A Long Ride: 20,000 Miles Along the Pan-American Highway

Bike Immersion--that's the feel I was hoping for with my first touring experience several years ago. The Bike Northwoods Tour covered nearly 360 miles in six days taking riders from Wautoma (central) Wis., to Washburn (northern), Wis. Along the route riders discovered the peaks and valleys of the state while recharging with 10-cent-popcorn at an Amish popcorn stand, fresh strawberries from Mennonite farms, and ice-cold watermelon at tour rest stops.

I went on my own (hubby & grandparents watched the kids) and the week was hard in many ways. I made daily mistakes and even hitchhiked with my bike! But, I loved the adventure of the tour and meeting people along the way. Since then, hubby & I've talked about touring with our kids and when and how it'd work best. Riders must be 8 or older for the Bike Northwoods Tour.

Recently I connected with another mom on wheels. Nancy Sathre-Vogel @familyonbikes followed me on twitter @ironmakeover and wrote "I just found you here! Good to meet another active mom!"

Sathre-Vogel, her husband John and their twin boys Davy and Daryl are currently cycling 20,000 miles along the Pan-American Highway (Alaska to the southern tip of South America). When the twins complete the ride they'll become the new Guinness World Record holders as the youngest people to cycle the Pan-American Highway. See this week's NBC New York Nightly News interview with Sathre-Vogel here.

photo: After cycling 16,534 km the family recently reached the equator!
See entire slideshow including pictures from Galapagos Island!

4 people, 2 trailers, 3 bikes, 1 family, 30 months, 20,000 miles, 15 countries
- Trip: The family left Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in June 2008 and after pedaling 20,000 miles over 3 years they expect to arrive in Ushuaia, Argentina.
- Bikes: The family's traveling with two single bikes and a tandem.
- Cost: around $20,000 per year or about $50/day .
- Experience: Parents John Vogel and Nancy Sathre-Vogel have pedaled an estimated 200,000 miles through sixteen countries in the past thirty years. Slideshows here.
- School: Davy and Daryl are homeschooled by their parents who are both long-time teachers. See different lesson plans along the map by topic.
- Media: NBC New York Nightly News interviewed Sathre-Vogel this week (clip here), when she flew back for a new bike wheel & warmer gear as they are approaching the Andes. Bicyling Magazine also featured the family on bikes.
- Outreach: The family is using their educational background to bring the world to under-privileged children in New York City through Reach the World (RTW). Reach the World is an educational non-profit organization with the mission of linking students in under-funded schools to online, global expeditions .
- Sponsors: Eddie Bauer & First Ascent are their apparel outfitters. See a complete sponsor list here & a list of individuals who've sponsored the family on a per mile basis.
- FAQ: What do they eat? Where do they sleep? How do they bathe? How many flat tires?
Check out the fascinating FAQ section including the highs and lows of their adventure.

The true value of our journey goes way beyond the school stuff, shared Sathre-Vogel in a past blog post. "It’s the other things they are learning that will serve them best in life. They are learning how to plan and carry out a ‘big’ project and now know that, to succeed in any big undertaking, you just take it baby step by baby step. They’ve learned the value of teamwork and know that you can do a lot by working together.

"Davy and Daryl have figured out exactly what their own personal strengths and weaknesses are – and how to use them to their advantage. They’ve learned to persevere through hardship and know they will come out triumphant on the other side. It’ll be interesting to see how these little guys grow and develop through life!”
photo by John Vogel: Enjoying a mud bath in the El Totumo mud volcano outside Cartagena.

I (Sara) wanted to know more! Sathre-Vogel was happy to answer my questions via e-mail. Thanks for the interview!

SARA: Tell me more about the brutal descents. How do the heavy loads change the feel of the descent? Do you all LOVE downhill speed?
*note while cycling the Columbia Andes the family climbed 7,500 feet in 55 kilometers - very steep.
S-V: Although I love the going down part of the ride, when you have to grip your brakes with all your might, it takes a bit of joy out of it. We have to stop periodically to rest our hands - they tend to cramp up after gripping so tightly for so long. Our rims also heat up due to all the friction and we could actually blow up a tire that way - so we stop to let it all cool down.

The descents are actually one of our biggest challenges as a family. The heavier the bike, the faster it will go - so we can't stay together. We all climb more or less together, but end up terribly separated on the descents. John and Daryl on the tandem are the fastest, so they end up ahead. I'm next. And poor little Davy who weighs next to nothing and isn't carrying much of anything creeps along behind.
Photo by Nancy Sathre-Vogel: Another climb -- Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway

SARA: Do the boys rotate who rides the tandem/single? Or is Davy always on the single?
That was the original plan but hasn't worked out that way. Davy is a lot bigger than Daryl and is much more capable of riding solo than his brother is. Besides, Daryl has a tendency to daydream a lot - not a good thing when you've got 10-ton trucks blasting past!

SARA: At what age & how did you start teaching your kids how to bike & how to love cycling?
S-V: We were living in Ethiopia when our boys were small, so never did the trailer thing like so many parents. When they were around 3, we bought a trailer bike - they loved it! ... The summer the boys were five, we put a kiddie crank on our old tandem. John hooked up an impossible train with the tandem and a trailer bike and took them for a ride up to Idaho City - about 45 miles from Boise and up a steep hill. It was a tough day, but the boys hung in there very well. From there, our summer journeys got a bit bolder each year. When they were seven, we took off for our first tour with two tandems. When they were eight, we bought a bicycle built for three for John and the boys and headed out for a year on the road.

We never intentionally set out to "teach them to ride" or to "love cycling" - we just did what felt natural for us. A side benefit of that is that the boys love traveling with bicycles as much as we do.
photo: Sathre-Vogel calls Tolu, Columbia and its sloths, hidden gems.

SARA: You camped at times, in the desert, open spaces, along the road. Besides dust/sand did anything else try to sneak in your tent?
On this trip? No. On our first big family adventure in 2006-07, we had a skunk prowling around trying to get in the food we had stashed right outside the tent door. We also had a fox visit us one night.

On this trip, we were deep in the middle of bear country when we heard something outside the tent. We still don't know what it was - bear? Moose? Raccoon?
And then there was the time at Canyon de Chelly where we were getting buried in sand. And the night in Baja when we thought we had the perfect campsite next to a small grove of trees...

SARA: I love reading about the daily life activities.
S-V: That's my favorite part too. It is so wonderful to cycle slowly through small towns watching moms brush their daughter's hair, big sisters doing laundry, dad's slaughtering chickens for dinner, kids dressed up in their uniforms walking to school... I don't think I'll ever get tired of it.
photo: Daryl dives off the platform into a swimming hole in Guatemala. Upstream from the swimming hole women washed clothes while children played.

SARA: Describe bed bugs.
S-V: Ugh. Bed bugs are the most vile, the most horrible bug on earth! Give me mosquitoes any day over bed bugs! If you look at bed bugs through a microscope they look like the very definition of evil. The problem with bed bugs is that you have no idea they are there - until you wake up itching to high heaven. I am very sensitive to nearly all bug bites, so I end up with huge red itchy welts all over my back. John hardly even knows they were there. There have been times when we have taken our plastic tarp and spread it on the bed - the nasties can't get through the plastic.

SARA: Within different newsletter updates you mention rebuilding the bikes, is this normal maintenance, can you tell me more?
S-V: Things wear out. Whenever you have moving parts, you will have things wearing down and will need to be replaced every now and then. You also have to grease bearings every once in a while. It isn't a big deal, but takes a fair bit of time when you have to take apart six wheels and four sets of pedals to repack the bearings! We've had relatively few mechanical problems on our trip.

Questions for You:
- Where would you go?
- Where have you gone?
- What part of this trip interests you most?
Thanks again Nancy & family for allowing me to share your adventure here! Nancy is an amazing artist. Check out her beadwork here. And if you'd like to sponsor the family go here.


Nancy Sathre-Vogel said...

Thank you so much Sara! I really appreciate the opportunity to get the word out that bike travel with kids is more than possible - it's the best! So - when will you be joining us onthe road??


KK said...

You should take a look at doing RAGBRAI next year with the kids. I saw a ton of families with various types of setups for the kids and there were some young ones perched on seats.

Sara Cox Landolt said...

Wow, what an adventure! I bet our kids would get along! My hubby wants to try Alaska. I'm thinking Montona-ish. But as KK suggested RAGBRAI is a great option!

Thanks again for working with me on this piece!