AND WHEN YOU DO - WHAT NEXT?
Food and Drink:
Food and drink quality and choice varies across all tours. The price of the tour will provide some indication of quality and choice, but of course this can't be guaranteed. On cheaper bike and barge tours we have experienced alla carte service with great meals prepared by the crews' speciality cook, while on others the cooking was done by the captain and crew and was fairly ordinary buffet style meals. Land based tours provide a mixture of dinners prepared by the hotel you are staying in and/or being taken to restaurants to try local cuisine. With French Cycling Holidays, for example, dinners are usually a highlight of the day with the guides taking extra care to find great food and excellent wines. Breakfasts can also vary with some boats or hotels offering a wide range of choices while others serve up the same fare every morning.
When we first started bike and barging we would join the other riders every morning after breakfast packing our lunch for the day - usually a bread roll with meat and/or cheese, a piece of fruit and a small box of juice. After a couple of tours we decided that this a recipe for boring eating and we stopped preparing our lunches except on days when advised that we would not have purchase options. Companies like French Cycling Holidays will at the start of the tour offer participants the chance to have picnic lunches on days when the local food choices will be poor or non-existent. Sometimes the cost is built into the tour and on other occasions you are given the choice of joining picnic(s) and contributing your share of the cost of the picnic at the end of the week. Otherwise, we check out the local options near where we stop for lunch and usually really enjoy trying local specialities that otherwise we might never try.
All tours we have done have provided free water every day, sometimes the water is bottled and other times you fill your water bottle from water provided by the guides before and during each day's ride. Most, but not all, tours include a free water bottle in your welcome package. After experiencing a tour that didn't we now always bring our own reusable water bottles with us.
In addition to possibly contributing to the cost of providing picnics, it fairly common on smaller barges and boats for a tab to be kept for drink purchases over the whole tour, with participants given their bill for their costs over the tour on the last night so that accounts are cleared before you leave the vessel.
Coffee, the go to drink of many cyclists, whether it is drunk before or after a ride with friends, part of a meal or something to end the day. Riding locally the challenge is usually to find a coffee shop that is open and prepares a good coffee of the type that you like. As an Australian, I have become used to purchasing espresso coffees from a speciality coffee shop with trained baristas and as a cyclist I look for coffee shops with good coffee that welcome cyclists and that have somewhere suitable to stack or lock bikes within eyesight.
Once I start to travel, the 'coffee' challenge becomes harder. Two tools that I use to help me locate suitable places are an app called Beanhunter and Google Maps. The latter can be handy to find somewhere that serves coffee, but reviews don't usually give you a sense of the coffee preparation or style. I have used Beanhunter around the world and it can be incredibly useful for locating good coffee shops just about anywhere. It is an Australian app and works best in countries with a strong coffee culture such as Australia, New Zealand and England, but has also been useful in countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, Austria and France. I haven't had to use it in Italy as the coffee options there are prolific and usually you can tell how good the barista is by looking at the coffees they have already prepared. One tip for novices, though - a latte in Italy is a glass of milk and the standard coffee options are espresso and cappuccino. If you want a latte try asking for a cafe latte, but you may be delivered a black coffee with milk. If you drink piccolos in Australia try asking for a doppia (double) macchiato and see how you go.
The other thing about espresso coffee is that the coffee names vary from country to country. One country's espresso is another's short black; a piccolo is called a cortado in several countries and a a cafe latte in Austria could result in a tall thin glass with milk coffee and a straw. This is where Beanhunter can come in handy - read the reviews and look for tips. Doing so can help avoid poor choices. Finally, if you do use an app to find a place or you find a place that isn't covered by the app you are using, please remember to add your review. If everyone put in their reviews it increases the chance of there being a helpful review the next time you are looking. Also, if you have a coffee app that you swear by, please send me a review with the web address and I will add them to this page.
Laundry is an important consideration when cycle touring. We now each pack three sets of riding clothes when packing for one or more tours. That is three jerseys, three knicks, three pairs of socks three base layers, three caps to keep the sun off our heads. By having three sets we are able to wash a set after a ride and provide two days for it to dry. If you are on a boat or staying at hotels for multiple nights you can leave your clothes to dry in your room while you are out riding, but if you are changing rooms on a daily basis, you have to wash straight after you return to the room from your ride so that the clothes can start drying overnight. Then they go into a plastic bag for the transfer to the next room (unless there is room in the van for clothes to be spread across the back seat to dry during the day) where they can spend another night trying to dry before being used again.
A useful tip given to us was to wring out the clothing by putting items in a towel and then twisting the towel to remove as much water as possible. Then hang as much washing as possible on hangers in the wardrobe and close the wardrobe door so that the dry heat of the wardrobe helps to dry the clothes overnight. We have found it rare to have access to a laundry with dryer in our hotels, but we can advise that at the Lake Garda Bike Hotel in northern Italy all cycling guests are given a large mesh bag into which all of a day's dirty cycling gear can be placed and then deposited at reception before 7pm. The clothing is washed and dried overnight and returned before 7am the next day. An absolutely fabulous service which frees you up from the usual practice of washing clothing in the bathroom basin which is time consuming and messy!
Joining a Tour
For most tours, you are usually required to make your way to and from the vessel or starting point and depending on the departure and arrival locations you may find yourself having to arrange a series of transfers including finding the nearest cheap airline airport, working through train options (noting that in France and Italy for example you can only book three months in advance) and possibly having to get a taxi for the final leg of the connection. Many operators will include pick up and drop off at a range of relatively nearby sites and this can be very helpful. In addition, if you find an operator/guide that you love to ride with, you may find that they will go out of their way to help you get to the start of your tour. Luca from Road Bike Tours Italy, for example, went out of his way to collect use from Florence the day before our tour was due to gather in Sienna and then took us to dinner that night even though he was transiting from one tour to another and had many things to arrange.
If you are looking at options for getting around Europe and the UK before or after a bike tour, I would suggest comparing trains with planes and then look at hiring a car just so that you can appreciate the pros and cons of each. Flying in Europe and the UK can be a cheap alternative with airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair (no connection) but be aware that they often fly out of regional airports and can present a challenge in getting to and from the airports. Try the website flylc.com to identify either airlines that fly out of airports near where you are coming from or going to, or change the enquiry to look at specific airlines and see whether they offer flights at prices that might suit you.
For rail options I would highly recommend looking at the webpage called the Man in Seat 61 - the train travel site at seat61.com . It is a fabulous site and was the catalyst for this site. Train travel is a fundamental element of each trip we take to Europe and the UK and I always start by checking seat61.com to find out what train options are available for the places we are travelling to, which class to travel, when to book, where to book, etc. Train travel options are myriad overseas and it can be daunting trying to work out whether, for example, to catch a TGV, an intercontinental train or a regional train in France.
Renting a car can also be tricky. Again there are lots of comparison websites, but even so it can be really difficult to compare 'apples with apples' due to the different terminology that rental car firms use for the same event. Also, be aware that the three French car manufacturers (Citroen, Peugeot and Renault) offer car leasing schemes based on a minimum of a 21 day lease. If you need a car for more than 20 days it can be a much cheaper option and has a number of benefits including a better insurance option. If you lease the car is registered in your name and you get normal insurance rather than the tricky insurance with excesses for standard rental cars.
Make sure you are fully aware of the terms and conditions (e.g. non serious accidents must be reported to the the leasing company within a specified time for the repair to be covered, but providing you do so there should be no excess payable. We have collected a Peugeot at the airport in Milan (for an additional small fee) so there is no problems with taking a leased car outside France, but I believe they must be returned in France. Further, if your leased vehicle breaks down, it must be repaired rather than being replaced and you will be provided with a hire car till the leased car is repaired. This can create two difficulties, first you have to return to the city where the car is being repaired once the repair is complete which can stuff up your itinerary, and secondly if the repair takes several days and your itinerary had you driving into another country in the interim, you may not be able to as when this happened to us in Italy we were told by the rental car company that we could not take the car outside Italy.
Finally, if you rent or lease a car, look into the toll arrangements in the countries you will be driving. Foreigners often only have the choice of cash or a card. The former can quickly use up all you cash due to the number of toll stations, while the latter can be problematic if the card readers don't accept any of your cards. We have had no problems in Italy, for example, but in France we are yet to find a reader that accepts an Australian card.
Many overseas operators assume that their riders will be coming from countries relatively nearby. In addition, many riders come from countries with less generous holiday arrangements than Australians and the combination of these two factors often means that the riders will fly in, join the tour and then fly home. As a result, they can often get away with a backpack or small suitcase and easily meet maximum luggage size of the operator. It may therefore p[ay to contact the operator before your tour departs to find out how much luggage they will be will to transfer each day. As Australia is so far away from almost everywhere we tend to arrange 6-10 week holidays with two or three bike tours over the period. This can mean leaving home with a large and small suitcase each and not all operators will transfer this quantum of luggage, particularly if the tour is fully booked out and luggage space in a van or bus needs to be optimised . This is where the itinerary for the whole trip can be important. For example, we have on occasion been able to devise a tour whereby a suitcase with clothing not needed during a ride week is stored in a locker at a railway station or in luggage storage in a hotel where a tour started and finished.
Should I take my bike with me?
Locally - roof v tow bar?
The location of the ride will of course have a major bearing on your decision if you own a bike you would prefer to be riding. If you can drive to the start of the tour, you could take your bike with you. There are lots of racks that can be attached to your vehicle and used to carry your bike. In choosing a rack you need to think about whether you will attach to a towbar or use one of the racks that attach directly to the roof or boot lid. The other thing to think about is the compatibility of your bike(s) to the the rack system you choose. For example, if you have an all steel or an ebike, it will probably be heavy and better attached to a towbar based rack for ease of lifting. A full carbon bike will be light and roof rack options come into play, but you need to check whether the method of locking into the rack might cause long term cracking problems for the carbon. For carbon bikes, many bike mechanics I have spoken to suggest that it would be better to get a rack that attaches to the wheels rather than clamping to the frame.
Tow bar racks tend to come with two standard designs - an upright bent bar on which to hang your bike(s) using the cross bar or a full blown rack on which the bike(s) can rest and be attached. The latter are a better option for bikes you want to protect and some, such as the Yakima Click series come with optional ramps that can allow users to roll a bike up the ramp and on to the rack allowing most users to be able to load and unload even very heavy bikes.
We changed to a Yakima Click 2 towbar rack when we purchased our Creo e road bikes and we have now used the rack for several trips including a several hour trip to Melbourne and back to join our Slow Ocean Road Tour. It is easy to put bikes on and off the rack, we could still access our boot with the bikes on the rack and being behind the car, it did not appear to have a major impact on airflow or fuel consumption. Our daughter drove us to the tour meeting point and we found it very easy to both remove the rack and store it in the boot and vice versa when she picked us up on our return.
In my experience, if you are joining an organised cycle tour overseas, the operator will offer to rent you a bike and, if needed, a helmet. Taking your bike overseas with you can be done, but you might want to consider the pros and cons first. I've thought about doing so on a few occasions, but the cons won the day. However, a number of acquaintances have taken their bikes and have benefitted from having a bike that perfectly suits them, rather than renting. So here are my pros and cons:
- Saves you the cost of renting a bike when you arrive.
- Your preferred type of bike might not be available on the tour you are joining.
- If you are flying in to immediately start riding and will be flying home as soon as the ride finishes, the cons may be worth putting up with.
- If and when your ebike batteries can be hired from bike shops or the like at your destination, it might be worth the hassle of transporting your bike so that you both can take advantage of your bike's e features and also avoid the much steeper cost of hiring ebikes as opposed to manual bikes, whether they be road or hybrid.
- You will need to purchase a bike box of some description (although if you have the cardboard box that your bike was sent to your bike shop in, you may be able to use that box for your trip). Of course depending on the quality of your bike you may need to buy a relatively expensive metal bike box so that your bike is not damaged in transit.
- You will need to dismantle and rebuild your bike or pay mechanics at either end of your trip to do so.
- Depending on the distance between your arrival airport and the start of your riding tour, you will have a bike bag to lug around in addition to your luggage. This can be an issue if you are catching public transport to get around.
- If you are not joining a supported tour, you will probably need to find somewhere to store the bike box while you doing your riding.
- If you are joining a supported tour, they may not have room to store and/or cart your bike box.
- If you have an e bike of any type you will need to think about how you will transport your battery(ies) as you will probably be unable to leave them in or on the bike frame in the aeroplane's hold. Apparently batteries need to be carried as hand luggage, but many batteries will exceed the hand luggage weight limit.
- If you are mixing your activities while overseas and won't be located in one spot when not riding, it could be a major hassle to transfer your bike when you are not cycling.
What are the alternatives to taking your own bike when travelling overseas and how are hire bikes set out?
The basic alternatives are to purchase or rent a bike when you arrive. Some riders choose to purchase as they will need the bike for extended periods, don't need to worry about transporting their bikes and luggage between different locations and they can purchase a bike that they know suits them. Others want to try bike models that they can't trial at home or they can get a superior purchase price and intend returning home with the bike.
However, in our experience, most overseas riders joining tours in Europe or the USA will opt to hire a bike from the company that is operating the tour. The type of bikes they offer (and most now seem to offer a choice between a manual bike and an ebike with the latter often being twice as expensive to hire) will vary from hybrids to flat bar road bikes to drop bar road bikes with the hire rate climbing as the choice improves. If you are bike and barging, you will often have a choice of a 7 or 21 gear hybrid bike with a rear rack and a vinyl pannier for carrying things like lunch, a bottle of water (usually distributed free of charge at the start of each day's ride), snacks and a rain jacket.
Panniers and Bags
As you improve the quality of the bike, you may be offered a vinyl bag that clips on to the handlebars. Having a capacity less than half of a pannier, you might need to ride with a back pack to carry those items that don't fit the bag. Both the panniers and the handlebar bags can be clipped off and used to carry your valuables while you are away from your bike (while visiting a church or a museum, form example) but we found that in the heat carrying heavily laden panniers or bags was an inconvenience and we worked on carrying valuables in a lightweight back pack so that the bag or pannier could be left on the bike with non-valuable items that if stolen could be easily replaced.
Whether of not your hire bike comes with a bike computer and its quality, depends on the operator and the cost of the tour. Many low end operators have cheap bike computers such as Catseyes which are good for keeping track of the distance ridden. As the quality of the bikes being hired improved you may find that your tour operator provides a pre-programmed device such as a Garmin 500 so that your route each day is pre-loaded and you can easily follow the route which is marked by a bold blue line. Trek Travel provided these devices on the two tours we did with them. Many serious riders already have their own bike computers which they always bring with them and attach to their bikes using the temporary attachment fittings provided with the device. If the operator has already fitted a bike computer to the handlebars, there may not be room on the handlebars for your computer too, but not to worry, just start it up at the beginning of the day and slip it in your back pocket and it will still keep track of your essential data. Over the last few years as we have moved up to higher quality bikes the operators are usually quite happy to program your bike computer so that it is the only device you have to attach to the handlebars and you can ride just like you would at home with the advantage of having the route available on your screen if you get lost.
If you live in a country that drives on the left hand side of the road, you will probably be offered the choice of having your bike brake levers set up in the way you are used to them at home - that is your back brake lever on the left and your front brake lever on the right. I would strongly recommend that you say no! At home the primary direction signal is the right arm off the handlebar so the primary braking hand is the left hand for the rear brake. If you have your brake levers changed in Europe to match your home set up you will find yourself signalling the primary direction on the left and if, in an emergency, you use your right hand to slam on the brakes you will be putting on the front brake and may summersault over the handlebars. So stay with the European setting and spend the short amount of time required to get used to pulling on the right lever to put on the rear brakes.