BICYCLE touring vacations are a growing travel segment, catering to active travelers who want to experience more of a country than can be seen through the windows of a speeding tour bus or car.
About 57 million people 16 and older got on a bicycle at least once in the summer of 2002, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The biggest segment of the bike-riding population was predictably the 16-to-24-year-old group (39% ride bikes). About a quarter of those 45 to 54 and 18% age 55 to 64 are still pedaling away.
"I think there's going to be a big swing, with baby boomers looking to take more bicycling and adventure vacations [as they retire]," said Doug Donaldson, author of "Bicycling Magazine's Guide to Bike Touring."
Many companies and organizations have information about their bike-tour offerings online.
TrekTravel (www.trektravel.com), a 3-year-old cycling tour company, is a division of bike manufacturer Trek. Only about 10% of its customers book online, says Tania Worgull, director of TrekTravel.
"The big reason is, the space is fairly limited," Worgull says. Most trips are limited to about 20 people. Another reason is the complicated nature of a cycling tour.
Customers want to know how challenging the ride is and what the accommodations are like, and they often find it easier to get answers in a phone conversation.
The issue of rider fitness and suitability for a bike tour is an important one.
"Often these companies will have descriptions of the tours [on their websites] saying things like 'challenging' and 'avid,' " Donaldson said. "The biggest criteria is to look at average mileage per day. You should be able to do what the average mileage is at home a couple of times per week, bare minimum."
Another factor in planning your bike tour is the type of accommodations the company provides. Some offer luxury hotels; others, tent camping. The price difference can be substantial. For example, a five-night TrekTravel trip through Napa Valley's wine country will set you back $2,495, double occupancy. Along the way are stays at hotels such as the MacArthur Place, billed as an "elegant 19th century vineyard and estate set on acres of private gardens" with a "world-class spa."
Budget-minded travelers might consider a tour with the Adventure Cycling Assn., a nonprofit organization based in Missoula, Mont. Its Cycle Montana tour is its most popular and costs $829 for six nights of tent camping.
The Adventure Cycling Assn., which offers supported rides (meaning your baggage is hauled for you) and self-guided maps to 43,000 members, has been in business for 30 years.
"We're not aiming for the high-dollar luxury market," says Adventure Cycling spokesman Aaron Teasdale.
Its maps are not available for downloading because of their size, but they can be purchased online. The organization has mapped more than 33,000 miles of the U.S. and Canada with the cyclist in mind. Its waterproof maps include locations of nearby bike shops, sources for food and water and lists of overnight accommodations.
All routes are listed at its website (www.adventurecyclist.com). The maps can be purchased by nonmembers for $11. (Membership is $30 per year; maps cost $8 for members.)
James Gilden writes the Daily Traveler blog at latimes.com/dailytraveler.