Posted by: Jennifer Sage | February 22, 2008

What is self-guided cycling the Vélo Concierge way? Part I

As an avid cyclist, for me personally, even though I love organizing and leading guided European bicycle tours, I wouldn’t take that kind of trip on my own. I don’t want to go with a bunch of people I don’t know. I’d want to do it with my husband or with a small group of friends, and I know there are many other independent-minded cyclists who are just like me. But I also realize that you can really screw up on your own if you don’t know what you’re doing!

I did just that back in 1988 when I took a self-supported, self-guided solo tour through France, Switzerland and Germany, traveling 2,500 miles in 2 months. Well, I didn’t screw up really – I had an amazing time and saw some spectacular places and historic sites, and it was a life changing experience. But truly, in retrospect, it could have been so much better. I was so close to phenomenal roads and spectacular sites that I had no idea about. Years later, when I got to know France much better and learned about Michelin maps and how French roads are laid out, I looked at my highlighted 1988 route around France, and realized how much I missed due to my ignorance. Just paralleling my chosen route, I missed out on incredible scenery, far better and less traveled roads, some of the most beautiful villages of France, and many historic monuments.

I guess you don’t know what you don’t know (until you find it out later)!! 

In 1996 I went to France to do research for a book idea I had for self-guided bicycle tours through France. I had already spent the previous 5 years working for a luxury bicycle tour company leading high-end, service-oriented guided tours in France.  As a result, I was well-versed in how to select the ideal cycling route (as in the photo below) and how to write easy-to-read route notes (a skill I found that not all my peers had)! But there is so much more to a fantastic bike tour than just scenic routes and good quality roads.  It must be combined with the best hotels and restaurants, and interesting historical sites (Roman ruins, medieval villages, ancient chateaux, etc). In addition, the region must cater to the needs of cyclists, with sufficient bike shops available, and perhaps even scenic and signed bike routes along the way.

 Burgundy vineyard Road

I spent almost 2 months that summer, exploring the nooks and crannies of four major areas – Provence, Burgundy, the Dordogne and the Loire Valley. My traveling partner/boyfriend (and financier) and I experienced what I personally feel is simply the best way to experience another country by bicycle – independently and self-guided. You have total flexibility in where, when, how long, with whom, how much, and even IF you want to ride. You select the ride from a variety of choices for that day.

Mind you, what we did was very hard work. Though we did get to ride some, most of the time was spent driving and exploring in the car, writing down every turn for the route notes, stopping in every village to hit the tourist office and find the best hotels and B&Bs. We sometimes drove from the crack of dawn until the last vestiges of daylight, the sunlight disappearing over the horizon at the mid-summer dusk of almost 10:00 p.m. We drove and re-drove many routes to ensure we truly chose the BEST road. 

I realized that I wanted to show others how to do it on their own, and give them everything they need to make the right choices and experience the best that that region has to offer, without having to do many, many hours of research, internet searches, or reading every guide book there is. Instead of writing a book on self-guided cycling, I decided to start my own company, offering a service that customized self-guided tours around cyclists’ particular needs, abilities and desires. I created the Vélo Concierge, a part of my bicycle tour company, Viva Travels. 

I do know people who do it on their own. They have a good time – how can you not have a great time in France or Italy while riding your bike! But it often turns into an experience like my solo tour in 1988. Without a service such as the Vélo Concierge, you can miss out on the most amazing sites that might be just around the corner. You might end up staying in a dump (oh but it looked good on the website!), you can get stuck on roads you shouldn’t be on (beware – there’s lots of those!), you can eat in marginal restaurants (lots of those too), you can get stuck much farther out than you wanted to be, and have to ride home in the dark, you can break down and not know what to do, or have an accident and not know who to call. There’s the potential to miss some of the most phenomenal routes, the best untraveled roads, the best restaurants, miss those hidden memorable picnic spots, and other not-to-be-missed historical sites if you don’t have an expert show you how to do it best. In Italy, you risk taking a road that turns into a strada bianca, (white road), a rough rocky dirt road for many miles (their maps leave a little to be desired).

Perhaps most importantly, you may not know how to structure your day for that particular route. In Europe, you really have to time your day around lunchtime. I’ve found that many Americans tend to just ride, and often don’t think abut lunch in advance. Here in the States, you can always find something to eat, and some people can subsist on just a few energy bars on the ride. But if you’re in France, one of the most incredible gastronomic experiences in Europe, you don’t want to do this to yourself on your vacation! Enjoy the experience, enjoy the food, enjoy the picnic by the chateau!

Here’s the problem if you are unfamiliar with the ride: Will you know where the best restaurants are en route? Will you know the best place to purchase the special typical regional specialty food items for your picnic? What if you passed all the good picnic spots and end up scarfing your baguette and fromage by the side of the road out of desperation (I’ve done it)? What if you arrive in a town hoping to find a grocery store for picnic items, but it’s 12:01 p.m. and everything just closed until 3:00 p.m? What if you arrive and the restaurants have just closed at 1:30 or 2 p.m. and there’s no other options? What if you arrive at the only town en route, just when a fantastic outdoor marché is cleaning up, and you missed it? You’ll say to yourself, “If I had only known there was going to be a market, I would have left earlier!” What if there’s no more towns for 20 miles, and you’re out of food and water?

If only I had known! 

All of this can be avoided when you are given the insider’s tips on how to plan your day on each ride. This is your vacation – don’t leave it to chance!

Also, there is almost nothing quite as special as a typical French or Italian picnic in the middle of your ride in the shade of chateau ruins or along a riverbank. A little lesson in what to bring, what exactly the local cheeses and special meats or patés are, where to buy them and where to stop can turn a nice day into a phenomenal day! I give you those special tips.

cheese vendor in the Alpes

 

Loire Picnic

The first photo above is us selecting our cheese for our picnic with the help from the vendor (and flirting with him in the process) at a marché in the Alpes.  The local cheese of this part of the Alpes is Beaufort in those large wheels. Next is a delightful typical feast in the Loire Valley. Note the cinder coated goat cheese (chevre), made from a local farmer in that town.  And those were the freshest, most melt-in-your-mouth merangues I’ve ever tasted!

Part II of Self-guided cycling will discuss the very unique and flexible methods we use at the Vélo Concierge, and how to choose your accommodations! 

For information on a self-guided cycling tour in  in France, Italy or Spain, contact me!

Ride on,

 

Jennifer Sage, owner, Viva Travels 

Check out our website at www.vivatravels.com

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