Similar to many operators, Trek Travel relies on the expertise of its guides to assist cyclists. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Experienced cyclists are often encouraged to ride ahead of the group. // © 2016 Trek Travel
When in doubt, just go. That’s what I kept telling myself as I slowly crept over giant boulders and steep inclines during my mountain-biking tour in Moab, Utah. For outdoor-adventure seekers, Utah is a wide-open playground with endless possibilities. From river rafting to hiking to canyoneering, the state is an ideal location for those who — like me — look for the extreme.
When exploring new regions, my favorite mode of transportation is a bicycle, and I felt Moab would be the ideal spot to roam on two wheels.
I’m not the only one who finds the idea of exploring a new land by bike exhilarating. The uptick in cycling tours prompted the Adventure Travel Trade Association to conduct its first-ever global cycling tourism survey in 2014. Results indicated that this travel sector is becoming more organized and prominent across the globe.
As I quickly learned, mountain biking in Utah is no easy feat. Single-track trails, acute switchbacks and large rocks make Utah home to some of the most challenging bike trails. I enlisted the help of Rim Mountain Bike Tours, which specializes in tours around Moab — with highlighted trips to Arches National Park and Canyonlands — and focuses on bringing its clients directly into the belly of the beast.
After getting picked up by our guide and shuttling to the start of the bike trail, we were off. Every rider is given a souped-up mountain bike, a helmet, a water bottle and a handy tour guide (who, as I found out, is happy to double as your photographer). I chose a half-day tour called Courthouse Loop, a great beginner course that includes both single- and double-track terrain, as well as views of Arches. More challenging courses are available, including multiday tours of the White Rim and the Needles, both in Canyonlands.
We rode for about 100 yards before making a right turn into some of the rockiest terrain I had ever seen. Boulders that could have doubled as pieces from Stonehenge stood in the way of getting from point A to point B. As I contemplated asking for a refund, my guide frolicked easily ahead, zipping over the boulders on her Santa Cruz bike.
“The majority of mountain biking is all about attitude,” she said, adding that if you believe you can get over a huge boulder, then you probably can.
She also told me to trust my bike. Mountain bikes are tougher than they look and have capabilities beyond a traditional road bike. They are built to take on more demanding inclines and declines.
I had no idea how I was going to climb over the rocks without damaging the bike, my body or both. Then, I remembered to tell myself those two words: Just go.
Bike, Eat, Drink, Sleep
Andy Levine, president of DuVine Cycling & Adventure Co., founded his cycling tour operation in 1996 with a simple premise: Bike, eat, drink, sleep. Twenty years later, Levine admits the core concept hasn’t changed much.
“It’s still about getting on your bike and going through a little village in Tuscany or Provence,” Levine said. “When you’re going through these little European villages, smelling the lavender and sampling wine in the barrels, you’re receiving such an intimate travel experience — one that locals might not even have.”
For tour operators, the bicycle is simply considered a vehicle to get travelers to a destination, and companies such as DuVine pride themselves on designing experiences catered to travelers, not necessarily cyclists. Outfitters are keen on keeping the guest count low to provide maximum attention to guests. DuVine maintains a guest-to-guide ratio of about four to one, and the maximum capacity in any given group is 14.
As tour operators expand to offer cycling vacations around the globe, there’s an emphasis on providing local guides who already have detailed knowledge of a region. Levin says DuVine guides even become involved in curating trips.
“We’re not developing tours in a boardroom,” he said. “Our in-the-field guides are the ones who invest the time to find the best wineries, the best boutique hotels and the best sights of any region where we produce tours.”
When Todd Starnes, president of Bicycle Adventures, describes a cycling vacation to tour rookies, he’s quick to dispel any preconceived notion of these trips.
“I think people have it in their minds that an escorted cycling vacation is as strenuous and grueling as the Tour de France,” Starnes said. “I end up telling them that it is sort of like a cruise, but you’re riding your bike instead of sitting on a ship.”
For Starnes, the desire to share cycling trips stemmed from his own passion for the sport. But he also realizes that a love of cycling might not be within all travelers — at least, not initially.
In addition to cycling guides, most tour operators provide van support for each trip — vehicles that drive alongside the cycling group to assist when needed. The support can range from providing extra water to helping change a flat tire to even acting as a storage unit for travelers who buy goods on the road. Van support has also been known to cheer on riders who need a bit of encouragement to make it up a steep hill.
Included in most tours are road bikes equipped with GPS computers and maps. Bicycle Adventures, for example, provides each guest with a digital map that indicates upcoming turns, where bathrooms are located along the route and where the best photo ops are.
Tour operators provide trips and routes that cater to both beginner cyclists and those who are experienced. Riders of all levels travel on the same trip, but not necessarily together. More advanced cyclists are welcome to ride ahead of the pack, while others can pedal at a slower pace that may feel more comfortable.
Before your clients hit the road, tour operators suggest asking basic questions about their fitness levels and interest in a region. Inquire about what type of terrain they prefer to ride, if they are comfortable with physical challenges and what their interest level is in the area’s history. From there, companies can match the appropriate trip to clients’ needs and abilities.
“We tell people that it’s their vacation,” Starnes said. “It doesn’t matter how many miles they can put in during a day. Every trip is different because the makeup of the group is different, and the expertise of our guides helps it to not be cookie-cutter.”
A Growing Trend
As the popularity of cycling vacations continues, specific trends are emerging. Lindsay Juley, a travel agent representative for tour operator Trek Travel, says one of the biggest trends is the use of pedal-assist bicycles, also known as electric bikes, or e-bikes. These bicycles feature electric motors that are used to provide additional assistance if the rider needs it, complementing human power and giving an additional boost when fired up.
“The more that people find out about it, the more excited they get about a cycling trip,” Juley said. “We noticed that people really liked these, so we upgraded our fleet. We always say that the e-bike will take you up a level so you can get the extra confidence on the trip.”
In addition to modern bikes, Juley says Trek Travel has also seen a rise in multigenerational cycling trips, as grandparents are bringing not only their children on trips, but their grandchildren as well. As a result, tour companies such as Trek Travel have been creating programs geared toward all riding experiences and comfort levels.
“We do a lot of private and custom trips,” Juley said. “That’s become popular for a family who wants to get together during their own time, instead of on predetermined tour dates.”
K.C. Hoppe, a travel agent marketing liaison for Backroads, says cycling tours have been a natural evolution of today’s society.
“People are living healthier lives and want to bring that component to their vacations as well,” Hoppe said. “Their vacation needs also change throughout their lives — when you have young kids, you may want kids’ clubs and relaxation on the beach. But as children get older, an active trip is a great way to travel with family.”
At Backroads, Hoppe says 25 to 30 percent of its annual departures are family trips. Children as young as 4 years old are encouraged to travel, with adults pedaling their kids in trailers behind them. Tour operators have even added noncycling components to these active trips, from kayaking and hiking to culinary discoveries, providing a mix of activities to pique the interests of a variety of travelers.
“What’s so great about these family programs is that you’re outdoors and active every day, and you’re together with the rest of your family,” Hoppe said. “There’s such a great sense of accomplishment on these trips — from being able to climb a big hill to hiking a long distance — and your family can celebrate these endeavors with you.”
Backroads recently began a partnership with AmaWaterways, creating river cruising and cycling programs in Europe and along the Mekong River in Asia. Hoppe says that riders can cycle during land excursions and then come back to their cruise ship after a trek.
“Rather than using three hotels, we use the ships, so that guests don’t have to change hotels during their cycling vacations,” Hoppe said. “It’s an easy crossover for clients looking for another type of cruise vacation.”
Tour operators emphasize that no matter the type of trip a client is looking for, a cycling vacation is an easy way to explore a traveler’s inner sense of adventure.
“People don’t need to change their lifestyle or pre-vacation regime to have fun on a cycling trip,” Hoppe said. “If you can bike a few miles before you vacation, then that’s great — but it’s not necessary.”
My advice: Just go.