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Bicycle Touring: Touring with People

. If you would rather not strike out on your own right away, or if you are tired of touring alone and want some company, try a group tour. You don’t have to be an expert or even an intermediate rider to enjoy a tour if you are careful to match your ability to the group’s. People on bicycles seem to us to be an especially nice assortment; politics, religion, occupations and interests vary as much as with any combination of folks — but there is a unifying force in traveling by two wheels and human power that transcends differences. A group bicycle tour can be one of the outstanding events in your life.

Choosing a bicycle-tour group is a little like getting married; you never really know what you are getting into until it’s too late to get out of it. Cyclists seek touring companions for a variety of reasons; some want company — a friendly face across the handlebars and at the dinner table — while some need the identity and anonymity of a group to get away from themselves for a bit. Groups offer practical services such as mechanics, meals and gear toting be sides handling details of transportation and accommodation. A few join groups to find an echo chamber for their egos; these are the ones who have been everywhere and done everything, and are all too willing to tell you about it.

If you join a group with your eyes open and a willingness to give as much as you get, your chances of having a pleasant tour are good. Much of your happiness and satisfaction depends on your own attitudes and flexibility but a lot depends on the group. How can you find the right tour group?

ABOVE: Touring in a group offers advantages of company, support/safety and conversation. And by employing the technique of drafting, riding in a pace line behind each other, group touring makes the cycling easier.

Finding Your Group

There are many groups from which to choose, more than ever before thanks to the widening interest in using bicycles for recreational travel. Consult SECTION D for a list of some of the groups available. But which one is right for you? To find out look at the group carefully and ask questions.

Commercial groups are in it for a profit, giving you certain services for a fee. They range from the slick-brochure type offering a multitude of tours with a wide variety of dates to choose from down to the small operator who has one or two tours a year and will send you mimeographed information if you send a return envelope. The former is not necessarily good nor is the latter bad; investigate each carefully.

Nonprofit touring groups are some times hard to distinguish from the commercial type. Their nonprofit classification is usually due to educational activities that exempt them from tax-paying status. Most such groups offer a good program with dedicated staff, some paid and some voluntary. The education, however, can be the school- of-hard-knocks variety. Be careful in your selection and be prepared for any thing.

You might select your touring companions from a club or group that has some common interest such as religion or occupation. Such groups range from super-organized with complete tour packages to just a bunch from the neighborhood who decide to ride together for a specific trip. Bicycle clubs and organizations frequently have tour schedules that you might find appealing and suitable to your schedule and finances. Contact the League of American Wheelmen (address in SECTION E) for cycling clubs in your area.

When you find a group that interests you, first determine if they cater to a particular age group, income or ability level. If roughing it’s your thing, you probably wouldn’t be happy riding with a group of elderly professional people who travel with nothing heavier than a credit card. On the other hand, if your idea of roughing it’s having to carry your own toothbrush then you certainly don’t want to join up with a group spending 14 days camping in the Ozarks. Write to the tour group for information on ridership if you can’t find out through other sources. Make sure you know what they expect in riding ability. Ask what will be the longest day traveled. Don’t accept daily averages as the whole picture. Three groups might all average 50 miles per day; one travels 100 miles one day and rests the next, another might actually come close to the advertised average, and the third may have two days at 30 miles each and one at 90 miles, which also averages out to 50 miles per day.

Choose a group that is going where you want to go. If you have no interest in tennis and antique shopping, don’t join a tour that allows up to half of each day for those activities. If your idea of heaven is a leisurely tour of California’s wine country with lots of time for exploring and tasting, make sure the tour you join sees things the same way you do. Decide whether where you go is more important than with whom you go. Don’t get so picky that you eliminate the element of serendipity — the aptitude for making accidental fortunate discoveries. That quality is basic to bicycle touring anywhere with anyone.

ABOVE: Many cyclists of varying abilities, including the couple in this photograph, find sufficient challenge in group tours (listed in SECTION D).

Match your tour group to your pocketbook. Some provide total care for a lump sum, paid in advance. Others provide only guide service with a pay- as-you-go system for participants. Either way, be aware of the total cost including transportation to and from the touring area, incidentals, meals not included and entertainment. Don’t let financial shock spoil an otherwise delightful trip.

How does the group handle transportation to and from the tour site as well as any mid-tour transport that may be necessary? The tour may seem like a dream trip but getting there and back again can tax your resources, time and patience beyond the worth of the trip it self. Make sure you know what part of bike transport is up to you and what part is taken care of by the group long enough in advance so that you can include it in your planning; For example, do you need to get a bike box or pack your bike some special way?

Finally, if you are restricted in when and how much time you can devote to a tour, make sure the group plan fits your schedule. Bicycle travel is an inexact science (one of its most appealing aspects, we think), so to be realistic al ways leave yourself a day or two at the end for the unforeseen.

-What to Expect-

Once you decide on a certain group, or perhaps even before making the final decision, there are a number of questions you should answer before actually loading up. Write if there is time, telephone if not, but get someone to hear you out and give you straight information or at least a healthy “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you can, talk with someone who has been with the group (if it’s unknown to you personally) on that or a similar trip. If everything was roses, ask them what they liked least about the tour. Generally, here are some other things you should know before departure.

How and where will you sleep? Is it camping, motels, inns, a combination or a variety of “public” facilities? You need to know this so you can plan your gear, of course, but you should also have some idea so you can psych your body for what is ahead. Rest is as important to you as good food when touring by bicycle; make sure you know what you can expect in general.

What about meals? Will you be eating out, supplementing in the grocery store, preparing your own, or do you have a choice? Must you always eat with the group? Is cooking shared or shirked? Do you have special dietary needs? Even if it’s not so normally, food becomes a very important item in your life on a bicycle tour. One tour we led was a “bring your own food” camp-out. We stressed the hunger factor well in advance but several people brought minimal amounts of food for various reasons. We ended up spending the evening cycling ten miles farther to a restaurant and grocery store where everyone happily spent several hours eating.

ABOVE: The Bikecentennial organization in Missoula, Montana, offers some of the best organized and interesting tours in the country. This organization, which initiated the cross-country ride to celebrate the 1976 Bicentennial, has consider able experience in leading bicycle tours.

What about the leaders? How many are there for how many riders? Are they paid or volunteer; do you care? What is their experience and background? Group leadership experience is probably more important than actual bicycling experience, although you should be able to expect that the leaders have at least performed the equivalent of the trip. Are the leaders trained in first aid and do they know emergency procedures? If not, perhaps you should.

How does the group ride? Some split up into very small groups of per haps two or three for the day, meeting at designated points along the way. Others ride in huge gaggles of 20 to 40 and should be avoided if possible. Some al low total freedom during the day to ride as fast or as slow as you wish so long as you show up at night where the group sleeps over. Be sure you know the route and stopping place before you set out if such is the case. You will need to be mechanically self-sufficient or at least be able to notify someone if you are delayed. However the group rides, for your part insist on riding single file. Use off-bike time for visiting unless you are on a no-traffic roadway or bikeway. In groups it’s too easy to let conversation over shadow the fact that you are operating a vehicle on the public roadway with all the responsibilities of doing so.

Will you carry all of your gear or is there a “sag wagon?” If there is one, it may go on ahead to each stopover or it may follow behind as a sweeper to help with any troubles along the way. It may only carry gear or it may provide mechanical assistance as well with spare parts, tires, tubes, and so on. Is it part of your group duty to drive the sag wagon one day or more? Can you rely on it if you get sick, injured or just pooped along the way?

How safety conscious is the group? What is done to increase visibility or is it the individual’s responsibility? Some groups provide bright flags and vests to both identify the group and increase its visibility. Others frown on such things as unprofessional and somehow de grading. What about helmets? No group we know provides them but neither should a group discourage them; some even require their use.

What about mechanical aid? Is everyone in the group on his or her own? If so, you will need to outfit your self with tools and know how to use them (see section fourteen). Most groups have mechanically skilled people somewhere in their ranks, but that doesn’t mean they will be around when you break down; they might be ten miles ahead. If repair facilities are in the sag wagon, make sure you are riding with someone who can go off for help unless it remains in the rear. The best bet is to have your own repair kit and pump so you can get yourself back on the road.

Will you be renting a bike or providing your own? Know what is required. Some groups accept single- and 3- speeds, others require 10-speeds. If you rent, do they have the right-size frame for you? Know your size and make sure ahead of time that it’s available. Don’t make do with an ill-fitting bicycle. If you rent, can you bring along your own saddle (if you have one well broken in)? It can help soothe the most savage rental beast.

Finally, what if --- ? Ask a few questions like what if you get sick? What if there is a last-minute emergency and you can’t make it? Do you get a refund in part or whole? Be fair to the group — many work on tight schedules and budgets, which don’t leave much room for last-minute cancellations. Give plenty of notice if you must drop out and, if you can’t, don’t expect full return of your money. If you get sick or hurt, who is responsible financially for medical aid and transportation if it’s necessary? Find out about insurance coverage for the group. You will probably be asked to sign some sort of waiver to hold the group and its leaders not responsible in case of injury. Take it seriously and check out your own insurance coverage while bicycling.

- What Not to Expect -

Don’t expect your touring group - to be all things to all people. It’s most likely no more than a loosely knit group of people who will be sharing an exciting and pleasant experience with you for a set period of time. They cannot solve your problems; you must do that. At the most they can provide a new perspective and some friends that you didn’t have before, along with a lot of memories — mostly good ones we hope.

Don’t expect to be entertained. You get out of a group what you put into it, sometimes less, sometimes more. At times a group automatically clicks so there is a special something about it, an identity of its own made up individually but given a life beyond the sum of its parts. That is the good kind. There are also groups that become wailing walls for lost hopes and scapegoats for disillusionment. Whether due to poor planning, bad weather or just the vagaries of the road, the group turns on itself and breaks apart into sullen sectors of accused and accusers. That is the bad kind.

Don’t expect everything to go as planned or announced. There will be changes, breakdowns, diversions; all the things that can happen to an individual touring multiplied by however many are in your group. Don’t expect to have all the fun and shift the down times onto someone else. As in a marriage, you are with the group for richer and poorer, otherwise you shouldn’t be there at all. Adaptability and flexibility, the two qualities that insure the success of an individual tour, work as well when touring with others. You may need them even more, since there is a greater possibility of problems due to sheer numbers.

Don’t expect anyone to wait on you either on the road or at the table. It sounds harsh but if you can comfortably cycle only a maximum of 30 miles a day you have no business joining a tour group that expects to do 60-80 miles per day. You will only frustrate yourself and perhaps jeopardize the tour for others. There are enough groups of varied ability that you can find one to suit your speed and temperament. It can be just as frustrating to feel like cycling 80 miles a day yet be in a group that tours 20 miles, then spends the rest of the day in the pool or around the town. Most groups will accept anyone who will pay the price; it’s up to you to see that you are paced with the pedalers.

Don’t assume much of anything. Don’t assume someone else will have a first-aid kit, don’t assume someone else will have a pump, don’t assume anyone knows how to repair a spoke, don’t assume everyone will wait while you take pictures of wild flowers, and don’t assume you will feel marvelous every single day. Most of all, don’t assume the group is organized or well thought out. Hope that it is, but don’t assume so. Assume only that you will get along well because you are prepared for anything and that just about anything is apt to happen. One other assumption is per mitted; assume you are really going to enjoy the trip.

-Getting Ready-

Preparing for a group tour is not much different from preparing for an individual tour; at least it shouldn’t be. Too frequently a person relies on a group to fill gaps in knowledge, skills and gear. It’s much better to join a group for companionship, fun and new viewpoints than out of need and dependence. First, you would be assuming expertise where it might not exist; second, you would be contracting for a ser vice not actually part of the package. Exceptions to this are tour organizations that advertise to teach and extend bicycle skills. Such teaching tour groups are a real aid to the beginner who wants to head out but needs help, and to the more experienced rider who wants to extend the range of his or her knowledge. Our experience in leading this kind of group has been enjoyable and especially gratifying.

If at all possible, meet with your tour group ahead of time both to get acquainted and to assess expectations. If you haven’t done so already, get answers to the questions above and any others that directly concern you. If there is to be a division of labors, this is the time to volunteer in areas where you have competence and to be honest about those areas where you don’t. If you hate preparing meals, admit it. Per haps you can trade off with someone else who feels just as strongly about something you don’t mind doing.

Make sure your gear and your bicycle are in top condition. If you master the contents of this book, you should be in pretty good shape. Just don’t expect to do last-minute maintenance your first night on the road. You may not get that far and, if you do, you will certainly have better things to do than work on your bike.

Be as self-contained as possible, even if you are going unladen, with a sag wagon to carry your gear. Self-containment is an attitude as well as a state of being and can be as important a piece of equipment as a patch kit or a sleeping bag. Be physically prepared for the tour as well. Get in shape ahead of time so you can spend all of your energies on enjoying and getting to know your tour mates rather than on agonizing over sore muscles and exhaustion. You owe it to yourself and your tour group to be in shape for the trip ahead of time (see section twelve).

On the Road

Just before leaving your house, look around to make a final check. Do this especially if you are very excited about the trip. On one of our tours one of the young men showed up after an 85-mile automobile trip from his home and unloaded his bike only to find that in his excitement he had left the entire front wheel at home. Don’t ask us how, he just did. Fortunately we had an extra wheel that saved his tour.

Show up on time, better yet — be a little early. It’s hard on yourself to be late and hard on everyone who has to wait for you. Allow time for last-minute delays, traffic, gas lines, ticket counters, baggage checks, lost items, having to return for something forgotten and any thing else that comes along. Give your self enough time and you won’t be nervous or in panic.

Once at the starting point, you are part of the group. Now is not the time to suddenly exercise your independence. You have joined by choice and you should work at being a member of the tour group. Don’t get ahead or stay behind to shop, eat, sleep or meditate. If you must deviate from the group, let the leader know where and when you can be expected to return.

As you ride, watch the rider ahead of you for sudden stops and leave enough room to maneuver. Let a rider know you are passing if it’s necessary to do so by calling out “passing on your left” and waiting a minute to be sure you were heard. Don’t pass on the right as you will be forcing the other rider out into the road. Follow the rules of the road: stop at all stop signs, signal intentions (it’s the law), ride on the right and yield to pedestrians. When you spot obstacles such as glass, potholes, gravel or automobile parts let the rider immediately behind you know by calling it out or signaling with your hand. Don’t day dream or get so engrossed in conversation that you become oblivious to the road or to the traffic, even if there is very little. At rest stops, park your bike — along with the others — completely off the road and out of anyone’s way. No restaurant or shop owner wants 20 bicycles blocking the entryway no matter how much money you are spending there.

If you are especially competent, watch out for the less-experienced members of the group. They will appreciate your attention and you will be helping them to enjoy bike touring just that much more. You might be able to prevent an accident or injury that would be detrimental to the entire group.

Try to give something special to the group from your talents. Maybe you can cook, sing, patch a tire in two minutes or make jokes on cold, rainy days. A harmonica does wonders when a group is huddled together under a tarp waiting for the rain to stop. On one tour we re member, one of the girls was totally in experienced and really beyond her level physically. Yet she could listen with a passion. She paid rapt attention to any one who was talking, asked intelligent questions and remembered what was said; she made each of us feel truly important, wise and unique. That is as much a talent as playing an instrument or cooking an omelet.

When things go wrong, the leader usually gets the blame and the group sometimes splits into those for and those against the establishment. Try to stay out of such wrangling; be reason able and rational. Some things just can’t be helped and complaining certainly doesn’t solve anything. Instead see if there is something you can do to help smooth things. Recognize bitching for the useless exercise it’s and help to re direct the complainant’s energies into constructive directions. The leader is there by appointment, not by election — mutiny serves no one.

In any group, personality conflicts occur. Avoidance works better than trying to make someone over who sees no need for change. You joined for the tour itself; no one promised perfect partners. A smile works wonders; common courtesy is hard to rebuff.

Bicycle touring together is a beautiful way of turning strangers into friends. Once you have conquered a mountain pass, a desert or a continent together, little else matters. You may then go separate ways but you will always be connected in time and space by your turning wheels. What better way to build a friendship? A good touring group fosters companionship, community and communion. We hope you find just such a group.

Touring with Your Family

The fact that you all know each other is a primary advantage in touring with your family; it can also be a primary disadvantage. While a family bicycle tour can be a rewarding, loving, exciting experience, it’s no place to look for miracles in a family that is having problems. The best guide as to whether you should try bicycle touring as a family (assuming everyone likes the idea in the first place) is if you enjoy being at home together. If so then you will enjoy being on tour together; simple but basic.

When touring with your family, choose a route and destination that interests every member. Each section doesn’t have to appeal to each person, but make sure there is something to interest everyone often enough to be an incentive. We like historical trails, towns and regions that give a fourth dimension to touring, sort of one step beyond now. But our children don’t yet appreciate history much beyond tales of cow boys, Indians and outlaws, so we try to get some of that in our historical meanderings as well. Boot Hill and the Oregon Trail have felt the touch of their wheels and heard their excited questions. Amusement parks fit well into a family tour as do ice cream parlors occasionali and circuses. Don’t forget the appeal of a motel TV on the night of a favorite program. An overnight bike tour to a baseball game, county fair or swimming beach is sure to excite the children and refresh the parents; what better way to teach them that getting somewhere can be half the fun?

Don’t try to pedal farther than you can comfortably travel as a family, whether that is 10 miles or 80. You are only as strong as the weakest person in your family, so plan tours with that per son uppermost in mind. Never abandon one rider to the rear — it can be a frustrating, devastating experience for that person. We once rode with a group that was considerate enough to always wait for the rear rider, even when that meant taking a 15-minute break by the road side, but as soon as the rear rider caught up, the group would mount up and move on, never giving that rider a chance to rest and feel part of the ride. We found out much later that if Susan hadn’t stayed behind with the person, she would have given up on bike riding entirely. As it is, years later she is still enjoying touring and keeping up with everyone too, we might add.

Especially with children, pace the day so there are breaks for non-cycling activities. As little as ten minutes an hour taken out to look at wild flowers, pet farm animals or toss rocks into a stream can turn a reluctant pedaler into an enthusiastic tourer. We’re not above bribery when it comes to moving our kids down the road, especially if we know it’s a particularly boring section of a tour for them. Being able to order anything on a menu (careful where you go if your budget looks like ours), an afternoon given over to the delights of a library, and even — if the going is really rough — the promise of a malted milk or chocolate sundae have all been known to push our children a few miles farther than they thought they could go. Know when your family partners are lagging due to boredom rather than exhaustion or physical problems. Hypothermia (see section twelve) can sound like whining or even boredom if you are not aware of what is happening in someone else’s sphere. Knowing each other helps out here.

Allow enough time to get where you are going and still enjoy getting there. No one likes being constantly prodded to move faster, especially most children and one mother we know. If pacing is a big problem, load the fastest rider with the most gear and let the slowest ride empty. Some equalizing can be done through gearing also if you have ridden together enough to know what needs to be done.

Don’t assume the children will be the slowest. On many mountain roads we don’t particularly like to recall, Cathy raced ahead of us to the top while we walked at a decidedly middle-aged pace. She actually had more trouble keeping pace with us cross-country on the flats because of her smaller wheels and lower high gear. Long, steady climbs can be especially tiring and discouraging to smaller children. Take a break partway up if necessary.

When touring with your family, don’t set rigid destinations for each day on the road. Be flexible. Perhaps those words should be at the head of each section in this book; but given your flexible attitude disaster can be disarmed, delay can become delight and detour can turn into diversion. As if all that isn’t enough, flexibility just might save your tour. If some of the family don’t feel like riding on a particular day, don’t. The fun of bicycle touring is both in being where you are and how you got there. Where you are going means nothing until you get there; don’t let it become more important than that.

For some excellent tips on touring long distances with children, see Tony and Robbie Fanning’s article Taking the Kids Along” an issue of Bicycling magazine. They emphasize the value of including children in the planning stages of a tour, letting them feel an integral and important part be fore you ever set foot to pedal. We con cur and recommend this approach as we have used it with our children successfully many times.

Young children tend to do what you expect of them. If you expect whining, boredom and complaining, that is usually what you get. If you expect happiness, some excitement and enthusiasm, you usually get that too. A hug and a smile are an unbeatable combination for biking blues in a family. Come to think of it, a hug and a smile fit nicely into any touring group. When it comes right down to it, people are people any where; it only seems that people on bicycles are something extra special. Then again, maybe they are.

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