Considering a cycling tour in Ontario? Consider fully supported and guided!

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Cycle tour guests at the swing bridge, Port Stanton, Ontario

I have been an active tourism industry consumer essentially my whole life, starting in the 70s, bouncing around untethered in the very back of a fake-wood-paneled station wagon on Ontario’s Highway 401, with thousands of other eastbound families planning to spend March Break skiing in the mountains of Quebec or Vermont. Cycling tours started later, about 1992, when I went on a bike-packing trip to Denmark. It was a self-guided tour. We planned our trip around where we wanted to go in Denmark, not where the cycling would be best. I learned that Denmark is mostly, but not entirely, flat, and that the winds off the North Sea are, well, windy.

Since then, I have had the joy of many cycling trips and tours, including road biking in the Netherlands and France; seeing Berlin on a cruiser bike on a site-seeing day tour; mountain biking in Squamish, BC, on the bike store owner’s mom’s bike (a long story); self-guided site-seeing on bike share bikes in Washington, DC; numerous day trips to Bromont and weekend trips to Tremblant for mountain biking when I lived in Montreal; downhill mountain biking at Mont Sainte Anne; a 3-day family road biking trip from Trenton to Kingston, Ontario, with an 11-year old and a 13-year old, one of whom came back with road rash and a vow to stick with mountain biking from then on. The trips have mostly been self-guided, and mostly on my own bikes, with a smattering of guided trips and rental bikes too.

These experiences taught me that the same person can be many different kinds of cyclist and many different kinds of cycle tourist. Discovering routes, sites, coffee shops, unique businesses and friendly locals on a self-guided adventure can be inspiring and exhilarating. It is certainly something that I love doing both at home and abroad. Discovery on foot, bike, on a train, and even (dare I say) in a car is thrilling. Self-guided touring allows one to go at one’s own pace, spending more or less time at locations one finds more or less interesting. It lends itself to a single traveller, a couple, or very small groups of close friends, ideally not more than 4-5 people. When time and mindset permits, there is nothing quite as delightful as setting off with very minimalist plan, and letting the day unfold as it unfolds.

Self-guided cycling tours

Self-guided tours can be incredibly rewarding, rejuvenating, educational, and almost always give rise to an increase in one’s goodwill towards and faith in fellow humans. They are generally quite a bit less expensive than guided tours, and much more flexible. On the other hand, self-guided tours require a lot of prep work, often months in advance. They require research into the good, the bad and the ugly of a region. The traveller needs to look into what types of accommodation are available, whether reservations are needed in advance, what the relative safety of various neighbourhoods is, what is considered the best time of year for visiting, what the weather is like, what the food is like, what are the attractions, what the currency is, whether the cost of living is relatively more or less than one’s home region, and what the general cultural norms are, such as language/greetings/tipping habits. Better not to shake hands when a peck on the cheek is the norm – and vice versa! If one is cycling, there is extra research to do on routes, amount of traffic, degree of challenge, local rules of the road, on-route water and food re-fuelling spots, and the availability and location of cycle-friendly accommodations. If one doesn’t want to carry one’s own gear, local luggage transfer services must be found.

Some additional challenges with self-guided tours include the obvious risk of getting lost; the responsibility to get oneself independently from one accommodation to the next regardless of weather, road conditions, and cyclist health; and the lack of local knowledge about regional customs, tourist sites, restaurants, and services.

The range of support options for cycle touring is on a continuum, and there are semi-supported options that provide a compromise between fully independent and fully supported. Ontario by Bike lists Ontario cycle tour providers from across the support continuum. A fully supported and guided tour is worth considering for those who want to have an adventure without the risk, or who do not have the time or interest to do the pre-planning for a self-guided trip.

Fully guided and supported cycling tours

With fully guided and supported cycling tours, the guests are accompanied when they are riding, and often at non-riding times too. In most cases, there are always at least 2 guides, one driving the vehicle and one riding with the guests. A support vehicle carries bikes, luggage, food, drinks, and some repair gear. The guides may dine with the guests and stay over at the same hotel, or the guests may be on their own in the evening with the guides just a phone call away. The tour provider will have vetted the accommodations to be confident that the guests will be well looked after, dine well, and with a little luck, relax by the lake as the sun goes down.

Relaxing on the dock at Bonnie View Inn, Haliburton Highlands

A fully guided and supported cycling tour aims to provide guests with a complete experience that is about excellent cycling on picturesque, bike-friendly routes, but that also incorporates sight seeing, information sharing, and sampling of local food and drink. The guides are tour guides as much as cycle guides, and they are hosts as much as they are guides. Whenever possible, breaks are taken at interesting sites that provide guests with the opportunity to learn about local history and culture along the route. The routes may also include stops at coffee shops, pubs, and restaurants that are unique to the region. Pop-up picnic lunches try to include local fare, such as Milford Bay smoked trout on Humdinger’s Georgian Bay-Muskoka tour. Dinners may be at interesting and out-of-the way restaurants, such as Feast ON certified Rhubarb Restaurant on a Haliburton 3-day or 5-day tour.

On a fully guided and supported bicycle tour, you can expect the guides to know where local bike shops are and have a relationship with the staff, so that a broken derailleur can be fixed quickly, or a guest can quickly replace a lost pair of gloves. In Ontario’s cottage country, the Crank and Sprocket in Orillia and Parry Sound Bikes come to mind. Guides should equally know the location of public bathrooms, parks for breaks, grocery and liquor stores. For example, knowing that the national historic site Big Chute, in addition to providing the entertainment of watching boats be lifted uphill on a railway system, also has clean public washrooms and picnic tables!

The objective that planners of multi-day bike tours have is to design interesting routes from A to B, on scenic, cycle-friendly roads, ending at an appropriate accommodation that is hopefully close to food, shopping, and other attractions. This is not as easy as it may sound. It involves many, many hours of looking at online maps, and then offline gazing at paper maps, and sometimes several days of driving and riding the routes, and visiting businesses and restaurants. And then annual checks to all of the routes to make sure nothing as changed. The only stop for food and drink purchase on one of our approximately 80 km segments was a convenience store at Port Stanton, Ontario. At last check it was a sales office for a new condominium development, which is great if you want to own property on the Trent-Severn system, but not particularly useful if you are bonking on your bike and need a snack. This is the sort of important information that a local guide will have, and the guiding company will arrange for a pop-up picnic break or similar instead.

Who should consider a fully guided and supported cycling tour?  

The short answer is someone who likes active vacations, and cycling vacations in particular, and who wants to have all of the fun without all of the detailed planning and the worry of something going wrong on the road. You should consider a guided tour if:

  • You want the best routes, not just to get from A to B.
  • You want to be guided and hosted.
  • You are adventurous, but appreciate a safety net.
  • You do not have the time or interest to do the pre-planning, and prefer that local guides do that for you.
  • You are unfamiliar with the region.
  • You want the assurance that any mechanical issues, injuries, fatigue, access to food and drink, and communications will be dealt with. 

Why fully guided and supported cycling tours in Ontario?

Taking fully guided and supported cycling tours in Ontario has merit, both for Canadians and international guests. Some of the best cycling is in rural and remote areas, where there may be no or limited mobile phone reception and there may be long distances between sources of food and drink, such as convenience stores, cafes, or restaurants. These are very good situations in which to have support! Ontario has excellent holiday destinations that are ripe with arts, culture, history, and amazing local food. But sometimes it is hard to find the hidden gems to visit. Niagara Falls and Ottawa are well known, but we do have many other cool places to visit! A guide can help with that.

Cyclists on the bridge over the Gull River, Minden, Ontario – a hidden gem!

 

The vision at Humdinger Bicycle Tours is to operate a socially-responsible company that provides premium, fully guided & supported cycling tours in Ontario’s cottage country, while maximizing guest comfort and safety, and minimizing risk. Guests will enjoy a complete holiday experience that includes excellent cycling, friendly & knowledgeable guiding, local history, arts & culture, food & drink, and pleasing accommodations.

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