This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 145.
From ADHD and creepy drivers to rain and rail, the Emersons have explored all the challenges of cycle touring and found they are drawn again and again to perfect holidays in Europe with a tandem, a triplet and some fascinating stop-offs
Do you remember when I had to push you over that bridge, Mum? Hahahaha!’ On more than one occasion, the tandem has been so heavy and the road so steep that it required more than just me to push it uphill. The most surprising occasion was in the Netherlands. We’d been on a path at the back of a row of houses, running parallel to a dyke. In an unusually sudden move, the path switched to the other side of the dyke – and we were faced with a very steep, very short humpback bridge. Chris and the older two children (all on our triplet – like a tandem but for three people) made it over fine. The youngest child and I wellied the tandem up as best we could, but got stuck at the top: front wheel over the summit, my feet on the summit, rear wheel (with all the weight on) behind. I shouted back: ‘Quick! Jump off and give us a push!’. Happily, despite being only five years old at the time, my youngest is a wiry, strong chap – a couple of big shoves and the bike was moving again.
Chris and I started cycling for transport as students at Cambridge. We’d both grown up in places and times where cycling wasn’t really the done thing – him in rural France and then baking hot Arizona, me in rural Norfolk (near where a woman driving a car got in trouble a few years ago for tweeting about killing cyclists). When we got married we moved out of Cambridge as we couldn’t afford to live in town, and suddenly commuting 14 miles each day became normal. The first tandem came along, then the first child – who turned out to protest robustly every time we travelled by car. Two more children came along, and the bicycles grew in number and size. We became gradually more interested in environmental matters, and family holidays were to youth hostels by public transport. After a couple of summer holidays in Sheringham, it was time for a change: Litton Cheney in Dorset turned out to be the only hostel left that year, 16 miles away from the nearest train station. That’s only like going into town and back – how bad could it be? This must have been before Google Maps showed you the profile of your route, otherwise we might have realised just how much walking and puffing there was going to be.
Luckily CTC Cambridge clubmates had mentioned the hills, and I asked Circe in Longstanton to fit me an extra brake on our Circe tandem: a disc brake on a friction lever, so it can be applied bit-by-bit. Somehow we puffed our way around Dorset, and realised that we quite liked it. We must have looked a motley crew: me on the Circe tandem with the two younger children (taking it in turns to go on the baby seat), Chris on his bike towing the eldest child on a solo bike using the Follow-Me.
Cycling into Europe
The following year, 2016, we’d had the normal round of unpleasantness from people who drive motor vehicles, including a creep hanging out of a van window videoing me. That was it: time to plan a holiday somewhere civilised. I booked our ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, and began planning a proper tour using Dutch youth hostels. That year, it rained heavily until 11am every day, but we soon got into the swing of doing most of our miles in the afternoon. There were some incredible sights: the dunes along the North Sea cycle route, the sea, James Turrell’s celestial vault. The children remember endless sprinkles (like hundreds and thousands, called hagelslag), the European Space Agency museum at Katwijk, and a fantastic playground called Linnaeushof. The rain and wind; so much weather, as we rode through the dunes, through the polders, past the windmills at Zaanse Schans, and on to Amsterdam, to the Van Gogh museum. I’d been before but I’m not clever with art. The way he captures the weather on the polders – now I understand!
I didn’t understand Van Gogh’s landscapes until I’d cycled through them, and felt them inside to my bones. Cycling does that for us: we are embedded in the landscape. It is us and we are it.
It’s not a photograph, it looks how it feels. I didn’t understand his landscapes until I’d cycled through them, and felt them inside to my bones. Cycling does that for us: we are embedded in the landscape. It is us and we are it.
We’ve got into the habit of summer touring, and have upscaled our bikes to suit: I take the youngest child on the tandem, and Chris and the older two go on a Thorn triplet bought on eBay. We can’t recommend Outspoken highly enough for maintenance of our monstrous bicycles, especially the triplet with its eccentric bottom brackets.
Getting to the Netherlands without a car usually isn’t too bad. We set off several hours apart: Chris cycles down to Harwich on the triplet with one child, I take the tandem and the remaining children on the direct train from Cambridge to Harwich International. Lashing the bikes onto the rails on the ferry with the deafening noise of metal and motors is challenging, but crew are usually very helpful. Being around other cycle tourists is like nothing else: there are people undertaking massive challenges on rust-bucket bicycle-shaped-objects, people with the most beautiful carbon steeds and a single bike-packing bag ready to whizz up and down the coast, and everyone inbetween. With our six panniers and the Ikea bag filled with swimming kit we are outliers. But we’ve all got something in common: an itch to get from A to B to C, powered by bakeries en route. The usual divisions fall away, and on the lift up to cabins people chat about best routes, weather, food.
Three years, three routes
We had some incredible experiences in 2017, in a tour towards the east of the Netherlands. The weather was kind, which was a great relief. We stayed in the Cube Houses in Rotterdam, then went on to Utrecht via Gouda for the fascinating town clock and Oudewater for the witchweighing museum. We then had an epic journey southwest to Dordrecht and on to Bergen op Zoom via the extraordinary Moses Bridge. Back to the coast at Domburg, where we met another family of five from Norwich with a Circe tandem like ours! By chance, we were all booked to leave the same day going in the same direction, so rode the first 15 miles together: ten people on six bikes!
We rode together to the Plompe Touren – a solitary church tower; the rest of the church and its village had been washed away by the sea. A place like that in UK would probably be a bit decrepit; here, like many other such places in the Netherlands, serious money has added handrails, subtle displays and visitor information – a lovely spot obviously enjoyed by locals as much as tourists. Here we bade farewell to the Norwich family, and carried on up the coast towards the Hook of Holland to get our ferry home. At the small ferry across to Hook we came a bit unstuck: one ferry had broken down, a queue had built up and the replacement ferry was tiny. As people surged on, we feared that we wouldn’t fit. Chris mentioned to someone that we were going to Hook for our ferry back to the UK, and they said: ‘You should have said! Come on, let’s get you on’. It took five strong men to haul each enormous bike aboard, fully laden with panniers. We were relieved to make it onto the big ferry that night!
Our summer tour in 2018 went towards Dover, then across Belgium. One of us had read a ride report about the Drielandenpunt: the point where the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium meet. A few weeks later, Chris read about an extraordinary see-through church in Belgium called Reading Between The Lines (right) – and that was it, our summer tour plans had begun. I’d spent some time in Ghent and Lessines when I was younger, and remembered it being fairly flat. But it turns out southern and eastern Belgium is really quite hilly. The Drielandenpunt was at the top of what turned out to be local club cyclists’ favourite notable hill and the highest point in the Netherlands at 323 metres or 1,060 feet: we did 445 metres or 1,461 feet of climbing that day. With our heavily-laden tandem, the youngest child and I did a lot of walking. I was also glad of my third disc brake on the way down – I’ve never had to negotiate hairpin bends before! Our route took us on through Maastricht and into Germany. We then got the train back across the Netherlands to Dordrecht, before an easy day ride to the nowtraditional Great Sprinkles Shop at Lidl in Hook.
2019 was a bit different. My brother and his partner, both Brompton owners, said: ‘Oh, your tours look like such fun! Can we join you?’ We met them at a cafe near Europoort Rotterdam and travelled together along the Dutch and Belgian coast, staying at Ouddorp, Domburg, Maldegem and Bruges before getting the ferry from Zeebrugge to Hull, where we enjoyed a day doing a treasure hunt. They cycled with us across the Humber Bridge, and waved us off as we cycled home. This year was my first Did Not Finish: three days of galeforce headwind across fens in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire did me in, and the younger two children and I got the train from Littleport. Somehow, the rest of the family were invigorated by our trip and are planning 2020! It must have been character-building after all.
Yes, there are arguments and physical difficulties with our unusually large bicycles. While the triplet fits on trains in the Netherlands, we’ve never bothered trying it in the UK – so every tour starts and ends with a long ride for Chris. A common question, therefore, is why we haven’t yet got the children on solos. For us, the main answer is that we enjoy being all together, and would like to carry on with that while it works for us. It’s also partly because one child has Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and high-functioning autism; at home as soon as the medication’s worn off it’s difficult to focus on travelling in a straight line. Over the years, the fidgety shifting weight meant we killed a number of tag-alongs and tow-bars until we realised that the tandem and triplet combo was the answer. So it’s not easy, but it is safer and more fun if we’re all together on our Bikes Of Unusual Size.
The exercise is so, so helpful for managing the difficulties of ADHD. Every person with autism is different; for us, the main challenges are keeping on top of physical and mental comfort. In many ways, being on tour is easier than being at home: we go to loads of little museums where lovely volunteers don’t seem to mind being interrogated, and on the bikes there’s a captive audience for monologues on computer games, and something new and different to look at every minute.
The memories we make on tour aren’t memories that will be to everyone’s liking, to be sure. They are rarely memories of the expensive trips to theme parks, and more likely to be memories of soggy Nutella sandwiches. But they are joint family memories of a shared experience. For a few weeks, we are in places where, although we are unusual, we are not abnormal. Travelling by bicycle is just normal in the Netherlands and Belgium. People driving cars don’t want to kill us: we’ve only had two close passes in over 1,300 miles cycled in the two countries. I often have more near misses than that leaving our housing estate at home.
Over the years, we’ve gradually ramped up the number of miles we cycle (both individually and as a family), but even so touring as a family of five is not for the faint-hearted and is definitely a team sport: it only works because we all want it to work. We’ve learned so much about touring as a family and big bikes over the years – do get in touch at bike@ mail.sparklyfish.co.uk if you’d like to chat.
The eight-year-old’s view:
Touring is hot in summer. Lots of things are really good, especially the chocolate and waffles in Belgium and the sprinkles in the Netherlands (far left). Sometimes we do some short days, sometimes longer days – it’s like 67 miles for example, which is a pretty long time. Sometimes we get a bit lost. Cycling on the back of the tandem is relaxing – except on hills, you need to do really quite a lot. And then you get a break on the way down! It’s not fun going in a car, because you don’t really get exercise, and you don’t get to see stuff outside in the living world.
It’s great. On the triplet, the children spend a large amount of time chatting together, just siblings: lovely conversations that they wouldn’t necessarily have at home. There’s some moaning and complaining, but not as much as you’d think – there’s rarely any sniping at each other. Occasionally, I think someone’s talking to me – and then realise that they’re talking to each other. It’s a lovely, positive experience.
Our top family touring tips
1) Book in advance
We usually book in February. The availability of youth hostels dictates our route and the Atlas Obscura website gives us the utterly random places that shape our tours.
2) Know your accommodation
Dutch and Belgian hostels include a continental breakfast, and you can request a hot dinner (good after a day of cycling) but don’t usually have washing machines. In the Netherlands, look up Vrienden op de Fiets for other cheap accommodation options.
3) Take the train to the boat
The popular Rail and Sail tickets to Harwich can now only be used by foot passengers. To take bikes, it’s best to take the 6.47pm train from Cambridge, changing at Ipswich and Manningtree. The direct 7.47pm train sometimes gets cut short at Ipswich, leaving little time for onward connections. A direct train from Harwich to Cambridge leaves first thing in the morning.
4) Keep the bikes maintained
We have the bikes serviced by Outspoken before we go and keep tyres pumped as we go. Our extensive tool kit includes new chains, travel track pumps and cable ties but we usually travel in areas where there are places to buy bike parts.
5) Travel light but smart
Our essential kit includes:
- sunglasses for everyone and waterproof trousers for the children
- travel washing line and sink plug
- four-litre Ortlieb water sack, plus one-litre bottles from Decathlon
- snacks and two-in-one picnic knife
- loo roll and alcohol hand gel
- swimming kit, pack of cards, puzzles, pens and paper, books, and a flat frisbee
- euro phone charger, travel power strip and smartphone
- plastic folder for booking information and memorabilia.