How to choose a bike tour
Do any of these describe you?
- Your bike has a few cobwebs on it
- Your bike’s primary function is to meander down the greenway on a beautiful fall afternoon
- You ride with a group from your local bike shop every Saturday morning but rarely ride on your own
If any of those fit you and you have bike touring on your mind, then this article is for you.
We’ll walk you through how to choose a bike tour including:
- What’s your primary goal of bike touring?
- Do you have a terrain preference?
- Do you have a length of time or distance goals?
- Do you have a tour style preference?
- Do you want an organized or self-planned tour?
- Goal for your bike tour
- Terrain of a bike tour
- Length of the bike tour (distance and time)
- Styles of bike touring
- Organized or self-planned tour
- What is an organized bike tour?
- I want to take an organized ride. Now what?
- What is a self-planned bike tour?
- Should I take an organized bike tour or a self-planned bike tour?
- Gear for bike touring
- Training tips
- Advice from newbies
Goal for your bike tour
A great first question to ask yourself is: What’s your goal for the bike tour?
Do you want to:
- Spend time with family and friends on the bike? Should the tour be “family-friendly” so young kids can join in?
- Meet new cycling enthusiasts?
- Visit “something” such as a winery, a historical spot, a beach?
- Explore a region by bike?
- Meet a distance goal (e.g. ride 400 miles in one week)?
Or some combination of all the above?
There is no wrong answer. But having an idea of what you want to achieve will help you narrow down your tour options.
Terrain of a bike tour
Yet another item to consider when choosing a bike tour is the terrain.
Factors to consider include:
- Are you willing to ride hills and mountains? Or are you a “flat route only” kind of rider?
- Do you have physical limitations that might prevent you from riding a certain kind of terrain?
- Is your riding style (or bike) restricted to pavement only? Or are gravel or dirt roads acceptable?
(Full disclosure – there is a style of riding called bike-packing. This is riding on single-track mountain bike routes with your gear attached to your bike frame. We’ve never done that style touring so we don’t cover it in this article)
- Are you comfortable riding on a road shared with vehicle traffic? Or do you prefer a route that primarily uses greenways and bike lanes?
We have never been on a bike tour that is 100% one style.
Our “flat” routes had a few hills. Our pavement-only bike tours had a few sections of gravel or dirt.
But knowing your preference will help you pick a tour that is designed to meet your expectations for the majority of the route.
Length of the bike tour (distance and time)
The length of the bike tour is another factor in choosing a bike tour.
Length consists of two parts:
- Distance (mileage)
- How far do you want to ride (or are you capable of riding) each day?
- Time (duration)
- How much time can you spend on the bike tour?
Distances vary widely among bike tours while the duration of a bike tour generally falls into one of three categories:
- long weekend
- week or more
A 1-day tour is a tour that starts and finishes on the same day.
Depending on the distance covered and your pace, the “day” might be a few hours or all day.
One day tours generally:
- Have a theme. e.g. fund-raising for a charity, showcasing a winery, highlighting local ice cream options
- Are a good way to try out bike touring and see what adjustments need to be made to your bike, your gear, or your cycling skills
- Tend to have less camaraderie than other tour distances since riders finish at different times
Long weekend tour
A long weekend tour typically involves 2-3 days of riding.
Usually, this type of tour:
- Is a spoke-and-wheel style tour
- Offers a choice of set routes for the day (5 to 100 miles depending on the tour)
- Provides an opportunity to evaluate your bike, your gear, and your cycling skills in preparation for a longer bike tour
- Tends to have high camaraderie as you see the same cyclists for several days
A bike tour of a week or longer is the meat-and-potatoes of bike touring.
On a longer tour:
- You cover greater distances
- Usually includes planned rest day(s) for recovery and to explore a town in-depth
- Requires more physical training to prepare for the tour
- Demands mental stamina based on the increased chance of of less-than-stellar riding days
Styles of bike touring
The style of bike tour is another item to consider when choosing a bike tour.
A bike tour is generally one of three styles:
- Loop (or out-and-back)
Spoke and wheel
A spoke and wheel style is, by definition, longer than one day of riding.
“Base camp” (where you sleep at night) exists in one location for the entire tour. It could be a hotel, an Airbnb or even an actual camp.
Each day you ride a new route from that base camp location. Daily mileage may be set (e.g. a 25-mile route for the day) or varied (pick your distance between set routes between 5 and 100 miles).
The advantages of a spoke-and-wheel tour:
- Minimal daily logistics as you do not have to pack up your gear each morning and unpack it each night
- No shuttle required as your car will be at the start/endpoint
- It’s easy to bail on a bad weather day (e..g stay in your tent, explore town)
- If you are camping, you get to know your neighbors pretty well
The downside to a spoke-and-wheel tour:
- The terrain each day will be similar. You aren’t usually traveling far enough away from base camp to get a mountain ride one day and a flat-as-pancake ride the next day.
A point-to-point ride can be either a one-day ride or a multi-day ride.
You start your bike tour in location A and end your bike tour in location B. If it’s a multi-day ride, each day ends at a new location.
The advantages of a point-to-point ride:
- You can cover great distances without having to backtrack
- The terrain can vary greatly.
- The ride might start in the mountains and end at the coast. “
- Cross a state” rides (like RAGBRAI or RAIN) are common
- Each night you can make new friends at “base camp” as your location has changed
The disadvantages of a point-to-point ride:
- Logistics. A shuttle of some kind is always involved
- Your car and you are at the opposite end of the route at some point (e.g. your car is at the start and you are at the finish. Or vice versa)
- On an organized tour, a shuttle tends to be an additional cost item
- On an organized ride, the mileage each day is fixed. You must get from point A to point B every day to reach that night’s lodging and meals.
A circular route is either a loop or an out-and-back ride.
The tour starts and finishes at the same location. On a multi-day tour, the ending location changes each day.
Advantages of a circular route:
- No shuttle required as your car will be at the start/endpoint.
- If it’s a loop route, you can experience a wide variety of terrain and scenery
The downside of a circular route:
- Distances for each day are set on an organized ride.
- If it is an out-and-back ride, you might get bored on the way back with the same scenery.
Organized or self-planned tour
Your next big decision — should you take an organized or self-planned bike tour?
What is an organized bike tour?
An organized bike tour is one that is planned, coordinated and supported by a professional group.
The organizer could be:
- A vendor. For example, REI and Iron Donkey offer bike tours.
- A charity group or a fund-raising group. For example, Perimeter Cycling organizes the Tour de Tucson each year.
A multi-day organized tour can be fully-supported, self-supported or somewhere in the middle.
On a fully supported (luxury) tour:
- Most meals are cooked or arranged for you
- SAG wagons provide mechanical support
- Gear shuttles are provided. e.g. someone else gets your bag of clothing, etc from location to location each day.
On a self-supported tour:
- You cook or buy your own meals
- You are responsible for your own mechanical issues. Sometimes, the organizer provides an emergency contact number.
- You carry your gear with you on the bike.
Then there is the in-between option. Many self-supported tours offer an add-on chartered service option to make it similar to a fully-supported (e.g. bubbas service). You pay extra to a 3rd party service to have them:
- shuttle your luggage
- set up and break down camp each day
- have snacks and meals waiting at each finish point
On an organized ride, the following are usually provided by the vendor:
- Cycling route(s) for each day
- Maps (either electronic or paper or both) are provided
- Routes may be marked with signs or arrows
- SAG (support and gear) vehicle
- One or more vehicles cruise the cycling route looking for riders in need
- A central contact number can be called to request SAG wagon assistance
- On some tours, the SAG wagon may even provide you with a lift if you need a boost up a big hill
- Snacks. Often, snack stops are provided along the route. It is a good place to take a break, kibitz with other cyclists, and sometimes receive minor mechanical support (bike pumps and squeaky wheels)
- Meals. Depending on the tour, meals can fall into one of these categories:
- Provided. e.g. show up at this time and get your pancakes/sandwich/shrimp-boil.
- Arranged. e.g. Food truck is available at mile X or restaurant recommendation made at these locations at your own cost
- Scheduled. On a limited support tour, ingredients and meal plans may be provided and you fix your own meal or the meal for the entire group.
- Lodging. This can be:
- Indoor camping (e.g in a school gymnasium)
- Outdoor camping (possibly at a campground, more frequently in a ball field or fairgrounds)
- Recommendations on hotels or bed-and-breakfasts (at your cost)
Items that may be included are:
- Luggage shuttle. A driver takes your luggage to each night’s location.
- Gear rentals. The tour organizer may have an agreement with a local vendor for renting a bike, panniers, etc.
Pro-tips on meals:
- If you encounter a bake sale at a church, stop there. “Church lady” meals and baked goods are the best food you’ll eat the entire ride.
- Be prepared for local diners to be overrun and possibly shut you out. Often along the route, small-town vendors were unaware that a horde of hungry cyclists would descend on them and they are unprepared.
- Be prepared for long waits at supper. Often, local restaurants are under-staffed or run out of food.
I want to take an organized ride. Now what?
If you are taking a vendor-led ride, then your next steps are:
Identify your comfort level biking in a crowd
Some tours are small crowds or have staggered start times to reduce crowd size.
Some (like Tour de Tucson) are mass starts. During a mass start, you’ll be navigating crowds at the start and figuring out how to pass riders during the ride.
Tip: If you are uncomfortable with a mass start, head to the back of the pack. Let everyone get their jitters out of the way ahead of you and then you pass them later in the ride.
Check tour dates
Check vendors’ tour calendars for scheduled dates for the location you want.
Watch for registration deadlines. Some tours fill quickly, have a lottery system for registration, or offer early bird discounts.
Verify the tour meets your needs
Verify the details of the tour to ensure it meets your needs. Questions to ask include:
- Are you camping or staying at hotels?
- Are meals provided or are you expected to cook for the group sometimes?
- Is there a daily SAG wagon provided?
- Does the group size fit your expectations?
What is a self-planned bike tour?
A self-planned bike tour is one planned either by you or by another non-professional.
On a self-planned tour, you decide the following:
- The route including maps and daily mileage
- The lodging options for each day
- The meals for each day
- How to get your gear from place to place (in a pannier or in a SAG wagon that your non-cycling buddy drives?)
When planning your overall tour and daily distances, be aware of factors that will impact your distances:
- Weather. Storms, extreme heat, brutal winds – these can all shorten mileage unexpectedly.
- Lodging . Unless you are stealth camping, your daily mileage will be partially dependent on where lodging is available.
- Fitness levels.
- Your fitness level (as well as your travel buddies fitness) will impact mileage as well.
- On a longer tour, your endurance will improve throughout the tour and increase your mileage potential but nagging injuries might decrease your mileage.
- With fully loaded panniers, plan for shorter distances. Panniers = slower pace.
Check out some of our favorite self-planned bike tours.
Should I take an organized bike tour or a self-planned bike tour?
Ah, the answer is… it depends.
Top 4 reasons to take an organized bike tour
- You have limited time to plan. So you are happy to let someone else figure out the pre-tour logistics – when, where, routes, maybe even meals.
- You enjoy riding with new people.
- You find comfort in having SAG wagons and mechanical support along the route.
- You want the ‘known’. While every tour has its surprises, you enjoy knowing what to expect each day in terms of mileage, scenery, and terrain.
Top 4 reasons to take a self-planned bike tour
- You enjoy the challenge of planning a trip. You are happy to lie awake at night thinking about the best way to get from point A to point B, where the next place to get a shower is, plotting the next bike shop along the route
- You like the freedom to choose your start time or your mileage each day without coordinating with others
- You want to pick your ride partners and/or have solitude
- You want to ride in a location or during a time of year and can’t find an organized tour that fits
Gear for bike touring
Great! You’ve stepped through the process and have found your bike tour.
The next exciting step…gear!
Of course, you need a bike.
Should you rent a bike or use your own bike?
If you are taking an organized tour, there may be options to rent a bike or other gear in advance.
This is a great way to test out bike touring without a huge outlay of cash to buy a touring bike.
It also can be more convenient than shipping or transporting your bike to a starting point.
We used rental bikes for our Ireland bike tour because it was easier than shipping our gear internationally. Our experience was very positive. The bikes were high-quality touring bikes well-suited for the roads. A local bike shop delivered the bikes (and panniers) to our starting and ending locations.
If you rent a bike, a helmet and pedals are usually included. But, consider bringing your own helmet to ensure proper fit. We also bring our own pedals and shoes to eliminate knee issues with rental set-ups.
Your own bike
If you have a bike, consider whether it is appropriate for the tour terrain and pace. Check with your local bike shop for advice on this.
Also, have a professional bike mechanic give your bike a tune-up to ensure its mechanically ready-to-go.
We still use our twenty-year-old bikes, a Schwinn passage and a Bianchi, for touring. They aren’t as light-weight or as snazzy as the newer technology, but they still get the job done.
Beyond the bike
What other gear do you need beyond a bike?
For an organized tour, they usually provide you with a detailed list.
Or you can check out an excellent list by Adventure Cycling Association.
A few items we always bring on a tour of any length:
- Emergency snacks and electrolytes
- On organized tours, food may run out before you reach a SAG stop.
- Or you might need to fuel up before you reach a stop.
- Bike tubes and spokes specific to your bike.
- More than once, we have found that the SAG wagon or bike shop in a small town did not have replacement spokes sized for our wheels.
- Some mechanical and bike repair tools.
- It’s best if you know how to use the tools but you’ll be amazed how often good Samaritans will help if you at least have the parts and the tools.
- Basic first aid kit to treat those minor bumps and bruises.
The final piece of the puzzle for planning a bike tour?
Training, for us, is a fancy word for “ride your bike whenever and wherever you can”.
Your training plan will vary based on your tour distance and terrain.
We have found the following to help during our training.
First, we create a training plan and stick it on the front of the refrigerator. This is a reminder every time we reach for a beer or ice cream that we have a tour we should be training for.
Our training plan includes weekly mileage goals and target days for riding.
Second, we ride our bike as much as we can. Even a 3-mile round trip to the grocery store counts.
Part of the training includes the mental training. Getting on the bike repeatedly. Loading the panniers. Dealing with the current weather.
So those little trips to run the errands of daily life benefit the mental side of the training.
Advice from newbies
We’ve been touring for a long time. So we asked some of the first-timers we’ve invited on our bike tours what they advice they’d give to a new tour rider.
“It’s okay to recognize your limits, everyone has them. And it’s about how you got there and what you saw on the tour, not just the distance.”Advice from first time bike tour rider
Our thoughts on this advice? Spot on. Somedays you rock the tour. Other days the tour rocks you and you end up in the SAG wagon because of a mechanical issue or a body that just isn’t cooperating that day.
And that day where you can choose between 25 miles or 50 miles? It’s always a good idea to check in with your body to see if it really a 50-mile day for you.