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!

Are You A Cycling Fanatic? Here Are the Tell-Tale Signs…

OK, I admit it: I’m an obsessed cyclist. How about you? Here are several of the warning signs & symptoms I’ve observed during my 30 years as a cycling fanatic … plus a few more from some friends and members of the club … 

portaYou know the location of every porta-john and public restroom within a 25-mile radius of your home. You know which ones are the cleanest, the dirtiest and the most disgusting, and on what day they clean them. And that you should never, ever on a Monday use the porta-john in the park at Whetstone where thousands of kids played soccer on Saturday and Sunday.

You have flexed and stared admiringly at the quadriceps muscle on your legs, the one just above your knee, the one that gets really big and sexy by July after you’ve put in a couple thousand miles. 

You can tell the difference between Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.

closet

You have several drawers and valuable closet space devoted to bike shirts, shorts, gloves and socks, several of which you haven’t worn in years, but can’t bear to throw out. This includes at least one jersey that for some unexplained reason is now too tight to actually wear (I blame the washing machine), but you’re totally convinced will one day fit as soon as you lose a few pounds. Hey, it could happen. My version of this jersey is the one I got at the gift shop at Chalet Reynard on Mont Ventoux in 2010.

I’m not the only one with a large jersey collection…

Greg Smith: “By my calculations, given current inventory and the rate I wear jerseys out, I have enough jerseys to last the rest of my life – if I live to be 175.”

Dave Hoodin: “I have one drawer for shorts, one drawer for knickers, & tights, one drawer for socks & accessories, a closet for jerseys, base layers and jackets, a bin for gloves and woollies, a bin for shoes, a bin for misc parts, another closet for maps and trip brochures.”

You plan your weekends around your bike ride – and have somehow convinced your non-cycling spouse this is OK.dordogneMap

This one’s from Fabi: “Your portable GPS is always on Cycling setting. Every now and then you forget to switch when driving to a place. It would normally take 30 minutes on the motorway. After 3 hours on small hilly roads you must admit to Susan that you dit it AGAIN!?”

Your vacations include cycling. Then again, Susan ( a different Susan than Fabi’s Susan, I hope) and I have reached a compromise, and we alternate between hiking trips (both of us) and cycling trips (mostly me, but sometimes Susan for portions of the trip). 

You’ve worn out your first copy of the Michelin Road Atlas of France and the second is michelingetting a bit tattered and dog-eared, especially pages 286 and 287. If you know what’s on pages 286 and 287, well, you’re a fanatic!

Speaking of vacations … You know you’re obsessed when you’ve written five eBooks on cycling in France (Provence, the Loire, Normandy, Bordeaux and the Dordogne) and one on Hiking the Isle of Wight. Sorry for the self promotion. FYI: I started accepting ads on this blog three weeks ago (again, I’m sorry) and so far have made $10.22! At this rate, I’ll be able to afford a cycling trip to France the same year Greg runs out of bike jerseys.

You get a wistful, sad yearning whenever you’re in a car and drive by someone on a bike.

From time to time, when you’re in the car and about to switch lanes, you look up and to your left, where the mirror on your bike helmet is, instead of your side-view mirror. And then chuckle to yourself. “What’s so funny?” Susan asks. “Oh, you wouldn’t understand.” You sometimes do the same thing when you’re walking and hear a car coming from behind.

This one’s from Tricia Kovacs: “You call out ‘car up … car back’ while driving in a car. 

Here’s one from Renovelle: “You walk into your garage and you can hear the bikes saying ‘Pick me, pick me today’ and sense their disappointment and attempt tp console them with a promise of next time.”

That’s a definite sign: Multiple bikes and assigning human emotions to them. I only have three. How many bikes do you have?

You’ve done a ride that makes your family and friends shake their heads in disbelief and think you may have a problem. In my case, it was a 24-hour, ultra race (318 miles), and traveling to Provence to climb the mighty Mont Ventoux three times in one day. 

balmYou have at least one jar of butt balm on the bathroom sink or shelf … and have talked to at least one other person about your personal preference in this area, and were not in the least bit embarrassed. My personal preference is Bag Balm or Chamois Butt’r. 

You’ve read Bicycling magazine off and on long enough to never, ever need – or want – to read another article about how to train for your first century or how to climb hills faster. OK already, we get it. And stop writing about and reviewing $10,000 bikes. None of us can afford one. Or a $200 bib shorts.

You watch the Tour de France every year and understand what’s going on and the strategies being employed for that’s day’s stage. And, you mutter, on a regular basis while watching: “If only bike racing had been popular where I lived when I was young, I could have been in the Tour.” And, you actually take yourself seriously when you think these thoughts. Hey, you never know. Here’s my story on the first Tour de France, in 1903.

Can you think of any other signs? If so, send them my way and I’ll do a follow-up post.

Oh wait, one more sign … Seeing this photo below makes you salivate!

All the Locks on the Locks of Love Bridge Are Gone … But Our Love Remains

They sure do love love, and lovers and over-the-top displays of affection in Paris.

However, it seems the eternal & undying love of tens of thousands of romantic couples – including Susan and me! – became overwhelming and was about to destroy a famous bridge built during the reign of Napoleon I.

Our story of the Locks of Love Bridge begins in 2010. We stayed in Paris before and after a bike trip to Provence. We walked across the pedestrian Pont des Arts (it crosses the Seine near the Louvre) and noticed that people have started putting locks on the grillwork of the bridge. This is what it looked like in 2010…

lock3 copy.JPG

They’re locks of love. And it was a world-wide trend picking up steam – and lots of locks in several European cities.

What the heck … Susan and I are just as romantic and in love as all these other couples. Even if we’re not French. So, we got a lock and did what you’re supposed to do: Scratched our initials onto it, attached it to the bridge, kissed and tossed the key into the Seine. This way, our love will last forever. Right?

We positioned our lock on the east side of the Pont des Arts, right in the middle, with a great view across the water to the tip of the little island that juts out into the Seine. “This way, we’ll be able to find our lock of love the next time we’re here,” I said (naively, it turns out).

Cut to 2013, and we’re back in Paris before and after a bike trip to the Loire.

We head over to the Pont des Arts and …

lock4.JPG
Holy crap … it’s like a lock factory, make that 100 lock factories, had exploded and all the locks landed on the Pont des Locks, I mean Arts. There are locks everywhere, 10,12, 15 deep. Locks locked to locks locked to 12 more rows of locks. From one side of the bridge to the other and on both sides.

It was impossible to find to find out lock. Nevertheless, knowing it was there, buried beneath all this love, filled us with a warm, fuzzy feeling. I think it was love! Then again, maybe all the wine we had with dinner was responsible for the warm, fuzzy feeling. Nah, I’m sticking with the locks of love explanation.

Skip ahead to my next trip and … all the locks were gone. Every single one of of them. What the hell?

I did a little Googling back at the hotel and, it turns out there were about 45 tons worth of locks and it was beginning to damage the bridge. So, yes: Love can hurt. Or at least 45 tons of love can hurt.

According to a New York Times article:

“City workers, using a crane and wheeled dollies, began to dismantle the wire mesh panels on which hundreds of thousands of lovers expressed their affections in what they thought would be an ironclad statement: a metal lock, usually etched with the couple’s initials, attached to the bridge, and the key tossed into the Seine below.

lock6

“Bruno Julliard, the deputy mayor in charge of culture, who supervised the removal of the locks, tried to be sensitive to the feelings of those who had placed them there, saying that Paris was still “the capital of love, the capital of romance.”

The grillwork was replaced with lock-proof plexiglass. Here’s a video of the love destruction.

We were sad … and then we saw, in pretty much the exact same spot where our lock of love once lived … the word “love” written in vibrant and romantic red ink/paint.

love.jpg

Hah! Nobody, not even Bruno, can stop all the love. And lovers.

Here’s one last photo of the Lock of Love Bridge in all its love-is-eternal glory…

Sink Laundry is Possible & Necessary on a Bike Trip … My Illustrated Guide!

“This is not possible in France,” said the owner of Le Moderne, our hotel in Chateau-Thierry, a small town in the Champagne region of France. We were standing outside the hotel, and the owner was pointing up, to our window. It was filled with our bike clothes, the ones we’d worn earlier in the day, washed in the sink in our room and hung up to dry.

“This is not possible,” he repeated.

“OK,” I said with a shrug.

We were leaving the next morning, so what was he going to do: Confiscate our clothes? I think not. 

Here’s the thing: This is not only possible in France, it’s a time-honored cyclotourisme tradition that most likely dates back to Paul de Vivie and the thick, woolen bike jerseys I picture him wearing. You have no choice but to wash your dirty bike clothes in the sink of your hotel room and hang them up to dry in the window. Or across your room or in the bathroom. After five or six hours in the saddle, your bike clothes stink. And, for some unknown reason, bike gloves smell worse, a lot worse, than bike shorts. This is the thing that should not be possible in France. 

Even the riders in the Tour de France used to do it, according to Davis Phinney in 1988.

Over the years, and many miles, I have become an expert sink washer. Or so I thought. Susan helped me take it to a whole new level starting on our honeymoon bike trip. So, here you go, everything you need to know about sink washing your bike clothes in France, step-by-step …

First: Genie! It’s liquid laundry detergent in a small tube. Buy a tube of Genie. Before this discovery, I used to buy a small box of laundry power, pour some in a small zip-lock bag that I packed in my pannier, and hoped it didn’t rip and spill. This was very inefficient and wasteful.

Second: The sinks in France can be tricky in terms of the stopper, especially the cheaper hotels I tended to stay at in the 1990s. Some sneaky hotel owners actually remove the stoppers to prevent sink washing. How dastardly! If you’re ever confronted with a stopper-less sink, here’s the solution: Wedge one of the socks you’re washing into the drain. It’s not perfect, but it works.

Third: Limit your load. I quickly learned not to get greedy and to limit a load to one set of bike stuff. Which means, when I’m with Susan, we have to do two loads of sink laundry after a ride. 

Fourth: Soon after we head into our hotel room, I engage the stopper (or stuff in a sock), put in a little Genie, fill up the sink with warm water and insert my bike clothes. And let them soak while I take a shower. When I’m done showering, I’ll swirl everything around, trying to approximate the agitation cycle of a washing machine. Next: The rinsing process. It usually takes two or three rinses to get out all the soap. It’s important to get out all the soap.

When I’m finished, we start the process all over again with Susan’s bike clothes. Which, for some reason, never smell as bad as mine. Go figure. And, for some reason, I always shower first. Not sure why, I just do.

Fifth: Drying. Step one is to squeeze with all your might, and wring out as much water as possible. The more water that remains, the longer the clothes take to dry. This is my job and my daily upper-body workout regimen.

Sixth: Hanging. This is the tricky part. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a nice, big window and a gentle, warm breeze. And there will be removable hangars, in the armoire, that you can hang on the curtain rod above the window. If not, this is where bungee cords come in. Always bring bungee cords with you, as you can almost always connect them and create a line to hang hangars or your clothes on. If necessary, you can run some bungee cords across the room, or in the bathroom.

Every once in a while, there will be a bike clothes dryer in your bathroom! Actually, I think they’re officially towel dryers, but come on, they’re perfect for drying your bike kit.

Seventh: Hair dryers. These days, pretty much every hotel bathroom is equipped with a hair dryer. You can use them to start or speed up the drying process, especially on padded bike shorts, which take the longest to dry. And, when your bike shoes get wet, when it rains, which it will inevitably do on a bike trip, you can use the hair dryer on them. Be careful, as the motors on these hair dryers aren’t very powerful and will overheat and turn off after a few minutes. So, dry stuff in short, 30-second bursts.

Eighth: Non-bike stuff? Yeah, I’ve been known to wash a few T-shirts and underwear in the sink. To make it through another couple of days and to a town with a laverie, as many of the smaller towns are laverie-less. There seems to be fewer laveries now then there were in the 1990s.

Here’s the link to my eBook on Cycling the Dordogne, where I did a lot of sink laundry.

OK, there you go, everything you need to know about sink laundry. I think you’re ready to do a load. Stop up the sink and have at it.

The First Tour de France (1903) Was Chock Full of Fighting, Cheating, Super-Long Rides and Victory By the Little Chimney Sweep

The first Tour de France in 1903 was quite a wild ride. The 60 cyclists threw down tacks to flatten the tires of their opponents, carried an assortment weapons for self defense and self offense, fought one another with flying fists and their weapons, several hopped on trains for parts of the super-long stages, and others were towed by motor bikes and cars.

Towed?

“They would trail a thin piece of wire right behind a motor car, which, at one end, had a cork fixed to the end of it,” wrote Peter Cossins in his book The First Tour de France. “And the rider would wedge the cork between his teeth. And then get towed along with this thing, this wire, pulling hm along.”

Wow, these guys must have had some super-strong teeth. And may have lost a few by the time they reached Paris and the end of the ride, led by Maurice Garin – the very first Tour de France winner. Garin, known far and wide as le Petit Ramoneur (the Little Chimney Sweep), was a superb rider, and an outstanding cheater. 

According to Cossins, during the 5th stage (of 6), which went 264 miles from Bordeaux to Nantes, Garin was in the lead group with three other members of the La Francaise team. There were no teams allowed back then, but, well, everyone sort of looked the other way and/or just shrugged. As they approached Nantes, after riding through the night, Garon told the others: “I’m gonna win this stage today,” according to Cossins.

That’s Garin on the left, looking quite fatigued and a bit sleepy

Everyone said “oui, le Petit Rmoneur” except Fernand Augereau, who said, “non.” Garin, the leader of the team, didn’t like this very much and ordered one of his henchmen, I mean teammates, to knock Augereau and his bike over. Which he promptly did. Wonder what Phil Liggett would have to say about this tactic?

There’s no record of Augereau’s nickname, but I dub him le Petit Bouledogue (the Little Bulldog) due to his determined nature. He got up and caught the three leaders. And so, Garin had him knocked over again. And then, according to Cossins, Garin jumped off his bike “and grabbing hold of Augereau’s bike and jumping up and down on his wheel and smashing them to pieces, rendering the bike useless. And then the three of them rode off.”

The determined and adrenaline-fuled Little Bulldog grabbed the bike of a spectator and rode off, in pursuit of Garin and gang. Unfortunately, he had a double flat before the finish line. I think there were a lot more flats back then.

A Little Background

The Tour de France was the idea of Henri Desgranges, the editor of the L’Auto newspaper. It was a way to boost circulation. It accomplished this task, and created a national sensation and the world’s most famous bike race. Perhaps the world’s most famous – and scenic – race in any sport.

To entice the top riders, Desgranges (1865 – 1940), a record-setting cyclist in his day, offered 3,000 francs to the winner of this new race. That was big bucks back then. “The average daily wage for a manual worker was about five francs a day at that time,” Cossins wrote. “So 3,000 francs — the possibility of winning 3,000 francs for three weeks’ work — was a huge amount of money. Riches beyond any of them could have dreamed of.”

More than enough to make cheating a viable option. And, isn’t it interesting that throughout the long history of the Tour de France, big bucks and fame have always made cheating a viable option that way too many riders can’t seem to resist. Hey, who am I to preach: Perhaps I would have cheated if given the opportunity. You never know.

Up until this point in time, all the big, famous, popular road races were one-day, point-to-point races. The Tour de France was the first stage race.

The Stages

Anyway … the six stages were:

Paris to Lyon (290 miles)

Lyon to Marseille (232 miles)

Marseille to Toulouse (263 miles)

Toulouse to Bordeaux (167 miles)

Bordeaux to Nantes (264 miles)

Nantes to Paris (293 miles)

The competitors rode the entire length of each stage in one go, through the night, and into the next day, with little support. The riders often stopped in cafes for drinks and food, and perhaps a little vin rouge. Or a lot of vin rouge. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of spectators lining the roads, some of whom were hired goons for some of the competitors. Which meant many riders had to fight their way through these crowds.

There were then a couple days off between the stages for the riders – and their bikes – to recover.

Garin won the first stage, as well as the fifth – with some help from his teammates. And was well ahead in the overall standings. The Little Chimney Sweep was the real deal, a great rider, perhaps the best in the world in 1903. He had won Paris-Brest-Paris in 1901, Paris-Roubaix in 1897 and 1898) and Bordeaux-Paris in 1902. Then again, maybe he cheated his way to all those victories. And then again (again), if everyone cheated, didn’t this make for a level playing field? And yes, this is an argument some modern-day cyclists who’ve been caught doping have used. It’s an interesting debate … but I come down on the side of: Nobody should cheat. It ruins the sport.

Garin (1871-1957) was an actual chimney sweep before he became professional bike racer. He was 5-foot-4 and weighed about 130 pounds, the perfect physique for sweeping chimneys and bike racing.

The Little Chimney Sweep won the 6th and final stage, winning the Tour de France by a whopping 2 hours, 59 minutes and 21 seconds. To this day this remains the biggest margin of victory.

The Little Chimney Sweep!

“Lance Armstrong was a modern day Maurice Garin,” Cossins wrote. “That’s what Maurice Garin was like. He intimidated everybody. He wanted everybody to do things in the way that he saw was fit. He wasn’t subtle about what he was doing at all.”

Garin won the 1904 Tour de France, once again cheating his way to victory. However, he seems to have gone a little bit overboard, and was way too obvious. Garin and 11 others cyclists were disqualified, several for hopping on trains for a portion of a day’s stage. The fifth overall finisher, Henri Cornet, was declared the winner. He was called Le Rigolo (The Joker) and did indeed have the last laugh at the 1904 Tour de France.

What Happened to Garin?

As for Garin, he used his 1903 Tour de France winnings to purchase a gas station in the town of Lens.

According to legend, he was asked to give an interview after winning the 1903 Tour de France. Instead of answering questions (was the Little Chimney Sweep shy?), he handed Desgrange a prepared statement. It read: “The 2,500km that I’ve just ridden seem a long line, grey and monotonous, where nothing stood out from anything else. But I suffered on the road; I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sleepy, I suffered, I cried between Lyon and Marseille, I had the pride of winning other stages, and at the controls I saw the fine figure of my friend Delattre, who had prepared my sustenance, but I repeat, nothing strikes me particularly.

“But wait! I’m completely wrong when I say that nothing strikes me, I’m confusing things. I must say that one single thing struck me, that a single thing sticks in my memory: I see myself, from the start of the Tour de France, like a bull pierced by banderillas, who pulls the banderillas with him, never able to rid himself of them.”

Here’s the link to my Biking Provence eBook