It’s late on day four of our marathon bike ride up the east coast of Britain – and we are hopelessly lost.
This was supposed to be a ‘rest’ day just a few hours in the saddle instead of the 30 or 40 miles scheduled on many days of this meticulously planned trip – but we left the well signposted cycle route a good while back and the campsite is nowhere in sight.
The boys are irritable and complaining of being tired. It’s rained heavily for the last few days, we are wet through and with the prospect of a damp tent to sleep in tonight spirits are low. Looking on exasperatedly as I fumble with the map and then the sat nav on my mobile phone, the boys eventually lose patience and furiously ride off, in opposite directions, convinced they know ‘the way’. Their departing shots along the lines of mum is an idiot, this is a stupid bike ride and a dumb idea. I am beginning to wonder the same.
It was an ambitious plan for my two boys aged 12 and 13 years and I to cycle 220 miles from our house in Northumberland following the coast all the way to Edinburgh.
And it would be wrong to pretend that moments like this did not happen during the seven day trip. But just a short while later, the campsite located, our tents drying in a thankfully shower-free spell and a warm drink inside us – everyone feels better. In fact it was all I could do to encourage my two to finish their hot chocolate before they were on their bikes again riding round the campsite – and I thought they were exhausted!
We stayed in tents most nights on the route, including one wild camp on the sand dunes with the sound of waves moving up the beach till they were crashing right under us, then waking the next morning to find the tide right out again and a vast deserted beach at our disposal. In contrast for two nights we enjoyed the relative luxury of a bed in a budget hotel. We were extremely grateful of the support for four days of the boys’ granny, who met us with our tents, clothes and camping equipment in her car. When she eventually left us we were able to moderate our load by sending back with her anything we had learned to live without.
Carrying everything you need as a group is a tough physical challenge but a really liberating and satisfying experience. My eldest had bike panniers stuffed with all our clothes and the essential bike repair kit and I towed everything else in a trailer. Youngest, who was riding a road bike ill equipped for load carrying had his own role. When the head wind was strong and especially as the route became more challenging with hills and steep climbs the further north we travelled, he took the lead allowing us to save energy by riding in his slipstream.
I really enjoyed the simplicity of our days on the road. Carrying only what was completely essential, eating basic meals warmed over a small gas stove, free from the clutter and complications of everyday life. The goal was just to cycle, camp, eat and sleep so we were ready to do it all again the next day.
But long distance cycle touring whatever your ability is very much an endurance sport. For my kids asking them to put in up to six hours in the saddle was tough. They are fit and active kids but not particularly experienced cyclists. See here for an account of the boys other cycling adventures.
We planned the ride together. Each day’s cycling had been measured out on the map, agreed and accommodation booked. We tested ourselves with a 40 mile ride to ensure we could do the distance. But it’s one thing planning and riding for just one day after a comfortable night tucked up in your own bed and quite another crawling out of a damp tent to face all day in the saddle followed only by another. Fitness wasn’t an issue but it was interesting to see how their stamina, commitment and motivation to see the challenge through would bear out.
Eventually we developed a fine patter in gallows humour as we pushed on into the early evening to find the campsite was not ‘just around the corner’.
When kids have access to almost anything these days at the touch of a button it was a good experience to be put in a position where perseverance and endurance are the only way to reach your goal.
I will never forget their excitement on reaching the Scottish border. As they posed for pictures thumping the air their sense of achievement was tremendous.
Or the thrill and excitement of racing the tide at Lindisfarne, pictured in the featured image, where twice a day the ancient path disappears leaving the Holy Island out to sea.
Another lasting memory will be the elation and sheer exhaustion of cycling down Edinburgh’s Princess Street, dodging trams and taxis as we rode, conquering heroes in neon jackets, through the city. The bike trailer, hurriedly purchased just before we left, had sadly not proved fit for purpose and when fully loaded the soft sides bulged and rubbed on the tyres so I was dragging rather than towing it behind me. If I had hoped to get fitter during the holiday this additional friction had certainly ensured that.
As planned, we stayed in Scotland’s capital city for a few days as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was on and there was endless theatre and entertainment to enjoy after our triumph on the bikes. But the unpredictable nature of a holiday on two wheels had one more challenge for us yet. Leaving the campsite thankfully in ample time to ride the ten miles to railway station to catch our train home we were glad to have been so cautious when we got not one, but two punctures. It was pouring with rain again and we got soaked to the skin as we struggled to get our bikes back on the road, which we did eventually, and made it to the station on time.
Steaming visibly in the warm train carriage as we rumbled back down the coast I reflected that the panic and anger which had accompanied earlier mishaps on our cycle tour had been replaced by a quiet stoicism and confidence. We knew we could cope and at the end of the day we would be left with a story to tell.
Feel inspired? Here’s some info which might help.
- The National Cycle Network is a network of safe, traffic-free paths and quiet on-road cycling and walking routes.
- We followed Route 1, Coast and Castles South, arguably one of the easiest, but no less epic, long distance routes. The route hugs the coastline from Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed after which we followed National Route 76 via Dunbar and then the old A1 the A199 direct into Edinburgh.
- I tracked all but one of our days (when I forget to set the phone) on Strava a clever little app that turns your smart phone into a running or cycling computer.
- Kids are never too young to go on a cycle touring holiday. I first tried this route when my youngest was just six years old. Too little to go on the roads by himself he rode on a tag-along with my sister. I pulled a trailer loaded with camping gear and the eldest who was just seven at the time rode independently. We travelled only about ten miles a day, went as far as Berwick-Upon-Tweed and had a great adventure. Despite the relative small distances covered your fitness will still benefit by ‘carrying’ the kids and it’s a great way to get out and about with little ones.
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