Trek Travel: On Two Wheels with Tania Burke
By Brian E. Clark
Pedaling across the United States has long been on Tania Burke’s “sprocket list,” as they say in cycling circles.
For the time being, however, she has to enjoy the grueling, 3,400-mile, 42-day ride that gains 141,000 feet – an average of 93 miles and more than 3,800 feet of climbing a day – from her office in Madison, WI, where she toils as president of Trek Travel.
Not that Burke – who is married to Trek Bicycles president John Burke, making them perhaps the ultimate cycling power couple – doesn’t get in lots of miles. She figures she and her spouse pedal more than 5,000 miles annually and do much of that riding together. Most of those miles are in Wisconsin, but she manages to get out on her company’s trips – at least for a few days at a time – on a regular basis.
For the past 13 years, the Burkes have done the Etape, a one-day ride – which features several extremely difficult Tour de France ascents – and is part of a Trek Travel trip.
“It’s the thing that gets us motivated to ride and train to get in shape,” she said. “The route changes every year, but you’ll get grades of 17 percent and have 15,000 feet of climbing over 100 miles. Last year, the final section had us climbing for 36 kilometers (21.6 miles). Fortunately, we have our own private rest stops.”
Burke said she never planned on a career running a luxury, bike-oriented, travel company. A native of the Milwaukee suburb of Pewaukee, she began cycling as a youngster after an older brother was diagnosed with cancer and had one of his legs amputated above the knee.
“He’d been a runner and a football player, but he got into skiing and biking as a part of his rehabilitation,” explained Burke, who said her family biked, hiked and camped all over the Midwest. Sadly, her brother died four years after his diagnosis.
“But that’s what got me into riding and I loved it,” said the lanky Burke. “I was a basketball player in high school and another brother (there were four boys in her family) told me riding in the summer would help keep me in shape.”
So she rode the roughly 18 miles around Pewaukee Lake at least three or four times a week and commuted most places she needed to go, she said.
Burke attended Marquette University in Milwaukee and earned a degree in finance. That took her to Phoenix and then Orange County, Calif., but she didn’t find that career fulfilling.
“One day, when I was out for a noon run, I met a couple in their 70s who were cycling from Alaska to Baja,” she said. “I thought that was super cool and I told them of my dream to ride my bike across the country.”
They told her she should do it while she was young because it was only going to get more difficult as she got older and had more responsibilities. She pondered that advice and stayed only a few more months at her job.
Burke recruited one of her brothers to do the cross-country tour, but they didn’t have enough money to make it work. But they did ride from Aspen to Zion National Park, a 500-mile trip over seven days.
“We were completely clueless, but we had a great time,” she recalled. Burke still has that road bike, a Trek 1000, which she now uses to commute.
After that jaunt, she spent the next four years in Aspen, working at the ski school, coaching basketball and guiding rafts on the Colorado, Roaring Fork, Arkansas, and Salt Rivers while she tried to figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She also led bike tours around Aspen, which she enjoyed the most.
When the rafting company was sold – a surprise to her and her fellow guides – she decided she’d like to have her own travel company running cycling tours.
“I wasn’t that passionate about rafting, though I loved cycling,” she said. “But I knew I needed to get some experience.”
That was 1997 and Burke got a job with Backroads, another leading cycle tour company, guiding tours in the Southwest.
In 2002, she got her big break when she was recruited by Trek to help start Trek Travel, which has been her baby since then.
In 2007, Trek Travel was spun off and Burke and several other small investors bought the business. Unfortunately, the Great Recession was right around the corner, which hammered the U.S. economy. Discretionary spending plummeted, which nearly put Trek Travel out of business.
Bookings went down and 2008 and 2009 were rough years. But the company soldiered on and has been growing ever since.
“It was a little nerve-racking,” she said. “We made it through, though, and the last four years have seen double-digit growth annually.”
Burke said her business is evolving and one of the biggest changes has been the introduction of electric-assist or “e-bikes” to bike tours.
“They now make up about 15 percent of the total use and the number of people who used them doubled from 2018 to 2019,” she said.
“I’m excited about because it’s getting new people involved, extending the cycling life for many people and permitting couples and friends to ride together who may not be at the same skill level.”
(Full disclosure: This writer used an e-bike the summer of 2018 to take part in a Trek Travel tour around Crater Lake and through the Oregon Cascades. I rode a regular road bike on some of the flatter sections, but because of a groin injury, would not have been able to handle the hills. With the e-bike, it was like having a magic hand at my back.)
Burke said 70 percent of the e-bike users are women, many of whom are intimidated by the climbs on the trips, she theorizes.
Italy’s Tuscany region, is mostly hills and a quarter of the region is filled with the Apuan Alps and Appennine Mountains. But it’s one of Trek Travel’s most popular tours.
E-bikes also appeal to those who don’t have time to train for a trip, don’t live in a hilly area or who might be recovering, ahem, from an injury.
Though Burke might have expected some pushback from guides, she said they supported the addition of e-bikes because they make it easier to provide support because groups are less stretched out.
“We want more riding generally and on tours, so e-bikes are a plus all the way around,” she said, noting that her company does not charge extra for e-bikes.
While electric-assist bikes are adding more casual riders to her business, Burke said the popularity of ride camps for more independent and avid (read hardcore) riders is growing, with offerings in California, Italy, North Carolina and Texas. The addition of technology like GPS and Garmin computers has also improved the trip experience for guests and guides alike.
She said her typical customer is in his or her late 40s, lives in a city or a suburb and is a professional with a relatively high income and disposable income to spend on travel. Most come from the U.S. and Canada, though the company is drawing riders from Europe, South America, and Asia – in part because of its close relationship with Trek Bicycles.
As for the guides, they are in their late 20s and many – like Burke herself – started off on one career and then switched to follow their cycling passion. Others are ski instructors, nurses, teachers and others who can take time off to lead trips.
The company has around 150 employees, including guides and owns nearly 1,000 Trek bicycles, which are stored in various locations around the country and globe. The bikes are sold off every two years or so and replaced with the newest Trek models.
Burke said interest in cycling in South America is growing, as is Scandinavia and the northern United States as climate change makes summers hotter. Tours that include lakes and other bodies of water are also popular, such as Croatia and Apulia (the heel of Italy’s boot), which are both on the Adriatic sea. And trips that feature the Tour de France and other major race routes in Europe regularly sell out, she said.
Burke said she considers herself fortunate to have found her calling running a travel company.
“When I went to work for Backroads and then started Trek Travel, I got to see the world from the seat of a bicycle – which is a wonderful way to go,” she said. “It absolutely changed my life, introduced me to other cultures and opened my mind to different ways of thinking.
“I hope that by riding with us, people will get some of that same experience, or at the least want to ride and commute more when they get home.”
And as for that cross-country bike tour she dreamed of decades ago?
“I still want to do it, and so does John,” she said. “We just need the time!”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.