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The Biking Issue

How to Craft Your Own Overseas Bike Tour

The author's group chartered a boat named Anna Cornelia for a tour of Holland. The riders biked during the day and caught up with the floating hotel-restaurant in a different town each night.
The author's group chartered a boat named Anna Cornelia for a tour of Holland. The riders biked during the day and caught up with the floating hotel-restaurant in a different town each night. (By David Lamb)

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By David Lamb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 20, 2009

A decade or so ago, I booked a summer tour of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula with one of the large U.S. travel agencies that specialize in group bike trips overseas. I'd ridden with the company once before. Everything was five-star. And very pricey. But this time, a month before our departure, it canceled the tour without explanation.

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So I decided to see if I could put together my own private tour and perhaps save a few dollars. I typed "cycle Ireland" into my search engine. Bingo. Up popped Cieran and Mary O'Callaghan, whose family business in Killarney customized private tours for groups of two to 20 riders. We corresponded for several weeks until we put together the week-long trip I wanted: the right number of daily miles (25 to 30), terrain I could handle (not too hilly), the quality of hotels and restaurants (top-notch).

Then I sent an e-mail to friends, none of whom was a hotshot biker: "I've put together this great ride. Do you want to join in?" Sixteen did. Little did I realize it at the time, but that was the start of what would become a tradition of taking a foreign biking tour almost every summer, with me as the pro bono organizer, decision maker and tour leader.

So far this annual vacation has taken my wife, Sandy, and me and our gaggle of friends to France three times to bike Normandy, Burgundy and Bordeaux, and to New Zealand, Sweden, Ireland, the Cotswolds of England and Passau, Germany, where we biked to Vienna on the cycling path along the Danube. In June we toured Holland on an old freighter I chartered in Amsterdam, which had been converted to a passenger ship with 12 cabins. We biked during the day and caught up with our floating hotel-restaurant in a different town each evening.

I've learned a few tricks over the years about customizing and leading these tours. The first is that you often pay about half of what the large U.S. agencies charge -- and can get a further discount if you have 10 or more riders. The per-person cost of our seven-day Holland trip, including three meals a day, accommodations, a bilingual guide, bicycles and admission to museums, was less than $900. "I can't stay home that cheap," one of our group commented.

Most important, I think, is to be selective about whom you invite. One whiner can ruin the day. Design a trip that everyone can handle. To accommodate both the bike fanatic and the faint of heart, offer two itineraries of, say, 25 and 50 miles a day. The itineraries can be different, or you can often find a shortcut for the shorter distance. If you have a support van, the driver can drop off the 25-milers at the midway point to start biking. Novices start off intimidated by the thought of biking so many miles and end up amazed at how quickly they fly by at a leisurely 10 mph pace.

It is worth noting that there are no Lance Armstrongs in our group. Most of us are in our 60s. Some are collecting Social Security checks. There's usually a rider or two with a recently replaced hip or knee. A few haven't ridden a bike since our last trip a year ago. We dawdle in cafes and pubs and stop often to smell the roses. At the end of the day, it's the experience, not the speed or the miles, that matters.

Should you hire a guide, which most operators can provide at an extra cost? I think it's worth it. Not so much to avoid getting lost as for their knowledge of local history, ability to fix a flat tire and awareness of the best restaurants and cafes off the beaten path. Most of the ones we've had over the years make fine company. Steve and Tania MacKay, the New Zealand couple who ran our Queenstown-to-Christchurch tour, would set up midmorning tea and biscuits for us at scenic stops along the way and had a van into which we could load our bikes when we reached the Southern Alps.

If you don't have a guide, make sure to appoint someone to ride near the rear and keep track of who is behind him or her. Better that than to find that a rider has gone missing. Put the fastest rider in the lead to stop at intersections and make sure no one misses the turns; he can catch up with the group when everyone else has passed. Also, with or without a guide, encourage people to leave as a group every morning but to bike at their own pace; smaller groups, based on speed and ability, will soon form.

Of course, the essential ingredient to putting together a biking vacation is to find the right tour. There is a bewildering array available, from Armenia to Vietnam. One Web site that is particularly helpful (http://www.biketoursdirect.com) lists more than 200 foreign tours and offers detailed itineraries and must-know information for each one.

My rules of the game are that anyone who signs up for one of our tours gets an automatic invitation the next year. If he misses one, he goes on the waiting list, which now stands at eight. My batting average is pretty good. The same 18 people -- the maximum number I take on; more than that becomes unwieldy -- have made the past three rides. I know I haven't muffed it when at the end of a tour friends ask, "So where are we going next year?"

David Lamb is the author of "Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle."


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