How to Make a Bike Tour: A Guide for Idiots

I know whereof I speak because I’ve been accused of being an idiot more than a few times and I’ve made many bike tours, some of which have ended up as regulars for 44|5. I didn’t really think about the steps in creating a tour from scratch until recently, when I just wrapped up the finishing touches on the itinerary for HighRoad Tour du Mont Blanc, a week-long package that will take some hardy cyclists through 3 countries and around the highest mountain in Western Europe. So let’s use this one as an example.

Step One: Idea

This could very well be the hardest step for some, but I’ve got ideas of varying degrees of goodness piling up in a folder in Dropbox, waiting for their day to be born. At my age, I can probably predict that many won’t.

Some ideas actually come to me and then get realized over time. HighRoad Cévennes is one of these. To this day I don’t think there’s anyone else doing annual week-long tours in this magic corner of France, so I know I didn’t steal it from somebody. Others, like nearly anything in the Alps or the Pyrenees, are never very original because they’ve been ridden to death over the decades. There is, however, lots of room to be creative, which I hope we’ve done since our first tour in the French Alps in 2013.

Some ideas get forced upon you by outside forces. Our ever-popular Ventoux BreakAway is one of these. Long ago, a post on this very blog started to appear high on Google searches for ‘Mont Ventoux’. This post was just a little guide for climbing Ventoux, but it was a stepping stone to creating a tour, which we did by migrating the post to our website and creating our short-stay product: the BreakAway. We didn’t know if that would work, but it did and apparently it still is. Try typing Ventoux bike tour into your search engine and see if we’re somewhere there on the first page. A complete fluke essentially helped our business run for much of our existence. Thanks, Google algorithms?

And then there are some ideas that you get gifted – the Tour du Mont Blanc is sort of one of these. I can’t remember if this was actually my idea (not really original in any case because there’s a one-day race that does this route, more or less) that a client picked up on, or the other way around, but for sure we’ve run tours from ideas that came from clients. I remember well one dinner in the Pyrenees, I think, when a client said “Gerry, next year we’re doing a tour in the Dolomites. It’s either with you or someone else.” That kind of makes things easy and suddenly a new HighRoad was born.

Step Two: Route

The route is primordial because everything else hinges on it. If you have the most outstanding roads on Earth, but they have no decent places to stay along them, for example, you are doomed. All our HighRoad tours are ‘van light’, so I need to find a week of riding that is just riding – no popping in the van to find something agreeable. This is sometimes easy and often difficult. I’ve spent weeks on a promising route only to be dashed by the impossibility of getting good riding roads or quality places to stay for the night. In the case of the TdMB the main route was already discovered by someone else, so I just needed to adjust where necessary and add some loop days from a couple of our bases – also not always simple.

Routes also decide your airport(s), which we like to keep to 1, but doesn’t always work out that way. We also prefer to keep airport transfers short, so the trick is to find an international-enough airport that people can get flights to, within 2 or so hours from the start of the tour, and the same for the finish.

And I touched upon this above, but not all roads are meant to be ridden on. We try and stay away from anything that an 18-wheeler would use, if possible, for example. There are times when you have to join the truckers, so I just try and warn riders that a nasty stretch is coming up. Usually, the smaller the better, but there you have to be cautious too; We had one embarrassing encounter with a hairpin that was too tight for the van and trailer in the southern Alps and a 300 year old bridge in the Massif Central that we just got across without having to pay for van scrapes from the rental company.

And how do you make routes, you may ask? The same way you do for your buds on Saturday – with RWGPS, Strava, or other handy route-making software. I then need to ‘drive’ every inch of these routes on Google Street View, of course, to try and avoid unexpected surprises before moving on to Step Three. Finally, I nearly always go and ride/drive the route the fall before the tour happens. I’m always amazed at how much stuff you can learn by actually being there. Our Tour du Mont Blanc reconn changed our route and even hotels stays.

Step Three: Hotels

This kind of gets done at the same time as the route making and is absolutely as important, at least for our HighRoad tours. We just can’t justify staying in a dive, even for one night. To make it even more complicated, we always try and keep the hotel standard kind of level throughout the week. This nearly never happens, but we still try.

And each hotel I contact is a journey, I can tell you that. I’ve got email threads with some that can reach 3 digits. We always have special needs – each hotel much have a secure place to keep our bikes (not ‘in the parking lot’, like one just generously offered last week), which is fairly standard in the mountains these days, but not always. We then have to secure parking for a van and trailer. Again, mostly ok, but if they don’t have it, we need to find it. Last year John and I spent many hours trying to find an outdoor parking lot (undergrounds don’t have the height limits for a van with bike racks) in Andorra. We did like we always do, but it’s one more thing that has to be figured out before you arrive sur place.

Hotels don’t need to have these services, but if they offer early breakfasts, take-away picnics and restaurants on the premises, this all makes everyone’s lives easier.

Step Four: Restaurants

Sometimes the most time-consuming part of tour creation, but arguably one of the most enjoyable, restaurant choice is something that 44|5 Cycling Tours prides itself on. We don’t always choose the best place in town, but we want our clients to eat very well, preferably with fresh ingredients creating local dishes.

With small groups like we have this year so far, things are pretty simple. I just determine where we want to go and make the reservation. With larger groups (10+) it often entails multiple emails or calls to figure out if the restaurant will only serve us a fixed menu, and if so, with how many choices. And if there are choices, how far in advance do they need to know, etc. It’s always worth the effort in the end because there’s not much more rewarding after a hard day in the saddle than some great, guilt-free grub.

Step Five: Selling the Tour

After all the blood, sweat and tears of bringing your idea to a theoretical reality, then you have the unenviable job of 1) finding a public to discover it, and 2) convincing them they want to do it. Sorry, I’ve got no tips for this one. Lord knows how we’ve managed, but I’m going out on a limb here to suggest that ‘luck’ comes into play.

I think these five steps would give you a tour and five is a nice, odd number. Someday I’ll write about rental bikes, hiring vans and trailers, taking payments, finding guides, designing jerseys, keeping up on social media, making a website and actually running a tour, but I need to get back to putting the finishing touches on some tours. Thanks for sticking it out.

3 thoughts on “How to Make a Bike Tour: A Guide for Idiots

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s