ExperiencePlus! Computer Specialist, Ian Wells took his family on their first ever bicycle tour with ExperiencePlus! last June. Since they weren’t exactly experienced cyclists, some members of the family were a little apprehensive about their adventure. Ian describes their experience.
Sometimes family life gets busy and routine. Then something happens that makes life interesting again. That “something” for my wife, Marilyn, and me was an ExperiencePlus! bike tour across Italy with two of our children, Emma (16) and Todd (12).
After we returned from Italy, Marilyn said “Someone should interview me. I bet there are lots of people who decide not to vacation together as a family on a bike trip. They miss out. 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”.
Though there was no official interview with Marilyn, we sure did talk a lot about what made our bicycle vacation so great. This trip was our best family vacation ever.
This is how it started: I had a problem. ExperiencePlus! likes to take all its Fort Collins staff on tour once a year. This is a nice problem to have. But should I go alone or should Marilyn, Todd and Emma go too?
We had so many questions. Could Todd and Emma handle bicycling all day for 11 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 real 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 said “yes”.
Feeding pigeons in Venice
Once we made the decision, Marilyn realized the keys to her personal success would be attitude and preparation.
Marilyn made the decision that she was going on this trip chiefly, not to bicycle, but to see Italy. She realized that on ExperiencePlus! tours she could ride at her own pace, so she wouldn’t be slowing anyone else down if she went slowly. The average daily ride was 35 miles but she had all day to do them. She felt that with a support van and hours before her, why worry? And Marilyn’s expectations did play out as she had expected – she did get to know Italy. She saw Italy intimately at the speed of a bicycle and with her husband and children close by.
Marilyn ordered the Joe Friel training program from ExperiencePlus!. She started the program as soon as the snow melted here in Colorado. She found a 16-mile circuit close to home and her goals were first, to do the complete circuit, second, 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!
On tour, from day 1, we felt cared for
Yorgos setting up bike for Todd
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 on them for the next eleven days. Yorgos showed Todd, Emma and Marilyn how their bikes worked. The safety talk on the first morning summarized how to ride safely in Italy.
We found out how the ExperiencePlus! go-at-your-own-pace system worked.
ExperiencePlus! tour leaders use a unique chalk arrow system enabling rider independence. At every intersection we passed on all eleven days, there were chalk arrows in the bike lane showing us which way to turn. There were encouraging chalk smiley faces before the tops of hills and special chalk arrows pointing out good places to stop for gelato (Italian ice cream).
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 had liked to bike around the neighborhood but Emma, although a varsity field hockey player, is a reluctant cyclist. So 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”. So for the first 3 days, we made Todd and Emma stay close to us as we coached them on bike riding. We were our own tour within a tour, winding along Italian roads; Todd and Emma’s competence grew quickly.
By the third day, Todd would set out ahead of us with the stronger riders on our tour, Brian and Renita, enjoying the thrill of drafting and fast riding in the lead group. We spent times riding together as a family, sometimes with Bob and Jean (who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary), some times on our own. My family felt cared for because there were always two ExperiencePlus! Tour Leaders bicycling on the road with us, and a van close by.
We learned that bicycling is safe in Italy
Todd, Marilyn, Emma swoop downhill
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 Felt Cared for Throughout the Tour
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 3-star hotel, most of which were downtown. 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, ExperiencePlus! staff 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 would go to our room and take a shower before a tasty Italian 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. The everyday bicycling let Todd and Emma use up their energy. And 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, those were not the parts biked through.
We were led by the chalk arrows to the traditional Italy along secluded, paved roadways, next to canals, marshes, orchards and vineyards. We cycled through the hearts 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 lunch time in 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.
Today, when I ask Todd and Emma what they remember about our bike tour, they tell me it was the food. This was our first taste of Italian food in Italy. This culinary experience started right away in Venice, with our tour’s first dinner together in a trattoria tucked away near the Grand Canal. The 8 course meals! The lunches made from locally grown produce at the Agriturismo on Day 4 and the lunch at the Malpezzi family farm on Day 5 were superb. We brought back not just memories, but a new diet. Marilyn now cooks regularly from our newly acquired Italian cookbooks!
Taking time to
smell the flowers
Any Family Can Do It!
This family bike trip across Italy from Venice to Pisa renewed our family spirit. Any family can do this.
ExperiencePlus! supports family tours because ExperiencePlus! is a family-run business. Families are supported through discounts for your children.