I’m not a single parent, but in matters of cycling I’m a solo parent. Twitter and Instagram followers will recognise my spouse as the ‘Lesser Spotted Cycling Husband’ as he usually only leaves his garden en velo to perform his annual cycling duty at Pedal on Parliament or in spectacular weather conditions where not cycling would be a crime against sunshine.
It’s unsurprising then that I’ve only managed to entice my husband on two cycling holidays in the last decade – once as a carefree couple in Barra and some years later with our son on a short family tour of the Netherlands. Now our son is at school the restrictions of school holidays and annual leave prevent extensive holiday time together as a family – no matter how advanced our mathematics, two sets of 25 days annual leave don’t equal 12 weeks of school holidays. Holiday logistics are focused mainly on reducing our son’s time in childcare and piecing together annual leave, toil, the help of extended family and work related travel in a jigsaw so that everyone feels like there was a holiday at some stage during the summer.
If you’ve ever stumbled across this blog before you’ll know I love nothing more than packing my panniers and heading away on my bicycle and, using the allure of cake, ginger beer and the promise of Night Time Adventures (also known as staying up after 7.30pm), my son is currently a willing companion.
Earlier in the year I managed to swindle three child-free friends, as well as my son, into coming on a 24 hour family cycling adventure to Great Cumbrae, giving me the mental energy to reflect on the rigorous nature of family cycling as a solo cycling parent and what I’ve learnt along the way:
Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it can help avoid basic disasters
Our first solo adventure was tame by any standards, camping in our friends gardens in adjacent local authority areas was quite enough at Easter when you can never be sure if it will snow or not. It was a good opportunity to test out our kit (too big), trailer (too heavy) and cycle paths (too variable) in combination with a four year old in a safe environment where someone else was likely to offer help without triggering the fear that they may want to abduct my child. An open back door at night gave me the peace of mind that if disaster fell (it didn’t) that I wouldn’t have to cope with it alone.
The trailer, whilst cumbersome, provided storage as well as shelter on that first tour. Once that option ceased to be viable I’ve found spending money on smaller and lighter everything, plus dispensing with wearing clean clothes, has helped reduce our luggage over subsequent trips.
After the trailer, a Follow Me Tandem provided a useful tool and was used for an adventure in the New Forest, where road and path conditions were uncertain. Unusually I’d ensured it was working correctly before we left home, and provided a range of uses from towing a tired boy to tethering a speeding one.
Being an hour away from home on a train made our first solo adventure an easy option and helped refine our kit list and route assessment in the process. Being anywhere away from home is an adventure when you are four or five, and seeing the world through my sons eyes helped me see it that way too. You don’t need to go far to get away and having a train supported Plan B can give you the confidence to attempt Plan A.
I’ll take the high road, assuming I can find it
Being lost is state I find myself in all too easily, so I make particular efforts not to cycle where there are too many road choices. As the only adult in a solo parent situation there is no-one to blame but yourself if there are navigational errors made, which I don’t find add much to the enjoyment once you’ve been reminded about it 20 times by the junior cyclist.
Careful planning, using Google street view and advanced map reading, can usually ensure that people with a normal level directional sense can navigate safe routes. But I’ve found that the ‘can’t be arsed alternative’ is just go to places where they are significantly less people, and a resulting reduction in roads and cars – our last couple of summer adventures have been on Scottish islands, where we found wild open spaces, roads to ourselves and have the added bonus that it’s almost impossible to get lost.
Silence is golden, and highly unlikely
It’s undeniably a charming stage when children start to ask questions, making you think harder than ever before and testing your general knowledge to breaking point. I’m blessed with a talkative child and his curiosity about the world is a joy.
But it becomes an endurance sport when there’s three or four questions a minute and you have 14 hours alone and awake together. I’m afraid there is a point at which I cannot listen or talk any further and I have to concede defeat and let the ageing ipad do its work for 20 minutes, giving me the needed brain power not to burn the dinner, put the tent up incorrectly again or repack our belongings in an orderly fashion. Better parents engage their children in these touring tasks, but at the end of a long day I sometimes can’t find the energy to speak and cook a nutritional meal at the same time. Touring can be intense, and having some time alone but together takes the pressure off, particularly when you are both tired and at least one of you might be irritable.
It was a delight in Great Cumbrae to see my son cycling ahead with my friends, talking away, enjoying the company and attention as we pedalled along. Positive interactions with friends and strangers are one of the delights of cycle touring and it’s lovely to share those reflections at the end of the day together and help us create the story of our journey.
Our summer adventure this year provided the perfect conditions for us both in the campsite in Tiree – a small, enclosed site complete with a pack of children to play with until a remarkably general consensus decided it was bedtime. You can’t book ahead for agreeable campsite companions, but now I know it’s an option I’ll try to find some again.
Magic moments, in the miles, smiles and pouring rain
Cycle touring isn’t all easy, and part of the enjoyment is the difficult places it can take you. I’ve seen my son’s resilience and self esteem develop, just as I’ve watched him increase in confidence and stamina on his bike, pedalling up hills in the wind and rain. Like life, cycle touring is about the journey and not the destination. Exploring the world slowly with my son on our own is creating a journey together that I hope will last beyond the adventures away and into our lives at home now and into the future.