The Family that Never Quits Pedaling

I thought cycling with a laptop and a bottle of wine was hard. Then I met a pair of Dutch cyclists on tour with a grown dog, a puppy—-and a baby

Petra Van Glabbeek
Petra Van Glabbeek tows Ouiza (staring out the rear) and Coco (standing, and getting a free snout-scratch from the turning wheel) on a luggage-less day ride. On uphill climbs, the dogs are asked to trot alongside the bikes. Photo by Alastair Bland

I thought cycling with a sack of lentils, a laptop and a bottle of wine was hard. But last Saturday I met a pair of cyclists on tour with a grown dog, a puppy—and a baby. They were seated on the ground in a parking lot behind a supermarket, fresh out of the Pyrenees after crossing from Spain, and taking a time-out so the dogs could run and the littlest of them have a few minutes out of the baby trailer.

They were from Holland—sort of. That is, Peter and Petra Van Glabbeek don’t exactly live anywhere. Peter, who works temp positions in the Dutch health care industry when he’s on home turf, has been cycle touring for seven years, in which time he has been home only several times—one of them to marry Petra. That was a year ago, not long after they learned that Petra, a wintertime ski instructor and photographer, was pregnant. Ben has spent two of his eight months on the road, in the trailer towed by Peter. (Petra is pulling the dogs.) The three have come north over the past weeks from Granada, where Peter and Petra left their bikes last summer before hitchhiking home to await the arrival of their first child. (Petra was cycling into her eighth month of pregnancy.)

To make their lifestyle work, the Van Glabbeeks spend virtually no money. Their most basic technique is that they almost never pay to sleep. Peter hadn’t stayed in a campground for years until last week, when they took a site for several nights in a French Pyrenees village to dry out after four days of rain (about the time I enjoyed a rare night in a hotel).

They barely buy any food at all. They never eat at restaurants, they forage off roadside trees, they often ask bakeries for the day’s leftovers (which can produce heaps of baguettes), and they harvest edibles from trash bins—their most productive resource.

“We’ve only been dumpster diving for about a year,” Petra said. “We’re still learning.”

Some markets, they now know, are more reliable than others. Intermarché, a national supermarket chain, is always a good bet for a dive in the waste bins. The market discards heaps of perfectly edible, if slightly blemished, fruits and vegetables, as well as breads and pastries a day past prime freshness, Peter explained. But Aldi Marche and Carrefour supermarkets, so it seems, often use trash compactors to compress their edible throwaways. Still, food remains a minimal expense wherever the family is.

“In rich countries, you can eat what other people throw away,” Peter told me. “In poor countries, it’s almost free to buy food anyway.”

In Morocco, for instance, where the pair cycled for almost two months last year, the equivalent of $2.50 could buy the pair fruits and vegetables to last several days. In France, they are getting by on no more than 8 Euros per day for the entire family (I’m parting with about 12, as I sheepishly admitted to them). In the fall, Peter says, he has found dates in Africa, figs in Turkey, apricots and grapes in Pakistan, mangoes and papayas in Southeast Asia. In Spain, the pair has been collecting roadside oranges, a winter-spring crop. Elsewhere, they regularly walk through post-harvest farm fields, gathering up abandoned strawberries and potatoes.

They keep themselves in clean order, always washed and well fed, though Peter knows the difficulties and hunger of travel in truly harrowing places. Now 34, he recounts his more-than 2,000 miles of pedaling through Tibet in 2005, when foreigners were allowed.

“It’s really an expedition there,” he said. “It’s not a holiday. You must think to survive.”

He spent months above tree line, in a moonscape almost devoid of life, of people and of food. Villages were few, and most people lived in tent towns situated 50 miles or more apart. Tibetan cuisine is often less an art, as in Mediterranean nations, than a scheme of providing the body with calories. Tea, a major staple, is served with yak butter and salt, many times between dawn and dusk. (“They must drink about 25 cups a day,” Peter remembers.) Along with their staple drink, Tibetans toast and eat barley flour, called tsampa.

Peter arrived eventually in Singapore, moved on to Australia, then Latin America—always pedaling.

He remembers first setting out from Holland seven years ago—intimidated each evening by the darkness of the hinterlands beyond towns and beyond chain-link fences. “So I slept in campgrounds every two or three days,” he said. But he quickly saw the pointlessness of the habit. “You have to make a campground your goal for the day, instead of just stopping where you like.” But most notably, wild camping saved money. Peter honed his other travel skills, too, and became a master of thrift. During one particular year, he remembers, he withdrew just 800 Euros from the bank.

Just when, where and if the cycling journey will end for the Van Glabbeeks isn’t certain—but Ben has become a growing logistical factor. They can only cycle about 30 miles a day with a child in tow, whereas they used to travel as far as 60 or 80. Nap time for Ben, who rides in a plush watertight carriage, is pedaling time for the adults. As they move northward this spring, they have been looking at real estate—which is cheap in Spain and the Pyrenees. A five-acre plot on the French side, at 1,000 meters of elevation, was just 30,000 Euros, they noted—though friends of theirs had already bought it.

They might even wind up settled in the flatlands of Holland. Wherever home may be, Ben will probably be home-schooled, and their food will continue coming from the waste generated by others, as well as straight from the ground, as the couple has plans to cultivate edibles on their property.

And the dogs? Ouiza, the elder, they rescued in Morocco last year. Coco, the puppy, is a fresh find—a street dog from Andalucia. Coco will be going to a household in the Pyrenees, while Ouiza is going home with the Van Glabbeeks—wherever that may be.

Family in motion: Ben, Peter and Petra Van Glabbeek, momentarily at rest with their touring bikes and their two dogs. Photo by Alastair Bland.

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