The Biking Lifeby: Naomi Bloom 12/1/2007
Ho! Ho! Holiday Bike Tours
Here comes Santa Claus, and all the associated holiday mayhem! Weeks of shopping, preparing, and hoping -- sometimes beyond all hope -- to get in a nice day of riding here and there.
What if you could get away for the holidays on your bike? On a multi-day tour where the weather is rarely wintertime frightful and the roads are clear and inviting, maybe even delightful.
51 years and counting
According to my (relatively) exhaustive research, the HI-USA's Annual Christmas Bike Trip is one of only two holiday tours within the continental U.S., and the only one in California. Six days long, it covers 400 miles around San Diego County from December 26 to 31.
HI stands for Hostelling International, and like most hostel stays, this is pretty much a "communal living trip." Accommodations are at schools, churches or community centers, either indoors or in your own tent. A rental truck carries your baggage, but you are advised to pack light because you'll be doing the loading and unloading.
You're also expected to help with cleaning the facilities and with meal prep and clean-up. And you need to provide your own knife, fork, spoon, cup and glass for milk or juice. No styrofoam cups allowed!
The riding is not exactly easy, either. As the trip description puts it, "there are a few hills . . ." Right away, actually. Day 1 goes 50 miles from UC San Diego to the small mountain village of Pine Valley, a climb of some 6000 feet! Day 2 is better -- 55 miles with 2900 feet of climb and 3500 of descent! -- to Warner Springs, with lunch (and apple pie) in Julian. Day 3 is a full century -- 100 miles to Palm Desert, with an early pass through Borrego Springs and then mostly flat desert to the Salton Sea, 180 feet below sea level.
A metric century on Day 4 encounters "occasional head winds [that] build character," on the way to Hemet, "tougher than the route sheet would lead you to believe," according to Mike Vermeulen's description of his 2002 tour, when the winds hit at mile 17. Mike described Day 5 to Fallbrook as an "easy scenic ride," 50+ miles of flat farmland and hilly scenic rural roads. And New Year's Eve brings you back to San Diego, a quick and easy 58 miles along the "stunning coastline." (Brian DeSousa offers another informative review of the 2002 ride.
The $350 fee covers overnight facilities, breakfast and dinner each day (all lunches are on you own), sag wagon support, leadership, and a T-shirt. There's a list of motels you can bail to at your own expense.
Don Schroeder, the Christmas Trip Director for the nineteenth year running, assured me that none of the places they stay was affected by this fall's wildfires.
Stateside (flat!) alternative
If the climbing in the San Diego tour puts you off, why not head for flat Florida and a "pampered" New Year's tour of the "Space Coast"? This fully supported vacation tour boasts beachside B&Bs, beautiful seacoast, high-tech wizardry, and a "surfer-dude" atmosphere -- all for a mere $1575 (is San Diego looking better now?).
You'll cover 72 miles of impressive coastline, unspoiled nature preserves and the space age attraction of the Kennedy Space Center Complex. You'll also spend a day bicycling the marshes, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods, scrubs and coastal dunes in the 140,000-acre Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, home for 500 species of wildlife including bald eagles, alligators, manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, and dozens of species of beautiful wading birds.
The not-too-cheap fee covers a lot of pampering, including airport pick-up and drop-off, shuttle transport, all meals and roadside snacks, sag, route sheets, non-cycling options, hybrid bike rental with cyclometer, water bottle and helmet. You do have to pay for your own admission to the Space Center and wildlife attractions and alcoholic drinks (if any).
Ready for stress-free, flat holiday touring? Check out Pampered Bicycle Tours, or write to chief pamperer Bubba.
South of the border
If you're in great shape and are looking for a real adventure that costs next to nothing, you can't beat Baja California for the New Year. This annual, totally casual ride from Tecate to Cabo San Lucas has been happening since 1975. It started when a group of SuperTour riders were looking for something to do around the holidays and has become more or less a tradition.
According to a description on the SuperTour site, "This is a VERY DIFFICULT, but very rewarding ride. It is best to be stoic and get in the mind set of pedaling every mile from the border to 'Kilometer 0' in Cabo. It is approx. 1100 miles, done in about 14 bicycling days and three rest days." The route crosses a north-south mountain range about three times, with altitude gain of some 3,500 feet.
An off-road group leaves three days early from Jacumba along the Eastern edge of Baja, meeting up with the roadies in Rosarito for the rest of the ride. The climate changes as you move south. It's pretty much like Southern California in the north, with some vineyards, and possibly cool and rainy weather. Central Baja is high desert with interesting rock gardens and vegetation (aka Boojum). Further south, the beaches on the Gulf side are warm and inviting (bring a swim suit!).
In the early days everyone camped out, but now there are good places to stay along the way. There is no sag, but the "cost is free, nada, zippo. You will be paying as you go for your food, rooms, and transportation."
You can read a full description and get contact info at the old SuperTour web site. WARNING: Contact information turns out to be unreliable since the San Diego fires. My two local contacts were both unsure that the ride would happen this year.
For more exotic, more subtropical climes, you need to go further south and/or east for your holiday escape. Experience Plus has a whole list of possibilities, from "Coasting Costa Rica," December 17 to 23, to three options in Viet Nam.
The Costa Rica tour gives you time to explore the indigenous wildlife and forests on leisurely rides around a spectacular volcano and the rural villages on the San Carlos plains. Highlights include a pineapple plantation visit, Arenal Hot Springs, Arenal Volcano at night, a ride around Lake Arenal, a forest canopy tour, and a river float trip.
A 14-Day Inn Trip in Vietnam, from December 21 to January 3, visits cosmopolitan Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the old French spa resort of Dalatan, the beach resort of Nha Trang, historic Hoi An, and the Imperial City of Hue. The total distance of 1073 km includes shuttle transfers in some sections, and the riding is "mostly" flat.
From December 21 to 28, they offer Vietnam: Beaches and Highlands, including Saigon, Dalatan and Nha Trang. Total distance is only 708 km but still includes some shuttling. Then there's the Mekong Delta tour from December 24 to 27, on mostly quiet roads from the Cambodian border to the East Sea. Comfortable lodges and resorts are promised, along with a "fabulous cultural experience."
All of Experience Plus's Vietnam tours are actually run by local touring outfitters through their TourzPlus program, which might influence your decision to sign up for what could be an expensive vacation.
Still further south, you'll encounter summertime in New Zealand. The pre-eminent outfitter for the island nation is PedalTours, and I've heard only good things about them. Two great mountain tours are on their schedule for the holidays -- the Southern Alps Inn Trips from December 16 to 25 or December 16-30.
I figured, if New Zealand, why not Australia as well? But every reference I found online described summer (our winter) down under as wet, wetter and wettest. So my advice is: save the land of Oz for spring (our autumn) or fall (our spring).
What tour do I choose? I confess that I'll be staying home this holiday season, hoping for at least a little sunny weather and some traditional Northern California winter green.
Happy holidays to all!
Naomi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org