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!