Journalist David Lamb has spent his 40-year career traveling the world reporting for the Los Angeles Time. His work has been nominated for eight Pulitzer Prizes and taken him from Africa to Asia and many places between.
But that’s just “business travel” for a career journalist. When you globetrot for a living, what do you do on “vacation?” For nearly two decades, Lamb has spent a week each year traveling the world by bike with groups of 18-20 friends. Lamb planned many of the tours on his own before he found BikeTours.com. His groups have explored many countries together, including France, Ireland, Holland, England, Sweden, Austria, and New Zealand.
Organizing a group of 20 people to bike 20 miles a day in a foreign country may sound like a recipe for disaster to some. Where do you even start planning? And is it worth it? But take it from those who travel with Lamb: it will be the best week of your year. Lamb shares the how and why of organizing a group trip, plus other great tips about bicycle touring.
You organize a tour for 18-20 of your friends each year. Can you explain how this started, and how it works?
It started in the mid-90s, when I just tossed out the idea that a bunch of our friends should get together and go biking. Each year, we basically have the same group that goes on a new tour. Everyone blocks off a week in June for the tour, and then asks me where we are going.
We haven’t had a lousy trip yet. At the end of each tour, everyone says that it was the best trip we have done yet. With the help of BikeTours.com, I am able to put together a trip that everyone likes, year after year.
What are the benefits of doing a tour with a group of friends?
I always cut off the size of the group at 20, which is large enough. If the group gets too big, it becomes unmanageable. The advantage of doing a larger group, instead of smaller groups of 5-7, is that everyone can circulate and move around throughout the tour. Who sits together at the dinner table and who cycles together rotates with each day. You are not tied to one small group, which you might get tired of.
What suggestions do you have for those organizing a group tour for the first time?
The most important aspect is to survey everyone’s skill level. You need to make it a trip that both accomplished and beginner cyclists can find rewarding and fulfilling.
The groups we have each year are very diverse, with cyclists of all skill levels. Some hardly ever bike at home, only biking the one week in June of the tour. Others are really enthusiastic and bike 100 miles every Saturday. It is important to accommodate them all.
Having a tour guide with your group is very useful, since they can suggest longer routes for the experienced bikers. Also, be sure to check out the ratings on the tours (Easy, Leisure, Moderate, or Advanced) and take that into consideration. Pay attention to the terrain, which is nicely characterized on BikeTours.com.
While it depends on the specific group, we have found that 20-25 miles is a good average daily distance to aim for. It is a nice pace that almost everyone can handle. You won’t end up exhausted at the end of the day, nor be rushed during the ride.
When we are on the tours, the emphasis is certainly on social biking. We do not set out to bike the fastest time or go the most miles. At the end of the day, it’s the fun you have with your biking companions that matters.
Your groups have done a number of bike and boat tours. What are the advantages of bike and boat tours?
A big advantage is that you only have to pack and unpack once during the week, not every night or two. Bike and boat tours also accommodate varying skill levels in the group. If someone wants to take a day off from biking, they can spend it on the barge and rest. You also get to know the crew, captain, cook, and guide. It really becomes a small fraternity on the boat for a week, which is a great aspect.
The price is very reasonable. We have had tours that cost anywhere from $900 to $1300 per person for a week in Europe. When you consider what that covers, (all your accommodations, 3 meals a day, bikes, and a guide), it is a good deal.
You have done both self-guided and guided tours. Which do you prefer and why?
We did a self-guided tour along the Danube River, and did four bike and boat tours, which have all been guided. I have never known anyone on our tours that has regretted having a guide, or said they would have preferred to do the tour without a guide.
It is definitely worth the minimal extra expense for a guide. Every guide we have had has been sociable and fun to be around. They know the local terrain, the history of the region, and the good coffee shops and pubs along the route! They fix your bike if something happens and keep things organized. They provide a huge advantage at minimal cost.
What are some of the best highlights you have from the tours over the years?
At the end of the week, everyone in the group says it’s the best tour we have been on. One I would really recommend is the Amsterdam to Bruges bike and barge tour. It has a great itinerary that passes through beautiful scenery, and stays each night in a charming town. You also have Amsterdam at the start and Bruges at the end, which are neat places to visit.
You just returned from your most recent bike tour. How did your group enjoy it?
We did the Provence by Bike and Boat tour and had a great time. The Provence countryside is beautiful and had some hills, but most of it was leisurely cycling. The L’Estello boat we stayed on was first class. As after every trip, people said it was the best tour ever.
Any last tips for others considering doing a bike tour?
I am 72 years old, and virtually everyone on our trips is 60-70 years old. If we can do a bicycle tour, anyone can do it. You don’t have to practice or cycle beforehand. The nice thing is that the bicycle accommodates everyone who wants to use it: the overweight and underweight; the old and young; and the jocks and non-jocks. They are the most accommodating vehicle of transport there is.
What do you have planned for next year?
Next year we are looking at a change by doing the Medieval Villages of Catalonia tour. BikeTours.com president Jim Johnson did this tour last year and highly recommended it for our group. I also like that it is through a family-run company located in Catalonia. We will be doing the private, guided version.
Why do you like to work with BikeTours.com?
It makes my life so much easier. When organizing the trips, I no longer have to make long-distance phone calls to Europe or exchange emails with people who don’t speak English as their first language.
BikeTours.com is extremely responsive to inquiries and assisting in customizing the trip. Jim has been on so many of the trips, and has great knowledge of Europe from his experience. Except for a small booking fee, you pay the same as you would if you booked directly with the tour operators. Plus, I love the website!
After this article was published, David passed away following a long illness, but his friends continue to plan their tours with BikeTours.com. We miss David, and it’s gratifying seeing so many of his friends keep his love for cycle touring alive.