Pedal-Powered Vacations

On a biking vacation, the journey really is the destination. Here are tips for planning the best getaways on two wheels.

You know the bicyclist’s mantra: Four wheels good, two wheels better? What about seven wheels? That was the number beneath author and cycling advocate Joe Kurmaskie and his family as they biked across a good chunk of Canada in the summer of 2007. The journey, detailed in the forthcoming Blood, Sweat and Gears, saw Kurmaskie, his wife Beth, and sons Quinn (8), Enzo (6) and Matteo (1) pedal their way from Vancouver Island to Saskatoon, and across Nova Scotia, encountering hailstorms, herds of rutting elk and mile after mile of panoramic scenery.

A vacation by bike doesn’t have to be nearly so ambitious to be just as rewarding. Though bike touring companies have been operating since the 1970s, bike travel has become increasingly popular in recent years, and the range of tours offered, as well as the types of people riding, have expanded exponentially, for both regular cycling and mountain biking. You like wine and luxury hotels? Camping and beer? Yoga? Gelato? Building houses? Meeting other single parents? There’s a bike trip for that.

Why Take a Biking Vacation?

So, why would anyone spend her down time with a sore tush when she could be snoozing on a beach? “People have a preconceived notion that [a bike vacation] is more work than taking a road trip,” says Kurmaskie. “In fact, you have more time to enjoy yourselves and the sights, sounds, attractions than if you were in a car, because the entire day is part of the fun.”

Jim Sayer, executive director of the Missoula, Mont.–based nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association, says bike travel can be a great character-builder, for adults and for kids. “Every parent wants to teach their kids life skills and independence, and there’s no better way than on a bike trip,” says Sayer, who has first-hand experience bike touring with his 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old twins.

Bonus: After a day of cycling, there’s no need to feel guilty about pigging out at dinner and ordering dessert.

Guided Tours

If bike travel sounds your speed, the next step is deciding between a guided tour or a self-supported one. If you’re new to biking, have limited time to plan a trip or like the idea of a significant safety net, opting for a guided tour is a good bet. On these trips, you ride with a group, though at your own pace, and a support vehicle (that’s “sag wagon” in bike parlance) will carry your luggage and let you put your feet up if you’re too tired to ride. Most tours include stays at hotels (though some emphasize camping), and food is often a highlight of the trip.

One of the oldest and largest operations, Backroads, runs tours on five continents for groups that average 18 riders in size, but can swell up to 26. “The value in [a guided trip] is that you don’t need to do anything beyond booking it,” says Rich Snodsmith, guest services manager for the Berkeley, Calif.–based company. “Your hotels are planned, your activities are planned—we take care of it all.”

DuVine Adventures in Somerville, Mass., and Toronto’s Butterfield & Robinson specialize in luxury tours, while Las Vegas’s carbon-neutral Escape Adventures runs eco-friendly mountain biking and multisport trips.

If you’re set on a specific destination, regional operators can have strong connections to the areas they ride through, while some cater to specific interests, including Bike & Build, which organizes cross-country rides to support affordable housing, and Ride Strong, a top choice among skilled endurance riders. Many companies will happily plan private group tours—perfect for extended families that want to get away together.

Go It Alone

For the independent and budget-conscious, self-guided trips offer not only a large discount over guided tours, but also an unparalleled sense of accomplishment. Riding sans sag wagon requires a greater commitment to planning and preparing for the trip, as well as an extra dose of courage. Plot a route to a nearby hotel, plan to eat in restaurants, and you won’t need to pack much beyond a toothbrush and a credit card. Longer trips that involve camping require much more pre-trip thought. The Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) provides a wealth of information and resources on touring the United States to members and nonmembers alike, including route maps and GPS coordinates of popular routes, how-to guides, and a lively forum.

Search the Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s TrailLink to see if there’s a railroad track-turned-bike trail near you. For those who want an organized itinerary without the group, some bike-touring companies will sell trimmed-down guides of their most popular excursions. Once you have a route chosen, pick up tips from other travelers by perusing the journals kept at Crazy Guy on a Bike and, or start one of your own.

Gearing Up

What You Need for a Guided Tour

For first-time cyclists taking a supported tour, the bike gear requirements are minimal. Most companies provide bikes and helmets as part of the total trip cost, though if you have a bike you like, you usually can make arrangements to bring it along. Biking shorts are a worthwhile investment, as is a breathable rain shell, and if you’re planning to work up a sweat, a few moisture-wicking shirts will travel better than cotton tees. Unless you’re a serious enthusiast, don’t worry about getting special shoes or a hydration pack.

What You Need for Independent Bike Travel

For those taking a self-guided tour, the gear list can be extensive, depending on how far off the grid you plan to travel. For the main item, your transportation, buying at a local bike shop will often entitle you to free or discounted tune-ups and repairs over the life of the bike, as well as provide access to the expertise of employees. Bike bags, panniers or a bike trailer can hold your supplies, which should include at the very least a patch kit for the inevitable flat tire and a multitool for simple bike adjustments.

Among national outfitters, REI, Bike Nashbar and Performance Bicycle have a great selection of biking gear and apparel. Team Estrogen sells biking accessories designed for women.

Next: Great Cycling and Mountain Biking Destinations

5 Great Cycling Destinations

1. France

With its storybook châteaux, vineyards and gentle terrain, France’s Loire Valley is the perfect starter destination for newer bikers and families. “It’s classic France,” says Butterfield & Robinson’s Kathy Stewart. On the opposite end of the skill spectrum, Ride Strong leads groups up into the legendary mountain passes of the Pyrenees.

2. Pacific Coast, United States

Stretching 1,855 miles from Vancouver to the southern tip of California, the Pacific Coast Route (PCR) is an epic American journey. The PCR is the most popular route mapped by the ACA, and it’s no wonder given that views from it include rugged coastal cliffs, redwood forests and sandy beaches. For a shorter course, the section between Olympia, Wash., and Santa Monica, Calif., is reported to have the least traffic.

3. Italy

With an abundance of food, wine, culture and scenery, Italy by bike is the epitome of la dolce vita—and you won’t need to worry about the carbs. Pick your region with care, however. “A lot of people think they want to go to Tuscany, but Tuscany’s really hilly,” warns Butterfield & Robinson’s Stewart. For easier riding with the same Italian hospitality, she recommends Puglia as an ideal area, especially for families.

4. Vietnam

Pedaling through Vietnam allows visitors to grasp at eye-level the lush, expansive countryside that’s completely missed by visitors who travel by plane or bus between the country’s cramped urban centers. VeloAsia’s tour of the Mekong Delta offers a serene ride through parts of Vietnam little visited by tourists.

5. Underground Railroad Route

A unique partnership between the ACA and the Center for Minority Health in Pittsburgh created the Underground Railroad Route, a 2,000-mile corridor between Mobile, Ala., and Ontario, Canada, that remembers the difficult route to freedom taken by slaves in the American South prior to the Civil War.

5 Great Mountain Biking Destinations

1. Utah

With colorful desert scenery and miles of perfect trails, Moab, Utah, is the undisputed center of the mountain-biking community in the United States, and there’s something here for riders of all skill levels to enjoy. Rim Tours has been introducing riders to the joys of Moab for more than 20 years.

2. Oregon

“It’s a cool town with great beer and great biking,” is how Melanie Fisher of Cog Wild Tours describes Bend, the center of the Oregon outdoors community. Trails leading out of Bend take the Cascade Mountains, Umpqua River and high desert terrain in stride. For a great introduction to the area’s best spot, attend a Bike & Brew Weekend.

3. Scotland

You take the high road, I’ll take the low road, but they’re both good for mountain biking in Scotland, which instituted an open access law in 2005 that ensures this singularly beautiful countryside can be enjoyed by everyone.

4. Argentina

For a breathtaking backroads journey, Patagonia offers an unbeatable escape and some of the sweetest mountain biking routes south of the equator. But to enjoy these sweeping vistas of glacial lakes and craggy mountains, you’ll have to be keeping up in advanced spin class.

5. West Virginia

Many people think mountain biking requires a big mountain, but experienced riders know the best routes have terrain that’s varied and challenging—that’s the draw in West Virginia where miles of singletrack wind through the rolling Monongahela National Forest and Canaan Valley.

Destinations: Argentina, Oregon, Utah, West Virginia, Vietnam, Italy, France, California, Scotland

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Cycling

User Comments

Portland, Oregon has great options too. In fact Hotel Monaco Portland has a package called Carless Vacation that includes a bike tour of downtown, or visitors can book their own tours or just rent bikes with Pedal Bike Tours (they have a bunch of tours, some out of town like wine country).