Adventurer, writer, storyteller and Guinness World Record holding mountain climber Emily Woodhouse takes us back to the big family bike ride where it all began
When I tell people that my teenage family holidays were spent cycle touring, most people jump to a few conclusions. I’d forgive you for imagining us as a lycra-clad family of four in matching helmets and cleated shoes. We might give serious stares from behind dark glasses as we whizzed past on custom built road bikes. Because that’s what cycling families look like, right? Aren’t those the kind of people who’d want to cycle all day, every day, on holiday?
We were not a classic cycling family – at least, not like that. Don’t get me wrong, we could all ride a bike but not one of us owned an inch of lycra or even any clothing sold specifically for cycling. Google tells me that these holidays predate the word MAMIL, so perhaps it was more normal back then.
Perhaps most surprisingly though, my parents didn’t even own bikes. Nor had they done during the course of my life. They’d made sure my brother and I had learnt to ride though, often on hand-me-downs or bikes salvaged from the local tip.
“We were not a classic cycling family – at least, not like that”
Perhaps cycle touring seems like a bold or bizarre choice for a family like mine to make. But actually, in hindsight, I’m fairly sure it was a smart move from my parents.
As teenage angst levels rose, so did the amount of bickering on family holidays. We’d get restless or bored walking round ‘interesting’ museums and architecturally renowned churches.
Even relaxing by the pool could be construed as a waste of time – surely we didn’t come all this way to spend the afternoon reading? It could be summed up by my brother’s unforgettable reaction to a famous archaeological site: “Not more rocks.”
Recently, as one does on furlough, I started reading back through my diary of our first ever cycle tour. It was a nine day ride from Passau in Germany to Vienna, Austria, along the River Danube.
In many ways it was the perfect place to start. The Danube Cycleway is part of EV6 and a popular part at that. With popularity comes infrastructure and signage, smooth tarmac and guidebooks. Although the only guidebook we could find was written in German. Better still, the thing about a cycle route that follows a river is it’s usually flat or downhill; assuming you pick the right direction.
“I had a maximum of three days’ worth of clothes ready to be washed in a B&B sink”
Looking back on it, the whole thing still seems like a bonkers decision. The plan was to show up in Passau, hire bikes and ride them to Vienna. Other than the transport, we didn’t book anything – and this is in the days before smartphones.
We’d have a rough idea of which town we hoped to sleep in each night. Each day we would arrive mid-afternoon to ask at the Tourist Information if there was any room at the inn – or the gasthof in this case. We had no tent, no backup plan if we didn’t cycle fast enough and no training to back up the conviction that things would turn out just fine. Probably.
Heck, we didn’t even have panniers. I had a maximum of three days’ worth of clothes in my school bag, ready to be washed in a B&B sink. But apparently I was a dirtbag at heart. My journal reads, with understated excitement, “We only have hand luggage (this is going to be quite exciting as we’re living off this little for nine days).” I guess in many ways, the Danube was also my first expedition longer than a week.
“We had no tent, no backup plan”
Remarkably, things went broadly to plan. We set out on our hired bikes from Passau on an overcast July morning. I have vivid memories of my first, traumatic encounter with a European (read: backwards) roundabout. But soon we were cruising along the flat, off-road cycle path between the wide river and the trees.
It’s a good job it was flat really, given this was only the second time I’d ever ridden a bicycle with gears. We moved from place to place, with picnic stops and of course a fair share of museums and churches. But they were just waymarks. It was all about the journey.
It’s funny looking back at my journal, meticulously handwritten and adjourned with cutout leaflets, maps and receipts. I had no idea I was going to become a travel writer at that stage. Although if you’d sold it to me as “get paid to go on adventures and write about them”, I would have signed straight up. I love my scattergun yet direct account of the trip. And lines that have clearly been taken out of my parents’ mouths and repeated matter-of-factly on paper. My most consistent journalistic endeavour seems to be reporting on the state of the hot chocolate each morning.
“This early introduction to the cycle touring fraternity was slowly changing my perception of the world – and the people in it”
People always talk about the Kindness of Strangers on bike tours – and I’ve certainly experienced it myself – but it’s fascinating to read about it from the viewpoint of a sceptical and sarcastic teenager.
There are things I don’t even remember, like sitting alone by the bikes with my brother. “During this time,” I write, “a South African couple came down the street and spoke briefly to us, well to me – oops to stranger danger.” I’d genuinely learnt not to trust other people but this early introduction to the cycle touring fraternity was slowly changing my perception of the world – and the people in it.
One night, we didn’t manage to find any accommodation and cycled on, town after town, looking for somewhere to stay. We eventually ended up in a farmhouse at the end of a long hill, surrounded by fields. I strongly remember being horrified that my parents had agreed to stay without checking the price and being convinced that I’d be sleeping in a barn. All my instincts told me that the elderly lady, who could speak no English, had a malicious intent to cheat us. Because that’s just what people trying to sell stuff did.
But once again, we landed on our feet. It turned out that they’d just converted a barn into a brand-spanking new set of bedrooms for tourists. “I never thought you could hide ensuite bedrooms behind an old, rough-and-ready farmhouse!” I write, after voicing all my unheard concerns and slagging off the radish sandwiches we’d had to eat for dinner. Out of curiosity, I found a picture of the farmhouse we’d stayed in. Turns out the rural hovel of my memories was nothing of the sort.
“Whether the kids are grumpy, loving it or being baited with ice cream, little do they know what they’ve started”
Since that first tour, I’ve kept travelling by bicycle. In case you’re wondering, we avoided disaster and cycled from Salzburg to the Adriatic Sea a few years later. It must have sown the seeds for further travels.
Remember those South Africans? We met them twice on the Danube. The second time, I’d relaxed enough to ask them where they were going: “They are on a month’s holiday, cycling from Spain to Hungary!” Mind blown.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before I did the same, although mine was a 50 day unscripted ride around Europe, taking in as many countries as possible. It started well researched, like things always do, but ended in a race across France using only a road map and the angle of the sun. Clearly I haven’t lost the family streak for gung-ho adventure.
“I haven’t lost the family streak for gung-ho adventure”
On my most recent tour, cycling the Rhine from source to sea with a friend, we saw lots of families cycling the more popular sections. They would pass by in careful, slow formation or we’d be overtaken by an impatient teenager, only to pass him again at the place he’d been told to wait.
I couldn’t help myself from smiling knowingly. Whether the kids are grumpy, loving it or being baited with ice cream, little do they know what they’ve started.
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