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Bill Oetinger  On the Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2005

Cooperative touring...it works

I've been writing this monthly column since mid-1999...almost 70 columns to date. I write about any topic related to cycling that catches my fancy, and if you've read very many of my past columns, you know that covers a lot of different topics. And yet it occurs to me I have never written specifically about one cycling topic that is very dear to my heart...very near to the center of what I like best about riding: cooperative touring.

You will perhaps have noted the ad that appears at the top of all my columns: a promo for a touring outfit called Adventure Velo. That's my little hobby business. Not my day job; not even a very profitable sideline...just a way to provide people with maps and other logistical information so that they can go touring on their own. It may be that part of the reason I have avoided writing directly about cooperative tours in this space is that I didn't want to appear to be writing promotional pieces for my own business while purporting to be an independent journalist/columnist.

But what the heck... Cooperative touring is a topic that deserves some attention, so I'm finally forging ahead with it, regardless of any potential conflicts of interest. And in fact, I will say right up front: you can mount a successful cooperative tour without any assistance from what I have on offer at my site.

Okay, enough with the disclaimers. If you're unfamiliar with the term, you may be wondering what cooperative touring is and what makes it so appealing to some cyclists. I'm going to tell you...

Cycle-touring takes many forms, but in this context, we're only talking about multi-day tours that move from place to place; that take you out of your own backyard and open up new worlds for you to explore. Because you're not riding near home, you won't be familiar with the roads. You'll need some help navigating across an unfamiliar landscape. Also, you won't be sleeping in your own bed or cooking in your own kitchen, so finding accommodations and getting yourself fed are going to be major challenges each day, second only to doing the miles.

There are various ways to tackle the multi-day tour. The most obvious is probably the fully-supported, catered tour. These usually boil down to exchanging a substantial sum of money for the luxury of having every little detail taken care of for you by professionals who--presumably--know what they're doing. You've all seen the lush, lavish brochures put out by the big tour companies. Such eye candy! The day-to-day reality of these tours will probably never be quite as idyllic as the catalogs make it seem, but the good ones will be very good. You may even feel they're good value, considering all the frills and flourishes they provide for their pampered patrons. I'm not going to argue that they're not a good value. I'm just going to say that most of the best catered tours cost a lot, and for some folks, that big ticket may be more than they can afford, or at any rate more than they want to spend.

At the other end of the cycle-touring spectrum is the ruggedly independent, fully-loaded, self-supported rider. There is much to be said for this approach. Given enough time and energy and imagination, you can pedal yourself all the way 'round the world, or across the country anyway. No one tells you what to do or where or when to ride. You're the boss. And it's relatively inexpensive.

The downside begins with the weight of the bike loaded down with all the gear one must carry. After all, you're essentially hauling your home away from home around with you, and it can add up to 60 or 80 pounds or more. For someone used to a light, nimble road bike, this can be a tiresome, frustrating business: slogging along on such an ungainly behemoth. And you still have the challenge of navigating through terra incognita. You have to puzzle out your routes ahead of time, and inevitably, you'll make some blunders in your route planning, ending up on muddy dirt tracks or eight-lane freeways, or just plain lost, with night falling and no campsites or motels in sight. For some folks, that's part of the fun. For others, it doesn't pencil out.

In between these two poles are some compromises. You can do a mass tour like CycleOregon, where 2000 riders move from point to point, followed by an army of support personnel. Because of the huge numbers of riders involved, there is an economy of scale that will save you a big chunk of change. Of course, you are part of a massive, rolling circus for the duration of your tour...a citizen in a movable village. In theory, that's part of the fun.

But maybe you don't want that particular brand of fun on every tour. Maybe you just want to be out there with a handful of your best friends, sharing the sights and adventures...two dozen or a half dozen of your regular riding buddies. Maybe you don't want to spend a small fortune on a catered tour (and maybe you don't want all that pampered luxury wrapped around your cycling anyway). And maybe you don't want to chug around so loaded down with camp gear and clothes--as a self-supported rider--that you feel as if your bike resembles a homeless person's shopping cart (and performs about that well too).

That's where cooperative touring comes in. Simply put, a cooperative tour is one in which friends band together to plan and support their own tour...to be their own caterers, as it were. Everyone shares in the various chores, from driving a luggage van to helping with cooking to generally pitching in wherever something needs doing. It's the cycling embodiment of the old adage, "Many hands make light work."

This is not intended to be a comprehensive how-to manual on cooperative touring. I have written just such a manual, and it's available at adventurevelo.com. (That's my only self-promo, and I will soften it by noting that my guidelines haven't been updated in a few years, and while the overall concepts are sound, some of the budget figures are a bit behind the times.) This column is just an overview to get you thinking about the concept...to suggest the possibilities, if perhaps this method of staging a tour has not occurred to you.

I do one or two cooperative tours every year and have done so for many years. I've done them with as few as six people and with as many as 50. I've done them with a big chartered bus to haul the people and gear, and I've done them with just a sag van or two. The essential premise is the same in all cases: unlike an expensive, catered tour, you're saving money and inventing exactly the tour you want to do by organizing it yourself (with your friends). There is no profit margin to factor in, and little or no paid staff. You are your own staff. And unlike fully-loaded touring, you ride your sleek little road bike the way it's supposed to be ridden...unencumbered by the ballast of camp gear and clothes. All the luggage and cook gear and tents and food rides in the luggage truck (or bus or van).

You still need to plan your routes though. I usually take the lead on this in my gang. I enjoy doing it, as a part of my Adventure Velo hobby. I like poring over maps and corresponding with cyclists in other regions to get tips on good roads. (This has become sooooo much easier in the era of the internet and e-mail!) And I enjoy spending a couple of days driving (or sometimes riding) around the region in question, plotting and measuring the routes and checking out campgrounds or inns.

A typical tour for me is about seven days of 70-mile stages, or about 450 to 500 miles total. If I've done my research properly ahead of time, I find I can survey about half a tour in a day, taking notes on miles and elevations, and checking out the accommodations along the way.I usually con my wife into thinking of these two-day surveys as mini-vacations, and I sweeten the deal by staying in some nice inn midway through the reconnaissance. As the regions we plan to tour are typically very beautiful, this isn't a tough tour of duty for either of us. Or else I tack the days of exploring onto a weekend trip to do a far-away century or double in the region in question. Almost never do I have to drive a great distance just to check out a tour route. It is possible, especially with the new mapping software, to plan a trip sight unseen. It's a little riskier, but if you haven't the travel time, it can be done.

After this survey, I and my fellow travelers can ride with the confidence that not too many booby traps or unpleasant surprises await us along our tour route.

Finally, I love making maps and route slips. I do mine up to a slick, professional level, but it isn't essential that one do this for a co-op tour. Just copies of existing road maps with the route highlighted will do the job.

If you have a big enough group and can organize yourselves sufficiently, you can charter a bus that will follow you throughout the tour, not only hauling your luggage but transporting riders to the start and home at the end. If you can rise to this level of logistical sophistication, you can plan routes where the finish is miles from the start. If you can't manage that, you'll more likely be doing some form of carpooling to the start, and you'll have to design a route that loops back to the start at the end, so you can retrieve your cars for the drive home. That, or figure out a way to shuttle the riders back to their cars at the start. I've done them all of these ways, and there are merits (and some challenges) inherent in each approach.

The chartered-bus approach works best for big groups, often with the assistance of your local cycling club or hiking club. Many good cycling clubs stage annual tours, using all the ice chests and cook stoves and other paraphernalia they own for staging their annual centuries or other big events. While you may think of "the club" as some monolithic organizing agency in these cases, remember that bike clubs are simply groups of volunteer cyclists banding together to get things done...in this case planning and staging tours...the essence of a cooperative venture.

On a smaller scale tour, a chartered bus is probably out of reach of your budget. But then, you may not need it. You may find all you need is a big van or small truck to haul all your stuff, or if the group is really small, you may be able to haul all the people and all the gear with just one van. In all cases except for the chartered bus--which will come with a chartered driver--you have to share the shuttle duties on moving whatever vehicles are following you around the course. This may or may not mean you will have to give up any days of riding to be a sag driver. It depends on the group. In some cases, non-riding spouses will come along and agree to drive the van from camp to camp--a relatively small investment in time for a 70-mile stage--and then spend the rest of the day relaxing at camp or sightseeing. Sometimes shortcuts on main roads--as opposed to following the meandering backroads of the bike route--can cut the shuttle time to almost nothing. If you're a cyclist giving up your ride to move the van, in many cases, you can move the van quickly, first thing in the morning, then hop on your bike, and ride backward along the route until you meet your friends.

Also, it's a rare tour (in my experience) where someone isn't eager to volunteer to drive, looking for a rest day for weary legs or simply a change of pace. In all the tours I've done where the shuttle chores were shared, I can only recall one day when no one claimed the job voluntarily, before we had to ask. So moving the vehicles goes quite smoothly, and if you want to ride every day, you can pretty much figure out how to do it.

In the interest of economy, our tours are usually based around campgrounds. Also, there simply aren't any inns or motels in some of the remote, backcountry places we like to ride. So we end up doing our own cooking in camp most days. We plan menus ahead of time and divide ourselves up into cook crews. With a large group, you may get by with only working one day a week on KP. With smaller groups, you may do two tours of duty in a week or maybe--in the smallest groups--you might all share the work every day.

This is a huge subject about which much can be said, but for now, I'll just skim over it briefly. We plan our menus ahead of time and stock up on non-perishables before we start. (A few people from the group usually take on this planning and buying. On some of our tours, when we have been able to find someone willing to do it, we have brought along a paid food coordinator to do our shopping and incidentally to drive the luggage van. This is not a paid chef...just a coordinator/shopper/driver. The cook crews still have to prepare the actual meals.) We know ahead of time, thanks to our recon of the route, where the good supermarkets are along the way (for restocking perishables), and we also know which camps have big barbecue grills and which towns have decent restaurants, for a change from camp food.

We own some of our camp cook gear personally, and we borrow more equipment from our local bike club. (This is typical of bike clubs: when they're not using their gear for their own events, they will loan it to club members.) This is again a question of scale: a small group can function with relatively lightweight cooking utensils and gear. A larger group will need larger, heavier-duty tools in the kitchen department.

Each of our cook crews serves a tour of duty that begins at the end of a day's ride and extends from after-ride munchies through dinner prep and clean-up and ends after breakfast the next morning. Breakfast prep includes putting out the fixings for “lunch,” which is to say, fixings for pocket food for the ride. With this format, a tour of duty does not mean a loss of ride time. There are myriad ways this program can be fine-tuned for any particular set of participants, but in all cases, we tailor it for ease of operation with simple menus and easy logistics. It takes some planning, but it pays off in relaxed, stress-free days.

Overlaying all of these chores is the cooperative ethos of the entire tour: each participant looks around and says, “What needs to be done?” and pitches in as needed. It doesn't mean you work on the cook crew if it isn't your assigned day. It means you see the camp and the tour as a holistic entity that only functions because everyone is on the same page. If you see some boxes that need to be unloaded, lend a hand. If you happen upon a piece of equipment that's been mislaid, return it to where others will find it. If you see some litter, pick it up. The end result of this sort of thinking is that everyone feels like a leader, a contributor, and not just a paying customer. It lifts up the esprit de corps of the whole group, one positive moment at a time. It does not mean you're working constantly. The total to-do list of chores on one of these trips is relatively light if everyone does his little bit, and loads of time is left over for kicking back with a beer or a book or a hike or a nap.

Speaking of paying customers...yes, we do pay. (Most of the time, in our scheme of things, full-time sag drivers and other coordinators do not pay.) Even with all the economies built into this format, it still costs a bit to put the show on the road. In the 13 or so years I've been planning such tours, we have seen the cost per rider rise from around $200 to around $300 for a one-week tour. This includes most meals and most accommodations, and if we've planned correctly, leaves us with a little seed money to jump start the next tour. It may or may not include transport to and from the tour venue. However you slice it, that's a pretty low fee for an entire week of wonderful cycle-touring, and it's a tiny fraction of what you would pay for a similar tour with a for-profit caterer (assuming you could find a tour that was set up to your ideal specs).

Costs of campsites vary greatly, but usually average out over any given tour, and in any event represent only a small hit on the overall budget. The bigger costs are for food and for gas and rentals on any vehicles following the tour around its route. If you have access to a big enough truck or bus to haul all your gear, you will save a huge amount on rental costs.

In summary...the key challenges to staging your own tour are: 1. finding your way (routes and overnights); 2. hauling your gear (sharing the driving); 3. feeding the troops (sharing the cooking chores). It may at first seem a daunting project to take this on, and I confess I felt that way the first time the idea was put before me (by someone who had done it). But after accepting the challenge and working through the planning and logistics, I found the entire process to be reasonable and manageable. And the payoff makes all the work worthwhile: the ability to tour with your friends in wonderful places, to create your own reality, as it were...how many miles each day, how many hills, how fast you want to ride...what sorts of camps (or inns) ...what sorts of food...all customized to your liking, and all at a price that's almost laughably low, considering what you get out of it.

Tours of this sort are, to my way of thinking, just about the most fun you can have in the world of cycling, and all it takes to make them come to life is a little planning and a little cooperative effort. My life has been immensely enriched by discovering this brand of touring. Perhaps your's might be too.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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