Bicycle Touring in Europe: Choosing the Right Tour Operator

By Max Hartshorne

Bicycle touring combines the best of both worlds. First, there is the chance to enjoy the endorphins that surge

Cycling through a small village in Europe. There is really no better way to see a country up close! photo: Austin Lehman.
Cycling through a small village in Europe. There is really no better way to see a country up close! photo: Austin Lehman.

through your brain when you peddle hard and begin to feel some sweat on your brow. Then there are the funner parts of any ride, when you coast downhill and glance up and see a lovely mountain scene or glide past a few cows standing on a flower-covered meadow.

There is simply no better way to see a country’s rural beauty than from the seat of a bicycle. And with a centuries old tradition of bicycle riding, Europe is one of the best places in the world to take a cycling vacation.

But how does someone interested in cycling find the right choice in a tour company to help with the details? Since distance bike riding requires vans to pick you up and luggage transfer, it’s clearly mandatory to find an experienced bicycle tour operator to handle these logistics.

To find some answers I began where most people begin, with questions like these. I asked my fellow riders and used the power of the ‘net to find ideas, options and comments about tours, tour operators and places to cycle.

“A little time and energy spent on the front end helps ensure the vacation of your dreams. The planning process should be a fun part of the overall experience,” says Dan Austin, owner of Austin-Lehman Adventures a tour operator based in Missoula, Montana.

The company has grown over the years and now offers small group tours to 28 countries around the world. They have hundreds of options for people who want to tour by bike!

Austin is an expert on bicycle tours, since his company was voted Best Tour Operator by Travel and Leisure readers for the past two years! Below are some ideas Dan has collected to make planning a bicycle tour a little easier.

Dan Austin of Austin Lehman Adventures.
Dan Austin of Austin Lehman Adventures.

Dan’s Ten Research Tips

#1 Build Files: Organize brochures, maps, notes from conversations to website links.

#2 Google is Your Friend! 96% of all travel research is now done online. Use “long tail” search terms to hone in on your questions such as: “Best family adventure vacation to Yellowstone.” Bookmark the better sites you visit.

#3 Shop for Information off-line: Pick up travel magazines and regional guides reflecting your interests. Talk to friends and co-workers. Visit your local travel agent (yes people still use them and they’re invaluable!) for input.

Some Popular Bike Tours in Europe:

Germany/Mosel Valley: Wine villages, whimsical gardens and medieval wonders along the waters of the Mosel. Explore imperial cities, majestic castles, lush gardens and ancient Roman artifacts on this seven-day adventure following the gentle, meandering path of the Mosel River.

Italy/Tuscany : Food, wine, history and scenery–seven full days of mouth-watering food, graceful rolling vineyards, weathered hillside villas and vibrant cities brimming with art, history and old-world charm.
#4 Create a bucket list: Create a list of dream destinations and activities; cut it to a short list. Use logic. Is Mexico too hot in summer? Maybe. Then consider fall travel. Keep track of your thinking and why.

#5 Who Gets Your Business? Seek tour operators specializing in the kinds of vacations on your short list. Again, Google is your friend. For example, search for “best bike tour operator in Italy” and note results. Pore through travel magazines that often list the “best of the best” in special annual editions. Look for them online. In the end you will have created a list of operators that best match your short list of destinations and activities.

#6 Work Your Short List! With your A-list of destinations/activities and tour operators, begin emailing or calling. Track all interactions. If a company fails to get back to you in a timely manner and/or fails to answer your questions accurately and thoroughly, do you really want to trust your vacation to them? The best will rise to the top.

#7 Ask Questions: How long has the tour operator been in business? Is the owner involved in day-to-day operations? Does the company run its own tours or outsource? What are deposit/cancellation/trip insurance/satisfaction guarantee policies? What happens to a small group trip if nobody else signs up? Who takes these trips, what is average group size and guide-to-guest ratio? (For a full list of questions to ask, click here.

#8 Ask About Specific Tours/Itineraries How long has the tour operator been running a particular trip? What is/isn’t included? Where does trip begin and end and how do you get there? What’s the best time of year to visit? What’s a typical day and how many miles daily, on average, of biking, hiking, paddling? Describe the accommodations, amenities and food? Why is your trip so special and why are you the best tour operator to travel with?

#9 Digest and Summarize: Digest and quantify everything learned. Narrow it down to a couple of options. Review final concerns, make some final calls, remove all doubt.

#10 Book Em! Make sure everyone agrees, pick up the phone and confidently book the trip!

Cycling in France.
Cycling in France.

A new twist

The advice above should yield plenty of options for any cyclist. But a new twist from one operator may tip the scales for riders who are north of 40 years old and might be intimidated by climbing big hills and following the pack of youthful fellow travelers.

One couple was inspired to continue their beloved biking trips because of electric bikes! New Yorkers Patty and Brian Hohner weren’t sure they were going to be able to keep up cycling over Tuscany’s steep hills, despite their record of taking 54 biking trips with Austin-Lehman over the years.

Just as they were about to hang up their well-traveled helmets, the option of using electrically-assisted bikes became available, and the pair once again enthusiastically embraced another biking journey.

The company’s cycling tour veteran and director of European operations, Ron van Dijk, says, “With e-bikes now anyone, regardless of age, strength or ability, will be able to take on even the most strenuous tour itinerary,” said van Dijk. Over his 40 years in the industry he has witnessed many changes in the way bicycles have been used in European vacations, from the use of increasingly lighter touring bikes and gears moving from 10 to 27 gears, as well as high-tech brakes and now, battery-powered bikes.

The Diamant electric bike takes the sting out of hills.
The Diamant electric bike takes the sting out of hills.

“Electric bikes, originally the rage of bike commuters, are quickly becoming the next major evolution in recreational cycling, with Austin-Lehman Adventures leading the way in Europe by offing an e-bike option to guests on all of their multi-day cycle tours,” said Dan Austin, founder and owner.

Essentially e-bikes level the playing field, Austin said. Couples can cycle together without fear of leaving a companion in the dust. For the first time the armchair/casual cyclist thinking of an Italy bike tour can do a challenging trip like Tuscany without fearing long ascents. The bikes are ideal for multi-generational groups and families.

The use of e-bikes has grown in popularity with European commuters over the past several years; statistics show that there has been an 83 percent increase worldwide e-bike use since 2007.

Austin-Lehman Adventures will use the latest model Diamant electric bikes with Trek Ride+™ technology. This is a lightweight aluminum frame bike with a lithium ion battery-operated motor that when engaged boosts a rider’s natural human power, enabling him/her to pedal with less effort farther and faster. When the course gets steep and a rider is ready for extra power, the rider hits a button and selects an assist level I to IV and continues pedaling. At day’s end batteries are removed and charged for tomorrow’s ride.

Find out more about all of the choices for bike tours in Europe by visiting Austin Lehman’s website. You can also reach them by telephone: 800.575.1540

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