Gravel Culture: Family gravelling

Posted By Gravel Union On 14 June 2021

When you’re in your carefree twenties, with few responsibilities, you can pretty much ride when and how you like. But fast forward a few years to the arrival of a family. How do you successfully balance family life and gravel life? Olly looks into the world of family gravelling.

“He’s got to the point that he can take off his jacket while riding along” says Neil, looking ahead up the road to where his 13 year old son William is riding nonchalantly along with both hands off the bars – perfectly in control and with the posture of an experienced rider far older than his years should actually allow. “His brother isn’t far behind either. He can happily ride no hands on his rollers now”. Ellis is 9 years old and looks as though he’s essentially a pint-sized pro rider.

With parents who were former a XC MTB national champion and an elite level 24hour solo MTB racer, the chances of William and Ellis not getting hooked on cycling were slim. But as most people will have witnessed at some point, pushy-parent-syndrome is a sure fire way of putting off children from following in their parents’ footsteps (or pedal strokes). Neil and Helen realised that a softly-softly approach would be a much more suitable way of doing things, letting their sons discover cycling for themselves and helping them with inspiration, advice and practical help when they needed it, but never forcing them to ride, train or compete.

“We’re coming up to visit family at the end of May. Do you fancy doing a family gravel ride while we’re nearby?” said Neil’s email. We’ve ridden together as a group of friends for nearly 30 years now (which scares me a lot, when I type that), but while we have done rides with the children before, they’ve tended to be fairly short and stayed close to home. This time, with the boys a few years older (and completely hooked on mixed-surface riding) and a day of perfect weather forecast, we thought bigger and planned a gravel adventure out into the hills of Northumberland, an hour or so west of the UK Gravel Union office.

“Ellis needs to eat roughly every 45 minutes” said Helen, looking at her bike computer to see how long we had been riding for. Neil and I had slung bikepacking luggage on our bikes, but they weren’t full of camping kit, cooking kit or sleeping kit – they were basically stuffed with food! The saying that an army marches on its stomach applies even more so to rides with little people – these two have zero bodyfat and only limited energy reserves built up, so keeping them topped up with food and water was the best way to keep them happy and keen to ride. “They need to eat as much real food a possible – not just energy stuff” said Helen, although that sage advice should probably apply to everyone while gravel riding, not just children! So, we had shoehorned in sandwiches, fruit, nuts, fruit juice and a selection of fantastic homemade biscuits made by Neil’s mum.

“Ellis will happily ride for 20-25 miles (30-40kms), depending on how hilly it is, but I’ll have the towrope with me just in case” said Neil when we were first discussing ideas for our ride. I put my route planning head on and came up with something I thought would be suitable – it was slightly further (and hillier) than Ellis might normally do, but I figured a mix of regular feeding and judicious use of a tow rope would be enough to get him round. I knew that both the boys regularly rode CX and MTB and I had experienced their level of technical competency before on MTB trails, where they both gave me a good run for my money. But I also figured as this was a decent sized loop, with the fairly remote location meaning self-rescue would be our only option, that using a mix of mainly vehicle width gravel trails early in the ride, with some singletrack options later on, would be sensible.

“What about that for a lunch spot?” said my wife. We were just under half way around our loop, when she spotted a gently sloping, wild-flower filled meadow just off to the left of the road, with a wooden bench near the highest point, looking out over the hills in the background. “Looks OK”, I said, thinking that actually she should win some kind of medal for spotting such a great location! We turned off the road and headed for the bench, but then actually ended up sitting on the grass as it was much more comfortable. The boys practically inhaled their lunch, including seconds of their gran’s homemade biscuits and were soon keen to get riding again. Their slightly wearier parents (and friends) were happy sitting soaking up the sunshine, while being enveloped in the scent of the wild flowers and the noise of skylarks chirruping overhead.

Lunch remains duly packed away, we headed back out on the bikes. The roads of this part of Northumberland are hilariously unroad-like – potholed, narrow, grass growing up the middle and frequently dotted with lambs who have broken out from nearby fields. They’re absolutely ideal for family riding, if for no other reason than the fact you’re more likely to meet a slow moving tractor than any other type of vehicle. Our route offered bite-size chunks of challenge too – the climbs were of the short/sharp kind, which held the boys’ attention (not to mention energy levels) much better than a long, boring slog would have done. Some of the route we had only ridden once before, some of it we knew really well and it proved to be ideal. “Would you prefer a short/steep off-road climb, which you might need to push a section of, but which is followed by amazing singletrack through some forest, or a longer gentle climb on tarmac?” I asked Ellis. I figured that he had just happily tackled a short section of 20% gradient tarmac climbing (without needing to use the tow rope), but was also the youngest member of the group, so the choice had to be his.

“Singletrack” came his emphatic answer. At this point we’d already ridden more than 30kms and I knew that the middle of section of the climb would probably need pushing up – it was gully with a couple of wheel-height bedrock steps to overcome half way up. I’d only “cleaned” it once on my gravel bike, so for William and Ellis it was likely to prove a difficult, albeit short challenge. They gave it their best shot, but in the end none of us managed to clean it. Luckily, the trail at the top of the climb is one of my favourite in the whole area and everyone soon forgot about the ignominy of having to push up the first bit. The sun had been shining hard all day and the rise in temperature caused the pine trees to release an incredible smelling scent into the air. Shafts of sunlight came down through the canopy and the trail was so dry, it actually felt like we were riding in the forests of southern Europe, rather than the north of England.

“This is like my favourite trail in the Scottish Highlands” said William, as he set the pace at the front. He was putting his MTB skills and CX race fitness to good use and absolutely flying along the twisty, rooty forest trail, kicking up a dust trail in his wake. We regrouped at a major junction and Ellis arrived with his Mum, grinning widely but also starting to show some signs of tiredness. A bag of jelly sweets was retrieved from his jersey pocket and shovelled into his mouth. A cereal bar, some good slurps of water, a speedy wee (which caused some hilarity as it was Ellis’ first time wearing bib shorts) and he was all set.

Something I was learning as we went along, was to try and judge the children’s level of enthusiasm, energy and motivation and to ‘flex’ the route to suit them. Sticking to a planned route too rigidly is a recipe for disaster, but it does mean you need to know the area well, or at least have pre-ridden the different options to figure out all the permutations. The boys were still happy and made it pretty clear that they were keen for some more off-road riding, rather than too much tarmac. A bit of rapid mental map juggling and I figured I could easily add in some extra sections of trail at the end of the loop, rather than my initially planned road finish. The only drama was that it meant putting in an extra climb.

I offered to take on towing duties and give Ellis a helping hand on the last climb (and Neil a break). The tow rope is super simple – a loop that I hooked over the nose of my saddle and an elasticated rope with a climbing karabiner on one end that Ellis clipped to a loop on his handlebars. He still pedalled, but the towrope gave him some assistance when he needed it most (and gave me a workout). I was pleasantly surprised how little it affected the handling of my bike – apart from the extra drag, it didn’t actually make any difference to the ride.

We finished the day as we had started – riding flowy, rolling gravel trails under perfect blue skies and sunshine. I snuck in one short section of singletrack right at the end – not so severe as to cause any problems, but techy enough that everyone finished the ride with a big grin. The final route came out as 47kms/30miles and almost 700m of climbing. That’s a decent day out for any gravel rider, let alone one who is 9 years old. Although Ellis was pretty tired by the end, he was still enthusiastic and smiling and said he’d had a good day out.

Through a combination of good planning (route/food/tow rope) and good fortune (weather and bone dry trails) we’d had an absolutely fantastic family day out on our gravel bikes. If you’ve not tried gravel riding with a family before, based on this experience, I would highly recommend it. Our day felt like the perfect combination of adventure and holiday and you can’t ask for more than that!

    Top tips for happy family gravelling from Helen & Neil

  • Have regular stops for food. 'Real' food, like a packed lunch with proper carbs, but also a LOT of sugary snacks, (sweets and biscuits) especially those they may not normally get to eat ... then they see it as a worthwhile treat.
  • Keep the trails fun. Our two find canals and old railway lines 'boring' so we avoid them like the plague ... plus they're usually quite busy at weekends which slows us down. As a means to an end they might be ok, but we'd never use them as the bulk of a ride.
  • Doesn’t need to be ‘proper’ gravel. They like twisty singletrack (who doesn't), so often rides are determined by the types of trail the kids enjoy. We will always explain the route to them in advance, describing the terrain and alter accordingly if their faces tell a different story to their mouths!
  • Try a bigger group. They both love riding with other people, especially kids who ride at a similar level, so we'll sometimes ride as a family of four, but sometimes arrange to meet other families with kids they get on with.
  • Tag team riding and riding with adults. Due to the kids having different abilities, speed and stamina now, we sometimes split briefly and one has one child, one has the other, just to give William a bit of a blast! William will also sometimes do an evening ride with Neil and Neil's friends and he loves riding with people he doesn't know because he usually gets loads of surprised compliments from them ... he thrives on that.
  • Trail hunting. At trail centres that we know well, we'll sometimes give them a head start and 'hunt them down' which is always a good trick for getting them to ride faster! (But does burn the energy quicker too)
  • Give the kids control. We regularly ride at a nearby trail centre that has two short but fun MTB trails. On a recent visit, Ellis wanted to try something new - he asked me to give him a head start and for three laps he kept altering the times until he could reach the bottom just before me! It worked well for me too as I ended up with some PRs. Basically, if you let them take control sometimes, it benefits everyone!
  • It’s not all about the riding. Luckily for us, they both like nature and geography, so they're happy to do a ride that will have 'a good view' or a 'cool waterfall' or maybe see some wildlife.
  • Don’t forget a café stop. Possibly the most important incentive to ride. You can always use leverage such as ice cream, hot chocolate, fizzy pop, cake etc, but actually bribery where you need to spend money doesn't happen that often for us.

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