Grinding through the 9 to 5 rather than your gears and need a vacation? While it’s one thing to head off for a weekend with friends to explore a new city, it’s something else entirely to head to a new country and ride some of the best mountains and roads. That takes a lot of legwork, which is where professional bicycle tour guides and companies come into play. Relying on local expertise to guide and plan your can make the entire trip more enjoyable, and likely take you on better routes than you’d ever find your own.
Whether you’re looking ahead to Spring Break, Summer Vacation, or just getting away from the cold, we wanted to see what the experts recommend when you start exploring your options. We asked Chris Tarlton of Thomson Bike Tours, one of the world’s largest bicycle tour companies, for answers. Here’s his advice on finding the best bike tour guide for your next cycling vacation…
Bikerumor: First things first, why would someone sign up for a professionally run bike tour as opposed to just doing their own thing?
Thomson Bike Tours: It’s true that with tools like Strava and Garmin around, you can plan an escape relatively easily, however our extraordinary attention to detail and knowledge of the locations and terrain allow us to deliver a superior experience that covers all aspects of safety, comfort and enjoyment.
A professionally run bike tour company such as Thomson depends on a competent team of guides and trip leaders who know the terrain very well. Some of them are ex-pros or train with riders from the pro peloton and are happy to share their knowledge and stories with you.
Support is another area that you wouldn’t get if you were traveling on your own. A bike tour company provides you with mechanics, van support and luggage transfer. It’s the mechanic’s job to ensure your bike is in top condition every day and solve any mechanical issues you might have, while van support is a big plus as you can depend on it for food and drink when required and you can leave a bag with a change of cloths or more layers for when the weather conditions change.
You never have to worry about moving your luggage, where your next meal is coming from or what happens if you have a mechanical. You just have to enjoy being on holiday and cycle.
BR: What’s the difference between a “Tour” and a “Camp”?
TBT: At Thomson Bike Tours, we define Camps as trips with a single “basecamp” like our Colombia trip or Canary Islands trips. While a tour for us is traditionally a trip that moves across a region, hopping from hotel to hotel. On a camp, you’ll get to know the roads and an area really well, while a tour will expand your horizons a little more.
BR: How can I tell if the tour operator is any good? Is there any way of checking them out beforehand so I know the experience will be as advertised?
TBT: For us, the greatest recommendations come from our past guests, which is why we place a lot of attention on authentic guest reviews and are proud to publish them. Word-of-mouth is always going to be the best way to determine the quality of the experience. Opinions can also be reflected well on social media, so it’s worth doing some research on Facebook or Twitter before choosing your tour company.
BR: Are there any warning signs that an operator isn’t very professional?
TBT: Until you’ve paid for you trip and you are actually there, it’s often hard to determine how professional an outfit is. Before signing up, It’s worth trying to find out the ratio of guides-to-guests on the trips. The more guides there are, the more you are going to be guaranteed better attention to detail. Also look for any seals of approval or association to professional events. For example a Tour Operator to the Tour de France is going to guarantee a level of service that another company might not. Finally, how they answer your pre-booking questions can also be a clue; are they informative, detailed and timely with their replies?
BR: At a minimum, what should a rider expect from a bicycle tour operator? As in, what should come standard on a tour, and what would be considered a bonus?
TBT: A rider should expect to be well informed at all times by the tour operator. They should expect to be guided but not herded, and they should expect the tour company to react calmly and professionally when confronted with any adverse situations. In the case of Thomson, we go one step further with riders grouped by ability and each group usually having two guides riding – one at the front, one at the back – and a support vehicle.
Accommodations should be up to the standards advertised on the tour spec sheet. Criteria can vary from country to country: often a 4-star rated hotel is not the same in the USA as in, say, France.
BR: What are your expectations of the rider?
TBT: As humans, we’ve all got our quirks and individualisms. However, we expect people to be flexible, behave well, be social and respect the rest of the group. And above all, RIDE SAFELY and don’t race. Remember you’re on holiday.
BR: What should riders with dietary restrictions do to avoid issues, especially if the tour is in a foreign country?
TBT: It’s not always easy if you have special dietary restrictions but as a rule, we always notify all the hotels we use if there is someone in the group with a specific dietary restriction and we also provide alternative nutrition in the vans if necessary. But cases can happen, for example in some areas of Spain, where the definition of a vegetarian is someone who can eat fish 🙂
BR: Do I need any special documents, visas or other advance information to participate in a bike tour in another country?
TBT: This would depend on the country and its relationship with your country of origin. If in doubt, it’s always worth consulting with the local embassy or consulate for the country in question.
BR: From a training standpoint, how do I prepare for a bike tour?
TBT: Thomson Bike Tours are famous in that you ride more than a lot of other tours out there. A typical day on a bike tour can be anything from 60 miles to 100 miles, with a lot of climbing in between. For that you have to be sure you’re comfortable on a bike for anything up to 5 or 6 hours.
Be realistic about what you can do and create achievable goals in the time you have before the trip. Work your strength up to riding similar daily distances you plan to cover on the trip. You’re physically ready if you can do back-to-back rides and feel like you could ride again on the third day. However, we’ve had people on trips who’ve had to train exclusively indoors, people who just use their daily commute for training. And people who first sat on a bike in January before coming on a trip in September.
BR: From an equipment standpoint, what should I bring?
TBT: Adequate clothing, saddle, shoes and helmet are a must. Weather conditions can change, often very quickly, so it’s vital that you have the right layers of clothing to hand. Then there’s the saddle; we always ask our guests to bring their own, as this is one of your own personal touch-points on the bike and if you’re going to ride 400 miles over a week, it’s nicer to do it on something your body’s familiar with.
BR: How far in advance should someone sign up for a tour? Do they sell out?
TBT: That would depend on the type of tour. A trip to the Tour de France for example can often sell out immediately or in a couple of months after we put the trips up for sale. These trips go up in September/October every year. For the rest of the trips, we can normally accommodate people up to a month in advance of the “go” date but there are always possibilities.. It’s best to consult before booking.
BR: What’s the average per-day cost of a quality bike tour?
TBT: Again this can vary. You’re probably looking at somewhere between $500USD and $700USD (per day) depending on the trip.
BR: Should a rider bring their own bike? Or use something from the tour’s fleet?
TBT: It’s all down to personal preference. Do you prefer to ride your own personal bike, pack it up, pay excess, check it in and trust it to the airlines, unpack it, build it up again and then do it all again at the end of the trip? Or would you prefer to just arrive, knowing that you have a well maintained bike sitting waiting for you for the duration of the tour. In Thomson’s case, the bike fleet is based on Canyon’s ULTIMATE series with Ultegra Di2. It’s really up to you.
BR: Are there any other extremely common questions you get from potential customers?
TBT: A lot of people ask questions that might seem obvious but are really important to them to get confirmation. People really want to know that they are going to have the correct gearing, that they are going to have the right training, basically that they are going to make it through the trip. We’re there to answer all questions, whatever they may be and make sure our potential customers go away with a satisfactory answer.
Bonus info about Thomson Bike Tours
BR: What’s your most popular tour?
TBT: Apart from the trips to the Tour de France, our most popular trips are the Big 3 – Alps, Dolomites & Pyrenees. These are the classic, bucket list trips that attract a lot of attention. This year we’ve just opened up Colombia and have be happily surprised at how successful it’s been. So much so that after running our first trip in January this year, we’re going again in April – There’s still time to sign up!!
BR: You’ve recently added a “Gravel Experience”, what’s that all about?
TBT: A lot of our guides are really into the gravel scene so we thought it an excellent idea to create an epic ride in the best Thomson tradition at the end of the season. So we’ve built a gravel epic from Barcelona to Girona to run at the end of September, through the back roads and tracks up the coast of the Mediterranean. You get support, logistics and excellent Spanish food to boot. I highly recommend it!
BR: And your training camp to Columbia is in Medellin, which has worked really hard over the past decade to reinvent itself. What made you want to do a tour there?
TBT: That’s one of the main reasons we chose Medellín. It’s become an epicentre for cycling in Colombia and home to many famous names in the pro peloton: Rigoberto Uran, Gavira, the Henaos. The riding is excellent, the weather is consistent, everyone’s bike aware and friendly, and there’s not many places where you can start your riding at 2000m.
Interested? Check out all of their tours, schedule, pricing and tons of photos at ThomsonBikeTours.com.