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Road Warriors

We began biking through Europe with our grandchildren in 2004, when the oldest was 11 and I was 64. We may have answered the question “When they’re old enough, will we still be young enough?”


The six of us: Grandma, Grandpa, and four grandchildren 11–14, leaned our bikes against the side of the building, pulled off our panniers, and marched into the Gasthaus.

In my best German, I politely said, “We’re the Anderson party. We have reservations for three double rooms for the night.” The innkeeper (wife) smiled at me. “You must be mistaken,” she said. “This is a restaurant, and we don’t have guest rooms. I thought you meant a dinner reservation.”

Meanwhile, in the back, the innkeeper (husband) was busy making phone calls. He came to the front with a big grin.

“I found you five beds,” he announced. “Will that do?”

“Yes, of course,” I quickly replied. We had been lost that day, encountered a detour, and we didn’t have the energy to go on to the next town for another Gasthaus. He also kindly drove with us out to a farm on the edge of the village, and introduced us to the landlady, who got us settled into our three rooms with five beds.

Of course we went back to the Gasthaus for dinner; after all, we had reservations!

But in the intervening few hours, the entire town of Neupotz, Germany, had heard of the six crazy American bikers who had booked rooms in the restaurant. The Burgermeister (mayor) came up to me, introduced himself, and offered my wife and me a glass of wine. He sat at our table, and he and I spent 20 minutes in conversation before our granddaughter Emily asked, “Grandpa, are we famous?” To which I replied, “Well, in Neupotz, I guess we are!”

That is only one of the many stories our nine grandchildren tell years after our bicycle trips with them are a memory.

My wife, Pat, and I began traveling in Europe with our grandchildren in 2004, when the oldest was 11 and Grandpa was 64. In the intervening years, we have had several trips with the grandchildren, ending in the summer of 2015 with the youngest two (then 8 and 10) biking around Der Bodensee (Lake Constance) with Grandma and Grandpa, and in 2016 with the eldest grandson (then 23) and his then-fiancée along the Inn river in Austria.

We may have answered the question “When they’re old enough, will we still be young enough?”

I became a long-distance bike-tourer in the famous summer of 1976, leading a trans-America group from Oregon to Virginia; my life hasn’t been the same since. Our motivation for biking with our grandchildren is simple: Give them an experience they’ll remember, some challenges they can rise to, and a desire to be lifelong bikers. It seems to be working.

They sing and giggle; they have no fear of hills, rain, or heat. They don’t care if they can’t read the signs, but they learn anyhow. They try new foods and drinks, and wind up liking some of them. They even learn to say, “Danke schön!”

On our first day out of Chur, Switzerland, along the Rhine, the six of us sat around a lunch table. Behind granddaughter Lydia another guest sneezed, and her companion said, “Gesundheit!” To which Lydia replied, “Oh! Do they say that here?” And Grandpa laughed and said, “Yes; after all, Gesundheit is a German word!”

Ford and Ian (two brothers) and I had just begun our ride around Der Bodensee and stopped at an inn in Rorschach, Switzerland. The innkeeper was so taken by these two young American boys who, with their grandpa, were biking around the lake, that she continued to regale us with stories during and after breakfast. The boys became impatient to go, and labeled this dear woman “Chatterbox Lady  No. 1.”

There was a second; when we stopped at the Swiss-German border, in the rain, returning to Konstanz, Germany, a few days later, a pedestrian stopped to talk to us. And talk. And talk. “Chatterbox Lady  No. 2.” Fourteen years later, Ford and Ian still remember the “chatterbox ladies,” and where we were when we met them. We have been excited by the ability to interact, whether in English, German, French, or Italian, with the Europeans, and we often turn to each other and say, “You wouldn’t get that on a tour bus.”

On our last night on Lake Constance (Der Bodensee), we wanted to find a special restaurant. Wandering through the streets of Bregenz, Austria, we came upon a likely place, and we knew it had the recommendation of our innkeeper. As we sat down, I saw the sign for Hollunder Schorle, and I told the boys they had to at least try it.

They did, and months later the youngest will still say with ecstasy, “That was the best drink I ever had.” A sweet syrup made from elderberry flowers, holunder can be mixed with water, sparkling water, or even some alcoholic drinks. Not available in Pennsylvania, and not found on the tour bus.

All nine of our grandchildren have been partly or wholly around der Bodensee; four have been down the Rhine from Chur, Switzerland, to Cologne, Germany. As the eldest have graduated from high school, two have traveled with me along the Salzach, Inn, and Danube; one along the Etsch or Adige from Landeck, Austria, to Verona, Italy; and one along the Saar river and canals from Saarbrücken, Germany, to Metz, France, Luxembourg, and back again.

They have seen two of the great rivers of Europe as well as Europe’s second largest lake. They have seen large cities, such as Strasbourg, Cologne, and Verona; smaller cities such as Innsbruck and Bregenz; and numerous small towns in between. They have heard German, French, and Italian spoken, and have practiced their “danke schön” and “bitte schön,” their “Guten Morgen” and “Guten Abend” faithfully. And they know if they say “Gesundheit” they will be understood!

Little Declan’s rented bike had a problem. (The left pedal fell off, and Grandpa didn’t bring a pedal wrench.) A few miles later, the pedal fell off again. Grandpa tried harder. It looked as if the pedal would stay. A few days later, it fell off again.

Grandma went into a small restaurant that was still serving breakfast, spoke English and German, and motioned with her hands until a maintenance person with a handful of wrenches came out and fixed Declan’s pedal for good. Everyone said, “Danke schön!” and the kids learned that people everywhere are basically good and want to be helpful, whether you are eating at their restaurant or not.

Kids will fool around, and the four Rhine-travelers were fooling around a little too much, which resulted in a crunch that left one wheel twisted beyond repair. Ford and I carried Lydia’s wheel to a bike shop, and the owner agreed to replace it right away so that we could be on our way. Meanwhile, the restaurant where we had lunch allowed the other four to sit, sip water, and play games quietly at a table for over an hour.

When we stopped for a drink at the bottom of The Big Hill on our trip around der Bodensee. Orion, not quite 9, asked, “Grandpa, did Ian get up the Big Hill without stopping?”

“No,” I replied.

“Then I will!” he announced, and he did. After lunch, on the other side, cousins Harrison and Philip shot down The Big Hill without a care, and Grandpa followed to be sure they would stay on the trail. Orion lost sight of his cousins ahead and his grandmother behind, and so he turned back and rode up The Big Hill again to be sure he was on the right track—or to be sure his grandmother was.

Have we succeeded? We think so. The grandchildren have experienced a different culture, different foods and drinks, and more than just castles and cathedrals. They have spoken with people who are both like them and different from them. They have watched “The Ring of the Nibelung” on the Rhine and heard the “Blue Danube Waltz” on the Danube. They have climbed some steep hills, endured some long, cold rain and outrageous heat. They have pedaled 20 to 50 miles in a day with no complaint. They know they can do it.

But will they be lifelong bikers? Only time will tell. As of now, even those of driving age will often take out their bike to run an errand, or go for a ride.

And the oldest, now 25, has planned and executed trips along the Great Allegheny Passage and the Erie Canal, and continues to plan trips with his wife. It seems to have stuck.

Of course the youngest won’t graduate from high school until 2026. And so the question still remains: When he is old enough, will we still be young enough?

Jay Martin Anderson ’60 is the Barshinger Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Franklin and Marshall College. He and wife Patricia Jones Anderson live in Lancaster, Pa., near three of their children and all of their nine grandchildren and two grandchildren-in-law.

Nuts and Bolts

Lost, detours, and safety.

Where to go. We focused on the rivers of Europe. We have exclusively used the maps and guidebooks of Verlag Esterbauer in Austria. Although the narrative is in German, the maps are readable by anyone, the books are weather-resistant, and they now come with downloadable GPS Tracks for use with a mobile phone. The Esterbauer maps cover primarily Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, but there are trips elsewhere in Europe, as well.    

To rent or to carry. On two of our many trips, we rented bicycles in Europe for the grandparents and grandchildren. This has the advantage that we don’t have to pack and unpack bicycles or pay the airline to carry them or the airport to store the bike boxes while we’re touring. But the rental bicycles have often been poorly maintained, and it is difficult to prepare for the repair of a bicycle that is not one’s own.

Frankly, I would rather pay the airline and the airport and have my own bicycle. On some occasions we have not boxed our bicycles. Some airlines will take unboxed bikes if we take off the pedals and turn the handlebars, but it is clear they don’t like it. We have had to argue in both Philadelphia and Zürich to get our unboxed bikes onto the plane. We have used boxes from Crate Works and (AirCaddy) with success; our Crate Works boxes have been back and forth across the Atlantic many times, with no significant wear. It takes about an hour to break down and another hour to build up two or three bikes for a Crate Works box; about half that for the AirCaddy.

We usually place our panniers in a duffel bag and check that on our flight, and carry onto the plane only a handlebar bag with something to read, watch, or listen to on the long flight.

From airport to trailhead and back. We have used three airports in Europe for our flights: Munich, Zürich, and Frankfurt. In the case of Munich and Zürich, it is relatively easy to get from the airport to some kind of train, and thence to the trailhead city or town. I have usually not made train reservations in advance, because our outbound flight might not be on time and sometimes it is not possible to make a reservation for a bicycle online. The agents of the national railroads have always been very helpful. There is a train station inside each of these airport, and the agents usually speak English.

Do they speak English? Full disclosure: my German is pretty good, my Italian and French so-so but usable. The agents for American airlines in Europe speak English; the baggage handlers often do not. The agents for the railroads at large stations and in the airports speak English; not always at smaller stations. Innkeepers and restaurateurs do not always speak English, and the so-called English menu is often less helpful than attempting to read the German, French, or Italian menu.

Do they have pizza? Children can be notoriously fussy about eating. To me, one of the joys of travel to Europe is to experience a different cuisine, and not to rely on American fast-food establishments. Not so with children. Of course, we have had to explain the menu to the children; to tell them that “hot dogs” are sometimes Wieners and sometimes Frankfurters and sometimes even Regensburgers because each city has a distinctive kind of sausage.

There are french fries everywhere, even if they are pommes frites or just pommes. The teens bravely tried escargots in France, but I couldn’t get anyone to try Strauß (ostrich) with me in Switzerland.    

There’s hot chocolate almost everywhere for breakfast, even if it comes out of an envelope. Grandson Ian once shouted with glee, “They have cold cuts for breakfast!” Sometimes I’ve interpreted a menu wrong and have had to eat my words (and their dinner).

And yes, they have pizza. You can’t choose your toppings; the pizzas (the plural is pizze) have prescribed toppings. And you don’t eat it with fingers, but with a knife and fork.

Lost, detours, and safety. I don’t think we’ve ever been on a Euro bike trip without getting lost. I try to emphasize that it’s simply part of the adventure; that sometimes signs are missing, or we miss the sign. Missing the route is easy inside towns and cities, but getting found is often easier. And, even in a foreign language, asking directions is not too difficult.     

Detours are different. To me, a detour is worse than being lost, because I don’t know if the detour pertains only to cars, or if a bike could get through; and I don’t know if the detour will bring me back to the bike route. Detours are not always well-signed, but there is usually a bold orange sign with the ominous “Umleitung! Détour! Deviazione!”    

We have found that the children, whether 8 or 18, easily learn some words on signs, and they can look for both picture-signs and words like “Rad” or “velo” in order to find a bike path.

Some will learn to convert kilometers to miles approximately, and others will continually ask, “How far is it in American?” They’re not worried about getting lost if we’re not.