This is a story about how to prepare for a bicycle tour. It is also a story about a magazine you should read, since it is packed with good stuff.
It all started months ago, when my friend and my long-time Virginia cycling buddy, David Pynn, introduced me to Neil Hanson:
Get Ready, Get Set, Tour
Janet Minner had a dream. She wanted to ride her bicycle along the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, but had some doubts. She wondered if her employer would allow her to take enough consecutive vacation days to accomplish this goal. She also felt uncertain about her physical ability to ride 470 miles with nearly 49,000’ of elevation gain, despite her years of cycling experience.
And, she wanted to be rewarded each evening with good food and a comfortable bed.
Fully-supported cycling tours can be expensive and, on a deeper level, she wasn’t sure that she deserved such a lavish vacation.
As the owner of the bicycle tour company, Velo Girl Rides (that’s right, I am The Velo Girl) I know that nearly all my clients have similar dreams and also similar concerns as Janet. I love helping people realize that their goals are within reach, and their lives will be forever changed by beautiful cycling experiences. Keep reading to find out how…
Our lives are busy, and whether you are working for someone else, working for yourself, or retired — scheduling a multi-day tour can be challenging. Most tour companies provide both a list of scheduled tours and the option to create a custom tour. The main difference between a scheduled tour and a custom tour is who herds the cats.
Scheduled tours are offered by tour guides on pre-selected dates. When selecting dates for scheduled tours, your guide will consider things like weather patterns, density of motorized traffic flow, and local knowledge of events that she may want to take advantage of (or avoid because of excessive traffic).
For example, when I design a tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I try to ensure that my group can spend Friday night in Floyd Virginia. Located on the Crooked Road, a signed trail of bluegrass music destinations in Virginia, Floyd comes alive every Friday night and the streets fill with professional and amateur bluegrass musicians performing at the highest level, for free.
For a scheduled tour, I spend days and nights chatting with people like Janet to answer questions, collect information, and help them make the right touring choice based on their personal goals.
While you may think that a custom tour is more expensive than a scheduled tour, that is often not the case. Many of the custom tours that I create are similar to my scheduled tours, but held on the dates the client prefers. Price will depend mostly on the number of people sharing the cost on a custom tour, and with six people, the cost is comparable to a Scheduled Tour.
The big difference is in the herding of cats. If you happen to be the ‘domestique’ of your group of cycling buddies, some of the cat herding tasks will naturally fall to you. I’ve worked with groups that frequently tour together, as well as those who have a hard time getting members to commit to a trip, let alone show up on time. They seem to appreciate my help herding their cats. You are the perfect person to judge where your group falls on this spectrum.
Most cycling tours are completely within reach of the typical recreational cyclist — if you invest in yourself with sufficient training. Some of my clients are completely comfortable with creating their own training plan and sticking to it. Others prefer help, and get it by purchasing a training plan, hiring a coach or both.
For example, one of my clients decided to “train” for retirement… literally! He didn’t want to miss a moment of enjoyment when he punched out for the last time. So, two years before his planned final day of work, he hired a coach and started losing weight, working out, building muscle and spending more time in the saddle. His first goal was to ride across North America and within a couple of months he did it! You can too.
What to Expect
The first step to knowing how to prepare for your tour is to gain an understanding of how the terrain on the tour compares to the routes that you normally ride. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the miles that matter the most – it is the terrain. The terrain largely determines how fast you can ride, which in turn determines how long you can ride. There is a big difference between two hours in the saddle on flat, shady grade and nine hours of up and down, out in the sun! Our first question is always: where do you normally ride?
With the help of your tour guide, you can determine if the total elevation gain on the tour will be more, less or about the same as your norm. Another factor that determines comfort and time in the saddle: find out if the weather is expected to be warmer or cooler, wetter or dryer, or windier than your home climate. Obviously if you’re used to 50F and low humidity (say, California in the spring) then 90% humidity at 90F is going to be a longer day (South Carolina in June). This information will help you plan for improving your climbing and descending skills, and allow you to practice riding for the conditions and hours in the saddle that your tour will require.
The next step is to form a training plan that will work for you. For my Blue Ridge Parkway tours, I offer a free training plan created by Vision Quest Coaching. Many of my clients have used this plan, loaded into Training Peaks, to train for tours.
Training Peaks is a well-regarded fitness tracking application and resource that you can use to measure your progress. You load the ride files recorded by your bike computer into Training Peaks (there are other options as well) and the application helps you see your progress and chart your next steps. Training Peaks also serves as a repository for a wide variety of training plans offered by various coaches for a variety of purposes.
Many of these plans are affordable and loading them into your Training Peaks account is very easy to do. You can also search for a cycling coach on Training Peaks. If your schedule is packed, a cycling coach can design a custom training plan for you. I can’t say enough good things about the combination of a training plan and a coach for bringing you to your best condition prior to a tour.
Investing your time to train for your tour is a big commitment, let alone the cost of the tour itself, so the last thing that you want to do is experience a failure in your equipment or gear.
One of my clients trained to ride the entire Blue Ridge Parkway in 4-1/2 days (which is an extremely ambitious undertaking). He set up a fundraiser to help motivate himself to achieve the audacious goal (and told thousands of people he planned to do it) and flew in to start his adventure on a ‘new’ (to him) bicycle. The bicycle catastrophically failed on day two with multiple problems, including a rear hub that couldn’t be repaired. He rode most of his tour on a borrowed bike, which was too small for him. Don’t let this happen to you.
Get a Tune Up
Unless you know how to do it yourself, get a thorough overhaul of your bike by a qualified bike shop. A proper overhaul should cost between $150 and $300, plus parts. Consider the overhaul as an insurance premium to reduce your risk of not being able to ride during your vacation.
I strongly recommend the following:
- Replace the chain (even if not worn… you can wear down a chain in 1,000 miles)
- Replace the cables for the brakes and derailleurs
- Inspect the cassette (rear gears) and chain rings (front gears) and replace if in doubt
- Service the headset, hubs, pedals and bottom bracket (no squeaks or creaks)
- Replace the tires (and use new tubes for the new tires)
- Inspect the wheels for trueness
- Inspect the brakes (and replace if in doubt)
- Inspect the integrity of the frame.
Don’t try to squeeze a few more miles out of the chain. Do not put off changing the cables until the “end of the season”. Multiple day tours have a way of exposing the weakness of worn equipment. If in doubt, replace any worn item.
Your tour guide will likely carry many common tools, but time during a tour available for extensive repairs is limited and you will not want to be grounded for even a few minutes, if you can avoid it.
Consider Gearing Changes
If you find that the terrain on your tour will vary dramatically from your home turf, you will need to examine your gearing to make sure it will accommodate the conditions.
For example, most people who ride in the Blue Ridge Mountains use one of these configurations:
50-34 compact double in front 11-32 cassette in the rear
52-39-30 triple in front 11-28 cassette in the rear
Some riders enjoy using 11-36 cassettes in the rear which provides some extra low-range options while climbing. Larger cassettes can sometimes be fit with existing derailleurs by using an extension made by Wolf Tooth. If interested in changing your gearing, ask your bike shop mechanic about various possibilities that will work with your bicycle.
Cost of the Tour
The expense of bicycle touring is directly related to the level of support that you desire. Some riders choose to self-support, carrying their gear and food on their bicycle and camping along the way. If you are short on money and long on time, this may be the right type of tour for you. Riding the route usually takes longer for self-supported riders, if they carry their own gear (even with the use of motels/hotels the weight of the bike will limit the speed for most riders). And getting to/from lodging off the route can also add significant “overhead” time to every day.
Another form of self-supported touring isn’t really “self” – it’s a long-suffering spouse or friend who agrees to drive a car or van along the route, providing moral support and snacks while hauling the luggage to the next lodging. Some riders enjoy this fantastic support, but it isn’t for everyone.
Finally, some tour companies, including mine will provide a variation of the self-supported tour, where we provide the detailed route directions (including computer files for your GPS bike computer), lodging arrangements, and for an additional fee, will even transfer your luggage each day to the next hotel while you are riding. This is a good alternative for the more independent and experienced rider who wants a light and fast ride, but the comforts of clean clothes, a shower, and sweet bed each night.
Most tour companies will provide their pricing for their scheduled tours right on their website for all to see, and offer a quick turnaround on a request for a “custom” tour quote. Prices are typically all-inclusive, but check carefully because there can be exceptions for certain meals.
Choosing a Tour Company
Most of my clients prefer to be fully-supported and they fall into one of two categories…those who are touring for the first time, and those who have a well-defined touring epic rides list with many boxes already ticked off. Those with experience with various tour companies can provide excellent advice on how to choose a guide service; those touring for the first time should talk to experienced tour clients.
If you are concerned about making the investment into a fully-supported tour, ask your tour guide for testimonials from former clients. I can’t think of a client who wouldn’t provide an honest report of their experience, and I would not hesitate to help you find answers to your questions through the experiences of others who have worked with me. If your guide cannot provide testimonials, look elsewhere.
What About Cancelling
Because life sometimes offers up unplanned twists, I always recommend a travel insurance policy (and buy them myself for my vacation travel, especially overseas). There are a variety of sources for travel insurance including AAA and TravelEx. Some riders find policies through their credit card company or insurance broker.
Travel insurance will not cover losses for every issue that may cause you to cancel a trip, but it will cover the biggies such as emergency surgery and a death in the family. Make sure that you understand the terms of your policy, and then send out good vibes to the cycling gods in the hopes that you will never need to use your policy.
Be sure to check the deposit and cancellation policies offered by your tour guide. Many are designed to strike a balance between giving you some flexibility if your plans must change, and giving the tour company the stability they need to plan a great experience for you. Keep in mind that nearly all of their costs are “up front” – must be paid long before you show up to ride the first mile. They have to commit funds for staff, food, equipment, vehicles and lodging in advance.
Final Advice for Preparing Your Tour
You’ve selected your tour company. You’ve trained and you’re ready. Your bike is tuned and humming, and your bags arrived safely. You’ve met your guides and your fellow riders. What’s next?
It’s time to savor the experience. Savoring does not come naturally to every rider. It is often an acquired skill. My husband, David, and I learned to ‘savor’ in the hills of Tuscany while surrounded by olive groves and vineyards.
We first toured together in Tuscany and we forgot that our training had ended and our journey on a once-in-a-lifetime experience had begun. We were racing through the countryside focused on the ground in front of us, checking the Garmin frequently. This was not a Life Is Good kind of moment…it was more like our daily grind and pace. We were paying attention to heart rate, speed and watts.
Then, the smell of espresso snapped us to attention. We stopped to truly smell and taste the espresso in a small town with one bar. We started taking pictures, really slowing down to absorb and enjoy the stunning countryside, savoring every moment, every second of that amazing journey.
And we haven’t stopped since… both when we ride for ourselves, and also when we help clients like Janet on their journey. I’d love to help you choose a tour to savor.
In fact, start making your cycling epic rides list now. Because once you try bicycle touring, you will be hooked and then you’ll be reminded life is short. Contact me to talk about a beautiful cycling experience for you.
Video to help you Imagine Your Tour
Training Peaks is a useful application that tracks your fitness
The Col Collective is a great resource for adding to your Epic Rides List
Read Lonely Planet’s gorgeous book of Epic Bike Rides of the World
Fun video that demonstrates how to wash you bicycle kit while touring
Find cycling routes from Ride With GPS Cycling Ambassadors
I thought it was interesting how you mentioned that terrain matters more than miles when determining what type of bike tour you can handle. This is good to know since my wife and I are looking at taking a bike tour this summer, but we had previously thought it was overall length that we’d need to factor in. We’re not in that great of shape, so I think sticking to a flatter terrain would be best for us.