19
Sep 2009
by mark

Reflections on box bike touring

So I had this crazy idea to take a heavy, hundred pound bike on a 5 day, 220 mile bike trip through the rolling hills of Southeastern Indiana. To make the trip more interesting, my 18-month old, 30-pound daughter would ride in the bike I peddled, with my wife and retired father riding their own bikes along side us. My friend Kurt would also join us on a homemade recumbent bike he finished welding the night before departure.

We rode from Richmond, Indiana to Clifty Falls State Park over two days, camped and rested for a day, and rode back. Rather than journaling a day-by-day account of the trip, I’ve gathered some reflections on different aspects of the trip.

Sleep dog gets rejected for a backpack

On bike touring with an 18-month old child

I have my own water bottle, but I prefer dad's.
This part turned out to be very easy and enjoyable for both of us. She enjoyed riding and gave us the bike hand sign each morning indicating she wanted to get on the bike again. Her symbol looks like hanging one arm over the edge of the box bike, like people rest their elbow on a car window.

Each day had at least 6 hours of on-bike time, and she happily rode through all of it. She napped while we were in motion and we made sure she had a comfortable bag or stuffed toy to lean on. We also made sure she had a drink, snacks and a small number of toys constantly accessible.

She found the scenery engaging, and would point at things she saw, like dogs or birds or horses. Because she was right in front of me, I could also easily talk to her, or point over her shoulder to draw attention to something on the landscape. She clearly recognizes birds and horses now, and also seems to understand “on your left” and “on your right”.

For sun protection we strove for full coverage with clothing. Each day she rode in long pants, a long sleeve shirt, shoes and socks, and a Zoggs kids sun hat under her helmet. It has an extra big brim, as well as coverage for her neck. We used kids sun block for her hands and face. The breeze from biking kept her cool, and we had no problems with sunburn or heat exhaustion.

For rain we brought a weather canopy which provides a waterproof cover for the whole box. However, we never needed it.

For emergencies, like major bike breakdowns or tantrums, we had a support vehicle with a car seat that was able to be on the scene in 30 minutes or less. However, cell phone coverage was spotty for both us and the support person, so the actual emergency response time could have been longer. We never needed to call the car for baby support or for a bicycle maintenance issue.

For on-road safety, the primary plan was to choose rural roads where we saw few cars. The box bike is generally so slow that going “too fast” was rarely a problem. I rode the brakes on bigger hills to keep the top speed under control. In the few places where we did encounter more traffic, I had a high-visibility yellow vest to wear. This increased the distance from which we could be seen.

Bike touring with our 18 month old daughter was a success. We were able to modify our touring plans in a way we still enjoyed as parents, and she was able to have many new experiences and get a large dose of the outdoors.

On bike touring slowly

Walking up Pence Road.
Our group wanted to ride together, which meant riding at the speed of the slowest rider, which was often me. Only one of four riders even had a bike computer, and he constantly registered average speeds of just over 10 mph.

Having a slow bike in the group seems like it would be annoyance, but it actually turned out to be a benefit. Don and Kurt could have ridden faster but expressed that they enjoyed riding at a more relaxed pace. My wife found the pace to be comfortable as well.

Although it wasn’t possible to ride the box bike much faster, the slow speed turned out to be a positive for the trip. Last year a rider crashed riding too fast down a hill, and I know at least Kurt was aching more on that faster trip.

Slowing down allowed us to reduce the risk of injury and take in more of the scenery, without comprising any important goals of the trip.

I’ve learned that I’d much rather choose my cycling company and compromise on the pace, than to choose a pace and compromise on the company. Being able to ride with my family was a great experience.

On bike touring with a 100 pound bike with a 30 pound passenger

lunch under a shade tree
I’m not really certain how much my bike weighs. When I researched after I returned from my trip, I found that several references put the weight at 97 pounds, although I found no official numbers. My daughter added an additional 30 pounds, and her supply bag, water and misc supplies probably added another 5 to 10 pounds. So that’s something like 135 pounds of bike weight to push around. That’s about 100 pounds more than a typical touring bike might weigh.

The weight alone was not the only thing to slow the bike down. It has thick, durable tires which would be slower than road bike tires. The front hub has some efficiency loss as it generates electricity for the lights, and there’s even reportedly some resistance when the lights are off. The rear hub has some efficiency loss as it translates the gearing, unless I happen to be in gear 5 of 8. Further, the bike is decidedly un-aerodynamic.

But despite all these things, the bike still managed to feel relatively fast at times, and was enjoyable to ride. I was able to climb most of the hills with it, except for those which were especially steep. In those cases, I simply got off and pushed it, sometimes walking with it and sometimes jogging with it. I appreciated that pushing the bike used some different muscles and gave me a break from the saddle. Also, walking the bike often wasn’t much slower than the riders who decided to stay on their bikes and grind up the hills. It also worked out so most of these hills were lined with trees, providing both some shade and sceneries. In all, these short breaks were pleasant. Some times another rider would also stop to walk with me. We even swapped which bikes to push at times, taking turns to push the heavy bike up the biggest hills.

On bike touring route planning

Welcome to duck creek road
Our route from Richmond to Clifty Falls is based somewhat on the old “Hoosier Hills Route 1″ maps for the de-commissioned state-wide bicycle touring network. This year I put the route into mapmyrun.com primarily so I could see my the elevation graphs of my modified route.

Since I worried about weight of the box bike, I updated the route to avoid a 300 foot climb around Canaan. As fate would have it, the alternate route sent us down a gravel road for over a mile, which also included a significant hill, and then routed us to a road that didn’t exist. The end result was was that we were dumped on a busy 55-mph road for seven miles with little shoulder.

On the return trip, I no longer feared hills on the box bike. I would rather have scenic up hills than stretches of flat road with heavy traffic or gravel detours.

One one of the 300 foot climbs, it seems I pushed the bike for only 5 or 10 minutes. The reality is that most of the hill weren’t that steep.

My adjustments to the route for next time would not be about avoiding hills, but further avoiding the few bits of main roads that remain in the course.

If you’d like the details: Hopi pointed out Pennington Road as a way out of the west side of Metamora, avoiding a bit more of 52. Taking Fairground Road avoids a stretch of 350 when coming in and out of Osgood. I will also try avoiding the stretch of 229 between Oldenburg and Batesville. Using Vote Road and North Huntersville Road should do for that. Already on this trip we were avoiding nearly all of 229 by using Pence Road, Whistle Creek and Harvey Branch.

Staying off busy roads keeps me in a relaxed state of mind that allows me to focus on the scenery rather than our safety.

On bike touring in rural Indiana

Escorts on Whistle Creek
I’m fortunate to live in a such a beautiful place so ideally suited for bike touring. The large amount of rural roads are well suited for this, and there is a pleasant variety of terrain from flats to small rolling hills and the occasionally large or steep hill. For people who live nearby, I definitely recommend getting out and exploring by bike.

On recumbent bikes versus upright bikes for bike touring

baby sleeps again
All my previous significant bike tours had been done on a recumbent bike, and this was my first on an upright bike. My recumbent has been rather comfortable for touring, and I was concerned about being comfortable in the saddle for so long on this bike.

It’s still my view that the recumbent riding position is far more comfortable for longer trips, but this worked reasonably well. The saddle required wearing bike shorts and taking precautions against saddle sores, and I was certainly ready to get off it at the end of the day. I found I could lean over and rest my elbows on the handlebars while gripping the breaks, providing another position to rest my back and arms in.

In some ways I think it improved my opinion of touring on upright bikes. Although it’s been several years, I don’t think I was ever this comfortable when riding my old Nishiki road bike for longer distances, perhaps because it didn’t allow me the option to sit up straight, as the bakfiets does.

On having a support vehicle for the group bike trip

Wrapping up Bentley Road
Ideally I like the idea of doing fully self-supporting touring. But I have to say that it worked very well to have one support vehicle to support four riders. We were able to save significant money by using it to help prepare our own meals and camping gear. It also carried the incredible amount of stuff that seems to be required to take care of a small child.

Four riders seem liked a good number because it allowed a faster couple to ride ahead together, and a slower couple to proceed more contemplatively together.

Involving a car made the bike trip somehow imperfect for me, but I have to admit it worked quite well for us. Besides– after we loaded the car there was only room for at most two adults and the baby. If we had all been driving to the same camping destination I suspect we may have needed two cars, or at least a larger vehicle.

It’s also interesting that while it’s an all-day trip for the cyclists, the support car only needs to travel a couple of hours each day.

On modifying a bakfiets for bicycle touring

Some touring enhancements
We made a few modifications to our box bike to make it better suited for touring. To make it ideal for touring would have meant overhauling just about everything but the frame, as the bike is really designed for shorter around-town trips.

  • I lowered the gearing
  • The stock pedals were swapped out with reversible pedals that can be clipped-in to.
  • New holes were drilled so that the seat restraint could be moved to the middle, centering the weight of the baby over the frame.
  • A seat pad was added to the bench, with a non-slip material underneath it
  • A piece of twine was attached to each shoulder strip with a rubber band on the end. These were used to grip a sippy cup and a snack cup. If either was dropped, the baby could pull the twine to reel the item back in, saving distress and an unplanned stop. I could reach the twine to reel it back as well. (Of course the baby preferred to eat snacks which were stored elsewhere, by pointing at a banana in Kurt’s basket as he rode by. She also preferred to share my water bottle than to use her own.
  • A baby-size backpack rode on the seat next the baby. She often leaned on it to sleep. I used to store things I might want to access while riding: maps, my phone, snacks, my water bottle and books to hand the baby. Sometimes she made a game of unpacking the backpack into the box, resulting in occasional near misses as something almost got blown overboard. In he future I would consider securing the backpack into place, since she sometimes threw it on the floor. The extra seat harness could be used for that.

On avoiding civilization

climbing up the switchback on Barbersville Creek Road A refreshing part of our trip was to be away from many of the trappings of civilization for a few days. We saw few cars, entered few stores, and had little or no internet access. As it happened, most of our campsite was reserved for an organized bike tour, TRIRI, bringing over a hundred more cyclists into the park. This completed my vacation fantasy world in which I see more people riding bikes than driving cars.

On next time

Rider portrait: Lena
I would keep the general route and the riding group. Riding in September also seems like a great time to go. As the baby gets heavier, I can’t say I’ll continue to use the bakfiets for long trips. I’ll continue to evaluate family biking options as we go.

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  • http://www.bakfiets-en-meer.nl henryinamsterdam

    Mark, Those are great observations. It’s interesting that you independently found many of the same things we do when touring with our baby (both in the bakfiets and on the upright bike): securing bottles and toys with a cord, propping in a bag for the baby to sleep against, just accepting that the pace will be slow and stops frequent. Fortunately the problem of avoiding roads with heavy car traffic hasn’t been an issue where we ride.
    As for all the “baby stuff” we just ditch most of it while traveling so our baby’s gear fits in a little bag. By about 9 months he’d mostly eat food we could get en route and he’s just as happy playing with a paper bag or some of our camping gear as his own toys.
    Happy trails!

  • http://www.totcycle.com Julian

    Bakfiets touring! Really nice post, Mark. I still do pine for a bakfiets …
    We’re still using your “Sleep Dog” trick, by the way.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/baudman/collections/72157616580372830/ baudman

    Most inspiring Mark.
    We’ve done some semi-extended trips on our CargoBike. We now have a 3.5y and a 7m. Don’t think I’ll be up for the two of them in there for an extended tour – but for longer daytrips, seems good.
    Great idea about the twine. Previously, we’d had a trailer so she could reach.

  • http://theory.stanford.edu/~arbrad Aaron

    Mark, I really enjoyed reading about your trip.