What's a supported bicycle touring adventure like?
I have never been on a fully supported bicycle touring adventure so I started looking for opinions from people who have. Not only has Nancy Bradbury experienced several fully supported tours but she’s willing to discuss her experiences with us.
— What is your bicycle touring experience including the types of tours you have completed, number of years touring etc.
I have taken part in 4 tours, all of them sagged. In 2001, I rode the Tour da U.P. for 5 days. The next summer I rode on a weekend tour in rural Wisconsin. In 2003, I joined another 5 day tour in northern lower Michigan called Summertour. Last summer was my longest yet, the 7 day West Shoreline Tour along Lake Michigan.
— What was your first bicycle touring adventure like?
My first tour was the Tour da U.P. For the uninitiated, “da U.P.” refers to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an area that those of us who live here are extremely fond of. The tour is a fundraiser and changes routes every year. They offer some routes for both mountain and road bikes. Our nearly 200 mile route traveled a big loop, leaving from Baraga, up to Houghton, then up the Keweenaw Peninsula to Copper Harbor, where we actually had a layover day. The next day we continued on to Lake Linden and then returned to Baraga.
While this area was not new to me, it felt new as I saw it from a whole new perspective. I experienced every hill in a way you never feel in a car, and soaked in all the gorgeous views of Lake Superior. Uncharacteristically hot weather (100+) in an area that rarely sees the 90’s made the riding extra challenging, but I loved the feel of spending all that time under my own locomotion. 85 degree nights in a tent made for very poor sleep, and even the participants who surrendered their tents for local motels discovered that there is not an air conditioned inn in the entire town of Copper Harbor.
Although it turns out I did know several people on the tour, I had signed up on my own. I mostly rode by myself, but never felt alone because of frequent conversations with other riders along the route. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of solitude as well as company when I chose.
As I returned to Baraga, I recognized that this is my idea of a vacation! I couldn’t wait to start thinking about next year’s tour.
— When did you first get interested in going on a Fully Supported/Sag wagon bicycle tour?
It really was on a whim that I decided to sign up. I had read about the Tour da U.P. for the previous several years and had even seen them departing Marquette one year when I was out for a run. It just sounded like a really intriguing and challenging idea.
— What are some of the significant advantages and disadvantages of a fully supported bicycle tour?
No responsibilities! Well, almost none. While I find that quality of food varies dramatically from tour to tour, it’s fun to not have to cook and clean up after myself. On the other hand, you are also at the mercy of what they serve you- PLEASE, no more pasties!!! You only have to carry your gear as far as the baggage truck, not with you all day on your bike (makes those hills much easier to climb!). As a woman who was traveling “by herself”, I found the safety net of being part of group a big comfort. Your routes are mapped out for you, so all you need to do is prepare yourself physically, pack your gear and go. I tend to pick tours where the daily mileage isn’t too long so that there is time to enjoy myself along the way. There’s also that intangible enjoyment of being part of a group of like-minded people. I could always find someone willing to strike up a conversation about cycling, tours they’ve been on, and certainly a tall tale or two Since I still have not mastered Bike Repair 101, it’s nice to have a (very busy!) mechanic available each evening.
The flip side of the food issue. While I prefer fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains, on some tours I found myself having to be satisfied with merely being fueled. I find it’s best to take a positive attitude and remember I’m on my bike for all this time and loving every minute of it! Too many people- you may have to wait awhile for a shower or in food lines. Group size on the trips I’ve been on has ranged from 60 to 400. I wouldn’t want to go any larger than that! Predetermined itinerary- do I sound like I’m contradicting myself? On some tours, your camping location is a high school football field- not usually my idea of the ideal spot to camp.
— Could you share a fond memory or two that came from a Sag wagon tour?
On Summertour 2003, we camped for two nights at Interlochen State Park. Located across the street from the internationally famous Interlochen Arts Academy, we were immersed in an incredible environment of music and talented students. We would awaken to reveille in the morning and settle in to taps at night. We encountered miserable rain and thunderstorms, but rather than moping in wet tents we could wander from building to building and be treated to incredible concerts, or listen to grand piano practice under the towering pines. The one dry evening, Norah Jones performed in an open air auditorium so that even those of us without tickets were able to bask in the melodies under the stars.
As far as a great riding memory, I think of a day on that same tour. As I said, it had been raining very hard; some folks had actually packed up and deserted. My friend and I decided we were made of sterner stuff and took off in the 50 degree pouring rain. I remember the fun we had pushing ourselves in the strong wind, the curious reactions from the few passing motorists, how wonderful the soup and hot chocolate tasted when we stopped for lunch, the dogs who loved the tennis balls that Pat threw at them, and then… as we approached Lake Michigan the sun coming out, the tough climbs, the fast downhill, and then the glistening lake. Turns out we were two of less than 20 folks out of the group of 200 who decided to ride that day. They don’t know what they missed!
— What’s it like touring in a group on a regular and ongoing basis? Any fights? Tips and tricks to make the experience good despite group problems?
I suspect more problems could crop up with a smaller group. When the size is 60 or more, it really is fairly easy to remain somewhat anonymous if you wish. Any group is bound to have a whiner or two, but I make it a point not to hang out with them. On one tour, a sizeable number of people chose the option of traveling with Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers. For a large chunk of change, they were treated to amenities such as a provided tent and pad awaiting them when they pedaled in to camp, someone else schlepping their gear to/from the baggage truck, fresh towels, snacks, lawnchairs, etc. It was interesting to watch an attitude of haves and have-nots begin to grow through out the week. Hey, if they wanted to pay to be pampered, go for it! As in any situation, I found my keeping a positive and appreciative attitude was the key to keeping it fun.
— Have you been on fully loaded/Self supporting tours? If so, how would you compare the two touring experiences?
No self supported experience yet, but it’s definitely in my future!
— Do you tour with a mascot?
I rescued Garfield from the side of Marquette Mountain hill, so he now rides in my rack pack.
— Any advice for someone consider taking a Sag tour. Are there things that separate an excellent tour operator from a tour operator in your experience?
Stop considering and sign up! Going on a sagged tour is a great confidence builder and a really fun vacation. My guess is that most people who try a sagged tour for the first time have probably not put in many 40+ mile days. But when someone else is doing all the work for you (after all, the pedaling is fun!) take your time and the miles just breeze by.
My experience has been that cycling organizations or clubs put on the best rides. They are made up of people who like to tour themselves. (They are also volunteers- remember to be grateful!) They know what kind of food hungry cyclists like to eat (do you notice a preoccupation with food!?) They are aware of what types of routes work best for riding. They recognize the little touches that enhance the experience.
I highly recommend tours organized by either Tri-county Bicycle Association (TCBA) or the League of Michigan Bicyclists.
— An interview with Nancy Bradbury
I plan to experience a supported bicycle tour at some point so that I can make my own determination on how it feels to tour on a light weight bike.
Walt Ebbert’s additional comments about supported bicycle touring
Walt Ebbert is a cyclist who enjoys fully loaded/self-supported bicycle touring as well as supported/SAG wagon touring. I suspect that if it has bicycle tour somewhere in the name then Walt likes it! He had the following additional comments to make about supported or SAG wagon touring.
I have asked a few people that I have met at these supported tours as to why they tour this way versus self supported and it kind of amazed me that quite a few said that they were actually intimidated by the perceived complexity of “Self Supported”.
Most of this type of response came from a “First Time” tourist.
They said that they would have absolutely no idea of where to begin, how to pack, what to pack, route selection, etc.
Many pointed to a lack of equipment, especially “lightweight” camping equipment, as a reason.
Some said that they don’t have the appropriate bicycle for carrying a load and when I mentioned using “BOB” trailer, they thought I was kidding!
They were also not so sure that they could ride the distances and may need to be helped into camp. When I would mention that self contained meant that they could stop and camp just about anywhere, I sometimes got a puzzled look.
Safety was a reason more than a few people used. Convenience was pretty high on the list too.
Of course, I have to admit some said that they were just too lazy to do everything themselves.
It also never ceases to amaze me as to the number of people that go on these tours and use them as “training rides”. I’m sure you know what I mean, first out of camp trying to be first to the new location. They have absolutely no idea as to what they are missing.
One of the main reasons that I lean toward supported tours right now is that it’s easier for me to get a week to 10 days off a few times during the year versus 3-4 weeks in a row , I find that I’m able to tour 3 or 4 totally different area’s in a year, not to mention different times of the year.
A Spring Tour in the South, Summer up North and Fall in the Mountains. As Nancy said in her interview, all you have to do is show up and ride. All of the logistical things are taken care of.
I realize that the planning and preparation are a vital and somewhat enjoyable part of any tour and I enjoy this aspect as well. That is why I also try to take at least one “short” , maybe only 200-300 miles or so, self contained trip a year.
— Submitted by Walt Ebbert
Walt raises a number of good points. It’s my hope that this web site goes some of the way towards helping people new to touring learn more about bicycle touring prior to their first adventure. Having said that both Nancy and Walt have convinced me that at least one supported bicycle tour is in my future. One that I’ve often enjoyed day dreaming about is the Tour du Canada!