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« Why We Drive »

It was, in retrospect, an ill-conceived plan.

At one point, it did make a bit more sense. I'm always looking for an excuse to spend a weekend in Portland, and their first ever Tweed Ride seemed as good an excuse as any. Our kids in tweed - little street urchins?  Chimney sweeps? Girls at high tea? How cute would that be? Plus the chance to meet up with some other online bikey family friends.

I planned for us to leave on Friday and return Sunday, taking a city bike and the Madsen bucket bike, and going down on Amtrak, because, well, I love the train ride down to PDX, and I thought the kids would be dazzled.

Melissa (my twin-in-law) and Kevin were going to come down too, with Drew's cousins Maddie and Lola. But then they didn't. And Kim and I offered to bring the cousins anyway, because they love Kidical Mass and other bike rides with us. And because we're clinically insane.

Then the Friday departure fell apart, and we already had tickets. But there was a Sat 7:30am train arriving just in time for the Tweed Ride. Why not? Luc gets us up early, what's an hour earlier? Apparently that hour is the difference between our typical fuzzy muddling though life and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

We left at pre-dawn in a drizzle. We'd added the bike trailer to Kim's bike for more weather protection and kid separation. I'd budgeted an hour for the ride to the station, through the Locks, the railyards, and along the lovely Elliott Bay Trail. Except the Locks open at 7am. Leaving us with the Ballard Bridge. With its precarious, all-too-narrow sidewalk. The Madsen might have worked, but not the trailer. We took a lane, side by side, lit up like the dickens. So sketchy - a 4 lane arterial bridge, short but with a stretch of metal grating at the drawbridge part. Kim said she wasn't nervous, as she trusted me. Mistake. I was freaked out.

Survived the bridge (traffic was light, we were careful on the slippery part), but then ... Kim bonked on the Elliott Bay trail. I hadn't planned for her to be pulling a trailer with child. And she hadn't had much to eat or drink in the hectic, behind schedule departure. And I don't consider myself in great physical shape, but I apparently have "cargo legs".

It could have been worse, relationship-trauma-wise and how-to-make-your-spouse-hate-bikes-wise. We had banana bread and water, blocks from the station. And an arrival 10 minutes before the train left, but not early enough to finesse the Madsen issue. DENIED. With extreme prejudice. We'd have to take a later train. And leave the Madsen behind. FIASCO! And not unpredictably so.

In my defense, Amtrak is inconsistent with large bikes. Technically, they need to hang from their vertical bike racks, or fit in a bike box. In real life, I've heard of xtracycles and other longtails making it. My Dutch bike didn't fit on their rack, and they allowed me to secure it to a rail in the baggage car (with grumbling).  But the baggage supervisor at the Seattle station refused to even consider the Madsen. Even with sturdy centerstand to keep it upright. Even though the baggage car has had plentiful room behind the bike racks every time I've looked. "Yadda yadda 'our policy' yadda yadda 'liability' yadda yadda 'since 9/11' yadda yadda". 9/11?? This bike is not a pipe bomb.

Obligatory Album Cover ShotTo anyone but a bike geek I sound like an entitled idiot, expecting Amtrak to bend their official policy of "no unusual bikes". Perhaps I thought having 4 urchins in tow would tip the scales? Not so much. Anyway, Kevin and I had discussed the possibility of Madsen denial, so he had his helmet. He left his car, and rode the Madsen home. And we got to sit around the station for 3 hours. At which point Kim stated that if we'd taken Melissa's minivan, we'd be there now. In a coping, but pining for automobility sort of way.

The kids and I wandered around Pioneer Square at dawn, posing with statues, as we do. The children fought in public, but that's par for the course down there.

The train ride itself was not as fabulous as I envisioned it. I think that I have a very selective memory when it comes to travel with children. As in, I only remember what it's like to travel without children. On the positive side, they weren't strapped down for 3 hours, and got to move around, swap seats, visit the bistro, and nap on the floor. On the negative side, they weren't strapped down. And we had an audience of non-plussed fellow passengers. It could have been worse, though. They could have been stuck with the drunken bachelor party in the next car.

I put out a Pan-pan to my bike tweeps, and both Clever Cycles and Allan Folz offered long-bike help. In fact, Allan was our savior that day, meeting us on a bakfiets at the station, with a Brompton for himself in the box. We got to borrow his lovely red bakfiets with raincover for the weekend, and met him back at the train station the next day. I felt really bad about that because it was a busman's holiday for Allan; he provides bike concierge and van support to Oregon bike tourists with his business, Portland Sag Wagon. We love Allan.

Our Dapper Hero!

High Tea TimesAs for the Tweed Ride? Yeah, we pretty much missed it. Most of the bikey families had already peeled off by the time we met the ride at the finish. But we did have the pleasure of meeting Jasper and his Yuba-Mundo-hacking parents at A Most Civilized Conveyance. Not that we could talk much. Have I mentioned that Kim and I were completely freaking outnumbered by children? 2:1 child to adult ratio does not make for grownup conversation. It makes for circular endless discussions about wanting what you don't have. Raising a toddler has been described as "like living with a drunken dwarf". Well, we were traveling with 4. And 2 separate strangers yelled "get an SUV" at us in 5 minutes. In Portland Bikeytown USA. A sign?

And then (the indignity!) I was denied discount beer by the saucy wench (not misogynist, just period dialect, mind you) at the Backspace counter, who said I had to be wearing tweed. Well what would you call this focacta bowler hat, bowtie, tuxedo pants and smoking jacket getup that I carried all the way from Seattle by bike and train?!? Not tweed, apparently. I was going for a dapper waiter to the girls' Madsen tea party look. But without the Madsen, and without the girls, I apparently just looked like an imbecile. It was a low point.

Hotel movie and pizza? We're not proud.Off to the hotel. Ah, the hotel. Embassy Suites at a killer online rate. Every room a suite. And whether from pity or a desire to keep our escaped-from-the-zoo menagerie away from other patrons, we were up high in a huge corner suite. Bliss. Ponyo (great movie) for the girls. Old Town Pizza delivered by bakfiets! A two-hour bedtime calamity, and then Kim and I huddled in the dark with our light sleeper, drinking room service hooch.

A bonanza breakfast buffet and lots of pool & hot tub time the next morning was another highlight for the girls. We weren't left with much time, so we rode bikes around the Pearl cruising for parks and playgrounds, and wound up here, favored by sunshine and a delicious lunch, with Voodoo Doughnuts.

A Rare Peaceful Moment (The Calm Before the Hair Grab)

I'd hoped to make it to Clever to get a thank you gift for Allan, but I thought I'd spare my entourage and the shop from each other that day. We did arrange a gift certificate, thinking his son might like some spiffy grips and fold-out footpegs for the bakfiets stoker seat. And then a ride home on Amtrak again, where this time to our outrage we were not able to check the children as baggage. But three of our crew fell into a coma, and Maddie, Luc, and I had a train bistro date over Mac 'n Cheese. 

Amtrak Coma

Kim drove the cousins home in their car, and I rode Kim's bike home with Drew and Luc, who fell fast asleep in the snuggly trailer while Drew and I discussed how one might deal with "bad guys", and that poking their eyes might not be the best choice. Especially when Drew thinks that any social slight makes you a "bad guy". Even if you're her baby brother.

When we got home, Kim threatened to post a "Why We Drive" ode-to-driving response to our "Why We Ride" slideshow. And I can't say I disagree. Even as the "Slightly Lower Impact Man" in our relationship, I concede we should have borrowed the minivan and rented bikes from Clever Cycles when we got there. Here is my penance:

What have we (I) learned from this cautionary tale?

  • I love riding bikes with my family (still very true)
  • A fully-loaded bakfiets is a dream to ride, especially around a flat city
  • I hate flat handlebars on bikes (Kim's)
  • My clown-ass getup was insufficiently "tweedy" (relevant for the upcoming Seattle Tweed Ride)
  • Hotels are fun with kids. A different kind of fun, however, than one might remember from B.C. times (Before Children).
  • Don't bring an unusual bike on Amtrak if anything depends on it (but do bring folding and standard bikes)
  • There are some inherent disadvantages to mass transit: a fixed schedule, inflexible baggage policies, and a need for at least some decorum. These are a problem for our clan, especially if we've got an event to get to. Even if we could convince Amtrak to allow unusual bikes (and we should), we still would have missed our train, spent hours more in transit, and worried more about our kids' behavior on the trip.
  • Thus and so forth, QED, ipso facto ... if wildly outnumbered by small children and traveling to a bikey town, we will DRIVE and rent bikes. The good lord made church vans for a reason.

How about you, hopefully wiser parents out there? Any cautionary tales or bike/train fiascos of your own?

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Reader Comments (27)

But you know what you got out of that Julian, is a story. And that's what you don't get when you get in a car.

February 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

You SO get an "A" for effort. Actually, make that an "A+." I could not be more impressed by your weekend adventures, even if Amtrack had said yes to the Madsen. I am not sure I even would have thought to try and pull off such a thing & now, you've got my wheels spinning (in my brain, that is)...

Ahhh, and yes, aren't bakfietsen (and no hills) such dreams?!

OH, and we need an uncle/aunt set like you. Taking the cousins for an overnight adventure with the cousins. Awesome.

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersara

What a harrowing account! You deserve mad props for not fighting the wench- you definitely would have passed muster for the Philadelphia tweed ride. And- as someone who was the tagalong cousin on a number of trips- getting to go on your adventure will mean a lot to that little person someday. Cheers!

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie

Can I just sympathise for a split second with your lovely wife? My non-cargo legs were absolutely mush after the 9-10 miles on the Madsen w/ both boys. I haven't much been keeping track of their weight but it's a combined 83 lbs (when did that happen???). It was good practice, though. Now I'm ready to roll with the ute. That said, for a moment I considered how fun it would be to trek up to Seattle on the train w/ the boys & the bike. But riding fully loaded out of King station, and going anywhere but the waterfront, is blowing my mind (and really making my non-cargo legs noodle-y). Sorry we missed you this time, but at some point our paths will cross!

And if this link works, you will see I was a little short on tweed, myself. But I didn't let it stop me!

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershetha


Sorry to have missed you, it would have been fun to meet you and the clan. I didn't see your phone message until we got home (we cut out just before Laurelhurst Park fashion show), but I see you managed to catch up near the end. Despite some hub problems on my wife's Raleigh, we had a good ride, and thankfully not much rain, but we had no tweed on either, so had I been at Backspace, I could have sympathized with you being denied cheap beer.

I suppose in the end, this kind of trip is really the kind that automobiles are particularly well suited to. Long distance, carrying lots of stuff (or people). Especially when you actually have good options for family rental bikes in your destination city. It's no shame to admit it would have been easier and more enjoyable by car. Now if you start going the 5 minutes to the grocery store by car all the time, I might worry :)

Hope the trip wasn't too traumatic for you all, and maybe we'll meet up some other time, here or in Seattle. When we were there last, we started exploring Fremont and Ballard (previously we had mostly stayed in downtown), and really enjoyed both of those areas. Went to a great creperie in Ballard, would love to see more of it :)


February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Arg! My heart goes out to you all. Painful. But, and hopefully, perhaps, you will all look back on this and laugh, as it seems like you already have. The insurmountable difficulty to make it happen. You are an amazing father, adult to go through so much all for the fun of life. I see some of my own ignorant doings in this.

As a side, and I am sure many others would also assist, if you ever want to come down to Portland for a bike event, let us all know. We can loan you and your group bikes, cargo bikes, or find a place to rent one. I do not have anywhere near the quiver of bikes that some people I know have. However, I could easily get a cargo bike to you.

Thanks for the eye opening post. Another time. Another day. Organizing life with kids is challenging, but we grow from it.

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravis A. Wittwer

WOW!!! I had been setting a goal to be less of a tight ass parent in 2010. See I do tend to think of all the things that could go wrong and then freak out before doing it. You are a better parent than I b/c I might have exploded on that trip. In any case- it sounds like fun reading about it on this side of things. Glad it worked out. And now I'm second guessing my idea to Amtrak it with kids from Boston to NYC soon. I won't be taking my bike so maybe it would work. What we need is awesome family bike rentals in every city!

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMamavee


Really - how much better do you think this could have gone? You did your homework, made back-up plans (which you needed and used), and no one was lost or injured in the making of this great adventure. Yes, using a minivan may have been easier, but as a fellow family-cyclist I can remind you that sometimes it's more about the journey (esp. when you have to settle for hotel hooch instead of cheap beer when you reach the destintation...)

Thanks for taking us along for the ride and sharing your lessons learned!

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatt in Tacoma

Yikes! I was wondering why you had so many kids to wrangle... now I know it is because you are a saint! I'm sorry we didn't get time to chat. Next time, up here or down there, for sure. Thanks for sharing the adventure!

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterinkandpen

Thanks for the support! You are all, indeed, "My Tribe", as Mamavee put it.

Truth be told, as Kim and I were chuckling over the pictures last night, it had already become a fond memory. It never got ugly. Just discouraging and exhausting at times. But it's not like we had to sleep in the street.

And don't let me dissuade anyone from taking the train. Seriously, bikes and Amtrak can play very well together. And with older kids like some of y'all have, we'd do it all over again. But multiple kids under 4? "Unusual bikes"? Caveat emptor.

I wonder if Shetha's new Ute is "unusual" enough to raise suspicion. Honestly, I bet you'd make it to the baggage car. But then it might not fit their rack. Bike box? You'd need a pedal wrench and a way to turn the handlebars sideways ... hmm ...

You can see how I get sucked into these mishaps.

But if any of you make it to Seattle, we'd be happy to be your Allan Folz!

February 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

"we'd be happy to be your Allan Folz!"

Sheesh, you're making me blush!

Alright it's pay-back. Everyone, Julian's wife is a saint! She doesn't deserve being married to someone as certifiably mad as Julian. When I met them at the train station I about fell over when they had 4 little ones in tow. While Julian had the frantic, adrenaline-jagged energy of a zealot on pilgrimage, his wife was bubbly, gracious, and gave no external signs of having their weekend blown up due to the lunacy of her husband.

Actually, I was surprised at how both of them were in such good spirits despite the ostensible purpose of their trip being ruined. Three hours would not have been enough to finish my cussing of Amtrak's frivolous treatment of cyclists. A 20 foot baggage car that can only allow six standard bicycles is the palpable kind of stupid you can only get with an entrenched government monopoly and fully unionized work-force. I can't help but wonder if any of the $8 thousand-million Obama is dedicating to rail infrastructure will be spared to purchase a dozen or two more hooks for bikes in the otherwise cavernous baggage cars.

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAllanF

Wow Julian (and Kim),

You two are tenacious and deserving of some sort of aunt and uncle medal. That trip would have put me over the edge with 2 kids under 4 and you had to go ahead and push the limit with 4. (I would definitely have given up and gone home after the Union Station debacle).

When we travel (with kids and with out) we talk about peaks and valleys. Sounds like you had many of both. The peaks stick with us and are why we all keep plugging along.

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranne

Unbelievable! I am frazzled after merely reading about your adventures.
Thanks for the great story - And it is always good to have superhero role models!

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLovely Bicycle!

Nice going! Being flexible when traveling with kids is key to having a good time no matter what happens. Kudos to Allan for the bikes! I'll remember that his company "Portland Sag Wagon" deserves to be mentioned to my friends who travel to Portland.

I'm amazed that Amtrak is so harsh on "weird" bicycles. I can see charging extra for large bikes if there is room, but to flat out deny recumbents? Bikes like the Cruz bike would easily hang on a hook. And it's not like they couldn't put a front wheel rack along the back wall and fasten in the bikes. If we can put wheel chairs on buses, bikes in box cars should be a no brainer.

And yes Mini-vans have a purpose, so do taxis but SUV's? Not so much.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGary

Heh. Great story - way to keep your sense of humor!

I've taken that train ride with sleep-deprived toddler (one, not four!), and with bike (ordinary road bike), but never both! I've even been denied my bike (on the Cali-bound train).

I drive the wagon now.

My boy covered the train end-to-end at least 25 times, and only got his hand stuck a sliding door once! Made more friends than enemies, so all in all not too bad, but exactly restful!

I love trains, I love bikes, I love my boy. But you gotta know your limitations in when to mix 'em. I have a lot bigger limitations than you!

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbiliruben

Yup. Allan's description of our mental states pretty much nails it. And Kim's state of grace was indeed a thing of wonder.

I would like to also state for the record that she said last night that "I'd even do that again!". Now, she's backpedaled that statement a bit today, saying it was in reference to traveling with 4 kids, not the bike to Amtrak business. We shall see. I have a pilgrimage to Vancouver, BC in mind ...

For a funnier, better-written, and orders-of-magnitude-more-ambitious family cycling yarn, don't miss Joe Kurmaskie's latest "Metal Cowboy" opus: Mud Sweat and Gears - A Rowdy Family Bike Adventure Across Canada On 7 Wheels

February 4, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

I hope it won't sour you on tweed rides in general, because I'm looking forward to the Seattle ride!

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBikejuju

I second David's comment that if you had driven you would not have this interesting story of challenge to share (possible alternate title: "The Odyssey" catchy, huh?).

Piling everybody into the auto is easy and predictable, but only because we're so well practiced in it. The more familiar we get with alternatives, the easier they become. Might I suggest for your next challenge, you try ballooning (with bikes attached) to the next tweed ride? I bet you would get that beer...

You've inspired me to finally go and try to take my Mundo on the DC Metro. They have some size limits which I think I am slightly over by an inch or two, and I bet it boils down to a very subjective determination by an authority figure. But I won't know unless I try.

If Amtrak won't offer transport, then they should at the very least offer some sort of safe bike parking. At least that's what I would think for some place like Seattle, with a biking Mayor and all.

Perhaps Bike Friday needs to team up with a cargo company and whip up a cargo bike (think "Buckit" or "Munday").

Thanks for sharing.


February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Sort of a random comment. I was actually on the same Amtrak train to Portland, in the very same car as you and your family! Even more coincidentally, I was wearing tweed (though sans bike, as I recently moved up to Seattle from Portland, and was training down to Portland to pick up the rest of my belongings...including many more bikes than the one I brought to Seattle during my "soft" move in early January)! But I digress, the point of actually leaving a comment was to say how impressed I was with how you communicated with the kiddies throughout the ride down to Portland; calm, collected...very bike chic!


February 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

At the risk of committing the terrible faux-paux of posting a link to one's own blog in the comments of another's blog, I wrote a little comparison of touring by car vs. touring by bike, of which I am probably overly proud.

February 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAllanF

Oh man, re-reading that post I linked to, I love this quote by Paul Fussell, "Let the tourist be cushioned against misadventure, your true traveler will not feel that he has had his money’s worth unless he brings back a few scars."

February 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAllanF

As the twin in law, I am eternally endebted. The kids didn't notice the mayhem. They only had fun & would like to make a monthly ritual. You in? :) We love you.

February 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Make that indebted

February 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

You left out a few things learned:

- The Ballard Bridge is a death trap and a criminal travesty in a city that makes any claim to be even vaguely "bicycle freindly." Remodeling/replacing it should be one of the top ten priorities on any bike plan or transportation budget, but my expectations of seeing anything change in our lifetime are exactly zero. Shameful.

- Public transit (in this country) in general, and Amtrak in specific, are pathetic jokes, and basicallly designed to make sure that people drive. Hence your title. Driving is enforced by the outrageous lack of viable choices. There is a growing awareness that this needs to change, but again, my expectations are low.

- Dealing with Amtrak officials is much like dealing with any beaureaucrat, or with law enforcement personnel: if they are not in a good mood, your life can suddenly descend into hell. Our crowd (Aaron's Bicycle Repair staff, mostly) once travelled to Portland by Amtrak with two Xtracycles, both fully loaded. We put them on centerstands, called it good, and they didn't seem to mind, though they seemed a bit bewildered. There were no problems. The policy needs to be changed, and this will not cost millions of dollars. All it will cost is some beaureaucrat's stubborn pigheadedness - obviously much too high a price

In the words of Captain Jason Nesmith: "Never give up, never surrender!" Our prevailing social structure encourages everyone to drive, and has placed a plethora of obstacles in the way of anyone who would do anything else. We need to change this, and gradual as that process may be, we have to keep it moving. Kudos to all of you for attempting and finishing this trip, in spite of the haters. I certainly won't revile you if you decide to drive next time (I do it, too), but don't stop envisioning the alternatives, and making them real.

February 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVal

This post was very educational for me as I'm in a bakfiets vs. Madsen phase (for like 2 years, since it's quite a purchase). In that time, our family's population grew by one, to a total of 6. We're outnumbered 2:1 as you and your wife were on this trip. Witha little, little guy, a bakfiets is calling me, with its ability to hold a car-seat protected young baby (and with an easily purchasable rain cover, I'd like to think I'll have less peering eyes seeing my <1 baby in the box). Our oldest is 6 and isn't a solo rider, so my husband and I have a sick desire to put an Adams Trail-a-bike stoker on a bike that he would get (because who wants to ride a Freecycle bike when the wifey gets a bakfiets?).

I loved the insight into the future life and stories we might have, if we ever stop blowing the "cargo bike money" at the veterinaian. Thank you for that!

May 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDeedee Miller

awesome story, awesome perspective. Surely a family adventure for the archives; you, Kim & the kids will recount the good and bad memories fondly.

July 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterolivia

Julian and Kim--
I found your blog through my mom, Therese Grant. I love it and you two are inspiring. I don't have kids yet, but when I do I will be re-reading every single one of these posts.

Keep up the great parenting, adventuring, and writing!


March 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

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