension vapourware, the Gyrowheel was possibly the most innovative product at Interbike. And for innovative read ‘interesting’, ‘head-scratchingly different’ and ‘who’s gonna buy that?’.
The Gyrowheel press release makes some high claims for the product:
Gyrowheel replaces the standard front wheel of a bicycle and is installed the same way as a standard bike wheel. When powered on, Gyrowheel’s inner disk spins up. It then senses unbalanced riding and re-centers the bike underneath the rider’s weight when the bike starts to wobble, whether riding straight or turning. This action not only helps to keep riders from falling over, it also fosters and reinforces correct riding technique, resulting in a natural and smooth transition to conventional two-wheeled riding.
Gyrowheel comes equipped with internal rechargeable batteries and a charger. It operates with one button and has three stability settings – high, medium and low. As a rider’s skills and confidence improve, the stability setting can be adjusted. When powered off, Gyrowheel behaves like a standard bike wheel.
I was prepared to whizz by the booth, laugh at the product, and move on. That I stayed awhile had everything to do with the product and nothing at all to do with the fact the booth was staffed by cute women.
“The vast majority of children who tested Gyrowheel learned to ride in less than an hour,” said Gyrobike’s marketing director Ashleigh Harris.
That’s all well and fine but that’s how long it takes to teach even a four year old child how to ride a bike using the scoot-weeee-scoot method. I use this method at a local primary school and offer a one-hour guarantee: if the tot isn’t pedalling independently by the end of an hour, they can come back for another hour.
I’ve taught lots of kids. Just a couple have required that second hour. However, there’s a brilliant niche for the Gyrowheel, a type of student I find it hard to teach. Kids with balance problems or learning difficulties take much, much longer to get stable on two wheels. Some I’m still teaching. The Gyrowheel could be perfect for these kids.
At the moment the Gyrowheel comes only in a 12-inch version but a 16-inch version is in the works. I’d also like to see a 24-inch version and perhaps even an adult version.
A bike with a Gyrowheel fitted can just about balance by itself for a few metres, as demonstrated in the pic above. It’s a clever wee thing and could be an excellent training tool for hard-to-teach children but, in the meantime, the method I outline below in my ‘Family Cycling’ book (click the pages to flip through on Issuu.com) works fine for the majority of newbie nippers.
Ice-cream sellers the world over are known to be great marketeers - and often great rivals, sometimes even deadly – so it was no surprise to find that cooled dairy product vendors in Umag, Istria, used every trick up their rolled-up sleeves to entice passers-by to choose their chilled wares over those of their neigbours.
The frozen confectioners are sited close to each other near to the Sol Garden Istra hotel in Katoro, near Umag. Both had a Red Bull geleto, but only one had a Viagra concoction. No, I didn’t go for a Big V, I plumped for a Red Bull. Very tasty it was, too. Perfect for a post-ride pick-me-up. [I don't suppose the Red Bull is made from real Red Bull and it's impossible that the Viagra geleto has any bedroom benefits whatsoever].
We’re back in Blighty now: a lot colder than we were in Istria. Here are the last two pix from our bike’n'beach hols in Croatia: feet reflections on our balcony and the kids having fun in the pool.
Today, my son Josh is 11. He’s wanted to complete his first century for a while but life has conspired against us. Yesterday was the last chance. We took it, despite the likelihood of atrocious weather.
We rode from Newcastle to Berwick, taking sideroads and Sustrans National Cycle Network signposted routes which detour like crazy. Normally such detours would bug me but yesterday it was fine to zig zag because we had to rack up the miles. Newcastle to Berwick is about 60 miles on the A1.
As it happened, we had to do one mile on the A1. In the wet, in the dark, with just LEDs to keep us safe from thundering juggernauts on what is the main road from London to Edinburgh. That one mile was the worst of the whole hundred. Despite a detour that made the day’s ride into a 106 mile effort, we were glad to get away from the scariest traffic conditions I’ve ever ridden in.
After the speedy train journey back to Newcastle, Josh was fine to ride home in the pouring rain, although he never actually sat on his saddle for the two mile ride. Today he’s ridden to school, tender, but otherwise fit and eager to enjoy his birthday.
This particularly 11 year old wants to start using a Twitter account. He was blown away by the encouragement he got on yesterday’s ride. I was Twittering our progress via an iPhone and told Josh the replies as they were coming in. He was always going to finish this ride but the instant feedback, and the best wishes from around the world, gave him an inner warmth on a day that was freezing cold and very wet at times.
There’s a selection of Twitter comments below the photographs. First, I’d like to give shout-outs to three particular items of kit which helped us yesterday.
The SatMap GPS device allowed me to plot our route on the fly, taking the optimum route when there were no Sustrans signposts to follow. Where it really came into its own was during the final twenty miles, done in the dark. The OS mapping on a backlit screen enabled me to plot a complex, off-highway route as we cycled along, in conditions which would have shredded a paper map and which would have meant constant stopping.
Josh was riding a Kona Jake 24. This is a cyclo cross bike but I’d fitted it with Schwalbe Stelvio tyres and that transformed it into the perfect kid’s road bike.
The other vital piece of kit - apart from the overshoes, and balaclavas, wet weather gear and hand-warmer sachets - was Josh’s shoes. He already has a pair of Answer MTB shoes but they are now too small for him, and this was preventing us going for the ton. Thanks to Denny for sending a larger pair from Answer HQ in the US. This enabled us to do the ride. A ride that Josh will remember for ever. It’s likely few people will believe he did a ride of 100+ miles when he was ten. Even in great weather conditions and long daylight hours this would be a tough ask for any nipper. That he did it in yesterday’s conditions was simply amazing. I’m very proud of my boy. And despite the epic nature of the ride, at the end , he asked when we were doing another.
@SMLP 100 miles at 10. We’ll done Josh! I’m 30 and I don’t think I have ever done the ton!
I’m a British Cycling ‘Go Ride’ coach and help out at 1.5-hour training and technique sessions at the Newcastle Phoenix cycling club on Saturday mornings. At today’s coaching session I took the older kids over to a steep, tussocky hill near our club building.
We rode up the hill the hard way, and only got half way.
I then tried to get the kids to take an easier line, riding up the side of the hill. Instead, most wanted to attack the hill head on again, with predictable results.
As these were kids aged from 12 to 16 I assumed they’d know about contours and started off in this vein. Blank faces all round. I then changed tack and used the phrase ‘line of least resistance’. Again, blank faces.
Are there any teachers reading this? If so, do kids get taught geographical basics? Are contours on the National Curriculum? This is specifically aimed at UK teachers but perhaps teachers from other countries could also chip in?
Without a basic understanding of contour lines, kids will miss out on the wonderful world of mapping, and may not be able to fully enjoy the great outdoors. They may also suck at bike racing.
I was 43 on Saturday. I celebrated by bivvying on a remote moor with my ten year old son, Josh. It was the first outing for our new bivvybags from Alpkit. I’ve spent a fair bit of time under the stars while cycle touring, Josh has only ever camped in campsites and under the reassurance of nylon ceilings. He took to wild camping like a duck to water, although he made sure to snuggle up to me during the night.
The dawn chorus woke me at 5.30am, I let Josh sleep through until 6am.
Before finding our bivvy spot for the night we didn’t seek permission from the landowner. This would have been difficult, as we ascended to the shoulder of moorland in the dark, leaving the road at 9pm. An hour earlier we had been dropped in Kirkoswald, taking the bikes off a trailer on the back of the family car, returning from a week in Wales.
The light in Kirkoswald was already dimming. Before ascending the moor it had been fully dark for 20 minutes.
Night navigation was made an awful lot easier with the SatMap Active 10 GPS device. This plots exact locations on to a moving OS map and the backlight comes into its own during black-out bike rides on rough trackways.
I’d chosen this particular area for Josh’s first bivvy because it’s dripping with history and it’s packed solid with wildlife. Josh is young naturalist and knows more about birds than I’ll ever be able to absorb. Part of the King’s Forest of Geltsdale is an internationally important RSPB bird reserve. The bits we were to cycle across were rights of way, we were endangering no hen harriers or black grouse.
The ground underneath our wheels was sometimes peaty and mushy, but there was always a base of rough stones. This is a throwback to when these remote moors were heaving with heavy industry. The moor is studded with former coal and zinc mines, and stone quarries. Only the stone quarries remain, the industrial heritage has left little physical trace, except the trackway and a robust stone bridge, an anamoly in such an obscure and forgotten part of England.
Further back in time, the moor was a royal hunting reserve, a 14th century wildlife park, stocked with boars. The ‘forest’ in the name doesn’t denote trees - there are none now - it’s all to do with the hunting. The word ‘forest’, from the original French, has more to do with an enclosed area stocked with game for the king rather than anything to do with trees.
Even further back than the Normans and their hunting reserves, this area was well known to the Romans. Part of Hadrian’s Wall was built from stone chiselled from quarries by the river Gelt. We know this because of the Written Rock of Gelt, what the OS map describes as ‘Roman inscribed rocks’.
The Written Rock of Gelt? Sounds like it’s direct from Middle Earth.
The area is dotted with this sort of stuff. Stick pins in a 10 by 10kms map of the area and auto-create a Tolkien novel: there are hills Middle Top, Long Tongue and Thack Moor; a hamlet called Scarrowmanwick; a moorside known as Tarnmonath Fell; a house called Black Dub (Dub or ‘Dudgh’ is a Celtic word meaning dark and marshy area); and springs called Cold Well and Foulpool.
The rivers in the King’s Forest of Geltsdale are known, simply, as Old Water and New Water.
We became very acquainted with New Water. We had to cross it. The bridge has long been washed away. New Water now needs to be waded across. Sadly, I have no photographs from this part of the trip. My camera died during the low-light conditions of the morning.
In many ways this was a good thing. Instead of working out the next best vantage point to set the auto-timer and capture the intrepid explorers I could luxuriate in the present, and enjoy the views without fretting over the amount of available light.
After a brisk pedal to Haltwhistle we caught the train back home to Newcastle. Josh said the city “smells bad”. After a night on a barren, pristine, sweet-smelling moor, any city is going to be an olfactorial let-down.
This afternoon I re-started my ‘learning to ride a bike’ sessions at my local primary school. Parents pay me a fiver and I donate that to the school playground fund.
They’re very happy to pay. Today was a great example of why. Four year old Tom arrived on a bike with stabilisers (US = training wheels) and left wanting to pedal home on two wheels. After 35 minutes of my method, he was up, up and away.
In fact, he was pretty advanced for a four year old. He was able to right himself from crazy angles the moment I put his pedals back on. Apparently he was eager to learn because he watches bigger kids riding BMXes at the local park.
Mum and dad were very proud of their son, and let him know it. Dad jumped around taking photos on his cellphone. Mum thanked me over and over. Learning to ride a bike is a major life skill and I get a lump in my throat for every kid that I start on the road to a life of cycling.
OK, not all the kids will develop into lifelong cyclists but there are lots of folks out there who simply can’t pedal. They didn’t learn when young. Perhaps some bicycle refuseniks are like that because they can’t actually ride?
As we know, they’re missing out on one of life’s big adventures.
Teeth bare to the wind
Knuckle-white grip on the handlebars
You push the pedals of no return,
Let loose new motion and speed.
The earth turns with the multiplied
Force of your wheels.
Do not look back.
Feet light on the brake
Ride the bicycle of your will
Down the spine of the world,
Ahead of your time, into life
I will not say Go Slow. US Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005). Bicycle Rider is from Other Things and the Aardvark (1970).
“Bicycling…is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of birds. The airplane simply carries a man on its back like an obedient Pegasus; it gives him no wings of his own. There are movements on a bicycle corresponding to almost all the variations in the flight of the larger birds. Plunging free downhill is like a hawk stooping. On the level stretches you may pedal with a steady rhythm like a heron flapping; or you may, like an accipitrine hawk, alternate rapid pedaling with gliding…I have shot in and out of stalled traffic like a goshawk through the woods.” Birdwatching author Louis J Halle ‘Spring in Washington’, 1947/1957
Josh, my ten year old son, averaged 12mph on a 62 mile charity ride today. The Northern Rock Cyclone Challenge starts on the outskirts of Newcastle and heads into the wilds of Northumberland. We did the ride in 5 hours 28 minutes.
At the 45 mile point we climbed the sharp climbs at Ryal. The steepest one has a 30 percent gradient. Many people choose to walk this. Josh powered up, overtaking a surprising (and surprised…) number of roadies.
He was almost hyper-ventilating by the top, but refused any help from me. He received an enormous amount of encouragement from riders along the way. The bulk of kids were on the 31-mile ride (we saw no kids on this, the middle distance ride). Josh said he would have liked to have done the 100 mile ride.
It was at the top of the first climb I realised I’ve got a natural born climber on my hands. From the last of the ‘Ryals’, it’s six miles to Stamfordham, the last check-point of the day and a chance to sit and rest. Josh was having none of that: he wanted to steam on back to Newcastle.
He faded slightly in the last mile but before that was going at a fair old lick, not too far shy of what would what be a normal riding pace for me.
After the coasting through the finish gate and collecting our t-shirts and other event freebies we bought a plate of chips each and scoffed them before we rode the five miles back home. The total trip distance was 72 miles. It was a great way to spend some time with my son in advance of Father’s Day. And Josh did, he made my day…
Boo-hoo. Back at work. Wish I was still cycle touring. But these photos will keep me going until the next family bike trip.
We’ve just returned from cycling along Scotland’s Great Glen, the 70-mile geological fault line between Inverness and Fort William. Over four days of cycling we went there and back, using the dirt tracks and steeps of the Great Glen Way, a waymarked walking route. The fast-and-furious A82 between Inverness and Fort William is scenic because it skirts Loch Ness and other water features but the Great Glen Way is even more spectacular because it takes the high road, with jaw-dropping vistas down to the lochs.
On the return journey we backtracked along the towpaths of Thomas Telford’s monumental Caledonian Canal and then climbed to Whitebridge and the famous Falls of Foyers. After Fort Augustus we were on minor roads, some of them singletrack for long distances.
The Reidlets - Josh, 10, and Hanna and Ellie, both 8 - coped well with the unthinking motorists who use the minor roads as race-tracks. On their Islabikes they also coped well with the rocky descents of parts of the Great Glen Way.
The Great Glen Way stopped being promoted as a long-distance bike route in 2006, although cycling is still permissible because of Scotland’s access laws. The southern half of the route is easy enough, it’s on the canal towpath but the northern half is tough going, especially for kids carting pannier bags. Some of the descents are steep, rocky and sandy in places. Looking back now it’s amazing we got the kids down some of the descents.
We did about 32 miles each day. This might sound a lot for little kids but they’ve done 50+ miles a day in previous tours. 32 miles on rough stuff was an enormous ask for the kids and we arrived at our pre-booked B&Bs much later than we had planned for.
The route might have been tougher than we had expected but the fabulous weather brought out the very best in the landscapes and we were treated to postcard-perfect views of Highland highlights such as Ben Nevis, Neptune’s Staircase and Urquhart Castle.
It was still sunny when we left Inverness yesterday. Half way in to the six hour train journey it started raining. Our ride home was a wet one, but at least it hadn’t rained on our hols.
I was using Arkel pannier bags for the first time. What stunning bags! I wish I’d had this kind of equipment on previous tours.
Ellie enjoying elevated views down to Loch Ness
Wildlife spotting is easy on a bike tour, and so is wildlife hugging. The frogs en route must have been glad of our passing
The Caledonian Canal towpath from Fort Augustus is well-surfaced and, of course, wonderfully flat
Hanna descending to Loch Ness
The newest of the Loch Ness visitor centres has a revolving statue of the world-famous beastie
This was my first long distance test of the SatMap GPS device. This features genuine OS mapping and was a joy to use. As well as being able to show the kids a little blue dot showing our current position, using the joystick in map planning mode I was able to accurately answer the perpetual question: “Are we there yet, dad?”…No, not for another 2.3 miles, kids… And all while riding along, no fumbling with paper maps.
Long days in the saddle meant the SatMap would potentially run out of juice. Using the famously fiercesome power of the Scottish sun - ha! - I kept the SatMap going for the last half an hour of each day by using the Freeloader solar charger. The add-on Supercharger solar panel fitted perfectly on the pannier rack, held in place with a Velcro strap and clips.
Naturally, it wasn’t all cycling. We also took kid-friendly side trips. This is a funny shot taken by Josh on ‘Harry Potter Hogwarts Express’ steam-train journey from Fort William to Mallaig. This might be one of the world’s most scenic train journeys but this chap had seen enough for the day.
We rode Inverness to Fort William on the way down and Fort William to Fort Augustus on the way back. This was all on the Great Glen Way. From Fort Augustus we took to the roads, from Foyers to Dores to Inverness.