Most of the time when I travel, it’s for work – with little time for personal activities. Vacation travel happens also, I love leaving work behind and taking trips with my family. But every once in awhile I get the opportunity to go on a fun trip with no obligations to anyone but myself. And if given that option, I try to find a way to get some biking on the agenda. Back in the real world I only get to ride my bike a few hours a week at best, and even then only after all the other things like work and family are covered. But on a cycling vacation, I can make it all about whatever I want! Plenty of folks go away (either by themselves or with a few close friends) on golf trips, ski trips, shopping trips, etc. but I’m making it a mission to take at least 1 cycling mini-vacation a year. So far I’ve only gotten in a handful of them, but I’m committed to growing the list. Here’s some info you may find interesting if you are thinking about doing this yourself.
First, a disclaimer / explanation of the kinds of trips I go for. They generally must include:
- No camping. I’m no stranger to camping (I enjoy it!) but I want my cycling vacations to be optimized for riding on the best routes and under the best possible conditions. I want to get a nice hot shower after every ride, and I want to sleep in a warm comfy bed each night. I want to do everything possible to make sure I’m well rested and fresh each morning, ready to go ride. Camping introduces too many other variables into the mix that put the primary goal at risk. Camping can save a ton of money, but you’ll pay for it elsewhere. If I can buy my way into a better day of riding, I’ll do it. So hotels or house / apartment rentals are the options I require.
- Restaurants. At least for dinners. See above re: no camping, I also don’t want to spend a lot of time in grocery stores or preparing meals each night. Breakfasts, lunches, snacks? Fine, if I stay in a place with a kitchen I’m all for stocking the fridge and getting the basic dining needs met that way. But at the end of the day, I want someplace with a good menu and a decent wine list. Food tastes best after a hard day of riding, why not make that food the best I can get?
- Performance-minded riding. I’m a former road racer who still races Master’s category and while I’m nowhere near as fast as I used to be, I’m also (usually) not the slowest rider out there either. I don’t need to ride flat out at “race pace” wherever I go, and I’ll stop occasionally along the ride. But I’m not looking for rides that lean more towards riding at a casual / beginner pace, or involve stopping at every opportunity. I’d also rather not ride with rookies if at all possible, too dangerous riding near them and they often don’t know their own fitness and skill levels enough to properly choose their speed and distance, which can be frustrating for them as well as for others in the group. I just want to ride, and sometimes I want to ride flat out. I don’t want to go with big groups with wide variations in riding experience / speed. My ideal cycling vacation riding group would be a bunch of my old racing buddies rolling along in a peloton and occasionally sprinting for KOM points and imaginary finish lines.
- Supported. Call me a whimp, but after years of roadracing I’ve gotten used to travelling as light as possible. Basic repair kit, a rain jacket, cellphone and wallet, and some food – that’s about all I want to carry. But to get to some of the longer and more “epic” riding terrain really requires some extra stuff (change of clothes, extra riding gear, more food, water, tools, spares, etc.) that I’d really rather not weigh myself down with. It’s perfectly fine if you want to carry a backpack or panniers, but me? I don’t want to go on rides with anything more than what will fit in my jersey pockets and in my 2 bottles. For bigger rides in faraway lands, that either means I need to con someone into meeting me along the route with a car, OR (my preference) – I find a tour group that specializes in supported rides.
So with those criteria in mind, I’m ready to plan my cycling vacation! Now on to the next round of questions to answer before the credit card comes out and the dates get booked:
Solo, or group tour?
All of the criteria I’ve listed above *can* be worked out by yourself or among your vacation partners. Take turns driving a support vehicle, load a cooler and a toolbox in the trunk, off you go. Share the bill for restaurants and apartment rentals, etc. and you’re living in style. Perfectly doable, and I’ve had plenty of great riding experiences without any professional assistance.
That said, if you can find one operating in the destination of your choice, I *highly* recommend booking a tour group or guide. In general, most of the best riding locations in the world have at LEAST 2 or 3 options (see below for the ones I’ve had fun with so far). If it’s in your budget, you won’t regret it. You can get all of the above requirements handled for you PLUS you also get “insider knowledge” of the area from the owner + staff of the group. These days you can read plenty of websites about places to ride at your destination, but there’s absolutely no substitute for having someone who rides there all year round show you the best lines, cool places to eat, etc. You’ll have a much richer experience if you’ve got someone riding alongside you who knows things you won’t find online or in a book.
Bring your own bike, or rent one?
Back when I used to race a lot more frequently, this wasn’t even a question. I HAD to bring your own bike, there were no other options available. So for each trip I’d deal with all the BS of breaking down my bike, packing it carefully into a container that is always just a bit smaller than I needed, then paying an airline an extra $100 or so to toss it around like a piece of garbage so I got to wait at the baggage claim and pray, pray, pray that my baby arrives with only minor dings and scratches. If it arrives at all. And then I got to lug it through airports, customs, oh joy.
Times have changed… The airlines haven’t, they still charge you too much and still enjoy destroying your bikes. But nowdays there’s a better option – rent a high-end bike at your destination. This is something that wasn’t really a common option even as recently as 5 years ago. Oh sure, you could rent a bike, but it’d either be a beach cruiser or a “city bike”. Not exactly what you want under you if you’re going for 100+ mile rides in the mountains. These days there are bike rental businesses (especially in vacation destinations) that have wised up and realized there’s a market for high end road and MTB bike rentals. There are people out there who own $10,000 bicycles that would gladly pay a few hundred bucks to *not* have to deal with bringing a bike along on vacation, assuming there was a suitable rental option waiting for them instead. Depending on your budget and destination, you can usually rent a bike that’s either top of the line or solid midrange. While it may not be the exact same bike you ride back home, you probably won’t miss it that much… You may even be able to rent a top-level bike you’ve been thinking about buying; there’s no better way to test ride than on a big vacation ride. But at the end of the day it’s really not so much about the bike that’s under you, it’s about the roads and trails you get to experience on it. As long as that bike is good enough to not get in the way of the fun? I’m sold, sign me up for a rental bike and I’ll leave my own bikes at home.
What to pack?
Assuming you’ve booked a suitable rental bike to be waiting when you get there, you just need to worry about your own personal riding gear. Depending on the expected weather and riding conditions this list can grow rapidly, so your mileage may vary. Depending on how confident I am that I’d be able to buy something at my destination if things change, I may leave behind items from this list that wouldn’t be needed by default (ex: winter socks if I’m traveling to Hawaii? Nah, if it’s really THAT cold I’ll buy warmer socks when I get there.)
- Shoes – for me, the #1 item to pack. And they go with me in a carryon, never in checked luggage. Good fitting shoes can make or break a ride for me, so once I find a pair that work well I guard them as if they were worth 10x what I paid for them. Because they are.
- Pedals – to match the cleats you have mounted on the shoes. Pack them in a Ziploc bag to keep them from getting grease on other stuff in your bag.
- Helmet – although you could save some hassle and rent these when you get there. Helmets take up a lot of room in your baggage.
- Riding kit (base set = shorts, jersey, socks, gloves)
- Weather kit (rain jacket, arm / leg warmers, heavier gloves)
- Ziploc bags for your jersey pockets (1 for carrying your wallet and phone, 1 for food)
- Eye protection
- Toolkit – note that your rental shop probably has these with the bikes, but I still pack my small toolkit just in case they don’t. Also be sure to remove the CO2 cartridges and any metal tools longer than 6mm like allen keys. Airport security hates these items.
That’s pretty much it. Anything else I need I can usually get while I’m out there, and I just wash my riding gear in my hotel sink each night rather than try to pack a bunch of kit for each day. For longer trips I’ll do 2 sets and alternate. But other than that I can fit all my riding stuff into a small carryon bag that fits into any overhead compartment. Do NOT check a bag with your riding gear, losing that bag can derail your entire trip, treat it like you would your Passport.
What to look for in a tour group?
Any competent tour group can meet the criteria an check off the things on the list, so what do I look for that sets some of the outfits on the top shelf?
- Look for a group that’s owned / run by an ex-racer who lives in the region. This insures you’re getting someone who is into the sport for similar reasons that you are (loves riding), and enjoys riding at higher-than-average pace and on terrain that isn’t necessarily rideable by casual cyclists. Getting a guide who is an ex pro isn’t a guarantee you’ll get an excellent cycling tour guide, but it DOES improve the odds and at least you’ll know that person can point you to the toughest and coolest rides in the region. And don’t worry about getting an ex-pro you recognize from magazine covers or on TV, that’s nice if you are worried about riding with a celebrity but a retired pro you’ve never heard of is still 10x more experienced than you are, and probably 100x more experienced on the local rides than you are. Local knowledge opens routes, trails, and doors for you – make sure your local has as much knowledge as possible.
- Look for a group that works out of a bike shop OR has an affiliation with one. You want a mechanic with a full set of tools and you want the ability to buy parts and gear if needed. This ties in nicely with the bike rental theme – if your tour group isn’t self-sufficient at procuring bikes that’s one more thing you’ll need to handle on your own. And if you run into mechanical issues , need to replace parts, or forgot something at home, having a bike shop that’s either in a partnership with your tour group OR is the same operation is a lifesaver. Not to mention a time saver. Consider that for most of us, vacation days are limited – you can burn half a day finding and picking up a bike, then another few hours returning it. Or, you can have it all flow through your tour guide and bam, you’ve just saved enough time for an additional ride on your vacation.
Groups I’ve used (I’ll update this as I find new ones and / or do new trips with them)
Name: Go Cycling Maui
Base of Operations: Paia, Maui, Hawaii
Owner(s): Donnie Arnoult
Go Cycling Maui tours are run out of the bikeshop of the same name in the town of Paia on the island of Maui in Hawaii. The shop is owned by ex-pro racer and all around great guy Donnie. I probably don’t need to sell you on the idea of taking a trip to Hawaii, but now imagine getting in a great ride with some fast company while you’re out there? Training camps in Hawaii aren’t just for top pros anymore, now you too can get in your winter miles in 80 degree weather too. Best of all? These are cycling vacations that your non-cycling partner or family members won’t object to. I get to set my wife up at the pool, and I take off for a morning ride. Best way to sprinkle in some cycling on top of an existing vacation.
February 2011- I worked with Go Cycling Maui while on vacation with my wife. I’d been to Hawaii frequently but never with a bicycle, and was tired of seeing others riding bikes every day while I was stuck with my running shoes. I heard about the challenge of riding up the longest paved climb in the world, and my search led me to Donnie. Read more here.