A number of years ago, former ExperiencePlus! employee Ian Wells took part of his family on their first-ever EP bicycle tour. They weren’t experienced cyclists and some members of the family were apprehensive about the adventure. Ian documented the trip in an EP newsletter article that still rings true today. The core issues Ian and his wife Marilyn faced upon contemplating the family journey are those facing any family that is curious about bicycle touring with kids. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to bicycle with the kids in Europe, take a page out of Ian’s playbook and ride on!
Sometimes family life gets busy and routine. Then something happens that makes life interesting again. For me and my wife Marilyn, that “something” was a 12-day bicycle tour from Venice to Pisa with two of our children, Emma (16) and Todd (12).
This is how it started: I had a problem. ExperiencePlus! sends its Fort Collins staff on tour once a year. This is a nice problem to have. But I didn’t know if I should go alone or with the whole family.
We had many questions. Could Todd and Emma handle bicycling all day for 12 days? How would the kids do bicycling on Italian roads? How would Todd and Emma react to the strange food and foreign customs? Marilyn hadn’t done any significant biking in 20 years – could she keep up? How would we all get along with each other and with everyone on tour? The museums and history sounded great to us parents, but would the kids find them as interesting?
In the end, the lure of Italy – its history, architecture, culture – outweighed what we didn’t know about family biking vacations. We went all in.
Once we made the decision, Marilyn realized the keys to her personal success would be attitude and preparation.
Marilyn decided her primary purpose of the trip for was to experience Italy. Biking was secondary. On an ExperiencePlus! tour, everyone rides at their own pace, so Marilyn didn’t have to worry about slowing anyone down. Furthermore, daily rides averaged about 35 miles and she had all day to ride. She felt that with a support van and hours before her, why worry? Marilyn’s expectations played out as she wanted. She got to experience Italy intimately at the speed of a bicycle and with her husband and children close by.
Marilyn downloaded the Joe Friel training program from ExperiencePlus! and started the recommended plan just as soon as the snow melted here in Colorado. She found a 16-mile circuit close to home. Her first goal was to complete the second. The second, to ride it a little faster each time. And third, to ride a little more frequently each week. Marilyn also appreciated that I bought her a new smooth-riding Cannondale Comfort bike to train on. Todd, Emma and I rode occasionally with her. We found that Todd and Emma had stamina without training. Ah, the joys of youth!
From day 1, we felt cared for
After flying into Venice, then a trip by water taxi, we first met our tour leaders – Yorgos, Monica and Cristina – at our hotel on the Lido. First thing, Yorgos showed us our bikes and made adjustments so we would be comfortable every day of the tour. Yorgos showed Todd, Emma and Marilyn how their bikes worked and the group safety talk highlighted how to ride safely in Italy.
During our shakedown tour, we learned about the ExperiencePlus! go-at-your-own-pace navigation system: chalk arrows.
ExperiencePlus! tour leaders mark each day’s route with chalk arrows, enabling rider independence and a hands-free experience. Arrows at every intersection and in bike lanes told us which way to turn, or to go straight. Tour leaders also drew encouraging chalk smiley faces before the tops of hills and special chalk arrows pointing out good places to stop for gelato or coffee or a group visit.
We Learned to Coach our Kids to Bike
Marilyn and I were concerned about Todd and Emma biking for the first time on Italian roads.
We realized the need for coaching early. At home, Todd liked to bike around the neighborhood, but Emma, although a varsity field hockey player, was a reluctant cyclist. Going on the tour meant she was faced not only with becoming familiar with a bike, but doing so in Italy! We also realized that since Todd and Emma don’t drive a car they had no sense of the basics – such as “right of way”. For first 3 days, we made Todd and Emma stay close to us as we coached them on safely riding a bike. We were our own tour within a tour, winding along Italian roads. We watched Todd and Emma’s competence quickly grow.
By the third day, Todd would set out ahead of us with the stronger riders on our tour to enjoy the thrill of drafting and riding faster than his family did. As a result, throughout the tour we spent times riding together as a family, sometimes with others on tour, and sometimes on our own. My family felt cared for because there were always an ExperiencePlus! tour leader nearby, whether bicycling on the road with us or in the van to offer support.
We learned that bicycling is safe in Italy
We were impressed by Italian drivers because they are amazingly observant of cyclists. Bicyclists are everywhere, old and young, slow and speedy. We were passed by Italian seniors on their bikes zooming up and down hills. With our bright ExperiencePlus! bicycling jerseys, we felt we fit right into the Italian biking culture.
We learned to appreciate the small things
One hot day, our entire tour group had stopped to rest under a shady tree. Then, suddenly the ExperiencePlus! van came into sight, bearing bottled water. This is bike touring in comfort – comfort welcomed by all.
Marilyn spends her time at home caring for others. On this tour she became the one who was looked after.
Every night we stayed in a comfortable hotel, most of which were in town. At night we could stroll the town together. In the morning, after a comfortable night’s sleep and breakfast, we would simply walk to the door, get on our our bikes, and bicycle away. Everything was set up. While we biked, a tour leader ferried our bags to the next hotel. All we had to do was follow the chalk arrows, which would lead us to the next hotel where our bags were waiting for us. We could go to our room, relax and and take a shower, and prepare for the night’s tasty meal.
We Grew Closer as a Family
Todd and Emma, who before this trip had never been on a bike all day, became stronger cyclists every day. Kilometers are for kids. No more of those slow-ticking miles we had been used to in the USA! By day 6, Todd and I were ready for the 3,000 foot climb over the Apennines. Marilyn and Emma opted for the train option (just as she had planned when we first signed up). Todd had decided this was a biking challenge he could do. Father and son did this climb – Todd’s first mountain – together. We had frequent stops to catch our breath. The satisfaction of eating gelato at the mountain top café was a memorable father and son moment.
We discovered bicycling and sightseeing go together for children
Our kids have energy to burn. Biking every day let Todd and Emma use up that energy. When the time came to visit museums – the Uffizi museum in Florence or the Roman boat museum in Comacchio, they were ready to walk and see the mosaics and the art. However, at Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, when Todd and Emma could not handle seeing one more mosaic, they simply walked back to the hotel to eat gelato, while Marilyn and I continued our mosaic sightseeing. Marilyn is a student of architecture, art and history. Emma is also keenly interested in art and had studied the Renaissance in high school. It was a treat for Marilyn to view the great art works of the Renaissance for the first time with Emma.
We entered into the mystique and romance of Italy
As a family, we got to experience the history of Italy and the beauty of the landscape, at a pace that allowed us to take it all in. The routes themselves were remarkable. Although there are many urban places in Italy, we didn’t bike through those parts.
We were led by the chalk arrows along secluded, paved roadways, next to canals, marshes, orchards and vineyards. We cycled through the heart of small villages along one lane roads. We took ferry boats made just for bicyclists. We cycled past construction workers singing as they worked, past women on their way to market on their bicycles, past local kids fishing off a bridge. We stopped at markets to buy fresh food and picnicked in the countryside. Everyone was friendly and understanding of our limited language ability. We had complete strangers come up to us to help us out. This is the Italy we had come to see and had wanted our children to experience.
At home after the tour, when I ask Todd and Emma what they remember about our bike tour, they tell me it was the food. Our culinary experience started on Day 1 in Venice with our tour’s first dinner together in a trattoria tucked away near the Grand Canal. There were 8 course meals! A lunch made from locally grown produce at an agriturismo on Day 4. All were superb. We brought back not just memories, but a new diet.
Any Family Can Do It!
Marilyn and I agreed that there are probably many people who decide not to vacation together as a family on a bike trip. And they miss out.
Marilyn later said, “Our family is an example of non-cycling spouses and kids taking the plunge and doing a bike tour.”
Not only did we survive, we loved it. In fact, This family bike trip across Italy from Venice to Pisa renewed our family spirit. Any family can do this.
The Wells family now lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Emma and Todd lucked out on the trip. Their siblings Carl and Naomi didn’t get to join the Venice to Pisa bike tour, but we hear they are the biggest cyclists in the family.
ExperiencePlus! supports family tours because ExperiencePlus! is a family-run business. Families are supported through discounts for your children.