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!

Bike Bashing In Blois (BBIB)

“This is not possible,” I mumbled in desperation. “This can’t possibly be happening. It just can’t.”

Oh, but it was … and I blame my sister because, well, it was totally her fault.

It was 2013: The start of our Loire bike trip. We had spent a few days in Paris, then it was on to Blois, where Susan and I were gonna ride for a few days. Susan was then heading home (Columbus, Ohio), while I got to stay, ride and gather information and photos for my first eBook: Biking the Loire. Thank you Susan.

sign5

We’d made arrangements with my sister, Debra, who lives with her family in England, to ship my bike to Blois. It was the bike – a men’s road bike (you know, curved handlebars and a straight-across top tube) – we bought during our 2007 French bike trip. We also bought a women’s hybrid bike (flat handlebars and an angled, woman’s style top tube) for Susan. We met Deb and family in Southern France back in 2007, hung out for a few days, and had a great time. They packed our bikes into their SUV and drove home to England (yes I know, you can’t drive all the way from France to England … they took the ferry across the channel).

And there our bikes sat, in their garage, gathering dust and cobwebs, for several years.

So, I asked Deb to take my bike to the local bike shop, have it tuned up, packed up in a box and shipped to our hotel in Blois.

“I did it, it’s on the way to Blois,” Deb emailed a few days before we flew to Paris.

That’s a relief. Thank you, Deb.

We arrived in Blois, and the guy at the desk told me there was a big box in the garage with my name on it.

That’s a relief. Thank you, Deb.

The plan was for me to ride my old friend, and we’d rent a bike for Susan. Her old bike, from 2007, was kind of a crappy bike. And she was only riding for 2 days.

Went to the garage, started opening the box … and … it was Susan’s bike. You know, the too-small, non-road-bike bike. The women’s bike. The hybrid. It wasn’t my bike. How is this possible? They’re totally different bikes. Different sizes and …

Think I went into shock. A little bit. I just stared and stared at the bike in the box, not believing or comprehending what I was seeing. Thinking that somehow, some way, if I kept unpacking the box, my bike would be in there.

It wasn’t.

Decided to assemble the bike … and ride it. What choice did I have?

bike10
Sometimes you just gotta make the best of a bad-bike situation

And, too make matters worse, which is always possible, I couldn’t get the damn front tire back onto the fork. Somehow, someway, in the packing or shipping, or by osmosis, the front fork had been ever so slightly smooshed together … and the tire wouldn’t fit back in no matter how much I tried … or cursed. And I cursed a lot! Some of it in French.

(Here’s the link to my Biking the Loire eBook if you’re interested)

Thank goodness the guy at the hotel desk (the owner) is a former Tour de France rider.

“We will pull,” said Roland Le Clerc, who rode the Tour from 1987 to 1991. His best finish was 70th in 1988. That’s impressive.

bike11And so we pulled and pulled, each of us pulling on one of the forks, somehow stretching it a millimeter further apart, just enough to squeeze in the wheel.

“Voila,” Roland said after we got the wheel on and it seemed to spin properly. The French say “voila” whenever they accomplish something.

If I’ve learned one thing over the years on bike trips, it’s that you must always adapt and overcome the inevitable mechanical, logistical, geographic and psychological problems you will inevitably encounter. This was a big one.

And so, I rode this too-small, women’s bike for the next two weeks. It was manageable. Barely. Although my knees began to hurt on Day Three. And then my back.

At the end of the trip, I left the damn bike at the hotel in Saumur. In the garage. Never wanted to see – or ride – it again.

“You can have it … or let the guests ride it,” I told the woman at the front desk. “It’s a woman’s bike.”

PS: I eventually forgave Deb. Mostly! And, in retrospect, this made for a good story … and blog post. Wouldn’t have been half as interesting if she’d sent the right bike. So, Deb … here’s my belated thank you.

bike12.JPG
I wonder if “my” bike is still sitting in this garage at the hotel in Saumur?

The Biking France Journey Begins…

1985: My first bike ride in France. Figured this would be a good way to start this blog. Here’s the story…

I was an aviation writer back then, covering the Paris Air Show for the third time. I know: Tough assignment! When it was over, decided it was time to see some of the beautiful French countryside that Van Gough and Monet were so obsessed with.

blois2Settled on the Loire Valley, boarded the train to Blois and, on the way, read something in my Let’s Go France travel book that changed my life: “Unquestionably the best way to see this fecund valley is by bike. Distances are relatively short, and the terrain is flat and lush.”

Done. I’m renting a bike when I get to Blois. At the place Let’s Gorecommended. The only problem was, I had no idea what the word fecund meant. Is it a French word? English? Italian? It’s gotta be a good thing, right?

***

After polishing off three chocolate croissants, one of the greatest foods ever invented and the French version of an energy bar, off I went in search of Atelier Cycles. At the back of the shop, working on a bike, wearing a yellow, one-piece mechanic’s suit that made him look like a giant banana, was Monsieur Atelier.

At least I think he was Monsieur Atelier. Had to be Monsieur Atelier. Whoever he was, he didn’t speak any English.

Using sign language, smiles and my limited French vocabulary, was able to explain to him that I wanted to rent a bike … I mean velo … for a week. “Ah, oui,” Monsieur Atelier said, followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand.bikeshop

He picked out a yellow road bike that matched his outfit and had “Atelier Cycles” written on both sides of the top tube. Yellow must be his favorite color.

The bike seemed perfect – and even had a rack on the back to strap on my knapsack. Damn, hadn’t thought about how to carry my stuff until that very moment.

Monsieur Atelier began pointing at various parts of the yellow bike, talking faster and faster. He was very passionate about velos. I kept nodding, faster and faster, even though I had no idea what he was talking about. He took a bunch of stuff out of the little pouch under the seat and started explaining and demonstrating what to do with the tools. He even pantomimed how to fix a flat tire, something else I hadn’t considered.

A flat tire?

Holy crap, that would totally suck, since I had no idea how to fix one.

Finally, Monsieur Atelier wheeled the bike out of the shop and onto the street. I hopped on, ready to start pedaling my way through the fecund Loire Valley.

Or so I thought…

***

I’d never ridden a bike with straps on the pedals. Did they even have straps on the pedals of bikes in the United States back in 1985? I never saw them before. It looked so easy, something every 7-year-old French kid can do. But, no matter how hard I tried, and I tried really hard, I couldn’t manage to turn the one pedal and get my second foot into the damn strap. The more I tried, the more frustrated I got. My feet felt huge, like giant clown feet and the pedal straps seemed to get smaller and smaller the more I tried to get my second foot in.

pavement bikeOn the third or fourth try, I fell … and Monsieur Atelier did his best to hold back the laughter. My right hand was a little scratched up, but other than that I was fine, more angry and embarrassed than hurt.

Finally, after a few more futile efforts, Monsieur Atelier motioned for me to get off the bike. He wheeled it back into the shop as I stood there, feeling like a complete and utter idiot.

“Great,” I mumbled to myself. “He thinks I’m too stupid to be trusted with his nice, yellow bike. Now what the hell am I going to do? You can’t go on a bike ride without a bike. Can you? No, you can’t. That’s called hiking.”

Monsieur Atelier emerged a few minutes later from the shop with the bike – minus the pedal straps. “Voila,” he said, followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand.

I got on the bike, started pedaling, turned to wave goodbye, wobbled and nearly lost my balance, but quickly righted myself, and pedaled off into the Loire. Think I saw Monsieur Atelier cross himself a couple times. Wonder if it was for me – or his bike?

***
DSCN0530Five days and about 200 miles later, my thighs were screaming in agony, my butt was sore and rashy red … but I was totally hooked on traveling by bike. Loved the freedom, the adventure, the route planning, the exploring of each and every town I stayed in and the amazing, fecundness of France. Fecund, by the way, means full of flowers, plants and flora. I saw the castles at Chambord and Chenonceaux (it goes across a river!), the amazing gardens at Villandry. Saw endless fields of sunflowers, vineyards and 500-year old churches. Even climbed a few hills. Barely.

I’ve now biked in France 12 times, a total of 12,000-plus miles … and counting. This blog is my attempt to share the joys of biking in France … and sell a few of my Biking France eBooks (sorry, to be so blatant, but hey, this is what I do for a living. It’s not like the croissants and bike rentals are free). Here’s the link to my Biking the Loire eBook that I wrote after my 5th trip.

Thanks for reading … enjoy the ride.