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Bordeaux, France

Two groups--eight wine-loving friends and a female twosome--decide to design their own itineraries without using a big tour operator, and find adventure and savings in the bargain

August 04, 1996|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Lamb, a Times national correspondent, is the author of "Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape by Bicycle Across America" (TimesBooks, May, 1996)

BORDEAUX, France — The plan seemed simple enough. We wanted to bicycle for a week in the renowned wine country of Bordeaux, and we wanted all the luxuries offered by the high-end bike touring companies without paying the big price tag. So we decided to put together our own tour.

At the risk of getting ahead of my story, let me first tell you that we discovered it's possible to reduce those hefty $3,000 all-inclusive price tags you see in the glossy bike

tour catalogs by one-third to one-half. But you'll need to cut some corners: You'll need luck in finding the right contact abroad to make arrangements, and you'll spend a lot of time sending faxes to work out the details. Is it worth the effort? Darn right!

If you enjoy camping and lugging your gear in panniers, a bike vacation can be one of the least expensive holidays on Earth. That, though, sounded too much like work to this over-the-hill gang of 40- and 50-year-olds. In return for exertion we all wanted daily rewards: fine food and wine, lodging in chateaux and a guide who could share with us the history and traditions of this region of France.

My wife, Sandy, gets the credit for putting together our tour. Figuring it would be cheaper to deal with a French, rather than a U.S., company, she wrote a friend in Bordeaux, Veronique Varon-Gautier, who has a degree in oenology (the science of winemaking). As luck would have it, Veronique was now in the travel business. No, she said, she didn't know any agents specializing in bike tours. But if we could tell her exactly what we wanted, she'd try to put together an itinerary.

One advantage of touring with an established company is that you don't have to do any thinking. But you'll do plenty of it setting up a personalized tour, and Lesson No. 1 is to be precise in deciding the shape and pace of your bike vacation.

As self-evident as that may sound, when you're dealing with seven or eight friends of varying experience levels--from a couple who hadn't biked in 25 years to one lamebrain (me) who recently had biked alone from Virginia to California--you've got some serious accommodations to make.

How many miles a day do you want to do? (About 25 to 30 worked fine for us.) Are you willing to tackle some hills? (If the road's endlessly flat, it can get boring.) Do you want your luggage transferred to the next stop every night? (Absolutely.) Want a guide to accompany you? (A good bet in unfamiliar territory.) What kind of bikes do you want? (An all-purpose with at least 15 gears and straight-across handle bars is ideal.) Do you like isolated roads or ones that go through a lot of villages? (I'll take the village route every time because I like to stop and poke around.)

How did we choose Bordeaux? Simple. It had Veronique. We all appreciated a good bottle of wine and we all had read of the region's charms--a landscape filled with mile after mile of vineyards and small towns and magnificent chateaux--but what we wanted most was a guide who would lead us down roads where other visitors hadn't been.

Veronique struck gold. With her younger brother, Nicholas, in tow, she mounted her old rattle-trap bike for the first time in years and went exploring back roads. Three weeks later she faxed us a detailed seven-day itinerary, with brochures of some fabulous chateaux that had been turned into first-class guest houses. The price, including just about everything except air fare from the United States and a few meals, was $1,800 per person. Had we been less demanding in accommodations, we could have cut the price further, but the savings were still substantial over comparable tours.

So that's how it happened that on a warm Sunday evening last August, eight of us stepped off the high-speed TGV train from Paris in Bordeaux. Veronique and Nicholas--who had been pressed into duty as our bike mechanic and support-car driver--stood waiting on the platform. Anyone who looked closely would not have mistaken us for participants in the Tour de France.

A word about physical fitness might be in order here, because several friends had backed out of the trip, intimidated by the idea of biking up to 30 miles a day. But the fact is that almost anyone can bike that far easily and with little or no training. Just bring along a pair of padded shorts, make sure your bicycle is new and be prepared for the enjoyable adventure of discovery that awaits you around every bend.

The only misgivings that Sandy and I had about the vacation were the dynamics of the group: The other six members all knew us but didn't know each other. It would, we knew, only take one complainer or one inflexible rider to throw the harmony out of whack. So here's Lesson No. 2: Choose your companions carefully and set your ground rules wisely.

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