CYCLE TOUR OPTIONS - Self Sufficient, Unguided but Supported, or Guided
So, what are the types of cycle experiences available to someone wanting to either cycle on their own or with friends, or to join a group of other riders?
The experiences are endless, but there are some fundamental options that you should consider.
First, do you want to just go somewhere and ride in an unstructured way or do you want to follow a cycle route. If you want the former, then a bike is just one of many forms of transport that you can use to get around. The challenge you will face is obtaining a suitable bike. The following is a summary of some of the types of cycle tours possible around the world.
For the self sufficient who only want to ride, it's easy. Purchase a touring bike, fit it out with panniers, decide whether you will aim to camp out or rent accommodation, fill your panniers and hit the road with good maps and/or GPS navigation guide such as Garmin or Wahoo. If your ride starts from home, just start riding and see you later! It's possible to take your bike on planes (provided it is not an e-bike or the bike's battery is small enough and portable allowing it to be carried as part of hand luggage) and trains, but you will need to look into things like bike bags or cases and you may need to find a place to store your bike bags or cases when you start riding.
If going overseas with your own bike you will definitely need to obtain a bike bag or at the very least a big cardboard box to hold your bike. But just remember that the cheaper the box or bag, the more likely that your bike/s will be damaged in transit. Also, if you are riding an e-bike of any description you will need to check with the carrier about whether and how you can take your batteries with you. If you can't, then you may need to look at the possibility of getting batteries at your destination. (Riding Experience 5 or 6).
Do an internet search such as 'cyclists that travel on their own' and you will find lots of articles and advertisements offering options such as solotravelworld.com or divine.com
Unguided, but supported
Lots of riders prefer to ride without a guide but want to ride without thinking about bringing a bike with them, transportation of luggage, plus arranging accommodation and some meals. Many cycle tour companies offer guided and unguided options. Essentially, the latter usually entails signing up to join a company that provides support to riders wanting to get from point A to B on their own over a period of time, usually a week. The support will normally include accommodation every night of a fixed period, breakfast, dinner, maps of the available routes to get from and to accommodation.
Depending on the arrangements there may also be a tour manager who each evening after dinner will hand out maps for the next day's ride and provide some suggestions about things to see and do, as well as answer questions. It is usual for these types of tours to offer the option of renting a regular bike or an E Bike with mechanics available to fix problems as they occur, even on the road, including flat tyres and gear issues.
If you choose to bring your own bike, you will normally be responsible for doing your own mechanical repairs and the company will not guarantee that your bike will be safely stowed and managed overnight - this can be a real issue if you are bike and barging and your bike has to be stowed in very tight spaces. Depending on the type of tour, you may be offered the option at breakfast of preparing a packed lunch and a drink to take in your pannier, but in most instances you will be expected to find your own lunch plus snacks, drinks, etc during the day.
While my partner and I have always travelled with a guide, many of the companies we have travelled with offer both guided and non-guided tours and often they are offered together. We have been really happy with Rad & Reisen from Austria, Girolibero from Italy and Saddle Skeddadle from the UK, all of whom offer unguided tours on their very comprehensive websites. (Riding Experience 4, 5 or 6)
This is the form of touring that my partner and I always opt for. A guided tour allows us to concentrate on riding and taking in the sights and experiences. We decide on the approximate location(s) we want to ride in and then start examining the many cycle touring websites offering guided cycle tours in the location(s) of choice. Depending on the company, the offerings may be a collection of rides per location, or they may be divided into categories such as bike and barge, on road, off road, bike and hotel, family friendly, short rides, medium rides, etc. Within many of these categories there will also be degrees of difficulty ranging from really easy on flat roads and trails through to big, adventurous climbs into or through mountains.
Having chosen the type and location, a guided tour will usually start with a gathering on the afternoon of day one during which rented bikes are fitted to each rider, people are introduced (we have ridden in situations where we were the only riders with our guide through to groups of riders up to 32 in number with two guides provided. In the main though, the number in group with a guide usually is in the range of 6 to 12).
The introductory day will usually include a short ride to allow you to familiarise yourself with your bike and experience riding with the group and your guide. The ride is also useful for those who bring their own pedals, seats and/or bikes with most people in the latter category being those that can easily access the tour from their home. My experience in this regard is that in Europe most people opting to bring bikes are bringing E Bikes and are joining on water cycle tours on rivers, canals or the sea in areas close to the coast.
On a week long tour on land , there is usually a van/bus capable of carrying all luggage from hotel to hotel first thing each morning. The van is driven by the mechanic(s) who return to shadow the group as the day progresses to act as a sag wagon if needed or to provide mechanical services. Alternatively, the van/bus will be big enough for smaller groups to carry all luggage in the back, provide sag wagon services for the riders and carry bikes from those riders on a roof rack.
Often with smaller tours, the tour support will be two persons, who swap roles each day. On the first day one rides and guides while the other drives, provides refreshments and water and acts as mechanic. They then swap on alternate days. Some tours will have the guides providing lunch as well, while others may either take you to a cafe or restaurant so you can do your own thing or simply point you in the right direction once you enter a town or city.
Other things gained through going guided are that the guides provide all directions, know the location and will take you to see the really interesting sights (including those that are not immediately obvious to those making their own arrangements), take you to dinner venues that you might not find on your own and make sure you don't get lost. Also depending on the price you pay, you might find yourself staying in 4 and 5 star accommodation, eating in top notch restaurants (some of which are Michelin rated) and trying out fabulous wines).
Over the last few years we have begun to join tours in Europe that often include riders with Riding Experience 3. That is riders without much riding experience, but who are fit and believe that a seven day tour is within their scope and to date they have not been wrong. The advent of rented e-bikes has certainly made it easier for novice riders to complete one week tours such as the Dalmatian Islands Tour off Southern Croatia which involved lots of climbing and daily distances of 40-60 kms.
However, if joining a tour with normal hybrid or road bikes, I would suggest that novice riders look for tours that are relatively flat. For example the French Cycling Holidays Chateaus of the Loire Valley Tour we did in 2019 was basically flat and the several novice riders coped without major problems. (Riding Experience 3,4,5 or 6).
My partner and I have joined many guided tours over the last 10 years and have been lead by some wonderful guides, but not always. As a result we now prefer to join tours based on who is the guide, as much as where does the tour go. Our favourite guides are Susan & David from French Cycling Holidays, Luca & Richi from Road Bike Tours Italy and Richard & Lu from AllTrails in Australia who support, rather than guide.