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

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

Old Oct 26th, 2012, 04:58 AM
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Why Do A Cycling Tour?: A review of various tour companies and general tips

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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Old Oct 26th, 2012, 05:56 AM
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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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Old Oct 26th, 2012, 07:33 AM
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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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Old Oct 28th, 2012, 05:55 AM
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Wow! This is great. I have been on a couple of these myself and you are spot on so far. Can't wait to see the rest. Thanks for posting.
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Old Oct 29th, 2012, 05:08 AM
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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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Old Oct 30th, 2012, 12:41 PM
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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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Old Jan 17th, 2013, 12:56 PM
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AlessandraZoe, this is an amazing post (or set of posts). Would love to get in touch with you ([email protected]) to talk more about bike trips.

Another good site is that is more updated is here:

http://reviews.biketourbuzz.com/
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Old Jan 17th, 2013, 01:26 PM
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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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Old Jan 21st, 2013, 10:02 AM
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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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Old Jan 26th, 2013, 09:43 AM
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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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Old Jan 26th, 2013, 12:46 PM
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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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Old Jan 27th, 2013, 11:21 AM
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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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Old Feb 12th, 2013, 11:57 AM
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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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Old Feb 12th, 2013, 11:58 AM
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ps. 2012 / Croatia was also Backroads.
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Old Feb 12th, 2013, 12:16 PM
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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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Old Feb 18th, 2013, 11:28 PM
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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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Old Feb 20th, 2013, 06:08 AM
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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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Old Apr 15th, 2013, 08:36 AM
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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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Old Apr 15th, 2013, 09:59 AM
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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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Old Jul 24th, 2013, 08:07 AM
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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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