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Trip Report Why Do A Cycling Tour?: A review of various tour companies and general tips

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I think it was only 15 years ago that I meekly asked if there was a way to cycle from the train station near Giverny to the gardens. My post was greeted with much amusement. Cycle? Who in the world would do that?

That same question would be greeted very differently now, and I would get a lot of experienced responses.

As I've posted various trip reports of vacations that included a cycling tour, I've tried to keep company names out of them. I have, however, done comparative reviews of companies, and I'd like to offer an update again.

This post will cover:
Why Take a Cycling Tour--and Why Not Do It Yourself?
Cycling Tour Generalities
Companies With Which We've Toured
Misc

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    Post Continued: Why Take a Cycling Tour--and Why Not Do It Yourself?
    Everyone has his own reasons for traveling, and everyone has his own approach to planning it. Family styles of travel differ greatly, too.

    I love to plan travel, and my family (now grown) loved to travel. In the late 90s and early 2000s, we had tons of frequent flyer miles because my husband basically was on a plane 5 days a week, and that combined with a strong dollar, provided a lot of incentive to get to Europe. My husband and kids were willing to stay in any type of place as long as it was clean (well, I'm not so sure the kids even cared about that), so I had a lot of options in using our travel dollar wisely.

    Overall, our vacations reflected different aspects of our family life. I was a former teacher and my husband and kids were athletes. We tended to have "museum style" trips in the winter months and very active vacations in the spring and summer. When the kids were smaller, that meant in the US we were found hiking the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon or looking for Rocky Mtn sheep or moose in national parks.

    Ironically, the trips that were harder to plan were the active ones. My family could spend days in museums, believe it or not, and those types of trips allowed for more instant decision changes to allow for everyone's needs. Not so on active trips. I could find the accommodations, make sure everyone had the right gear, get all the transport details locked down, but I could NOT make everyone happy on the trail. My husband hikes too fast. My little one always felt we were not treating her right. And I was always exhausted from being Management 100% of the trip.

    So when my little one had just turned 8 and my oldest was almost 13, we signed up with a now defunct active travel company to hike the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. I had felt overwhelmed by trying to match the rail transport with trails we should take, and opted to take an easy way out because this specific tour group's pricing was very comparative with what I had been planning on my own.

    The hiking tour was geared towards families, and the company owner really had a feel for what kids needed. We were always back in time for all the kids to hit a pool or playground. The kids got hiking sticks to which one would attach a medallion of each village we went through. We were at a bakery at dawn so the kids could see how the bread they ate that day came to be--and THEN they were told that the baker had just rescued four men from a mountain top hours before.

    A good time was had by all, and this is what I took away from it:
    --All of us could hike at our own pace and have company, yet
    --We were not "locked in" to a group social situation 24/7
    --I did not have to plan every day's trail
    --I did not have to carry medical supplies--it wasn't MY problem!
    --I did not need to know "emergency" words in a foreign language
    --I did not have to plan our lunch stop. I did not have to plan where we would have dinner. I did not have to decide which hotel was best.

    In other words, I got a vacation in there.

    After that, we tried out a hybrid cycle and/or hike tour, and that led us to thinking that we preferred cycling most of all. And as years went by, we tried to do one every year. A few weeks ago, my husband and I completed our 17th cycle tour.

    Why Not Do It On Your Own?
    The short answer? Bicycle quality. Having a decent bike to ride is the overall most important variable in cycling trip happiness.

    Oh, I've rented bicycles frequently as part of a day or two's adventure in cities all over the US and Europe. One of us MIGHT get a decent bike; it was rare that all four of us would. I will discuss more about bike quality in the Cycling Tour Generalities section.

    Secondary factors are emergency services, luggage hauling, day's ride, and overall trip timing. Just knowing that I don't have to plan how to get our luggage to another place OR have to haul it on the bike is a huge relief. Knowing that a flat tire doesn't mean a ruined afternoon is another relief. And knowing that someone has a good feel for how long it will take us to get from Point A to Point B at OUR pace is so helpful, and knowing that someone with knowledge of the local area has planned our cycling route to be both enjoyable and safe is a delight.

    Another key word: pace. When my husband and I hiked, I was always angry that he needed to speed up a mountain. And it's really true: he NEEDED to speed. That's how he walks, he talks, he works. I'm slow to get going--and then I can zoom. So when we hiked or biked together, one of us was always unhappy.

    With these trips, all of my family members can choose their own speed because of support services. My oldest liked to leave before any in the group got going, would do all long options (explained below), might even fit in an extra option, and would be showered by the time anyone else got back. My little one liked to bike with Daddy (fast, but with stops for berries), and I liked to bike by myself.

    So as expensive as a complete active cycle tour can be, there are distinct advantages that we, and particularly I, value.

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    Cycling Tour Generalities
    In this post, I'll describe qualities common to most, if not all the GUIDED cycling tours we've taken.

    Bikes and Equipment Offered
    Every one of the five companies with whom we've cycled has offered both upright (also termed "hybrid") and drop handled cycles. Bikes tend to be good quality, and the guides are very familiar with how to repair them on the spot.

    All of the companies offer at least a roomy bike bag for the front and/or back, and all have water bottles/water bottle cages. All will provide cycling locks since these bikes are a considerable investment.

    Most provide gel seat pads now, but since sometimes a gel seat can actually make seat problems worse, I bring my own (it has a depression in the middle to make my "parts" a bit more comfy) and I also bring my own seat. If you use special pedals (clips, etc), then you bring those, too.

    All companies we've cycled with provide helmets. Now that helmets have dial adjustments that make fitting a snap, I wouldn't even consider bringing mine. I was on one trip, however, where a man's head was really huge and they did not have a helmet to fit. If that's a problem for you, you will have to plan ahead.

    How the Day Runs
    Each company runs its trips a bit differently, but there is a general similarity of operation that crosses all.

    Breakfast is at the hotel, and is part of the trip cost. If it's a moving day, the company will ask that luggage be outside the door (or brought to a point) by a certain time. After breakfast, the group assembles somewhere for a "route rap". At this time, the guides indicate overall timing for the day (lunch, tours, options, etc) and go over any pitfalls in the sets of directions they hand out.

    Directions are then placed by each rider in their directions sleeve on the bike, which may be on top of the bike bag or just a device between the handlebars. The directions usually have two lefthand columns showing a)running total mileage in km/miles and b) interval mileage in km/miles between direction points. Directions usually are a combination of literal (route 98, for example) and physical (turn left at the white house with two trees).

    On any given day, cyclists are usually offered at least two options, a "short" day and a "long" day. It's quite common to have three options, and we've been on trips where there's a "see the guide for more" option.

    For those desiring a short option, there are one or more established shuttle points.

    In general, on most trips, one guide will cycle the route front to back and back to front, and another guide will sweep the route via van, making sure water and snacks are available at key turning points. Both guides are available that way to change tires, handle emergencies, and so on.

    Lunches may be on your own one day and a picnic another day. It all depends on the company and the route.

    Often, the group will have a meeting point for a special tour of an important site. One can almost always opt out if so desired.

    Dinners are part of the trip cost, except it's common to have one night on your own. Some of the tour members can't bear to be apart by that time; others just would like some time away. Often the guides will call ahead and make reservations.

    Distance and Pacing
    There are some trips where cycling more than 50 miles would be hard to do. The trip just wouldn't be designed for it. And I've been on one where the minimum cycle was over 30 miles (although the van driver would take pity and do pick-ups). All companies grade their trip difficulties, with 1 usually being easiest and 4 usually being difficult, although they'll also tell you that each day can widely differ. So pay attention and choose a trip that's right for you.

    You usually don't have to decide what daily option you'll take right away. I'd say it's common to decide by lunch time how far one intends to go. If you thought you'd ride all day and by 11 a.m., you're pooped, they'll rack the bike on the top of the van, and you hop in.

    There are natural limitations, though. If you decide to do the long option of 60 miles, and you are only on mile 25 by 4 pm, the guides will try to talk you off the trail so you are not cycling in the dark. If rain conditions make visibility too limited and hypothermia likely, the guides will pull you from the trail. Note: Rain does not generally stop the tour. They mean it when they say, "Rain or shine".

    The pace you choose, though, is largely up to you. My husband and my youngest love to speed ahead and then stop for coffee once or twice before lunch. After lunch, it's beer and ice cream stops for them. They explore all roadside berry patches. They can still do long options even with these breaks simply because they have the athletic ability to do it.

    My oldest also had the athletic ability to do long options, but she was rarely seen. She'd grab the directions right after breakfast, have a chit-chat with the guides, hop on the bike, and off she went. If there was a picnic, she'd drop in, grab a handful of something, and disappear. We'd only see her when we got back to the hotel, although the guides often would report "sightings" to us.

    I usually ended up seeing everyone on the trail. I started slowly and then sort of moved up the ranks. Some days I'd do short options, most of the time I did the average options, and often I'd do a long option. Now that I'm arthritic, my original pacing has altered, though. It's STILL great.

    Most couples do tend to cycle together.

    What's Included
    In general, all breakfasts and most of the dinners, some lunches, some tour fees, all tips for hotel meals and baggage services are included. At one time, some of the companies charged a rental fee for the bicycle; I think that practice is disappearing.

    One of the companies we cycled with provided oodles of alcohol on the trip; most do not do so except for a greeting the first night and a "so-long" the last night.

    Tips for the guides (who are your tour guide, your repair person, your chauffeur, and sometimes your medic) are not included. The basic starting point: 4% of the total trip cost which will then be divided among all the guides. We usually start there and then add more to that amount as we see fit for the "above and beyond" service each guide provided us.

    Next: Tour Groups We've Used--A General Overview

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    Thanks for the encouragement, ahotpoet.

    Report Continued: Cycling Tour Companies Used

    We started out our cycling tour experience with a now defunct company. Since then we have used:

    Backroads 11 trips
    Bike Vermont (also known as Bike Ireland and Bike Scotland when in those countries) 2 trips
    VBT (and although those initials stand for Vermont Bicycling Tours, this company is NOT the same as Bike Vermont) 2 trips
    DuVine 1 trip

    How Do We Decide Which Company?
    Our most important factor is DATE. We like to get two days on the ground before the cycling trips starts and perhaps two days after. We have had to align school dates, my husband's "crunch" and "non-crunch" time at work, and family obligations to come up with windows of opportunity.

    Once I have established that, I usually check out Backroads and VBT trips and dates first. I then check out their routing and their relative accommodations, plus factor in value for dollar. Backroads has usually won simply because it runs SO many trips in SO many places, but I would never automatically rule VBT out.

    I chose the Bike Ireland/Bike Scotland trips from Bike Vermont because I wanted to go to those places, and their routing was simply superb.

    Our Experiences

    Backroads is our primary go-to company because we've had more or less reliable experiences with them. They usually make sure art or historical aspects of the area are integrated somehow into the tour. Guide quality is good; bikes are always good. And Tom Hale, the founder, stands by his product. Cost is near the top--but not quite at the top. Alcohol at dinner is not included, although the initial gathering and a farewell drink usually are. Directions are usually very readable.

    Changes in the market have created changes in the company. Many longer trips have been shortened to meet the travel time needs of clientele (and to lower the $$$ of the trip). Also, to meet the competition of such companies as VBT, Backroads is offering a cheaper level of trip, termed "Casual."

    Bike Vermont My Bike Ireland trip with them, one that covers the West Coast of Ireland from Ennis up to Connemara National Park, may have been one of my favorite trips ever. The pricing was excellent, and our two guides that trip were very effective. Because of the pricing (relatively low), the trip draws people without beaucoup $$$s who are so happy they can do such a trip. That quality of expectation certainly enhances everyone's experiences.

    The guides know everyone locally, and they felt free to make last-minute decisions such as taking us for set dancing they had just found out about. Our hotels weren't over the top, but they were quite nice and their locations were PERFECT.

    Our Bike Scotland trip wasn't as lovely, probably because of torrential rain every day. But value was quite good again.

    One other thing--whoever writes Bike Vermont directions does a great job. Print is big (husband loved that), and there's a really "physical" sense to them. And whoever routed our Ireland trip did a fantastic job, too.

    VBT
    Initials could honestly stand for "Value Bicycling Tours". This company offers a solid bang for the buck. Guides tend to be local; there is usually a cooking lesson and a language lesson on the trip. Alcohol isn't included, but I swear they manage to pour a lot of free booze down our throats anyway!

    In addition, they offer great pre- and post- trip packages for a good price, especially since those include ground transportation to/from the cycling trip. Another VBT specialty is their Air Package. We've never used that aspect because we're usually using FF miles or we may even be coming from three different cities, but the pricing is quite attractive. Problem is that often one must take one more connection to make that pricing work. Still, if it's the difference between going or not going on vacation, I think VBT air packages are a steal.

    I never like my bike as much on VBT tours as I do on Backroads, but that's not a deal breaker by any means for us. The bikes are still good. And their directions are good.

    DuVine
    We've only taken one trip with them, and that was their Burgundy trip. Positives: really good accommodations, really good food and really good wine tastings. The negatives we experienced: really bad directions (in area where getting from point A to point B is a no-brainer) and a "clump" method of cycling.

    I have no clue as to whether DuVine runs all of their trips this way OR if our guides were just terrible, but basically, there was no standard safety talk (Backroads and VBT always start out the trip with a strong safety presentation; our people at Bike Vermont would STOP you on the road if they noticed a loose helmet or if you were not cycling single file).

    In addition, the guide expected the 14 or so guests to sort of bike "around" him, so that he could chat about the area as we cycled. That worked for most of the guests--no one but us had ever been on one of the these types of trips before.

    And speaking of "14"--DuVine brags that it limits the size of its group. We have found over time that have around 20 people on our tour is actually optimal--it allows a more fluid social atmosphere.

    DuVine directions were unreadable. Print was teeny tiny, and they were written in non-parallel structure. If anyone thinks that parallel structure was just invented so your English teacher could give you a "C" instead of an "A" on your paper, try following directions--on the fly!--that are not parallel in sequence. You'll go nuts.

    Long options on this trip consisted of begging one of the guides to take us out later. Again, it could have been the fault of the two guides.

    Overall: Bang for our buck given the area was quite good, but the cycling value was very, very low.


    Next: Two Cycling Companies We Know a Bit About But Have Not Used

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    I've changed my mind and have decided I should not talk about any company with which I've not toured. It's just not right. But I can offer a...

    Resource for further information about all types of cycling (and walking) tours
    http://www.biketour-reviews.com/Bike-Reviews.htm
    This article describes not only guided but also self-guided agencies.

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    Thanks, theduke37. I'll check that one out.

    Other update: recently Bike Vermont http://discoverybicycletours.com/index.aspx
    changed the company name to "Discovery Bicycle Tours". Again, although I tend to cycle mostly with Backroads, I still think their West Ireland trip may have been my best ever experience.

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    AlessandraZoe,
    Very informative posts. I ran across your posts while searching for combination gulet and biking in Turkey ( I am still looking so I would welcome any help). My wife and I have also been on many bike tours. Butterfield and Robinson, Backroads, DuVine, Trek and we are soon going on a walking tour to Maccupichu (sp) w/ VBT that I bought at an auction. Anyway, I feel it is really hard to rate any of the companies b/c I could have a really great set of guides from one company and you could have really poor guides from the same company. I think our DuVine guides were fabulous and our Trek guides were horrible. I do think you can group them by price. B&R are always going to be the most expensive and VBT is almost always the least expensive. VBT's air packages are pretty good from a price standpoint but your flight options are very limited and the flight time choices they give you can be horrible. I always say the things that make or break a trip are weather, guests and guides and the first two no bike touring company can control :) TPr

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    Good points, Tnelson. And that's probably why we really DO stick with Backroads. Our worst guide with them would have been the best guide with some other companies. Their training level--plus Tom Hale's thumb on the pulse--have created a consistency.

    Your points about VBT are important. I have not re-read what I wrote, but we do NOT use their packages. We have FF miles to burn OR need to earn! And with our time limitations, we usually need the most direct flight possible.

    At the same time, the people I traveled with on VBT consistently were repeaters who found the company to be very cost effective, particularly because of the air packages.

    No matter what, I have never felt "nickle and dimed to death" with VBT.

    Agree about group. We once biked with a now defunct company. 24 people I think, ages 8 to 81. Horrible hotels, horrible guides, terrible maps. It was SO bad, however, that we all bonded and we more or less took over the trip.

    Best trip EVER. Could never duplicate.

    My time is limited right now, but I'll write about my Turkey Backroads trip in a little bit.

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    AlessandraZoe: I think it is a real shame that your wonderful report/info has next to no audience on this specific forum.

    Maybe consider - posting it on the Europe Forum, or at least post a thread there simply directing readers to this thread here on Travel Tips & Trip Ideas.

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    Actually I linked to this thread with my last trip report about Puglia. No takers that I could see with that thread.

    But I was just considering again reposting this thread link over on Europe, since that is where I tend to spend my posting life, janisj. So you have more or less given me permission, and I shall do so.

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    I just wanted to post that this was fantastic. I went on a cycling tour in Ireland in 2000 and loved it - all you do is bike and eat and take photos.. they do all the rest...

    I didn't do another active tour until 2011 when I went to Norway with Backroads (hiking) and again in 2012 to Croatia (also hiking). Same thing: you just show up and do what you came to do. They take care of the rest. For active vacations, it's really nice not to have to think about the infrastructure involved in your vacation. It is not as easy as the museum kind of vacation (as you mentioned).

    Thanks for such a great post!

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    You are so welcome, flygirl. And I'm so happy you get the essence of why maybe it's worth NOT to be the trip-god" for a group bike trip.

    And for those who would say, "Well, I could drive a car and accomplish the same thing," it's a matter of living in the moment. You really live in the moment on a bike.

    Croatia cycling is a trip I want to do.

    I do have to tell you that planning museum/plop in city trips is so easy for my husband and children that I had no idea how hard it would be with my sister, with whom I shared a room, a college major, etc. She shops! I do not! She hates museums! I do not! She's willing to sleep in beds shaped like Us for a the minimal price. I do not!

    Thank goodness we both love to research restaurants and we do like to spend big bucks on food.

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    Very happy to see cycling info here on Fodor's.

    We look for economical trips, so Backroads, etc, are too pricey for us.

    One of our favorite trips was a 10-day self-guided Danube River cycle trip. Back in 2007, it was only around 500 euros. Still a bargain today.

    http://www.biketoursdirect.com/all-tours

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    I'm thrilled to see this post! I couldn't agree with you more.

    We have just been introduced to the concept of biking while on a vacation. We go with another couple where one is VERY active (wants to do all the long rides and hardest hills) and the other is more like us, middle of the pack. Also, sometimes I just dont want to bike every day. Tours plan for that and have a host of good alternatives which I really appreciate.

    Of the 2 trips we've done, we've used Backroads(Utah - Bryce/Zion) and Trek(Canadian Rockies). Both were excellent.

    Trek bikes were a tad better. I'm 5'1" and need a smaller than average frame. The smallest Trek bike for women worked well for me. The Backroads bike was adequate but needed tweaks to really work.

    Our Backroads guides were very thoroughly trained and knew a huge amount about the area's history, geology and almost any other thing we could think to ask. Our Trek guides were equally knowledgeable and supportive. Both sets of leaders were well tuned to the group dynamic, sensing when ppl were tired and needed a day off the bike or "perking their ears" when someone needed medicine and offering to get it during the next store run.

    We're off to a Provence with Trek this June. Hope to see some of you out there! :)

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    You make a great case for organized tours. I've done both the self service option and organized tours and both have their merits depending on what kind of adventure you are looking for. Also highly recommend signing up for local events when possible. Famous examples include La Marmotte, and Etape de Tour. For many, an overseas cycling trip is a pretty special event and topping it off with one of these races is great motivation!

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    CS_tms28--Good point about a race for the competitive. It is really neat when all the timing coincides, isn't it?

    I always point out, though, that we are not ever going to fly our bikes over there, and my non-tour rental experiences have not been good. So races for my husband are not feasible.

    Perhaps he could enter competitive beer tasting, though.

    HunyBadger--I must have missed your post, and I apologize. I think adding the info about the bike measurement is important.

    More seat info:
    I am limited on Backroads because I tend to need at 5' 11" type bike even though I am slightly under 5'8". I have often wished they used Trek bikes because I know I could get a "walk through" in an upright with a Trek. Instead, I have to have a male bike on Backroads.

    A male bike is not that much fun now when since I developed bone spurs in my hips. I can't swing my legs easily over the bike. I have to lay the darn thing on the ground, step over, and pull up. Yes, I am a spectacle wherever I go.

    In addition, sometimes the bike assignments go by height, even if you have filled out forms saying, "I take a large." I learned the hard way to lie about my height on Backroads forms (I "grew" around 4 inches between my first form and the fourth), and then I have to have a really good understanding of the basic adjustments I'll need.

    SEATS! I did not bring my own bike seat or get pad on our New Zealand trip because I was trying to meet carry-on weight. Worst mistake ever.

    Again, I emphasize that the WRONG type of gel seat is worse than none. My "double dip" combination of grooved seat and grooved gel pad turned out to be essential for seat comfort. A slightly smaller bike would have helped my seating because my "lean forward" angle would not be on my "parts", but I already knew that a smaller bike meant a bad angle for my really bad knees.

    Knee pain=no go. Seat pain is agony, but one can still at least function.

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    Evaluation Update...
    I just returned from Slovenia with DuVine. DuVine had not made my "recommended" company list from our experience eons ago (see above), but two trip companions from another cycling tour asked us to go and thus we went.

    So, did my opinion of DuVine change?

    Sorry. No. And you have no idea how bad I feel that I cannot change this opinion. I so wanted to do so.

    On our Burgundy trip eons ago, I praised the wine, the food, and the accommodations. The guides, though, were not up to par. The "good" guide on that Burgandy trip would have been merely a mediocre guide on a VBT or Backroads tour; the other was on the lazy side.

    Fast forward. On this new trip, we again had fabulous wines and fabulous food, plus a truly personal introduction to the country. The accommodations ranged from good to fabulous, so again, the company seemed to provide excellent value once more. And my bike was sized perfectly.

    BUT...
    Poorly trained guides (great guys, loved them, just not professional in handling guests and problems of the day)
    plus
    Bad directions (parallel in structure now but absolutely useless without an odometer, which they do not provide).

    Again, I have to emphasize that we had a fabulous time--we came home with great memories--but this company seems not have a baseline standard for guide training or directions essential to a brand and vital to a safe (and flexible) biking trip. It's a shame.

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    Thank you for your excellent post. I recently did a Burgundy bike tour with Duvine and fortunately had 2 outstanding guides, but would like to try other bike tour companies for comparison. My plan for next year is to bike either Puglia or Piedmont with Ciclismo Classico and the following year do Napa Valley with Backroads. I know you were hesitant to offer opinions on companies you haven't travelled with, but I was hoping with your extensive cycling vacation experience you may have some insight into Ciclismo Classico. I checked the comparison website you mentioned and the reviews were very short and not very helpful.

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    Fleurdelisa,

    All I know about Ciclismo Classico is through word of mouth by true cyclist friends. They really enjoy Ciclismo--including the fact that it's run by women! They feel it's a tougher biking crowd than say, Backroads, although they have truly enjoyed Backroads.

    When I had asked them about comparing the two, they said that Ciclismo is still very independent biking, as is Backroads. It's just amped up.

    I think I need to compare trip styles that people may like and/or look for. Both DuVine trips I've been on have been "clump" cycling. We had to stop for group pictures all the time, which drove me nuts, too. Some people may enjoy that they promote this sort of one for all, all for one thing, but that is not MY thing. I really am pretty social--it's one of the reasons I like these trips--but if I wanted "forced fun", I'd go on a cruise.

    I want to cycle fast by myself, then stop at a bakery and see what's cooking. I pull out my bird books if I see something in a tree that interests me. My husband, traveling miles ahead, wants to do a quick expresso stop in the morning and a quick beer stop in the afternoon--BY HIMSELF, not with the group.

    I've ALWAYS been able to do that on a Backroads trip; I couldn't even stop to pee on this one with DuVine without checking in.

    So CC, according to my buddies, will provide those same freedom-of-choice options, but since there is an expectation that you will bike faster and longer, then you have to make sure you can step up.

    AGAIN I HAVE NOT CYCLED WITH CC. My buddies could be totally lying :)

    By the way, I wanted to do Puglia again, only this time with one of my daughters. It isn't spoiled yet, and I wanted to go again sooner rather than later. So having done a trip there with Backroads, I assumed I'd go with a different company, but find just as good of routing.

    Hmmm, I was surprised. I went over the routing each company offered. The Casual Inns tour of Backroads, which we took,NOT the Backroads Premiere trip, had what I considered to be the best routing.

    We went in September, so we had the advantage that some of the seasonal places were just thinking about closing up shop for the year, but not quite yet; however, the crowds that flock there in the summer had vanished.

    Good luck with any decision you make.

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    This information is so helpful... Thank you. I know that the Ciclismo daily routes all seem to be longer than Backroads but I'm not sure I want to be doing 30-35 miles a day for 7 days with a bunch of hard core bikers! Especially since I live in a very flat area and hill training is nearly impossible.

    After your reviews, I may just decide to go with Backroads. I do totally agree with your Duvine assessment regarding the rest stops. I hated stopping every 30 minutes for snacks, foliage updates, and wine drinking. And the daily 2 hour lunches with copious amount of wine, while fun, were not my preferred way to cycle an area.

    I really appreciate your insight, and am looking forward to my next cycling trip. It really was the most fun I've ever had on a vacation...and going to Burgundy and Paris without gaining a pound was an added bonus!

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    To be fair, I am going to assume that even Backroads and B&R do things a little differently on their Burgundy tours as opposed to their others. Since there are not a lot of climbs in the area and there ARE an awful lot of vineyards, Burgundy itself dictates the style, I think.

    I will still give DuVine kudos for food and free wine.

    But then again, I remember an amazing lunch spread on our Backroads Puglia tour for which we felt free to eat a zillion calories in 20 minutes and then get back on the road. Other guests felt just as free to spend well over an hour there.

    At the end of the trip, my husband and I chilled over massive bottles of beer on the coast with the locals and took pictures of everyone in the group coming in. All of us had a great day--we all got to do it a bit differently.

    One caveat about the Backroads Puglia Casual Inns--I really did not enjoy our accommodations all that much. They WERE all air-conditioned, but they were not the Ritz. But darn it, I compared the routing on that trip to their Premiere trip, and the Casual was sterling.

    If I see my bike buddies that do CC, I'll quiz them a bit more for you.

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    One of the things that appealed to me about Ciclismo was the longer (7-8 nights) trips in Puglia and Piedmont. I figure if I have to pack all my bike gear, I might as well maximize its use. Just out of curiosity, have you ever done a Piedmont trip? I would really like to visit Milan and Turin so right now this is probably at the top of my list. My main concern there is the difficulty level of the cycling. The Backroads trip there is much lighter on mileage, but the Ciclismo trip (Land of Barolo and Truffles) there is their longest running trip and I think the guides would have extensive contacts in the region and perhaps provide a better overall travel experience there.

    If your friends can provide any additional information, I would love to hear it.

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    We have never done a Piedmont trip. I think I would rather just visit Milan and Turin on their own, though.

    I totally understand your wish for a longer trip, and that consideration was certainly one of the reasons I was looking at CC. We were so sorry to see that Backroads had started to shorten it's former "long" tours: Turkey, New Zealand South Ireland; etc.

    We actually have done back-to-back trips frequently for that reason (ie, West Coast Ireland with Southwest Ireland). Once we did a Backroads/Backroads back-to-back, but we usually back up one company's trip to a different company's trip with a day or two in between to wash clothes and complete transportation to start locales.

    I will pump my friends for

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    Thank you so much for your very informative posts! My husband and I are planning our first bike vacation. We are looking at the Pyrenees to Costa Brava trip with Backroads in late Sept or early Oct 2014. Have you done this trip or a similar trip with another company? We would appreciate any information, tips or suggestions you may have. Thank you!!

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    We have not done this trip yet, but we plan to do so this upcoming fall. I'll let you know how it goes.

    As to tips, hmm. Well I guess three things come to mind:

    Training--take a look at the longest option mileage on the longest day BEFORE you go and make sure you are COMFORTABLE riding at least ONE HALF of that distance with some type of elevation gain at home.

    Here's what I mean... For a trip where the longest option mileage is 60 miles, I know I really only have to be able to pound in 30 miles on hills comfortably at home before I go to make the trip feasible for me.

    To train for that, we have a really tough five mile loop around a lake nearby with significant climbs that range from really steep short climbs to a solid two-mile climb. I simply work up to six times around that, trying to decrease the time it takes to complete the loop.

    Then when I'm on the actual trip where the bike is supported with fresh water and snacks with a nice lunch in between, I can easily do 45 to 60 miles over the course of a day.

    Packing--We are big believers in keeping our packing light, and we carry blow-up hangers,a stretchy drying line and powdered Tide for washing everything in the hotel room sink. Your suitcase has to handle your biking gloves, your pedals or seat or whatever equipment you are adding to the mix, plus rain gear, so at least you can limit the clothing to lighten to load.

    Example: For a six-day cycle trip in hot weather, we pack three short-sleeve cycling tops that we simply wash out at night, plus three to four biking shorts (it takes time for those puppies to dry out). For evenings at dinner, a good pair of black washable slacks and interchangeable tops with sweater suit all occasions.


    Easy daily carry method: I always carry a waterproof fold-up daypack and spare bungee cords that I break out of the luggage as soon as we get our bikes. Before I leave for breakfast in the morning, I pack my needs in there--credit cards, cash, maybe rain gear, tissue paper, camera--and I can then just push the bag into the biking bag or bungee it onto the back rack on the bike. That way, when we lock our bikes up in a town to explore, I simply just pull my pack out of the bag or off the rack.

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    Thank you so much for this very helpful information! If you don't mind, I have a few questions about your upcoming Spain trip. Are you using Backroads? If so, did you choose to stay in casual inns or premiere inns? Why did you make that decision? What week are you going? Is there a reason you choose this week (weather, crowds, ect)? We are really looking forward to a review of your trip! Have a wonderful time!

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    This specific Spain trip is Premiere, but we've done Casual a elsewhere. I thought the Puglia Casual and Provence Casual (at the time we took them)had better routing than the Premiere.

    We are going end of Sept, beginning of Oct.

    We chose this general time frame because a)that is the next time my husband can take off and b) I do not want to do Spain in July.

    But for the precise trip, it's a matter of which days can I use my miles/airline status to get two Business Class seats for the price of coach. I'm not kidding. If I can make that seat availability work with a Backroads trip, great. If I have to go with VBT, fine.

    With my husband's requesting we limit ourselves to one "rest" day before we start the tour and one "rest" day after we end the tour now, you can see why I have to be flexible about the type of trip and the company.

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    I'm happy you posted. I totally forgot I did not update.

    This Pyrenees to Costa Brava Backroads trip was certainly in our top five of all time.

    First, there were no hard connections. Fly to Barcelona; fly out of Barcelona. Shuttle to beginning of trip; shuttle at the end of the trip.

    Second, the accommodations were really nice. Yeah, because Europe doesn't really do cookie-cutter rooms, you have no idea ahead of time whether or not you'll draw the straw for the Presidential Suite or the Attic Access Suite, but the last stop at the Mas Torrent Spa gives you uniform nice rooms in a great setting.

    Third, there were two (2) two-night stays in the five nights. That sequencing adds so much to relaxation when you have time to wash out your smelly bike clothes.

    Fourth, there was a great mixture of scenery and culture. Everyone on the trip fell in love with Catalonia. And while we may not have fallen in love with Dali, we all got to know him.

    Fifth, the biking routes were endlessly beautiful. No endless stretches of sun; no hills for hills' sake. Varied; interesting.

    Sixth, hidden places for sudden coffee and beer stops on the route.

    Things we can't guarantee but loved:
    --Our Backroads guides are always good; this trip, they were great. I wanted to take them home with me.
    --Our guests were seasoned. They either biked well or KNEW THEY DID NOT BIKE WELL. That helps the guides serve the long-distance riders better.

    I liked this trip so much that I immediately emailed past trip members who enjoy long routes. One emailed back immediately that she seconded our rec. She considered this trip to be Top Five also.

    I hope this helps. I posted our Barcelona before and after here:
    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/hit-and-run-our-quick-view-of-barcelona.cfm

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    Thank you! A few questions...We loved reading your post about Barcelona. Have you posted details of the biking portion of the trip somewhere? How would you rate the difficulty of the Spain trip? We live on the plains of MN and have very limited opportunity to climb hills, let alone mountains. We get plenty of miles in from April to October but are concerned about the climbing demands of this trip. What are your top 5 bike trips??

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    The details I listed above are as much as I normally share about any trip for good reasons.

    First, there are companies that have stolen routes--we're talking EXACT biking directions--from Backroads, VBT and other companies, and I've made sure over the years I've not been party to that theft in any manner. Most, if not all, of my cycling trip write-ups have concentrated only on the pre- and post-trip portions because those portions are the only parts where I have been the responsible planner, and therefore, that information is not proprietary.

    That does not mean you can't find out information about any offered trip. You can go to www.backroads.com (or www.vbt.com etc) read the extensive information they offer there for any of their trips (including cycling difficulty), and you can also request an emailed itinerary. Most of these companies list their accommodations in their itineraries, and you can research, as I do, all of those via Trip Advisor before you book.

    Second, the details are flat-out boring if you are not on the trip. What I did each day will vary markedly from what my husband did each day. My coffee at mile 12 after my struggle up a hill was being drunk while my husband was in a local bar drinking beer after mile 30. In other words, for the most part, my daily details would be useless. And I hate being around people who measure their lives in how many miles they cycled per hour at what grade.

    I do hear you about the hill concern. A lot of the people on this past trip do not have much opportunity for hill climbing, and I'd say most people did quite well. There are several ways to compensate. Two possibles:

    1) There usually is SOME hill somewhere, even in flat areas, and going up and down it repeatedly for an hour or so on a regular basis is quite helpful. For example, we needed to train our children for hills when young, and we did not want to have them on the road until they were confident. We have an industrial park with one 1/4 mile steep grade. At least once a weekend, we'd do a loop in the relatively flat park, go up and down that hill twice, do another loop, do up and down that hill twice, do another loop, go up and down that hill twice... You get the drift. We all did hills fine on trips as a result.

    2) If you bike in areas where there's likely to be headwinds (a problem in flat areas), regularly cycling INTO the wind is fabulous training.

    Otherwise, your choices are to look for flat terrain trips or tell yourself, "I'm willing to ride in the van" or "I'm good at walking my bike up a hill". I now excel at both.

    Our top five trips...Hmm. We have arguments about what were the best cycling trips, and often, weather or group make-up plays a parts in how one views it. So a trip that could have been great could be ruined by 24/7 rain* or a whiney group.
    * For example, Backroads Provence Casual would have been great--the routing was wonderful and the group was fun--but the combination of an out-of-season mistral (try doing THAT headwind UP a hill) and the nearly 100-degree heat 24/7 with no shade for miles pretty much took the fun out of it.

    So without order, our generally agreed upon top favorites are...
    -Backroads Pyrenees to Costa Brava Premiere
    -Bike Ireland (now Discovery Tours) West Coast Ireland
    -Backroads New Zealand South Island Premiere (note--still ranks high even WITH torrential rain for most of the trip)

    Those were outstanding ones. In the next grouping without ranking...
    -Backroads Puglia Casual
    -Backroads Cork and Kerry Premiere (would have been in the top grouping except that fellow cyclists were especially demanding and whiney--they nearly drove bike guides nuts)
    -Backroads Brittany and Normandy Premiere(took it when it was a 10-day trip, and the itinerary was very different than it is now).

    One other tip: The people who do best on these trips are people who understand there are no guarantees of happiness. This past trip, one of the guides was almost overcome by emotion because he heard over and over again, "Aren't we lucky to be able to see this?" and "Well, I made it halfway up the hill, and I'm calling that a victory" and "That's not rain--it's just filtered sun". In other words, most of the people on the trip--most of whom had done almost as many trips as we had--went out of their way to find positives.

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    Great writing- you seem to have a great attitude about bike travel. I've been guiding cycling trips for over 30 years including 18 yrs for B&R. I started Great Explorations 15 years ago, and still enjoy guiding 5-7 trips each year (this year Catalonia, Piemonte, Tuscany, Puglia, Croatia & Canadian Rockies). Here are my current favourite trips: Piemonte; Provence; Croatia; Morocco; Vietnam. It's great to hear you have had so many positive experiences. I agree it's the people that make the trip!

    Happy cycling

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    I wanted to update this thread because I did have opportunity to talk about Ciclismo Classico with a few cyclists shortly before Xmas. They enjoy Backroads, but because they consider themselves "real" cyclists, they prefer Ciclismo Classico. Points they made:

    --They love their Ciclismo Classico bikes; however, they also really like the new Backroads bikes (I hate them--but then again, I'm not a "real" cyclist).
    --They feel they get more bang for their buck in terms of cycling on Ciclismo Classico. Their point (well taken) is that if one has paid $$$$ to get to the destination, then the extra day(s)and part of a day Ciclismo Classico is of great value.
    --They like being with people who are interested in challenges 24/7. Both of the Ciclismo Classico guests I talked to seem to enjoy any of us in the wimp wagon, but they really did want to talk about the hard parts of the day over their beers.

    Here's a disclaimer--I HAVE NOT BEEN ON A Ciclismo Classico trip! These generalizations may be true or untrue. But I'd say that the other people that I know who travel with Ciclismo Classico would fall into that "real cyclist" category.

    Another update:
    --Backroads has increased the number of support staff/vans over time. It used to be ONE van and two guides was the rule. I'd say two guides, one driver, and at least two vans is the newer rule. On our last trip, because of the difficult routing, they even pulled in another van one day.
    --Backroads will be adding e-bikes (motor for a "push" up a hill). I have mixed feelings about that, so if I'm ever on a trip with these things, I'll report back.

    I hope this is helpful.

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    We took a bicycle tour along the wonderful Canal Du Midi in the south of France this past summer. We booked our tour with Eurobike.at but the actual tour was done by another company, Ruckenwind (http://www.rueckenwind.de/en ) from Germany. The scenery was beautiful and the daily distances travelled were good, neither too far nor not far enough. The path was level with no hills to climb. We cycled in a group but without tour guide. This is not a guided tour, but we knew that before we started. What we did not know is that everybody in our group spoke German and little English. Upon closer reflection, we should have known that German was going to be the language of choice as both Eurobike.at and Ruckenwind are from German speaking countries (Austria and Germany). Unfortunally, the guidebook given to us was also in German. But since we were in a group, we just followed behind the others and thus really had no need for any guidebook or map. However, it also did not allow us to set our own pace or schedule. The Germans like to wake up early, probably due to fact that they did not suffer from jet-lag. A lovely Swiss couple helped us translate parts of the guidebook that talked about history, which was very nice of them to do.
    We were, however, more dissapointed in the bikes we were rented (note: the tour prices on their website do not include an actual bike; they assume you bring your own). The bikes were not comfortable for the towpaths along the Canal Du Midi. The towpaths were not paved in most parts, and the bikes had neither a suspension fork nor seat suspension to help smooth out the ride. We were quite sore for the entire trip! Everybody on the trip had the same problem. I took some pictures of the bikes, so you can see what we rode. Pictures link: http://s1314.photobucket.com/user/jimmy_davids/media/lesomailruckenwind3_zpsa7c83945.jpg.html The ruckenwind website shows in fact the same bikes. They were not in the best condition, and they looked like they were stored outside all year.
    Another problem we had about Ruckenwind was that their website claimed that their entire route was sign posted with their own private signs. Maybe they are in their other routes in Germany, but we did not see any signs during our trip. We asked the Ruckenwind representative about this when we returned the bicycles, and he actually told us that their website was indeed wrong and that there are no Ruckenwind signs along the route. He said it was something that the webmaster had to correct, but as of this date no changes have been made to their website… We certainly felt deceived by this false claim. The van support was also not true. We never saw the van, only during the first and last days of our trip. When we got a flat tire, we had to change it ourselves.
    The hotels were very good for the first three nights, but quickly become less attractive as the trip progressed. After getting back home I went on booking.com and found that we could have easily booked the same hotels ourselves and saved several 100 dollars / euros by doing so.
    In summary we think the trip was great with beautiful scenery and nice weather. The problems were with the bicycles (poor quality, uncomfortable, noisy), the false claim of route being sign-posted (no signs anywhere), lack of van-support (no van seen) and the high price (cheaper to book own hotels online). Would I recommend trip to friend? Yes, mainly due to scenery and climate.

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    Thank you so much, Jimmy, for adding to this thread with such a complete description. I have often looked at Eurobike, and I have specifically looked at the Canal du Midi. It is so helpful to know the actualities.

    As I have indicated above, we probably would have done many self-guided tours in earlier years because we knew we did not tax guides with our needs. What always caused us to hesitate was the doubt about the actual bike we would get. Whenever we'd to a day or two days rental locally in Ireland and France, our bike quality was usually rather awful.

    Again, kudos for adding in so much detail!

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    Thank you AlessandraZoe for such a thorough series of posts regarding guided bike tours. As you're probably well aware, there is rarely a good spot to review multi-day, guided bike tours on the top travel review sites, such as Fodor's and Tripadvisor. It's nice to see that you've taken the initiative to not only review several companies and trips, but to follow up with specific examples and honest opinions. This post is a great resource for people wanting to understand how bike tours function day to day and what things to consider before choosing a company with which to travel. Justifiably, your post is right near the top of Google for the term, "bike tour reviews". Thank you again for your reviews. The industry needs more guests sharing their experiences in the public forum.

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    How kind of you to comment, InSituTravel.

    And I had no clue that Google was listing me. I went back to look at all that I said, worried that I had made some inflammatory remarks. Some of my comments were outdated, but I do think I can live with it.

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    Your comments didn't seem inflammatory at all, but rather an honest opinion of your experiences. That's what makes them so helpful for others looking for insight into bike tours.

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    This is such a useful page, AlessandraZoe (and I found you on google too). I am considering a bike trip this year and would be traveling by myself. Do you happen to know which companies offer the best trips for solo travelers, and what the best locations are? I was thinking Puglia, but also am intrigued by going a whole different way and doing their Bryce/Zion/Grand Canyon camping trip.

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    sihoffman:

    This is hard, and I fear I am of little use to you.

    I can't really say that I could make any kind of judgment about best trips for soloists. I may bike solo (well, let's correct that to "I ALWAYS bike solo!") but I've always been at least one of a couple or one of a family for the trip itself.

    Here is what I CAN tell you:

    On "non-solo" trips, there usually is at least one solo anyway. On our New Zealand trip, there were four solos; on our Canary trip, there were two solos (plus three singles traveling together and one single traveling with a couple). On our Catalonia trip, there was a group of six singles and two singles traveling together--and they all made sure they did not stick together. They intermingled with couples.

    We often "adopted" solos. Two solos from the New Zealand trip became near and dear to us.

    I've also indicated above that while MOST couples cycle together, my husband and I never do. I feel very happy alone, and if you do, too, I see no problem.

    Seating at breakfast is always flexible. Seating at dinner is always a mix-up. You should never feel constrained for that reason.

    That said:
    I suspect (although since I never traveled with them I cannot confirm this) Ciclismo Classico lends itself well to solos. The people I met on Backroads who do CC trips certainly feel free to sign on by themselves and intermix very well. What all of these persons seems to have in common is a) a desire to bike non-stop and b) a desire to drink non-stop. They are HAPPY people. :)

    As to which trip?:
    I don't know your priorities, and I might not share them. For example, I would not camp if you paid me (I have never recovered from forced-family-fun on a church camping trip).

    As another example, my personal priorities are as follows:
    --As far away from my normal life without creating transportation hurdles (ergo--see why I loved the Backroads Costa Brava trip)
    --Two night stays for the most part on the trip. To me, a series of six one-night stays ends up as work, not a vacation.

    So where does that leave you?

    I suggest you list YOUR PRIORITIES. Then just call up Ciclismo Classico, Backroads, VBT and any other of the above and ask them a series of hard questions based on YOUR priorities.

    Often, they can tell you the social make-up of whoever has already booked. They can discuss routing.

    No matter what, I am excited that you are considering such a trip. We feel these specific trips can be life changing. We just had a wedding in the family this past weekend, and the mother of the groom asked, "Where did your kids learn so much about food, wine, language?"

    On a bike.

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