Bike and Hike and Smell The Flowers
By Scott Thornburn, Travel Writer
We’ve all watched those movies set in Europe during World War II where sometimes the only transportation at a villager’s fingertips, other than cart and horse, was a bicycle. Even today in smaller towns, well coiffed and shod housewives pedal through town, stopping here and there to purchase fresh produce for that day’s dinner carried home in their bicycle baskets.
Meanwhile in the United States, bicycles were props ridden by
freckle-faced kids for Norman Rockwell vignettes of small town and country life. Today freckles have gone out of fashion but bikes haven’t, and an industry here and abroad has sprung up around biking and racing gear for two-wheel enthusiasts. This writer even rode bikes without gears, then those with three gears, then with 10 gears and so on, but has yet to use an electric bike that aficionados say eases the transition from valley floor to stunning views on a European cycling tour.
Today bicycling is in for all kinds of reasons, health included. But mostly riding a bike is about slowing life down — like traveling on a barge on slow-moving rivers. While you may or may not care about it now, bird song will become important because on a bike you can actually hear our feathered friends. Same goes for roadside flowers, fields of sunflowers and changing cloud formations. Our senses make us care about wonders that come naturally to children but get lost in the abyss of the GPS while hurtling down an autostrada at minimally 70 miles per hour.
OK. You get now that we’re in Europe. We’re touring on bicycles perhaps with a small group who has just met for the first time at a welcome dinner at a pension in Lucca. We’ll get to know these strangers over the course of a week and at the farewell dinner we will vow to exchange email notes and Christmas cards. This intent, as with new cruise friends, usually doesn’t happen but it always seems like a good thought at the time.
But what if you and your spouse, significant other or traveling companion prefer to wander at will and not be beholden to a group? Or maybe you have particular dates that just don’t work with an organized tour. Today there are two options. One is to align with a travel company offering non-group tours with all of the group organization elements included. This company should be well-versed in the region you want to explore, can arrange high quality bike rentals and lodging reservations and can prepare route maps complete with sightseeing and dining suggestions. For tours with company-arranged services, guests are in the driver’s seat all the way with the assurance that the logistical preparations being made on their behalf will diminish their own time and stress in planning a cycling vacation.
Or, if you insist on a do-it-yourself trip, you can find companies offering a la carte services including transporting luggage from hotel to hotel while you bike, arranging for a bike and even a bike rack to be placed on your rental car, and providing details on how to access bicycle shops that can provide bike repair services should they be required. Some companies can even suggest bike-friendly villas for families and groups of friends who want to the villa experience with cycling.
“The Internet indeed allows people to design their own vacation just as they would like, but ultimately, to do a bicycle vacation they find themselves needing some of the a la carte services that we offer,” said Maria Elena Price, owner/manager of ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours and its sister company, BikeRentalsPlus! “In the past travelers didn’t have a place where they could go to piece the elements of a self-guided and self-designed bike vacation together all in one spot. They had to work hard with four or five different companies. But now they don’t have to deal with logistical details and they can choose from an array of options.”
The myth that doing it yourself on line is cheaper can be quickly dispelled when the details of a bike, bike rack, finding and then booking your ideal lodging (where often they don’t speak your language!), or most important, researching bike routes are overlooked.
“People think it’s cheaper to do it yourself, but often if you consider the sweat and time it takes, it usually isn’t – although some people enjoy planning!” said Price, underscoring that planning time can be very costly.
Price’s company is the grandfather of bike touring companies in Europe and is in its second generation of ownerships and management. This company’s nearly all-inclusive, small group and individual bike tours have expanded from pioneering in Italy in 1972 to today’s global reach. Today it is represented in 20 destinations on five continents. In 2005 the company started to dabble in bike rentals and in 2006 BikeRentalsPlus! (www.bikerentalsplus.com) was formed as a sister brand to ExperiencePlus! to accommodate an explosion of requests for a-la-carte programs, even as it continues to expand its packaged and guided touring programs throughout and beyond Europe. At present, their a la carte services for bikers doing their own thing are concentrated in Italy and France where demand in 2012 has tripled since 2010 for both small groups doing bike rentals and for self-guided packaged tours. “There’s been a 50-percent increase annually over the past two years in requests for bike rentals. We have the network of nearly 100 bike shops and work very closely with about a dozen between Italy and France,” said Price.
Included in self-guided package tours are lodging, breakfast, routes (with detailed route notes or GPS tracks on some itineraries), suggestions each day for lunch and dinner spots and cultural insights for each day as well as luggage transfer from one hotel to the next. On-route emergency contacts, including local bike shops and taxi service, are included in each itinerary. Self-guided package tours cost on average up to 60 percent less per person than a tour with an actual guide. Those just winging it as regards meals and lodging, perhaps just using a few a la carte services, will pay even less – or perhaps much more, depending on their how elegantly they dine and lodge. A six-day /five-night self-guided package tour starts at €950 per person, double occupancy in France. In Italy a seven day/six night self-guided package program starts at €1200 per person, double occupancy.
“Of course, traveling outside a group means you need to fix your own flats, but many people think that is part of the challenge and fun,” added Price.
A lot of the fun, too, comes from chatting with farmers bringing in grape or peach harvests, or pausing at a local bar for a morning cappuccino and discovering the bartender used to live in Philadelphia (or Washington or San Francisco!) or sourcing prosciutto, mortadella or pecorino for your favorite sandwich. This is, after all your time and you’re on your own vacation!
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