Having based a few holidays around cycling, I’ve now tried most approaches. My personal preference leans towards the self-guided tours or doing it independently, as I like flexibility and privacy, but they all have their pros and cons.
I once tackled the hilly Dalmatian islands in Croatia as part of a group with Norwegian company Olivenreiser. The bikes were excellent, the routes challenging and the group nice, although largely twice my age. That particular holiday had the unusual approach of using a ship as a floating hotel, restaurant and luggage transporter, which was both a blessing and a curse, depending on whether we’re reviewing the sun deck and the mode of transport, or the dodgy chef and the en-suite bathrooms.
As far as general group cycling goes, though, I’m going to sit on the fence. The pros and cons are pretty much exactly the same and it really boils down to personal preference – not to my personal favourite, though I had a great time in Croatia.
Support – because you’ll have a tour leader on hand, you will always have someone to help with anything from punctures to crashes and medical problems, which can be very reassuring, particularly if you’re a beginner.
Safety in numbers – cycling as part of a group tends to keep drivers at arm’s length. You’re hard to miss, after all.
The social side – you’ll meet new people, make friends and have access to endless encouragement when the going gets tough. There’s bound to be someone who’s less fit than you too, so good for your self-esteem (except when 80-year-old Eddie whizzed past me up the hills of Brac – a spectacular confidence-killer!)
Guiding – you’ll have a (hopefully) experienced guide who can act as a font of all knowledge about the places you visit. Kind of like an interactive guidebook.
The social side – it’s both a strength and weakness, to my mind. Great if you get on with your fellow cyclists and make friends, not so much if you find yourself in a group of people you have nothing in common with.
Safety in numbers? Actually, it doesn’t always work that way. Many participants on group holidays don’t get taught basic signals for stopping or indicating, and with everyone bunched up, it’s more likely to be your fellow cyclists who cause you to crash then the local drivers.
Lack of flexibility – you have little to no control over route or itinerary, and you’re completely dependent on good organisation from the company’s side. Whether or not you get a good guide can be hit and miss too.
Exploring – the problem with the group set-up is that you often end up interacting less with the rest of your surroundings. It’s harder for groups to scratch the surface of a place than for individuals.
Bikes – Olivenreiser used great ones, but that’s not guaranteed, so check with the company in advance.
Do it yourself
We’ve tried various versions of using a hotel as a base for cycling excursions. Our one foray into the world of packing with panniers was in Røros in Norway, and it was definitely one of our best holidays. But it’s not for everyone.
Complete control – you go wherever you like, whenever you like, choose your own hotels, etc. There are parts of the world, such as the Alps, where pre-booking really isn’t necessary either. It doesn’t get more flexible!
The world is your oyster! Investigate interesting things, unearth hidden gems, meet fascinating people. The independence of it is heady, and your inner explorer really wants to get out.
The bike – you can get the best bike for you, or can even bring your own.
Panniers – as far as I’m concerned, panniers are great contraptions for transporting cameras and picnics, but really not suited to luggage. Apart from rendering everything creased (and damp, when it rains), there is very little room. Requires some serious packing and practical skills!
Support – you’re on your own, so you really should have some basic bike repair skills and a good set of tools with you.
Planning – whilst the flexibility is glorious, it’s obviously going to give you a fair bit of work planning routes, hotels and food, as well as getting together the necessary phone numbers for emergencies, etc.
There are several companies that offer a sort of hybrid holiday option between the above, amongst them Freewheel and Skedaddle. The basic concept here is to allow the cyclists to make their own way between hotels, whilst the company organises routes and hotels, and sorts out transportation of suitcases. Cyclists are given maps of tried and tested routes, but aren’t bound by them, and can cycle in their own pace and time.
We tried Freewheel’s Austrian Lakes holiday a year ago, and were really impressed with this concept.
Flexibility – you’ll get maps of recommended routes, but you can always be creative and lengthen them or take another path if you wish. The only constraint is to ensure you get yourself to your designated hotel at some point during the check-in day. Some of these holidays have a fairly packed schedule, others weave in down-time where you can take your bikes and go exploring in your time.
Support – we were given all the necessary equipment, but the company reps were only a phone call away when we needed help (which we did – lovely Graham came to our rescue when a broken chain stopped our progress).
Quality of bikes – you’ll have to accept whatever the company gives you, really, so check up on their models before you book. Freewheel’s bikes were good enough for the recommended routes, but weren’t up to any big hills, which was a shame, given that we were in the Alps.
Hotels – you won’t be able to choose the hotels either. Ours were truly excellent, though, so this isn’t likely to be that much of a problem. All in all, it’s a pretty flexible framework.