One thing is crystal clear: People are into cycling. The U.S. market for the sport has blown up to a $6.2 billion industry, and more than 47.5 million people are out exploring on two wheels. So it makes sense that, after you’ve thoroughly navigated your own neighborhood, you want to adventure through another, which is where bike tours come in.
There are a ton of different options to sign up for, but if it’s your first one, Austin Render, co-founder of the Bourbon Country Burn tour in Lexington, Kentucky, suggests looking for a fully supported tour. “It’s all about the convenience and receiving an unparalleled experience,” he says. “[You get to] complete the ride with the peace of mind that food, navigation, support and entertainment have already been taken care of. All [you] have to do is show up and ride!”
While that sounds pretty glorious, it’s not exactly just show up and ride. You have to pack a bag — maybe even a bike — and even squeeze in some training beforehand. So, uh, how the heck do you pull that off? Here’s what the tour pros recommend:
PACK THAT BAG
When you’re riding for multiple days, covering various distances — and have a base camp of goodies provided for you once you’re done — it can be tough to know exactly what you need to bring with you on a bike tour. Here’s what you’ll want to throw in your suitcase:
- Comfy, breathable bike shorts and a chamois. If you don’t want your booty and undercarriage to scream at you during each and every mile, there’s one rule of thumb here: Don’t buy these the day (or week) before your trip, Render says. “Do your research and find comfortable shorts for the trip, with enough time to do a few long rides in them prior to leaving,” he suggests.
- Padded bike gloves. Spending multiple days in the saddle can create hot spots and blisters and could even lead to wrist pain, Render says. Gloves provide extra cushion to ward against those discomforts, and offer protection in the event of a fall. You can go fingerless for added breathability or nab a full-finger version for sun protection.
- Insulated water bottles. You gotta stay hydrated when cranking out so many miles, but who likes to drink warm water? “A good insulated bottle [like Camelbak’s Peak Fitness Chill] will keep your drink cooler for longer, and for me that means I’ll drink more of it,” says Andrea Parrott, merchandise and media manager of the RAGRBRAI ride across Iowa. (She’s done this tour more than 15 times!) Be sure to toss in an electrolyte drink mix or tablets, too — think Nuun Sport or Clif Bar Hydration Electrolyte Mix — to replenish what you sweat out.
- Helmet mirror. Forget looking dorky — having one of these babies strapped onto your helmet adds another layer of safety awareness to your ride. Sure, it may take a bit to get used to it, but being able to quickly see what’s going on behind you — without actually having to twist your entire body around — can quite literally be life-saving. Think about it: Would you ever drive your car without mirrors? Don’t ride a bike without one either, Render says.
- Bike bell or horn. Speaking of safety, this is another tool that’ll keep your time on the road fun (and safe). It’s perfect for those moments when you don’t want to say anything while passing (like when you’re on yet another breathless hill) or you’re too caught up in the scenery to call out “on your left.” Render says simply ringing a bell or horn lets people know you’re coming up on their left without having to utter a word.
- Flat tire repair kit. “Even in a fully supported tour, where help is just a call away, it’s empowering to know you’ll never be stranded on the side of a road with a simple flat tire,” Render says. Stow one in your saddle bag, and make sure you know how to use it.
- Anti-chafe cream. It doesn’t usually take much room and, while you may not need it — especially if you’ve got the right bike shorts and chamois — you’ll be glad you have it if the need arises, Parrott says. Trust me: It’ll make that post-ride shower much less painful (and a lot more pleasant).
- Sunscreen. ”A lot of first-timers don’t realize you need to practically bathe in sunscreen,” Parrott says. “You sweat off even the sport varieties within an hour or two, and need to reapply.” Touch up along the edge of your jersey and shorts more frequently, as sunscreen can rub off there. Parrott’s pro tip: Pack a big bottle in your luggage, then bring a travel size version in your bike bag to keep your load light. Refill the travel size each night and you’ll be set.
- Single-serve laundry detergent packets. On a multi-day ride, your laundry can get pretty funky. Fill a zip-top bag with the laundry detergent to do laundry on the go, Parrott says. (You can nab individual packets in the travel section of a big box store like Target or in the camping section of a sporting goods store.) “If you hang your clothes up overnight, they should dry in 1–2 days and be ready to wear later in the week — or it’ll just freshen up your bag,” she explains. Bonus: Those zip-top bags double as rain protection — stuff one in your bike bag to keep your cell phone and wallet dry in inclement weather.
- A unique piece of “flare.” There’s no better conversation starter than having something funny strapped to your bike — or yourself! “Over the years I’ve seen a pirate ship, a squeaky dinosaur, a horse skull, flags and Lego pieces strapped to handlebars and racks,” Render says. “Take something that makes folks laugh — it’s great if you’re looking to break the ice.” Oh, and don’t forget your helmet is prime real estate: He recommends decorating it with viking horns, flowers, even a mullet to weave a few chuckles into your ride.
FIGURE OUT YOUR BIKE SITUATION
Not everyone who participates in a bike tour is local — meaning you’re going to have to figure out how to transport a bike or whether to rent one. If you’re driving, that’s easy: Bike racks make stacking multiple rides a breeze. If you’re not driving, you’ll want to consider these steps:
- Decide how you’re getting the bike there. The first option that comes to mind: Check your bike as oversized luggage. Be warned, though: Many domestic airlines charge at least $150 per flight for this, and baggage handlers can be less-than-gentle with your precious cargo, Render says.
Another option: Using a package delivery service. Some tours have designated recipients available for those who want to pursue this route, but if yours doesn’t, you can have it shipped to a bike shop — where they’ll even assemble it for a fee — or to a hotel, where you can assemble it yourself.
- Box your bike. Again, you could go one of two ways here: Box the bike yourself or pay your local bike shop to do so. At first glance, it may seem like a job you’re perfectly capable of handling. But “boxing a bike is a practice in patience, and can lead to scratches or damage to the [bike parts] if you don’t properly protect them,” Render warns. Plus, the bike shop will have all the proper supplies (not to mention the knowledge of how to handle your bike), making it worth considering the extra cost.
If you’re determined to DIY, Render says you can still pop into your local shop for a used cardboard bike box and packing material. Study up on how to remove your handlebars and front wheel, too, as you’ll likely need that intel to properly fit it into the box. If you’re checking your bike as oversized luggage (or you want something sturdier than, well, a box, you can pack your bike in a hard- or soft-shell case.
- Go full-service. If the above sounds like way too much effort — but you still want to ride in your own saddle — you can always let someone handle the process for you. Companies like BikeFlights.com partner with local bike shops across the country, making sure your ride gets packaged correctly and shipped safely. All you have to do is drop your bike off (or schedule to have it picked up), then grab it when you’ve reached your destination.
- Rent your ride. The idea of getting on a bike you’ve never ridden before — and being stuck with it for multiple days — sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. But it’s convenient and, if you prepare correctly, it could be your best bet. And no, you won’t end up with a clunker. “Many bike shops offer high-end rentals that might even be nicer than the bike you are currently riding,” Render says.
The biggest thing to do is work in advance. “Arrange your rental well before your trip to ensure you get the bike you need,” Render says. “Don’t wait ‘till the last minute — the remaining bikes [could be] way too big or small.” When you make your reservation, tell the shop what make, model and size you currently ride, along with what terrain your tour covers so they can find the Cinderella option for your needs.
When picking up the bike, Parrott says to double check the basics — the brakes are all good, the wheels spin straight, there’s a water bottle cage — and take the time to have it properly fit (most shops offer this service). Render suggests bringing along your own pedals for them to install, as the shop may not have clip-ins available and you’ll want those to make the miles go by efficiently. Oh, and pack your broken-in saddle — your butt will thank you later.
PREPARE TO RIDE
- Train for your terrain. Just because your back roads are flat with no altitude change doesn’t mean your tour’s course will be the same. So you want to train for what you’ll be riding on — ideally in the climate you’ll be in — so you can perform your best. Example: Say you’re a Floridian, which is as flat as a pancake, going to ride the Bourbon Country Burn, a hilly course in Kentucky. What are you supposed to do? “Get creative — ride intervals on overpasses and do laps of multi-level parking garages,” Render says. “Do lots of bodyweight lunges and squats, and find other rides in your region that you can treat as training rides.”
- Don’t forget to taper. While you want to start training early — Render suggests a minimum of three months prior to the event — you don’t want to overdo it. About 10 days before your trip, start lightening up your workouts so you’re fresh for the big event.
- Get a tuneup. There’s nothing worse than getting to your bike tour, hitting the open road and realizing your ride isn’t performing as well as you’d like. To avoid that kind of whomp-whomp situation, Render suggests stopping in at your local bike shop for a quick tuneup prior to your trip. “I speak from experience: My rear derailleur cable snapped on the first morning of a three-day bike tour in the mountains of North Carolina,” he says. Consider it peace of mind, knowing you’re preemptively preventing repairs and your bike is in tip-top shape to get you through the tour feeling fab.