A bike vacation is entirely different from touring on a bus. You naturally and quickly interact with other travelers, and also with the local people. You stop and go at your own rate. And you come back looking great!

Bike Tours

A bike vacation brings you the best of many worlds. You move fast enough to enjoy a wide variety of sights in a single day, yet you can easily stop to enjoy the view, to pick cherries in an abandoned orchard, or just to smell the flowers. It's easier to meet people when you're on a bike, particularly in countries like France or Italy, where cycling is a national sport. Enjoy a healthy, guilt-free appetite when you sit down to dinner, and return home feeling and looking better than when you left.

When does the trip start and end?

Each bike trip officially starts at 6:00 p.m. on the starting date given on our schedule and trip overview. We'll have a reception and briefing, followed by dinner. For those who arrive early, we offer an optional walking tour of town (along with a chance to meet other early arrivals). Finally, when our guides' schedule allows, you can give your bike a test ride at 3:00. On arrival at the hotel, please look for our sign in the lobby giving details. Each trip ends after breakfast. There are no group activities on that day, so if you have tight travel connections, you can get up and leave as early as you wish. When your schedule allows it, you'll probably want to spend some time sightseeing in town, with others from the trip, before departing.

Can I do my training rides on stationary bike?

Stationary biking is a big help, especially for your legs and cardiovascular system. Since you're pedaling continually on such a bike, an hour in the gym can provide the workout of several hours of normal biking, in which you're often coasting. A spinning class can keep the hour interesting. Yet there are some things a stationary bike just doesn't train you for:
  • Getting used to being seated on a bike for several hours at a time. The bikes we provide have upright handlebars, so you're in a fairly comfortable position. After several hours, however, your neck (which is bent back a bit more than usual) and butt may get uncomfortable, if the position is completely new for you.
  • Other general bike skills -- steering, braking, avoiding potholes, remembering to put your foot down when you stop -- don't get any practice. Granted, these aren't neurosurgery, but it's helpful to have some practice.
New Yorkers, more than anyone, seem to have trouble finding the time, the bike, and the uncrowded roads to get out for a few training rides. Many people have joined us, with nothing but stationary bike experience, and had a great time. But we encourage you to see if you can't get in at least a couple of afternoon of actual biking, before the trip. If the last bike you were on had coaster brakes and you haven't biked for years, then we'd say it's essential to get some on-the-road experience.

Do I need cycling shorts and jerseys? How many?

We recommend cycling shorts. The padding will make your ride more comfortable. But they're certainly not essential. Two pairs are plenty; you can rinse them out and in most cases, they synthetic fabrics will dry overnight. (In humid weather, shorts with thick padding may take a little longer.) Likewise, cycling jerseys are designed to improving your biking experience, and they'll do so. Most of them are also made from quick-drying synthetics, so one or two will get you through the week. You'll be fine with t-shirts instead; however. To reduce your luggage, shirts that are 50/50 cotton/polyester, while not trendy, will dry faster if you're sweaty, and if you rinse them out overnight. You can buy special cycling shoes with a stiffer sole, which are slightly more energy-efficient than walking shoes. For the distances we go, we feel these don't generally justify the extra luggage weight. Finally, a helmet is required; sunglasses are highly recommended as protection against both sun and insects (preferably wrap-around style); and padded cycling gloves will make your days more comfortable.

Can I bring my own bike seat and pedals?

You can, if you wish; nearly all seat posts and pedals come in standard sizes, and you can put your seat or pedals onto the bike we supply. Most travelers decide they'd rather pack light, and quickly get accustomed to the seats and pedals on the bikes we supply. Many people, however, have brought light-weight gel seat covers, which go over the existing seat. These take up very little luggage space, and those with limited biking experience often find them more comfortable.
Biking in France

Won't I get tired of just biking?

You won't. The location for each of our bike trips was chosen because of its varied appeal. Cycling is a great vehicle for doing that. Unless you take one of our longer route options, you'll rarely spend more than 3 or 4 hours on the saddle in a day. Interspersed with your bike ride might be an hour exploring a picturesque town; a leisurely picnic in a riverside park; an hour at a castle; an hour browsing at a street market; half an hour playing boules. Next thing you know, it's time for a two-hour dinner, then a late walk through the narrow moonlit streets of a medieval town.

Do I need to speak French?

No. Most people who travel abroad with us don't speak the language. But if you do know a little French, we urge you to brush up on it; you'll enjoy the trip more.

What else can and should I see while I'm in France?

Paris, naturally, is the first stop that most people add when coming to Europe for one of our trips. We suggest you plan a Paris stay for after your biking week, rather than before. Chances are, others from the trip will do the same, and you can spend more time together.

How much additional spending money will I need?

Most expenses are included in the price. Here's what you should budget for:
  • Lunches. We include two picnic lunches on most bike trips. It'll cost 20-50 euros a week, depending whether you go to cafes (typically about 10 euros for a good lunch) or buy things like quiches and fruit from a small shop and have a picnic (which can run as little as 3-5 euros a day).
  • Dinners. On a typical 7-day trip, all but 2 dinners are included. These two evenings offer a chance to get out on your own. You can have a great dinner in France for 20-35 euros plus beverages. Those who want to splurge can pay twice that.
  • Admissions. On most of our trips, about 30-50 euros will be enough to get you into all the castles, museums, abbeys, and other places you want to visit. For Valley of the Kings, admissions will cost about 5-10 euros at each chateau. There are often two or three chateaux on a given day. Some people like to see them all; others find that one a day is about right.
  • Misc. Other expenses that are common, but obviously not necessary, are: camera supplies, snacks, pastries (which may seem quite necessary after you've looked in the shop window!), before- and after-dinner drinks, souvenirs, and art (we've had people buy and ship home some great stuff).
So, the quick answer to your question is: You can keep your extra expenses under 150-200 euros for the week, if you wish, without feeling that you're missing anything. If you can budget about 250 euros, you're in great shape. Anything over that, and you're eating entirely too much pastry.

Is the food in France as good as they say?

You may decide it's even better! We've worked hard to find restaurants that will give you a sense of both the quality and variety of cuisine that has given France such a special reputation. On our Provencal trip, one of our favorite restaurants is L'Olivier, specializing in fresh regional ingredients. People who have traveled with us, as well as with companies such as Butterfield & Robinson, which charge about 3 times as much as we do, have told us they like the dinners on our trips better than what they got on the more expensive vacations.

Related sites of interest:

Gay scuba diving trips

Gay hiking trips

Lesbian Adventure Travel

HE Travel Blog: A gay and lesbian travel column

Q7c: Travel advice about everything from jet lag to telephone systems

Mountain Biking

How does mountain biking differ from road biking?

The clearest difference is emphasized by two alternative names for mountain biking: Off-road biking or trail biking. It involves getting onto unpaved roads, trails, and terrain. Beyond that, other differences frequently, but don't always, exist. Mountain biking often involves hillier terrain than road biking, but it doesn't have to. You can go road biking on a mountain bike (though it will take more effort); you'll soon get in trouble, though, if you try serious mountain biking on a road bike. The two activities are better thought of as different parts of a spectrum, rather than as entirely different activities. When we go biking in Iceland, for example, we use mountain bikes because the route includes everything from paved and unpaved roads to fields of volcanic ash. But most people would consider this more of a road biking than a mountain biking trip.

How does a mountain bike differ from a road bike?

There are lots of differences. Here are some of the main ones: Mountain bikes have fatter tires, which are not as highly inflated, to give you better traction on dirt. They often have a lower granny gear, for more power going up hills. They commonly have shock absorbers for one or both tires. They're sturdier, less delicate. Handlebars are usually horizontal, not dropped, as they are on some road bikes. Mountain bikes are usually smaller, for a person of a given height, than road bikes.

What's the best way to learn off-road biking?

From someone who not only knows how to do it, but who knows how to teach it. You can just hop on a bike and pick up quite a bit on your own. But you'll undoubtedly pick up some bad habits. You'll soon hit a plateau, as those habits keep you from advancing. If you've ever taken ski lessons, you know that a few well-placed words from an instructor can quickly help you learn a new technique. It's the same with mountain biking. You can also improve your technique by biking close to a more skilled companion, and watching his or her moves carefully.

Is it really possible to bike down a flight of steps?

You'd be amazed at what you can bike dow. Yes, provided the steps aren't too steep, and you have suitable experience, a flight of steps is quite feasible. It's just a matter of keeping your speed under control (neither too fast, nor too slow); your weight back; and your joints flexible as you bounce along. But don't make this your first ride! Get some experience, find a good coach or teacher, and try a very short flight of steps before you head down a long one.

Will road biking help me become a better mountain biker?

Absolutely. Part of mountain biking is the skill and judgment to maneuver on off-road trails. But part of it is simply strength and stamina. The more you have, the longer and better you'll bike. You'll develop these faster from an intense session of road biking, than from time on a mountain bike.

What is the National Off-Road Bicycle Association?

Better known as NORBA, the National Off-Road Bicycle Association is a division of USA Cycling that governs mountain-bike events such as racing, and offers news for mountain bikers. After you've acquired some off-road biking experience, you'll find these events are a fun way to meet others who share your interests.

What is meant by singletrack biking?

Mountain bikers often travel along dirt roads, wide enough to pass one another. But some off-road trails are little more than a narrow rut, formed by dozens or hundreds of bikers over the years; that's singletrack. On singletrack, you'll generally have no choice about your route: You've got to stay in the track. There may be rocks, roots, tight turns, and puddles to negotiate. If the track is deep, the pedal will hit the dirt if you time your downstroke wrong. In short, singletrack adds new challenges and excitement to mountain biking. But it's not the best terrain on which to learn.

How do I get over a log or rock?

First, approach it at a right angle. Now keep your speed up and don't brake -- hitting either brake will keep your front tire from raising. As you reach the obstacle, pull up with your arms to help the front tire get up. Now shift your weight forward, then use a lifting motion with your legs to help the back wheel get up. This must all happen in a quick, fluid motion, so start with small obstacles and work up.

What about coming down off a ledge or step?

Again, it's important to maintain a reasonable momentum. Adjust your speed, if necessary, before reaching the edge. Don't brake once you're there; if your front brake is applied when the wheel hits, you're going over the handlebars. Keep your weight back the whole time. Practice on a single, small step, then work up.

If it's so often better to have your weight farther back, why aren't mountain bike seats located farther back?

Off-road biking requires continually shifting your weight. On descents, yes, you want your weight well back. Otherwise your center of gravity can too easily end up in front of the front wheel -- and that's when you'll sail over the handlebars. But at other times, you need your weight more forward. You can't steer if the front wheel isn't getting sufficient traction. On ascents, you need your weight more forward or you'll do a wheelie. The standard seat position works well most of the time, and puts you in a good position to shift your weight when you need to.

Is it okay to use the front brake while going downhill?

Yes. In fact, you'll need it if you want to really control your speed. Misusing or over-applying the front brake can send a rider over the handlebars. That's why some cyclists believe they should rely only on the back brake. But when much of the weight is on the front wheel, it's the front brake that will provide the most stopping power. To effectively control your speed on a downhill, you need to shift your weight back (even to the point of actually placing your butt behind the seat, on a really steep descent), then use both brakes. The rear wheel may skid in such situations. Once it's skidding, it's not providing much stopping power. As soon as you detect a skid, briefly release the rear brake and gently re-apply it.

Why did I get sour looks from others when I let my tires skid?

There are several downsides to skidding, and no benefits (unless you think it makes you look cool). First, a tire that's skidding isn't providing any steering or braking control. Second, it's eroding the trail, which is environmentally unsound, and will detract from the experience of other bikers. Finally, if that's not enough: You're wearing out your expensive tires!

Why do I keep hitting obstacles so often?

Chances are you spend too much time looking at the obstacles, and not enough time looking ahead. By all means, you need to spot the rocks and roots that you wish to avoid. But don't watch them; you'll unconsciously bike toward whatever you're looking at. Instead, look ahead at the route that you want to follow.

I thought I was in good shape, but I still have trouble on hills. What's the secret?

Newer cyclists assume that going up hills is all a matter of having good leg muscles. That helps -- but technique and mental attitude play a big role. We've had many Floridians on trips, who were experienced cyclists but had never biked on hilly terrain. The first day, they had trouble on hills and were the last ones to reach the top. Within a few days, they were out in front. Their legs didn't get that much stronger in a couple of days; their technique and approach changed. Here's what they learned. Use those gears! Switch to your lowest gears before you need them. If you're spinning too fast, it's easier to switch into a higher gear. Adjust your weight properly. You want most of your weight on the back tire, to get traction, but you need to keep enough on the front to provide traction for steering. Experiment with different positions, to see what works for your body, your bike, and this incline. Many cyclists find that a semi-standing position, with their crotch just in front of the saddle and above the horizontal bar, works well. Breathe! It's natural to hold your breath during a tough stretch; but it's self-defeating. Breathe deeply, exhale fully. Look ahead! Watching each foot of road or trail as it passes below you is discouraging. Look at where you're headed. This provides a psychological boost, and you'll also steer better.

Alyson Adventures is a 4-time recipient of the "Editor's Choice" award from Out and About, the gay travel newsletter.