A Self-Supported or Organized Bike Tour? What You Need to Know to Decide …

I admit it: I used to be a self-supported, bike-touring snob, and looked down upon all the people I rode past who were part of an organized bike tour. Even when they were stopped, in some beautiful garden or next to a castle, eating the delicious lunch the tour-group’s catering director had created for them. And all I had in my handlebar bag was a bruised banana and a few broken biscuits. And, the supermarches were closed for the lunch break until 15:00.

Over the years, I’ve mellowed, become less judgmental and have come to accept organized tours as an integral and important part of Cyclotoruisme. What the heck, why not? I can’t really think of a good reason. If organized tours get more people out, and on the road, exploring new places in foreign lands, great. I haven’t gone on one yet, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll be part of an organized in the future. Perhaps the Alps (see below).

And so, let’s take a look at the all-important question people often ask me: Steve, should we, can we, do a French bike tour on our own? Or do we need to do it with a tour group? Help us Steve! You’re the so-called expert.

Here’s my guide to help you decide which option is best for you…

Comfort Zone: Your comfort level in a foreign country, such as France, is a key determining factor. Have you been there before? Do you feel comfortable getting around? Can you speak a little of the language? Can you map out a good route? If the answers to these questions are mostly yes, go the self-supported route. If not … well, you know what to do. 

My first trip: Back in 1985, I was covering the Paris Air Show for the third time. I’d already been all over Europe, to scores of large- and medium-sized cities to do aviation stories, felt quite comfortable on my own in France and was ready to see some countryside. Off I went, to the Loire, and rented a bike. A 1990 trip from Paris to Nice got me totally hooked and I’ve never stopped. Well, except for 2020 – the Year of Going Nowhere.

Time: A tour group is great if you have only a limited amount of time, say 6 to 8 days, and want to take in a lot of sights and not worry about the logistics. If you have a few weeks, or maybe even a month or more (which I highly recommend), and want to really explore a region, or pedal from Paris to Nice, or from Bordeaux to Avignon, you’re better off on your own. Plus, there aren’t many month-long, organized bike tours. I guess you could link together two, three or four organized tours of different regions. Maybe the company will give you a discount. My 1990 Paris to Nice trip lasted 74 glorious days! Two years later, Paris to Amsterdam in two-plus months.

Money: The less you have, the more you should consider a self-supported tour. And stay in youth hostels and cheap hotels. Or camp. I’m proud of ability to stretch the Euro and could and can still live quite well on less than what it would cost for an organized tour.

However, if you have enough dough for organized bike tour, well, do it. You earned it. And a bike trip is an excellent investment in yourself. And, it’s nice to be pampered, and they sure do pamper you on bike tours. I like being pampered. Will someone please pamper me! I’m a lot older and have a bit more money now than in 1985, so who knows, a tour could be in my future.

Bike mechanic skills: Can you fix a flat? Can you lube your chain or get it back on if you drop it? If you have some basic bike-mechanic skills, you’re good to go on your own. If not, you can either cross your fingers and hope for the best (like I did in 1985) … or join a bike tour.

Life’s Baggage: When you’re on your own, you obviously have to carry all your stuff with you. It can be cumbersome, and add a little bit of effort to the day’s ride. Over the years, I’ve become an expert bike-trip packer. 

On an organized bike tour, they drive all your stuff to the next town and hotel and it’s waiting for you when you arrive. This is a good reason to opt for a bike tour. Once, in Chinon, in the Loire, there was a tour group staying at the hotel when I was staying. In the morning, as I was leaving, I saw all their bags piled up outside the hotel. “Where are you headed?” I asked someone.

“Saumur,” they said.

This was where I was headed. What if I put my bags in with their bags, and then picked them up in Saumur at their hotel? It was wishful thinking, and off I rode with a fully loaded bike. Never did see them in Saumur.

Mountain Climbing: I’m watching the Tour de France right now as I write this. And, they’re climbing the Col de la Madeleine. I want to climb the Col de la Madeleine, the Alpe d’Hueze and the Galibier. I need to climb these cols. I’ve mapped it out, and it would be hard to go the self-supported route, carrying all my stuff, and get up and over some of the secondary cols to get to my base towns, from which I’d launch my epic day trips. Possible, but difficult. And I am getting a bit older. The tour group options seems like the way to go in the Alps and Pyrenees. I have two friends who went on separate supported tours in the Alps, and they both raved about them, and tortured me with lots of photos on Facebook.

The Power of People: I like people, especially my fellow cyclists, and always seem to find some pedal people (or people impressed by cyclists) to chat with on my various French bike tours. However, if you’re traveling alone, like I often do, you can often go a day or two or three without a meaningful conversation. It can get a bit lonely on a two-month trip.

Being in a tour group assures constant company. Then again, I’m not sure I want to be tethered to the same 12 or 14 people, whom I never met until we started out from Aix or Amboise or Sarlat. They could be annoying. I could be annoying to them. Then again, most of the cyclists I’ve met over the years are pretty darn cool. Like you are, right? And, we have a love of cycling in common, which is always a good start to a friendship.

Here’s the bottom line: Either way, on your own or with a group, biking in France is amazing. What are you waiting for? Here’s my eBooks on biking five different regions in France: Provence, the Loire, Bordeaux, Normandy and the Dordogne. If I sell enough: An organized tour of the Alps!

5 thoughts on “A Self-Supported or Organized Bike Tour? What You Need to Know to Decide …

  1. We started cycle touring with a tour company 4 years ago and it was a great way to become an avid cyclist. All your points above are right – the company creates interesting routes with turn-by-turn directions (using Ride with GPS), they manage the hotels and luggage transfer and they also add in some local ‘culture’. Depending on your itinerary, that might include lunch at a farm, touring a market with a chef, guided tour of an olive farm…etc. We have done 5 of these tours and enjoyed them a lot and as you don’t have to ride as a group you aren’t stuck with people you’d rather not spend a lot of time with. Although, on all our trips we met really interesting people and truly enjoyed their company. Last year we branched out and did a ‘self-guided’ tour where the company provided the bikes, the routing, booked the hotels and arranged luggage transfer. We felt we no longer needed the added support of guides, nor did we need the cultural attractions and we wanted a bit more freedom to wander off the track in search of another espresso. We thought we had found the perfect option but sadly the route directions were atrocious and had us lost multiple times every day. But as it turns out that was a good thing. We were highly motivated to create our own tour which we did but haven’t yet done it because, well COVID. We found a great company to rent us bikes which they drop off and pick up anywhere in France, Italy or Spain; hotels are easy to book and the routing, while taking some time to create is quite simple using Komoot. Luggage transfer was going to be via taxi but next year we are going to use e-bikes and so will be able to manage with panniers. Our trip next year is 50 days in Provence, Canal Deux Mers and the Medoc. All-in, doing it ourselves is less than half the per-day cost of the self-guided trip and 25% of the cost/day of the organized tour thus we are able to do a much longer trip than the 6 – 8 cycling days of most organized tours. I don’t regret the organized tours as it was what got me interested in cycling and the guides were excellent and patient teachers who helped me learn to cycle and to become a devoted fan of ‘touristing at the speed of bike’.

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    1. Thanks Karole, have a great trip. Provence is one of my favorite places. Love to use Seguret, Lacoste, Bedoin and Sault as base towns for day trips. And then, there’s the Ventoux! Don’t much like the bigger cities, except Aix and a loop around Mt St Vic. Be safe….

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  2. Our current plans have us starting in Nice (5 nights) to get over jet-lag and see the French Riviera then Marseille (3) because we like cities; Aix (4) where we get the bikes delivered with 1 – 2 riding days. From there we head to the Gordes, Roussillon, La Coste area (3), up to Avignon (3) to take in Pont du Gard and Orange then Nimes (3) with 1 tourist day and a loop ride to Uzes, then Arles (3) with 1 tourist day and a loop-ride to St. Remy, then Montpellier (4) – 2 loop rides and 1 tourist day; Sete (2), Narbonne (4) with 1 tourist day and 2 loop-rides. Then we start the Canal Deux Mers: Carcasonne, Castelnaudary, Toulouse, Serignac, Le Mas d’Agenais and Sauveterre-de-Guyenne. From there we will do Medoc and the Atlantic (4), including Archachon before ending in Bordeaux (3) for several days before heading back to Vancouver. All subject to change as we work on the routing. We use Komoot for creating our rides and not all of the routes have been created yet so this is all subject to change. We cycled in Provence last year and loved it but realized we didn’t spend enough time in some areas and completely missed out on others as we were following the routing given to us by a tour company. I have your Provence e-book and have been using it in our planning. If you have any recommendations for the Medoc or the Atlantic we’d be delighted to hear about them. Our first cycling trip was in Bordeaux and the Dordogne which got us hooked but next year we’d like to see the ‘other’ Bordeaux. Let’s hope we will all get to travel again next year.

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