Cycling can take many forms, but one great pleasure (in my humble opinion) is the freedom and joy to be found in bicycle touring. Itís amazing what you notice when youíre travelling through new territory slow enough to see the sights large and small, smell the scents particular to the area, and hear whatís going on around you. Your appreciation of even a familiar locale can be greatly increased by cycling through it. Youíre also likely to meet really great local people.
The possibilities for touring on your bicycle are nearly endless, but most tours fall into just a few basic categories: road or mountain, solo or group, guided or unguided, self-contained or fully supported. Choosing amongst these options is just the starting point for designing a tour, but these fundamental decisions must be made first. If youíre new to bicycle touring, this article will define these basic categories and provide you with some starting information for planning your first tour.
Perhaps the easiest decision to make is whether you want to do a tour on paved or unpaved roads or trails. Many of us tend to focus on either road riding or mountain biking, and our touring choices are likely to follow that preference. By all means, go on the tour of your choice, but for your first tour you may be more comfortable if you stick with your normal style of riding.
Another easy choice to make will be whether you want to tour alone or with others. Touring alone will give you ultimate freedom in making decisions about where you want to go, how many days youíll be gone, how far youíll ride each day, etc. If you choose to tour with others you may have to compromise on these decisions, but youíll have the security of safety in numbers, good (hopefully) company, and others with whom to share responsibilities. Groups can be made up of people you pick, or you can choose to ride with a commercially organized tour. There are many, many tour companies to choose from. The considerations that go into making that choice are myriad enough to fill a whole other article.
If you choose to tour on your own, youíll likely go unguided and will need to choose your route and make all of your own sleeping arrangements. There are companies, however, who will put together itineraries for you to follow and even make your hotel arrangements so that all you have to is cycle. On a guided tour (usually also a group tour) the tour company makes the hotel or camping arrangements, often provides or arranges for most meals, and provides guides who ensure the group all gets from point to point, help with mechanical issues, and provide any number of other types of support, depending on the tour company.
Solo tours are usually self-supported or self-contained. If you choose to tour this way, youíll be responsible for carrying all of your gear with you. Your gear can be limited to clothing and personal items if you credit card tour (stay in hotels, hostels or the like at each stop and eat mostly in restaurants), or be a large pile with everything you need to survive (including food and camping equipment). Entire books have been dedicated to the topic of self-contained touring and the recommended equipment for it.
Group tours can be either self-contained or fully supported. On the former, group members may share responsibilities for cooking and therefore share the carrying of cooking equipment and food. On fully supported tours, however, the tour company transports your gear each day to the next stop. Some tours stay in hotels each night while others involve camping, but either way, all youíll be responsible for carrying on your bike is what you need for the day (rain gear, snacks, etc). Most fully supported tours also supply most meals, often cooked by the guides, but occasionally in restaurants, too. Many also provide snack/water stops during the day. Another nice feature of fully supported tours is the option of riding in the SAG (support and gear) wagon (truck, van, etc.) if you are unable to complete the daysí ride. The level of support provided varies depending on the tour company.
The choices which must be made when planning to tour on your bicycle can seem overwhelming. If itís your first time, start small. Choose a fully supported, commercially arranged tour or plan a short self-supported tour. An internet search on bicycle tours will give you many companies to choose from. Read their information carefully, ask for contact information for previous clients with whom you can talk, and talk with friends to get recommendations on companies who provide tours with which youíll be comfortable. Thereís an option out there to suit everyoneís preferences, itís just a matter of finding the right one.
Iíve been on three fully supported tours, each over a week long, a two-week credit card tour, and several overnight event rides. One of my favorite pastimes is browsing for the next tour (or ten) that I want to do. My current ultimate dream: a self-supported solo tour down the pacific coast of the U.S. If you havenít tried bicycle touring, plan one now!