Flint & Scarlet - Father & 10 year old long-distance bike-tourer.
Posted by Alex Dyson on
This touring season started off with the simple concept of home being the starting point. “Getting lost in our own backyard,” I believe is how I stated it. My 10 year old daughter, Scarlet, and I have been exploring State and National Forests for the past two years and yet there were still plenty of options starting from our driveway. Some rides this year weren’t able to meet that standard, in May I was three weeks recovering from a triple hernia surgery and wasn’t feeling too confident in my riding abilities. We chose to have my wife drive us to Washington DC and we then peddled 700 miles, ending at our house. It was on that ride that I remember looking over at Scarlet as we peddled along the Youghiogheny River and realised that she went from a little kid that I accommodated on rides to a young woman beside me that is wordlessly encouraging me, challenging me and willing to endure the lows because she, too, know the highs are earned. She became my riding partner.
Most days involve bicycles in the Zeigler household in one way or another. Scarlet races BMX as well as tours, so we are constantly trying to build sprinting muscles as well as endurance. Box sprints, 10-20 mile family rides, shorter 5-10 mile road loops that Scarlet rides solo, plyo routines, a session on the ramp setup in the driveway, etc., all seamlessly fall into our daily routine of homeschooling and homesteading. It is incredible to look back and see all of the riding she does here at the house and still peddled 2,000 miles touring on top of that!
Scarlet has been touring completely under her own power since she was 8 years old. Up until that point I was using various means of hauling her, her bike and her gear on my bike for tours when she would get tired. But at age 8 she and I rode the Erie Canal, 400 miles from Buffalo to Albany, NY, USA in 8 days.
In November. Not the time of the year I would recommend for that ride as we slept in our tent each night with the temperatures running in the low 20 degree (-6 Celsius) range. But it sealed the deal for me. Anyone who can pedal 50 miles a day, back to back, while carrying all of their own clothes, sleep system, water and food is the real deal. Over the years, she knows what it is like to go to sleep hungry because we ran out of food, how to filter water from a nearby creek, what “stealth camping” is, the feeling of pushing your fully loaded bicycle up the side of a mountain in the Ouachita National Forest in Oklahoma and have your breath taken away when you reach the summit. She is well versed in keeping hydrated, chatting with locals and Park Rangers and how to slyly convince dad that he needs a beer so she can scarf down a root beer and a slice of pizza. She has toured the Allegheny National Forest in pouring rain for 4 days, spent days camping and pedalling the mountains of the Monongahela National Forest, got sun poisoning from touring up and down the Outer Banks and let her confident, humble personality shine through on so many other tours and rides over the past 8 years.
Scarlet and I started off this season with the C&O Canal Trail, as I stated before, riding from Washington DC to Cumberland, MD where we picked up the Great Allegheny Passage. The Passage took us into Pittsburgh, PA, a ride we have done as a family many times before but Scarlet’s goal this year was to ride it all under her own power. When we got to Pittsburgh we made a loop around the southern part of the city on the Montour Trail, back to the GAP and returned to Cumberland. Backtracking part of the C&O towpath and then utilising roads, we ended back at our own front door, averaging 70 miles a day. During the tour, it became apparent that Scarlet wanted to see how many miles she could ride in one day. She proudly hit 89 miles on day 7.
The next tour was our two week family ride in Ohio. Based around the Ohio to Erie Trail and the Buckeye Trail, Scarlet pedalled 650+ miles from Cleveland to Cincinnati and then dipped southeast back to the beginning along the Buckeye. We camped at six State Parks (visiting State Parks was another one of our goals for this year) and various other campgrounds along the way as well as utilised WarmShowers.org when I failed to check if the campground that day allowed tents… We spent time hiking at Hocking Hills State Park and telling jokes at the Narrow Path Brewery in Loveland, OH. Scarlet became a bit of an inspirational celebrity at a bike shop outside of Cleveland and my wife decided that “gravel biking” is overrated.
Scarlet was intrigued at some of the solo overnighters I had done so we planned and toured our closest State Forest, Michaux. Her goal was to swim as much as possible so we based the tour around the lakes in the park. We started and ended from our driveway and took in the beauty of our local farms and orchards along the way. We stuck to a 100 mile (ish) round trip to allow time for swimming. It is pretty incredible, though, to step back and realise that my 10 year old considers a 50 mile day a “light day”… Michaux State Forest is also home to the Appalachian Trail Museum which we greatly enjoyed and noted how we found the Grandma Gatewood plaque in Hocking Hill State Park, Ohio and now a display of her Keds sneakers and a few other items here in Pennsylvania. Maybe we were unknowingly being lead by the spirit of Grandma Gatewood this summer!
Each year we send out an invitation to family and friends to join us on a three day ride along the C&O Canal towpath for a weekend of bicycling, camping and basking in what nature provides. This was our fourth annual “Come Be Miserable With Us” weekend bike tour. On the weekend before Halloween we lend out our extra sleeping mats, bikes, tents, sporks, racks, bags and anything else folks need to introduce them to bike touring/bike-packing. Because we cut the mileage back to 10-20 miles per day, Scarlet sees this as her opportunity to live the high life and straps on her own tent, extra books and a larger than normal stuffed animal. She’s a real rebel.
We finished our touring season this year with our now-annual Scarlet and Dad November Ride of Pain. In keeping with the theme, we left our house and took rail trails and roads to Jim Thorpe, PA, Pinchot State Forest, Easton, PA, along the Delaware River to Washington Crossing, NJ and back to our house. We rode in awe along the Lehigh Gorge, cooked our rice and potatoes over campfires and giggled together as we shivered in a small storm shelter along the Conewago Recreation trail. 700 miles of mapped out touring, not including the extra riding to grocery stores, museums, detours and wrong turns that lead to meeting new friends, visiting new places and making memories together.
Which is all we ever ask for.
A lot of folks over the past few years have been really interested in what Scarlet is doing in regards to her touring. She is a remarkable young woman and so well versed in outdoor life and in conservation and natural preservation. Her internal motivation is fuelled by her personal goals and her love of the outdoors. I feel that she is also driven by a real sense of responsibility in the planning and executing of these rides so she is very much a part of each step. From calling the campgrounds to carrying her own gear, she has always had a vital role in the trip. Once Scarlet could ride 30 mile days consecutively, I began simply designing rides with camping options 30 miles apart. Trails like the Erie Canal and the C&O towpath are perfect for this. She likes to set new goals and beat her previous ones so our daily mileage has crept up over the past three years. We now base it around 60 mile days with the range being 30-80 miles. We purposely allow down days and lower mileage when there are certain destinations or activities we want to participate in along the way. This could be a museum, lunch with a nearby friend, or a hike to a cave at the park we are camping at.
I am slightly a gear nerd, maybe a “closet gear nerd” describes it best. So here is a little insight to what Scarlet is using.
One of the biggest criteria to our gear is the cost/durability ratio. We do not have a large budget for gear and I would rather put that money into the trip itself than on the latest and lightest stove. Knowing that I can make repairs to something will always outweigh the throwaway mentality. We also filter every purchase with its environmental impact.
While I do watch weight, I have found that a few extra grams doesn’t make or break our daily mileage and I like the look of large thighs. As an old friend once said, “You’ll never notice lighter handlebars, but you will notice 5 pounds off your gut. And, it’ll save you money.”
All being said while he is poking my belly with his finger.
Scarlet rides a Liv Beliv City bike. It is an aluminium, step thru design that has been perfect for her touring. It allows her to have the benefits of larger 700cc wheels and tires while still feeling comfortable with the standover height. She is riding 38mm Specialized Sawtooth tires, currently not tubeless but we have in the past, with an 11/40, 1x9 drivetrain. Simple, cheap and easy to repair. And almost exactly what I run on my bike so everything is interchangeable. Efficiency is king when traveling light.
For the past three years we have been using more of a bike-packing setup when it comes to bags, though sometimes we still utilise a front or rear rack. Scarlet’s go-to setup is a medium Ortlieb seat pack, a Blackburn frame bag and a Restrap double roll dry bag held by a Specialized Burra Burra handlebar clamshell. When I was purchasing bags for her several years ago, the selection was limited and her bike had very specific needs.
The Ortlieb seat pack was the only one I could find at the time that was fully waterproof and had only one Velcro buckle around the seatpost. The other seat packs I tried would rub her rear tire and Scarlet disliked the feeling of a rack and pannier setup. We stuff her sleep system in there, either a Marmot summer bag or a Kelty down bag along with an Exped Downmat Lite sleeping pad and inflatable pillow. Sometimes a stuffed animal is left in the sleeping bag and he gets packed in there too.
The Blackburn frame bag was found on sale and fits almost to a custom level in her small front triangle. Which is not really a triangle at all. It stores food, utensils, toothbrush and usually is where random treasures found along the way are kept. Like rocks. The rule is: if you can fit it in your frame-bag and accept the extra weight, it is welcome aboard. Once it is full, dad doesn’t accept overflow.
The Restrap dry-bag is a favourite due to it always carrying her clothes and rain gear. We often put a coat/jacket on one end, the spare clothes in the middle and the other end has the rain pants and coat. That way it is easy to access if evenings get chilly or we get caught in a storm. For her water, Scarlet likes her Camelback and it allows us to keep riding instead of having to stop for drink breaks. I also found that because it’s easy to sip at, she stays more hydrated too. And, of course, it provides more space for treasures.
I carry the shelter, which ranges from just a ground sheet and a rain tarp to a full tent, and the kitchen. And by “kitchen” I mean a single alcohol burner and matches. Our shelter usually weighs in between 3-4 lbs (1.3-1.8 kilograms). We have tents from River Country Products as well as Alps Mountaineering. Shelter is one of the few things that we change up tour to tour, based on the terrain and the weather. I tend to use the same setup all the time, so no matter if it’s an overnighter or 2 weeks, the pack list is basically the same. We forget less that way and can focus on the route itself instead of taking up precious time wondering if we have the essentials packed.
Over the summer there were two distinct groups of people that we met along our rides. One group would always comment to me, “You know you are lucky to have a kid that spends time like this with you.” The other group always commented to Scarlet, “You know you are lucky to have a dad that spends time like this with you.” And, truly, we both are.
Kindly written for us by Flint Zeigler.