NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies. If you continue without changing your settings, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies from this website.
I understand
More Info

Plan the right route and a bike tour with your young children might just be the best family holiday you've ever had finds Pete Coombs, as he spins through Northern France...

wwi memorial

Move away from your sister.... MOVE AWAY FROM YOUR SISTER!"

Too late. In slow motion, the scene I saw coming - knew was coming - pans out in front of my eyes. A pedal tangles with spokes, and the two young freewheeling spirits, riding along with the fresh French morning breeze on their faces, have become a tangled stationary mess of metal and limbs.

Squeals of pain and annoyance fill the air, as I skid to a stop and begin the slow process of separating my two children from their bikes and each other.

"Remember - no blood; no tears." (It's a standard rule in our family).

"But Dad, there is blood!" replies my 5-year-old daughter, who has scraped the skin from both knees.

"Oh well: It's not a lot of blood, is it..."

We're soon back in the saddle, the kids placated with the promise of an ice cream, and the Normandy countryside is soon gliding past again.

Freedom at last!

Previously as a family, we've cycle toured with the kids travelling either in rear mounted child seats, or safely stowed away inside a trailer. It's almost as if the kids were an additional piece of luggage to be strapped in and transported - the only difference being that normal luggage doesn't moan when it's cold and wet.

Both kids now cycle independently, though not yet on the open road. The other big change is their size and weight, which quite frankly, is now more than we'd want to tow on a long journey!

So do we pack the bikes away and head for a sedentary holiday? No of course not, we research.

Independent bike touring with kids is a challenge, but not really a physical one - it's much more your mindset, rather than your muscles, that is challenged.

For adults 50 miles a day is easily achievable, outside of mountainous zones, on good European roads. Serious tourers will ride far further but with young kids, anything over 20 miles is out of the question.

Tackle too much and the kids will be exhausted, won't stop complaining, lose concentration and crash a lot more. Oh yes, there will be crashes... But take on too little, and you'll simply reach you destination too fast and have to find something else for the kids to do.

Distance is a major consideration, but so too is terrain and weather. Even with an excellent gear range on their Isla Bikes, my kids can't cope with steep or prolonged climbs, especially the youngest. So a tour though the Alps, or even the hills of Devon, is a non-starter. We all know weather is an unpredictable beast, but some places are of course normally more stable than others.

Which is why, all things considered, we choose to take on a multi-day traffic-free section of the Veloscenic cycle route in the Oren department of central Normandy.


The Set Up

After arriving late in Remalard the previous evening, after a four-hour drive from Calais, it's a real joy to wake to a crisp blue morning creeping through the windows of the wonderfully refurbished fromagerie.

Sadly the joy doesn't last long, as two overly excited children pull the covers off the bed and demand breakfast.

They aren't disappointed as a feast of home produced jams, cakes and bread covers the old oak kitchen table waiting for us. Unfortunately for me, a much longed for slow breakfast of coffee and cake will have to wait.

I swill back a mug of deliciously strong coffee, stuff a piece of still warm fragrant bread into my mouth and head outside to take the bikes off the car.

I then drive the 45 minutes or so through rolling countryside to Alençon, the region's capital, famed for its lace-making. Parking the car at our final hotel I decide to save time, and jump in a taxi for the return journey. With more time and planning a bus, or train followed by a shorter taxi ride, would also have been an option.

In the saddle at last:

"Now remember they drive on the other side of the road!"

"But Dad, you're always telling us to keep left!"

"Yes, yes, forget the ten thousand times I've told you that, and now do the complete opposite. Keep right!"

"But Dad!"

Our first 500 metres are on a quiet little village back road before we hit our route proper, and admittedly we could (and probably should) walk it, but setting off on the bike is just too hard to resist.

30 seconds later a bright green rusted Renault 4 van rounds the bend, with a Gauloise smoking granddad behind the wheel. Heart in mouth, we watch as it chugs towards us, my children wobbling towards it.

"Keep right!" I scream, which is possibly the most pointless thing I can do; once the car had safely passed us my daughter, raising her left arm asks, "Is this my right?"

Reaching the start of our route, we are greeted by a very clear green cycle sign, with Alençon clearly signed as 57 km away - an easy day ride for an adult, but we have planned to take three days.

As we keep stopping every few hundred metres to pump up a tyre, rearrange a helmet or pull up a sock, I wonder if three days is going to be long enough.

But the trail is perfect for the kids, being hard packed and without potholes, and the kilometres are ticking by, as we head towards our first overnight stop.

This section of the Veloscenic, a 270-mile cycleway linking Paris and the Unesco listed island monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, is built on top of a disused railway line, which follows the flattest route possible through the gently rolling countryside.

There has been a large investment in this section of the trail, with the route clearly signed and all the points where it crosses a road barred by cycle friendly wooden gates, making it easy and worry-free to instruct the kids to stop at every gate they ride up to.

Outside of the trail, road signs warn drivers of cyclist crossing ahead. Other than the fine gravel surface of the trail, which is a little skiddy when braking, it's hard to think of any way the route could be improved.


A slower mindset

An hour into our ride, having stopped more times than a London bus, I'm starting to detune from my bike tour preconceptions and dialling into a family cycle tour.

It's simply not about the ride at all. It's about what you see on the way. Having the sun on your face, and the wind in your hair. Stopping to search for crickets in the long grass, or counting how many butterflies there are on the blackberry bushes that you're picking from.

It's as much a group family activity - a journey together - which, with sensible route planning, allows you to slow to your children's pace, enabling time for chatting, discovery and simply messing around both on and off the bikes. Which is so much better than biting off too much and slogging it from one hotel to the next.

Our second night is at the excellent L'Hotel du Tribunal, 1.5 km off the trail, in the centre of the market town of Mortagne-au-Perche. Having learnt from the morning we easily push the bikes to it from the trail.

Our luggage has arrived before us, with all our planned accommodation being members of the Accueil Vélo, other than our first where we used the nearby tourist office for the baggage transfer, as it is also is a member.

The hotel restaurant is a little highbrow for the children but the food is excellent, especially the starter of 'tomatoes eight ways', including a surprisingly good tomato sorbet. Half way through the bottle of local wine I soon forgot that our table is by far the noisiest.


From stalls to sands

"I've never had so much fun buying a picnic," states my daughter, after we've wandered the town's traditional Saturday street market. We've bought goats cheese, heritage tomatoes, bread, fruit and cider direct from the producers, with the kids practising their basic French.

It hasn't felt contrived or touristic at all, as this part of inland Normandy sees few visitors and remains a real time capsule of rural France.

The ride today is a mere 15 km, so after the shopping I finally get my long, slow, mid-morning coffee, before re-joining the route where we left it. In fact, the pace has relaxed so much that it doesn't seem too long before we stop for lunch and watch a combine harvester creating golden lines in the field across the valley.

There is no rush to leave, so after lunch the kids lay back in the field, watching clouds, and I read to them accompanied by birdsong and the chirping of crickets.

With such a short distance today, even with our lazy pace, we still have time on arriving in le Mêle-sur-Sarthe to visit the towns' lakeside beach, where the kids love swimming in the lake and creating sand sculptures.


Over all too soon

Our final day on the bikes is a joy, with our chilled routine of exploration enhanced by the children's vastly improved riding skills. In fact, two full, if leisurely, days in the saddle have seen their confidence and skills grow enough for us to feel happy about taking them off the traffic-free cycle route and onto the tranquil back roads, exploring some of the villages just off the Veloscenic and an ice cream outside a little village store.

Alençon is a busy town, but fortunately our hotel is just off the trail, and having deposited the bikes we explore its streets on foot before possibly the meal of the weekend at 'le 64 by Fano' restaurant.

Come Monday morning, we all sadly strap the bikes back onto the car, and head for home. I'm in such a wonderfully relaxed state of mind that I almost pull out of the hotel car park straight into a bus.

"Dad! Stay on the right!"