Pedal On

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1998

Pedal On

When the rubber meets the road, two wheels are better than four — and you don't even need a learner's permit
By Geoffrey Norman


Mountain Biking
For rough riders: a mud-splattered mix of alpine trails and forested jeep roads

Road Cycling
Freewheeling it along a canal-side towpath, country lanes, and converted rail beds

All the right stuff for biking

The first time we tried it, we were all skeptics. The kids couldn't see what the big deal was since they rode bikes all the time. Rode them to school. Rode them to their friends' houses. Rode them around the woods where we live in Vermont just for something to do. My wife and I were skeptical because we had learned, the hard way, that a lot of those things that are supposed to be great for family bonding turn out to be disastrous. We had a name for it — Forced Family Fun — and we had been burned before.

But, the thing is, you never know what is going to work. I would have bet against downhill skiing before we tried it, thinking that the cold would put kids off. But they would stay out on the frigid New England slopes until their faces were white with cold, never complaining. Cross-country skiing, however, was a loser. Too much like work. Camping was cool. Hiking was seen as pointless grown-up stuff.

Hired Hands

Backroads (800-462-2848) invites families on its six-day road cycling trips among the charming villages and historic towns of Maine's Penobscot Bay. Participants bike along country lanes and craggy shorelines, exploring hidden coves and quiet harbor towns. Backroads offers both inn trips and camping trips, though only the camping trip has special family-specific dates (August 3 and August 17). The camping trip costs $798 for adults; kids (no minimum age) under six get 40 percent off, kids 7-12 get 20 percent off, and kids 13-17 get 10 percent off.

Wilderness River Outfitters (800-252-6581) leads a six-day mountain- biking trip on the Nez Perce Trail in Idaho that cuts through both the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church River of No Return wildernesses. The 95-mile trip winds through a vast and remote area rich in Native American and pioneer history. Along the way, bikers may glimpse abandoned trappers' cabins, alpine lakes and rivers stocked with trout, and animals such as moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and bears. The trip costs $1,000 per person (camping gear available for an additional fee); minimum age is about 13.

Holiday Expeditions (800-624-6323) offers a four-day mountain-biking trip on the White Rim trail in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, just above the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. Pedalers follow the meandering course of the rivers, ride past monolithic sandstone-capped rock formations, and visit prehistoric Indian ruins. The cost is $582 per person; minimum age is about 14. — Kara Ryan

With biking, I figured it was a toss-up when we started up the blacktop from our house, following the road until it turned to dirt, and we began to climb the inevitable Vermont hills. The kids took the lead. They knew the road and, more importantly, had the gear sequence down cold. My older daughter, who was ten at the time, thought she owned this hill since she'd gotten a concussion here, coming down a little (actually, a lot) too fast and fishtailing on some gravel. Her sister, two years younger, was just about as salty. They stayed out front while their mother and I ate their dust.

We had left the world of highways and traffic behind, and it felt right to be moving atop something that used your own power. We coasted down past the stereotypical Vermont farm with the two-story clapboard house, the sagging red barn, and the Holsteins grazing idly on the hillside pasture, moving at what felt like just the right speed. It wouldn't have been as intimate in a car, and it would have been too slow on foot.

When the dirt road ran out, we went up an old logging road, single file, into the shade of the second-growth hardwoods. Stopped to pick some fiddleheads, which were in season. We climbed up a series of switchbacks until we came to an open place with a view and a spring where we stopped for lunch.

As we rested and looked down on the little valley and the town where we lived, it occurred to me that...we were having fun. The kids were not complaining, and we were not just going through the motions. It had been a fine morning. The bike was an equalizer, and we were all just busy enough. We were not bored. Nor were we getting on each other's nerves. Nobody had to carry anybody else. It was perfect FFF.

We graduated to longer rides, sometimes going 20 or 30 miles to a neighboring town, where we would picnic on the village green. Or we would work our way up to one of the old quarries. Or make our way back in to a place where we knew we might find mushrooms in the right season. Or to a pool in one of the creeks where we could catch brook trout and cook them, along with some fiddleheads, right there next to the stream.

There were a lot of good rides and a lot we never got to before those 16th birthdays, when motion suddenly meant only four wheels and a motor, and the bikes went back into the garage. One hopes not forever.

Illustration by Debbie Smith

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