As people over 50 opt for more active and adventurous vacations, two-wheelers are becoming a preferred vehicle to see the world, both here and abroad.
A recent travel segment on Sky News went so far as to dub bicycling vacations “the new golf.”
Touring by bicycle is easier on aging joints than jogging, lets riders cover greater distances than walking and allows for a more intimate, up-close experience than riding in cars, buses or trains.
This environmentally-friendly mode of transport can offset vacation weight gain with healthy exercise and its broad appeal extends to solo travelers, couples, friends and multigenerational groups.
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By definition, the term “bicycle tourism” refers to non-competitive cycling trips, ranging from daylong city tours to multi-day explorations along a route. Experienced cyclists may travel independently on self-guided tours, but most boomers opt for organized ones designed to meet their interests and skill levels. Devotees often feel as passionately about the biking experience as they do about the destinations they visit.
Because choosing among the many thousands of tours can be confusing, Next Avenue asked experts to answer questions that first-timers might have about planning a bicycle vacation. Here is what they said:
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How do I figure out where to go and select an itinerary?
Your choice will depend on a host of factors: How much time you have, when you want to go, how much money you want to spend and what you want to experience and see.
Some tourists opt to visit destinations already on their bucket lists; others are driven by special interests (such as learning about the foods or wines of Italy.) For some, overnight stays in castles or chateaux with gourmet meals can be a big draw; others want to visit iconic sites or trace their family roots.
Experts stress the importance of thorough research. Bicycle tours vary in terms of group size; trip intensity (both the pace and the number of miles pedaled each day) and the number, length and types of breaks taken each day. Accommodations range from tents to luxury stays in five-star properties. Terrain (flat vs. hilly or rocky; paved vs. gravel or cobblestone), climate and time of year are also important considerations in selecting a tour.
“Especially with folks over 50, whose joints may be feeling a bit of wear and tear, the last thing they should do is go way above their heads in terms of physical fitness level,” says Dave Aidekman, founder of The Trip Tribe, a company that curates group trips. “At the end of the day, the majority of these travelers aren’t looking for a workout; they want to see an area from an on-the-ground view with breaks in-between for activities outside of biking,” he adds.
How fit do I need to be to go on a bicycle tour?
If you can ride a stationary or outdoor bike or participate in a spinning class for at last an hour, you are probably up to the rigors of a beginning bicycle tour.
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“Similar to starting any new physical activity, like jogging or Zumba, make sure you’ve had a physical within the past year and ask your doctor whether you are fit for this type of exercise,” suggests Dr. Robert A. Wolfson, an internist with the Mount Kisco Medical Group in New York.
Since there are different levels of cycling, tour companies generally assess your level of experience to determine whether you belong in a strong (25 to 60 miles per day), moderate (20 to 40 miles per day) or light (15 to 35 miles per day) activity group. Extremes in climate and altitude can exacerbate the difficulty of any tour.
“Be honest about what you can currently do versus what you used to be able to do,” says Loren Siekman of Pure Adventures, a self-guided tour company.
For peace of mind, Seth Heald, president of Arizona Outback Adventures, recommends inquiring about cell phone coverage in the areas where you will be traveling and finding out about access to emergency care.
Will I be able to keep up with the group?
Bicycle tours are largely self-paced and flexible: You can stop whenever you’re tired, pause to take photographs or choose to skip a morning or afternoon ride and catch up with the group at the next stop.
Most active travel companies, like Backroads, also offer van support so cyclists can catch a ride, have a snack, get help with bicycle maintenance or grab a boost up a hill. More recently, this company and others have made electric bikes (e-bikes) available to trip participants.
“Sometimes, one person will rent an e-bike to keep up with their spouse,” says Liz Einbinder of Backroads. “Maybe they are a slower cyclist because of an injury or one spouse is more of a cycling fanatic than the other. E-bikes help level the playing field,” she says.
Preparation beforehand is important, too. “My advice to any first-timer is to train (and cross-train) consistently with professional support, especially if you are not generally fit or active,” say Jeremy Loeckler, founder of TourMatters.com, a curated database of tour operators. Experience Plus! Bicycle Tours offers a 12-week training program designed by cycling coach Joe Friel that is geared to cyclists over 50.
Don’t worry about being slow. “Guides don’t mind,” says Heald. “One person is always the slowest in any group.”
How can I find a reputable company?
Ask friends, colleagues or relatives who have taken bicycle tours about their experiences. Ask tour operators to connect you with former participants via phone or email. Ratings on review sites, such as TripAdvisor.com, can also provide valuable insights.
Any reputable tour operator will have phone reps available to answer questions and provide detailed information about what you can expect. Inquire about the training and experience of tour leaders, the type of equipment and gear you’ll be using, the specifics of the itinerary and who else will be coming on your trip in terms of age, biking experience and the numberof people in the group.
If you are more comfortable traveling with others around your age, companies like RoadScholar.org cater exclusively to the over-50 market. VBT and ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours also specialize in travelers over 50.
What costs are included in the tour?
Most tours offer packages, but you always need to determine the specifics of what is and isn’t included.
Organized tours often build in the price of leaders/guides, bicycle rentals, transport support services (vans), accommodations, meals and snacks. The costs of air travel, transfers, tips and taxes are generally not included, though. Insurance (health, medical evacuation and trip cancellation) are optional costs that may be worth considering. Don’t forget that the distance from your home to the starting point of the tour might impact the cost and length of any trip.
What do I need to pack?
Most companies provide guests with a packing list. Find out whether you need to bring your own safety helmet (so it fits properly) your own bike seat (for comfort) and/or rain gear — or whether those will be provided.
Some people prefer to travel with their own bicycles. But if you will use a tour operators bike, prepare yourself. “Riding in a new saddle for a week can be a disaster,” says Heald of Outback Adventures. “Get some high-quality modern bike shorts, consider using products like Chamois Buttr (http://chamoisbuttr.com/ (a skin lubricant popular with cyclists) and let the guides know if you are uncomfortable.”
If I’m not sure, is there a way to “try out” a bicycle vacation?
You may want to test your skills and stamina at a destination close to home before signing up for an extended tour. With increased awareness of the health and environmental benefits of cycling, there has been a spike in hotel bicycle programs. For example, Kimpton’s Florida hotels — EPIC Miami, Surfcomber Miami, Vero Beach Hotel & Spa and The Angler’s Miami South Beach — offer complimentary bike rentals for guests. Similarly, most Fairmont properties offer BMW bikes for complimentary use.
You can also weave some cycling into your cruise itinerary. One of the most enjoyable parts of taking a barge cruise in France, such as the type offered by European Waterways, is to disembark and ride along the towpaths parallel to the river as the boat slowly makes its way through the canals. In April 2014, Crystal Cruises announced it was adding 16 bicycle adventures to its roster of shore excursions, allowing passengers to visit charming villages only accessible by bike.
The Bottom Line
The friendships and camaraderie engendered while touring with a group also make bicycling an attractive travel option. Travis Pittman, CEO and co-founder of TourRadar, a website that compares and books group tours, echoes a sentiment experienced by many over-50 cyclists: “Touring a region on two wheels, powered by their own strength and surrounded by a group of like-minded individuals with whom they can share a well-deserved meal after a long ride is more satisfying that visiting the same destination, sightseeing from the windows of a loaded tour bus.”
Irene S. Levine is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.