For travelers who want to move at their own pace when they bike through Europe, there’s a lot to be said for a self-guided trip. Instead of moving en masse with a dozen — or two dozen — other cyclists on a typical group biking tour of Tuscany or Provence, a self-guided trip allows you to set the pace and escape the cocoon of cycling with other Americans. There are European companies who can arrange such trips, providing bikes and moving your luggage, but few US based companies. A rare exception is Pure Adventures.
I recently had a chance to speak with Loren Siekman, President and Founder of Pure Adventures, a man I’ve known for years through his involvement in the Adventure Travel World Summit. Loren is the founder of several successful travel brands and is something of a pioneer in promoting self-guided active vacations for North Americans. In 2014, he celebrates 20 years in adventure travel with the launch of more than 25 new tours in the Western USA. Loren is a Cat 1 Masters mountain bike racer, recreational road and cyclocross rider. When he’s not on a bike, he can usually be found with his fiancée Dana attending to their four children.
EP: Loren, there are plenty of companies that offer bike trips through Europe. In fact, one of them, Discover France used to be yours. Why the move to start a company that specializes in self-guided adventures?
LS: In fact, I consider myself one of the early pioneers of self guided offers for North Americans. I wrote a comparison guide to differentiate between a guided, self-guided, and self contained trip back in 1999 after Bicycling Magazine got it all wrong. About.com featured this comparison for years on their site: http://pure-adventures.com/tours/self-guided-tours.php So, when I was getting Discover France off the ground in the early 1990’s, we started offering what most companies do – the guided trip with fixed departure dates. We had some success but I was always bothered about not meeting minimums and having to cancel trips in some cases when numbers didn’t work out. It left clients in a difficult spot. So, I started talking with more local operators throughout France and came across what they were doing for other Europeans – essentially self guided trips. Initially we started working with some locals guide services on that formula but we quickly realized that our clients needed more than what the European traveler did. So, we eventually created our own model of what a self guided tour should offer.
Some of the key components that we always include are luggage transfers and arrival orientations to welcome and get travelers started right with a local to brief them on the days ahead and get them set up with the bicycles. We provide what we call a ‘road book’ or the package of navigation, which is maps, cue sheets, and then we also add site visits, recommended stops, dining, etc. The road book is an included item in most self guided tour offers – its elemental for the traveler – but not all road books are created equal! Nowadays a GPS might be included in some offers, and other electronic aids. We have evolved again in this way too and offer GPX files for customers to use on their own devices, if they want them.
So, back to the main question – why start now? Well, Pure Adventures was actually created in 2004 when France became very unpopular for not supporting the Iraq War of President Bush. That was the last push I needed to start another brand with other destinations besides France. In fact, our travelers to France had been asking for other destinations because they didn’t want to go back to France every year.
Of course! After nine years of really trying to get Pure Adventures flying on its own, it finally required that I sell Discover France in order to focus on Pure Adventures. After 18 years of selling France I was ready to devote myself to the other destinations we had been selling for the last 9 years but in a bigger, more concentrated way. Pure Adventures will expand outside of Europe too with a big announcement for new tours in the Western USA later this year. We are very excited about our new direction!
EP: Is cost the primary motivator for anyone considering a European bike trip? Give me an idea of what a week in Provence might cost, or Austria?
LS: Cost is important, but it is our belief, and our philosophy which is built into our tours, that cheap is not the way to go. We do still offer guided trips for custom groups of all kinds, but the vast majority of our published product is self-guided cycling in Europe. People who are accustomed to $4,000 and more for a guided trip are going to be skeptical of weeklong trip for $900, and they should be. I think people want value. People understand that a guide and all the special services that guides and full time support with vehicles costs a lot. People also understand that quality of accommodations determine price. What a lot of people don’t quite realize is the value of expertly designed routes, luggage transfers, comprehensive road books, on-call telephone support in English, arrival orientations that last an hour or more to cover the trip, set up bikes, and generally put travelers at ease that they are not alone and everything is covered for them in the days ahead. Not to mention all the usual pre-trip planning, extra services for early arrival, transportation, and post tour needs. This leads to value, and though our trip prices are not the cheapest we deliver big in value and people who might be comparing to a guided trip or a very inexpensive self guided offer will likely see the value in our offer. A week long trip in Catalonia’s Costa Brava region can cost from 1090 euros (about $1,395 US) which includes all the items mentioned above plus some meals and more. We also offer an over the top Best of the Best Hotels cycling tour that is 1925 euros ($2,465 US)! Similar tours on guided versions would cost well over $5,000. In Ireland, we have weeklong bike trips that start at 995 euros ($1,275 US), and then Austria along the Danube from Passau to Vienna at 1290 euros ($1,650 US). These are all self -guided offers. On the guided front, we organize guided trips from 1600 euros up to 2400 euros on average depending on what the group wants. That still puts us in the category of good value for guided programs.
EP: How do the logistics work – do you move the bags from inn to inn?
LS: Always. And this I believe is a key component to just about every self-guided trip I have seen advertised. However, I have seen some offers by European companies that do not include it in the price but offer it as a supplemental service to be paid for on top of their trip price. So, buyer beware when comparing. This is an essential service, just make sure the price you are considering has already factored this in. As to the logistics, it is possible that all operators do it slightly differently.
For the most part, we hire drivers to move luggage. If our staff happens to be in the area, they may take it instead; and we try to deliver quickly but only promise by 5pm each day. We have never lost a bag! Funny, but customers inquire if we have lost luggage before and we can proudly say no we haven’t, not in 19 years!
EP: How much of a map reader do you need to be to self-navigate on one of these trips?
LS: Reading a map is pretty important. It is possible to do the whole trip by GPS, but that also implies certain technical skills as well and pray it doesn’t go kaput during the tour somewhere. We wouldn’t advise someone who can’t read a map well, or isn’t comfortable navigating with a map to take a self-guided trip.
That said, it isn’t that hard. The routes we use are highlighted on the map, and along with a map we include ‘cue sheets’ or written notes that indicate where to turn and what to do at confusing intersections. In recent years we included a GPS, but we found that a lot of people didn’t use them properly, didn’t want them at all, or used them so much they ran out the batteries regularly. So, we are offering GPX files to those who want to bring their own device and know exactly how to use the device. These files can be uploaded by the user, but it is never meant to replace completely the maps and cue sheets that are old school but so reliable.
EP: Do people tend to do these trips as couples? Or small groups? It strikes me as a great idea for a group of friends.
LS: Yes, in fact this is our average booking – the couple. Really, it’s perfect for a couple. They can go when they want – any dates in a season are possible, and they can be just by themselves to share the entire trip together and spend their days riding, visiting, picnicking or whatever they want on their own time frame. After couples, we see lots of small groups – a pair of couples, families with older children, and groups of friends. On our more challenging road tours and custom mountain bike trips, we see a lot of men doing trips as a group, and on the cultural and culinary routes we see groups of women. In fact, we see more women than men overall booking these trips as groups of friends go.
EP: How about language skills? Americans aren’t known for being skilled in European languages. Is there any way you make that easier for your travelers?
LS: Indeed, and while our customer base includes a significant number of Canadians who all have some level of French, it seems, we also see other commonwealth countries like Australians, South African and new economies like Brazilians and Russians booking trips in increasing numbers. The baseline language with our clients is always English. So, our local support staff have to be fluent in English as well, and of course our guides need to be bilingual at least but often our support crew speak 3 or more languages. Having said that, we don’t promise that our clients will run into English speakers while on their daily rides, and frankly, this is part of the adventure in foreign language countries. Most of the hotels we use have English speaking staff so customers can usually get help there too. But, at restaurants, in shops, sites, and so on, our customers have to manage in the local language and I have to say that just about all our customers expect this and prepare in some way for it. Part of our trip documentation is our own phrase book which gives useful words for bicycle parts and more importantly menu items in case there isn’t an English language menu available in the local language. We also refer to foreign language websites and podcasts.
EP: I’m curious about the bikes you use: road bikes or hybrids?
LS: Most trips are built for use on a hybrid. This is our most common, most flexible, and most adaptable/comfortable type of bike to offer. Every trip offers the bike as a rental, but we welcome customers to bring their own if they want when a trip is seven days or more. It almost always makes sense to use our rental bikes, no matter the trip, because of the hassle of flying a bike and lugging the box around while traveling, not to mention bag fees from the airlines. (the railroads don’t make easy either in some cases.) So, we want to be sure and offer the best quality equipment we can so people can leave their expensive rides at home and travel hassle free. Our hybrids are Treks, Cannondale, Marin, and other brands including custom built carbon bikes. Most tours are best done on a hybrid and with such a bike we can easily put small bags for daily essentials, and we can travel over both paved and unpaved routes to avoid traffic in the best way possible. There are however more challenging trips that involve mountain roads with challenging climbs and descents. So, on those trips we offer and encourage light road bikes with quality groups, skinny tires, and drop bars.
We offer flat pedals and pedals with straps, but we also offer to install a customer’s clipless pedals they bring along to go with their riding shoes. We also install custom saddles that customers bring from home too. These two things help make our clients more comfortable on their trip.
We are in the process of developing a line of mountain bike tours as well as we have seen a trend toward more mountain biking along trails and unpaved roads away from traffic but without technical riding skill requirements. For these trips we will have quality full suspension rides with both 26 and 29 inch wheel sizes.
Our equipment, and our requirement for a quality brand, is super important for a number of reasons. First, it makes for a good experience for the customer. Second, it means less problems for us to resolve during a trip, and third, they hold up longer over time. All bikes are serviced between every use for safety reasons as well as enjoy-ability and proper function.
EP: What happens when you get a flat?
LS: Good question, and flats happen; it is a fact of life for a cyclist. This is one area the customer must be prepared to manage when it happens. We supply the tools and materials to fix a flat, but the traveler needs to know how to make the repair to keep moving, or ride with someone who does! We make this very clear up front, but we still do include a “how to” guide that shows how to fix a flat. Needless to say, every customer should have repaired a flat before coming so they know what to do. There are a handful of exceptions, but over all the years, just about everyone has managed this without trouble. Anyone not comfortable or confident doing this needs to visit their local bike shop to learn or consider if a guided trip is a better idea.
This does beg the question; ‘what if the bike breaks down in some other way?’ And, on this we are there to assist. It may not be an immediate assist, but our ‘local telephone support’ service is there to solve any major bike problem. We will deliver a new bike if that is the best solution.
EP: How about travelers who’ve relied on sag wagons on previous European trips. Any advice? Or is this the self-selecting part of these trips?
LS: For a traveler who is looking at a self guided trip for the first time, we try to make them aware of the fact that there is no sag vehicle following them during the ride days. We of course put a vehicle on a guided trip we might do for a custom group, but our self -guided trips do not include this. That is something a customer has to be comfortable with prior to booking. But, when we assess with the travelers what a vehicle might be needed for, we generally come to a conclusion that it is rarely needed and wouldn’t be used much when a traveler is fit enough to do the rides planned and is capable of fixing a flat tire. Again, our local telephone support is there to resolve these issues. It may not be as quickly handled as if a vehicle was right behind, but we do get to our customers rather quickly. The obvious follow up point to the above is – should people carry a cell phone? The answer is yes, we strongly recommend it. Pay phones and public phones have gone away for the most part so a mobile phone is the best way to travel. We understand there are big fees involved with roaming in foreign countries so we offer a lot of information to our clients up front to make the right decision about how to get their phone ready to travel. We also offer mobile phone rentals and SIM cards that work on the local networks.
EP: One last thing- flexibility. Group bike trips are bound by rigid schedules and departures dates. How about your trips?
LS: After price, to me this is the greatest benefit of all! The traveler can choose their dates. They can go when their vacation time is available, or when the kids are out of school, or whenever they want. There are some exceptions, like our Biking & Cooking Tour in Spain where we need to start on a weekend because of the key services in that trip are only available certain days of the week, but for the most part, any date goes during the season! Perhaps as good as going any date is that we never cancel a trip for lack of participation! In fact, we have worked with a number of big tour operators that run guided trips who refer customers when they have to cancel because they know we can make the dates work for their clients and the client doesn’t have to worry about how to handle those non-refundable airline tickets!
Visit Pure Adventures for more information