Does the idea of stuffy airports, long lines and extensive (and expensive) itineraries make you want to cancel your next vacation?
Imagine this instead: Atop your trusted two-wheeler you spend a week pedaling uninhibited through the golden flatlands of the Mississippi Valley, join a rolling party of riders as they spin across Iowa or crank up a scenic Colorado mountain en route to a microbrewery.
Sound intriguing? Then consider spicing up your next vacation with a bicycle tour. You only have two decisions to make: what challenge you’d like to set for yourself and…what’s your guilty pleasure? Choose a tour that ends with a gourmet feast every night, or one with a live music lineup of 20+ bands, or one that offers daily on-location history lessons.
“It’s a great way to see the country,” said Rodney McConnell, who operates Midwest Cyclotouring with his wife, Melissa. “On a bike, you’re going to cover less territory, but you’re going to interact with local people. You’ll see a great more detail and have more time to experience it up close and personal.”
The McConnells began riding the Katy Trail about 15 years ago, went on a couple of the cycling tours in other parts of the country and looked, unsuccessfully, for an extended ride closer to home. Now retired, they spend their time organizing the company’s two flagship rides: Ride the Fault Line and The Katy Trail Epicurean.
“Most people who are interested in [bike tours] are cyclists already to some degree, so they want to expand their horizons. It’s about being out in nature, exposing their family to the outdoors. It’s an active type of pursuit. It benefits you physically,” said McConnell, who noted that it’s also a great way to meet new people.
The lion’s share of the cyclists on Ride the Fault Line are from outside of Missouri, hailing from as far as Scotland. Many are attracted to the main theme of the event, which is learning about the New Madrid earthquakes — but that’s not all. Being able to “learn about farming from the people who produce the food, that’s proven to be a big draw,” said McConnell. “That’s something I hadn’t anticipated.”
Ride the Fault Line stops at a potato processing plant and a grain-shipping terminal, and often encounters cotton pickers and cotton dusters along the roads. It’s not unusual for participants to strike up conversation with the local workers and truckers.
“The truck drivers see all these spandex-clad cyclists flying around their farm roads, and they have no idea that type of thing goes on. They get to learn something about the cycling community,” said McConnell. “It’s an experience for everyone involved.”
Other rides like the Big BAM (Bike Across Missouri), RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) and BAK (Biking Across Kansas) are more socially driven — attracting hundreds, if not thousands, of participants. Yet they are no less engaging.
By car, the Sunflower State might seem ideal time for a nap. Pedal those same 450 miles by bike, though, and you’ll be surprised how challenging the terrain is, said Stefanie Weaver, executive director of BAK.
Now in its 42nd year and staking claim as “the largest bicycling event in Kansas history,” this summer’s BAK will stop at historical sites including the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states, Cottonwood Pony Express Station and Toth Indian Monument in Troy.
“Riding your bike is one of those activities that bridges all ages. It’s a great way for people to connect,” said Mike Denehy of Off Track Events, organizer of the Big BAM and the Pedaler’s Jamboree, a weekend “gateway ride.” Both events feature live music and entertainment at multiple stops along the routes.
“RAGBRAI [with 8,500 riders annually] continues to grow, proving that people love to spend a week on their bike. They want to stop, explore, meet people,” added Denehy. “It’s a great, affordable way to travel.”
Here’s a sampling of 2016 cycling tours in our region, ranging from all-inclusive to basic camping and only some meals. Visit each event’s website for details.
Biking Across Kansas
Eight-day bicycle tour crossing “The Sunflower State,” from the western border to Louisburg. $210; bak.org
The Big BAM
Pedal 300 miles across Missouri in six days, featuring 20+ bands and performers along the way. $249; bigbamride.com
Ride the Fault Line
Follow the New Madrid fault line through portions of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. $475; ridethefault.com
Katy Trail Ride
Gravel grind 232 miles from St. Charles to Clinton, Mo., with outdoor camping each night. $375; mostateparks.com/2015-katy-trail-ride
Tour de Nebraska
Non-competitive circle tour providing cyclists the chance to experience Nebraska from the seat of a bike. $295; tourdenebraska.com
“The oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world,” spanning 468 miles across Iowa. $175; ragbrai.com
Glacier to Yellowstone
Ride point-to-point from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone National Park in Montana. $1,995; thecyclinghouse.com
Lewis and Clark 1
Retrace the path of Lewis and Clark through towns, farms and battlefields, from St. Louis to Omaha. $3,446; bicycleadventures.com
Bike the Kay Trail
Start in historic St. Charles and conclude 225 fun-packed miles later in Clinton, Mo., the end of the trail. $1,690; bubbaspamperedpedalers.com
Granny Gears + Microbeers
Mountain bike in Colorado’s Elk Mountains, with each day ending at a different microbrewery. $1,700; wilderness-voyageurs.com
The Katy Trail Epicurean
Historic hotels, quaint B&Bs, unique eateries and fascinating sites await on this 240-mile tour. $995; katytrailbiketour.com
4-Trails Bike Tour
Five days and 101 miles on the famed 4-Trails rails-to-trails route in southern Wisconsin. $675; independenttourist.com
Tips for First-Timers
Todd Starnes of Bicycle Adventures offers a few tips for those considering their first vacation on two wheels.
- Choose a fully supported tour. “Instead of camping and carrying gear, a supported tour allows you to focus on enjoying the ride, landscape, lodges and, of course, well-earned food,” Starnes “You save yourself a ton of pre-trip legwork and a fair amount of suffering this way.”
- Go shopping. “Nothing says commitment as much as putting your money on the line. But it’s not just the money. It’s money with a purpose. Padded shorts? Those tight-fitting spandex shorts with ‘monkey-butt’ padding? This may be what the guy in the store recommends, but don’t listen to him. There are several better options that look like regular shorts, so you won’t be embarrassed to be seen in them. Ditto with the cycling top. There’s no need to buy a cycling jersey that has your favorite beer or the logo for something you don’t understand. Just spend a few bucks to get a quality product that is comfortable both on the bike and off.”
- Next, ride a bike. “This doesn’t mean start training. Just ride to help get in better physical condition for your tour. Think back to those days as a kid with wind in your hair — but please wear a helmet. Think about the freedom, the separation. Ride for the enjoyment; minimize pressure on yourself. The distance and pace aren’t really important. Your guides will help you through the trip and get you just the right number of miles and difficulty for your level,” Starnes
- His last tip: Ask for help. “This is the most important and maybe the most difficult. Find a friend, mentor or spouse who will go along for the ride. Preferably it’s someone who embraces the joys of riding a bike. They’re not going to try to impress you with their abilities on that first incline or race you to the destination. They’ll actually ride by your side, chatting and stopping to smell the roses.”
Author: Kimberley Donoghue is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine
Image: Courtesy The Katy Trail Epicurean