The world is more impressive from the saddle. For all those who like to combine their favorite free-time activity with their vacation time, a cycling vacation can be an excellent way to recharge. Bicycle touring used to mean mounting racks and panniers on your bike and sleeping in a tent. These days, tours and touring encompasses everything from traditional self-supported tours to guided tours complete with vehicles to top off your drink, hand you a bar, or drive you to the hotel should the need arise.
Don’t forget your bike. If you are headed to an event or vacation by car, you may be able to pack your bike in your trunk or in the back of the car. If so, always pack some degreaser just in case, as a dirty chain can wreck an interior in a hurry. If you plan to drive with your bike on a regular basis (to training rides, weekend events, etc.) you may want to invest in either a rear rack or roof rack
When choosing the type of rack to purchase, give some thought to where you live and drive. If you have a garage or drive under low overhangs, you may want to purchase a rear-mounted rack rather than a roof rack. Banging your bike into your garage isn’t nearly as much fun as getting a tooth pulled … and it’s a lot more expensive. Conversely, bikes transported on rear racks will suffer more dirt and rocks kicked up from the road.
If you plan to fly to a vacation spot, you can use a cardboard shipping bike box that new bikes are shipped in to bike shops. They are free, but they don’t provide much protection for your bike. A better solution is the bike carrier. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but all of them have a few central features. There is a metal frame to which the bike is secured. The bike is disassembled slightly, though not completely; generally the handlebar, wheels, seatpost, seat, and pedals are removed, nothing else. The wheels are inserted in wheel bags to protect them from the frame and vice versa. The bottom of the case features wheels so the case can be pulled rather than carried. The biggest variation between carriers is whether the outside of the case features a hard or soft shell. Some riders have reported that soft-side cases seem to get abused less due to the fact that other luggage can’t be stacked on them the way they can on hard shell cases.
Velo Classic Tours is a New York-based bicycle touring company specializing in European destinations. Its owner, Peter Easton, has advised many clients on whether to bring a bike or rent. “There are merits to both,” he says. “The more experienced cyclist is going to be more particular, so I typically don’t recommend a rental bike unless it’s done at a professional level, i.e., a complete size run of frames available, with optional stem lengths available. With that said, the cost of traveling with a bike is becoming increasingly expensive, so high-end alternatives for hire is a growing market. If you’re a casual cyclist, or just getting started, there are more options, as your comfort level range is greater.”
On Your Own or With Friends
If you are traveling on your own or with another person but only taking one bike, you may not need a bike rack. Aside from potentially offering your bike increased safety from theft and impact (almost everyone who has a roof rack has a bike/overhang story), your car will get better gas mileage on the way and you’ll be relieved of the chore of cleaning bug carcasses off your bike after you arrive.
You may want to inquire with a local shop about group rides that meet nearby or pick up a guidebook to good rides in the area. Such information can lead you to roads with less traffic and more scenic vistas. You can rest assured the locals will be riding the best cycling roads there are and won’t be shy to share their knowledge.
Traveling with friends can be a great way to take a great activity—group riding—and use it to explore a new locale. The challenge is to make sure everyone has the same sort of rides in mind. If you’re not headed off for an organized event with a group committed to a particular length, be sure to communicate ahead of time about ride length and terrain so everyone is on the same page before rolling out. One rider’s short spin can quickly become another rider’s forced march.
Why not let an expert show you the area’s best roads? Bicycle travel companies proliferated at the turn of the century after Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France. Americans developed a taste for riding the great climbs of the Alps and through the vineyards of Provence and Tuscany.
As a result, a bicycle tour has come to mean a tour in which you ride out-and-back loops or point-to-point from hotel to hotel. All your gear is transported for you, allowing you to focus on the riding.
While guided tour companies have existed since the 1970s, the big changes have been to follow bike races, giving avid roadies a chance to see the pros in action, and to accommodate their greater ambitions and endurance. And while it might seem that it would have been easy for tour companies to accommodate riders who think 70 miles on a bike is more fun than a day at Disneyland, neither the hybrid bikes the companies often used nor the guides were suited to it. Because the average non-cycling guide confused a paceline with a chain gang, a whole new breed of tour company had to emerge to cater to these clients.
Today, there are companies covering almost every angle of bicycle touring. From riding portions of the Tour de France route and watching the racers go by, to meandering through vineyards and experiencing the local wines, you can have a big day on the bike. If your spouse thinks that’s a bit much, he or she can take in a shorter ride, local museums, or even a cooking class.
Easton advises people to experience other cultures. “I typically recommend a foreign destination. Non-cycling attractions are important to get an insight into local culture, to experience the authenticity of a region—whether it’s a museum, an historic landmark, or visiting a world heritage site.”
Pretty destinations are to tour companies what Birkenstocks are to hippies. If you can think of a pretty place, there is almost certainly a tour company guiding cyclists through it. In choosing a destination there are a few facts to keep in mind:
• If you are traveling with another person, the more you have in common on and off the bike, the easier it will be to find a tour company that fits your needs.
• Though it can be as expensive and difficult to transport as a baby, you will have a more pleasant riding experience if you take your own bike.
• The more popular the destination is among tourists in general, the more options you will find among tour companies—that is, if you want a bike tour that includes cooking classes, you’ll be more likely to find it in Tuscany than in North Africa.
Easton says he tells clients, “Ask yourself what interests you. Food, wine, art, architecture, shopping, music, all of this can be accessed to highlight any trip that includes a bike.”
Because topography can dictate the difficulty of a ride and ultimately affect just how much riding you do each day, take some time to look at a map before picking your destination. The mountains are beautiful but the riding can be daunting.
Easton says, “For terrain, it’s different for everyone, but again, a little bit of research goes a long way—get a good topography map and take a look—if the road looks like a snake, you can bet it goes up before it goes down!
Vacations are great because they give you time to binge on your favorite thing. Kids get excited at the prospect of a whole day at Disneyland, beach bunnies salivate for a full day of sea and sand, and cyclists dream of more calories burned than the average person can eat in a day.
If you plan to ride more than four days, remember that your body can’t combine both long miles and intensity ad infinitum. Plan some short, easy days during your vacation so that your final day of riding isn’t a death march. And if you are traveling with someone who isn’t as avid a cyclist as you are, those shorter days can help prevent your companion from perceiving the trip as one big bike ride.
“I tell people the ideal is seven to eight days with a day in the middle either off the bike or real easy,” recommends Easton. “A large percentage of cyclists, unless you’re a professional, don’t ride more than two days in a row, so after three and four days, fatigue becomes a big factor. A chance to regenerate with a day off provides the opportunity to enjoy the remaining days, and go home feeling invigorated instead of exhausted.”
A bicycle tour isn’t the sort of excursion that can be run with the precision of a Swiss train. Flats interrupt the miles, hunger takes over from time to time, and if you’re open to it, amazing experiences can unfold when you least expect it. Leave yourself time and room to color outside the lines.
Velo Classic’s Easton says, “I encourage people to research and figure out what they really want to get out of a bike trip, not just what they want to brag to their riding buddies about what they did. There is nothing wrong with rolling along at 15 mph on a brilliantly sunny day in some foreign land, seeing things you’ve never seen before, and coming across the surprises that define unique encounters with new cultures—the people, the foods, the smells, the sights, the opportunities. You never know who’ll you meet, and where you’ll end up, if you’re open to it. I’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences in my life when I’ve least expected it, and I cherish the thought that I was so willing to allow myself to venture out of my comfort zone.”