I took my first cycling vacation in 2010. I had no idea what to expect and went into it “hoping for the best”. Thankfully, neither New Zealand nor the trip disappointed. My bike proved a fantastic way to see a new part of the world. While having the routes, lodging and most of the meals planned for me initially seemed like quite a luxury, I actually found that it really made the trip all that it could be. My responsibilities were to eat, sleep and ride for ten days and really nothing more. This was a very liberating feeling and one I highly recommend riders of most any skill level experience.
Since that first trip, I have been on two more bike tour vacations with two more companies and each one has been enjoyable. While I won’t travel with a company with a poor reputation, my end trip selection is often determined by what is available when I am available. November tends to be when I can get away and this encourages trips a fair amount south of New England. This year the trip was also my honeymoon. I would have some great company in my wife Judy, but we needed to find an extra special trip. When we found Trek Travel’s six day tour of Andalucía we knew we had found our trip and here are some of my thoughts about the experience broken down into four categories – bikes/equipment, routes, guides, and lodging/food.
Bikes/Equipment: I brought my own bike when I went to New Zealand. While this was not ideal from a traveling perspective, I never regretted doing it as there is little like having a great bike that fits and works really well for you to fully enhance any ride. This bike made every ride all that it could be when I rode it at home and it did the same on the other side of the earth. However, on my second trip I was traveling with my wife-to-be and that meant not only double the extra baggage fees, but also twice as many bulky boxes to attempt to haul around airports and load into taxis. We elected to try the rental bikes that the tour company provided and this actually turned out to be the low point of the experience on this trip. While well equipped with Shimano 105 parts, the bikes were not well maintained and the company did not have the stems they said and thus Judy’s bike was much too long for her – it was a less than comfortable adaptation for her and she soldiered through it admirably. Based upon this, I thought about figuring out a way to travel with our own bikes around Spain. However, Trek touted the accolades of their rental bikes and the mechanical acumen of their guides. We filled out the forms, requested stem lengths and crossed our fingers.
We had the option of riding Trek Domane 5.9 bikes with Di2 or “upgrading” to the Madone 6.5. I frankly preferred the smooth ride of the Domane for repeated days in the saddle and declined the “upgrade”. Not only are these bikes a few levels above what most tour companies offer, but the mechanical condition of the bikes as well as the mechanical experience of the guides was significantly above what I had seen previously (nice job Ioanna!). Judy and my bikes shifted great and rode quietly and smoothly, both bikes had the requested stem and it just took some rearranging of headset spacers and installation of our saddle and pedals to obtain our positions. Well prepared bikes make a huge difference in the experience and I would make my trip decision based on this one variable.
When it came to equipment, another first that I encountered with Trek Travel was the availability of Garmin EDGE Touring Plus computers with GPS. I suspect that other companies are using GPS now, but this was the first time it had been offered to me on a trip to date. The Garmin Touring Plus units were a real boon. I’ve always been a bit of a minimalist when riding and have never been a fan of cue sheets or map holders strapped around my handlebars (or trying to use a cell phone as a GPS) – I don’t like pulling over to figure out where I’m going or read a cue sheet. The Garmin EDGE Touring Plus virtually eliminated this with handy arrows pointing where to go and alerts when I missed a turn. In some of the tight and narrow 500+ year old cobbled streets of some Spanish towns, I’m not sure I would have made it to my end destination without the Garmin’s help. Garmin still has room for improvement with their firmware as there are some minor quirks, but I’m sold. In addition, it was great to see how many meters had been climbed and graphics of what type of terrain was approaching.
So, the equipment and the preparation of the equipment provided by Trek Travel was the best I had experienced to date; there was little left to be desired. My only recommendations are that the default rear cassette on the bikes for a trip like this be a 11-32 (this would cover the needs of all riders and all terrain/wind conditions as well as possible) and I hope that Trek Travel does not replace the smooth and stable Domane for the lighter but twitchier and firmer riding Trek Emonda next year.
Routes: Unlike the group the week before, we were blessed with good weather; southern Spain felt like fall weather in Nevada to me. With little humidity, mornings often started chilly (35-40 degrees Fahrenheit) but would often rise into the 50’s and 60’s. With a good deal of sun and barely a drop of rain, it was pretty darn nice weather for riding a bike. As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of hills in Spain and our trip, which was rated for “Active – 3” on Trek Travel’s four level scale, embraced that fact. You could ride as much or as little as you wanted on a given day (a van was always available) and most days had three ride distance options outlined.
With the wedding right before the trip and a host of other work related items, I did not exactly go into this trip at my pinnacle of fitness. The 50-65 mile rides with 5000-6000′ of climbing that most days made available provided plenty of challenge for my ill prepared legs and day four punctuated this fact. The first 58 miles of the fourth day went great – beautiful scenery and roads featuring nice pavement up and down beautiful 6-9 degree pitches. There were two of us in the group who elected to do the final 12 mile climb to Convento La Magdelena, a converted 16th-century convent that is now a beautiful hotel, on this day. The first six miles of the final stretch went great. With a stiff tailwind the 8-10 percent climb felt relatively easy compared to what we had become accustomed. Then the road turned; the wind picked up; and life changed… The next three miles were to be some of the most brutal miles on a bike that I have experienced.
Scaling the twisty road that paralleled the high rock face to my left, my Garmin Edge Touring Plus kindly informed me that the pitch was now varying from 12-20 percent. While this pitch was actually a bit more like what I am used to on my local rides around central Vermont, what I wasn’t used to was the unrelenting wind that was now hitting me square in the face. The wind was consistent and strong, similar to what the “breeze” coming off the ocean and blistering the Queen K highway in Kona feels like on many afternoons when you are going the “wrong” direction. However, the Queen K doesn’t climb at 12-20 percent… There were times where my legs were barely turning as a 30+ mph gust would bring me almost to track stand in my 34-28 combination. Cycling is sometimes about ecstasy (as the incredible rolling section of road through the cork tree forest the prior day proved) and it is sometimes about agony (the last six miles of today). I barely made it to the exposed plateau without being blown deep into a rocky farm field and I did my best to recover on a quick descent before the final 1.5 miles to the hotel. My Garmin ran out of juice right as I started the final ascent (my fault for not shutting it off at the often lengthy Spanish siesta lunches), but I’m certain that this last section was the steepest of the week. At least it was not nearly as windy on this side of the mountain though. Rather tired by the time I reached the hotel, I was greeted by those that were smart enough to get into the van at least 12 miles ago; I was glad to get off my bike and take a nice long hot shower before enjoying some great food and wine! While brutal, I appreciated the guides building this challenging section into the ride. Something should be done about that wind though!
Six miles of abject suffering aside, the trip routing and roads on the Andalucía trip were simply fantastic. The roads in southern Spain generally have little to no shoulder and are often less than two lanes wide. However, the Spanish drivers were almost universally patient and respectful. They drove at a slower pace than we are accustomed in the U.S. and they waited until they had more than adequate visibility and room to pass. If a car remains behind me in the States for as long as they often did in Spain, I get ready to duck… No such worries in Spain – the drivers were great with cyclists. Also, while there were some short sections of rough roads, the roads were in great shape overall with quality pavement. I mentioned it before, but the flowing and slightly downhill rolling section through the cork forest on day three was one of the most enjoyable sections of road I have ever ridden and we saw maybe five cars over 15 miles. There were times where I wondered whether some of the roads were designed for cyclists more than cars. Every trip I have been on has had nice route planning and our lead guide Lianne did a really good job with this route in Spain.
Guides: Our guides Lianne and Ioanna both did a great job and complimented each others skills well. They were organized and had our equipment and the schedule well prepared each and every day. They followed up regularly to make sure all was well and accommodated for special needs and requests anytime they could, which was impressive as there was such a variety of people that made up the group. They were knowledgeable, conscientious and the best I’ve been with yet when it came to bike preparation and mechanical abilities. As I said, whether it was letting the second hotel know that it was our honeymoon (many thanks to the staff for the champagne and chocolates!), making restaurant suggestions and post trip hotel recommendations, being the translator of the group, or providing a bike tool when requested, they went out of their way to make the trip special and hassle free.
Lodging/Food: The first place we stayed was a modern hotel on the lip of the 600+’ cliff that makes up the border of the historic high plateau town of Ronda. The rooms were modern and clean and offered great views of the mountains across the valley. While the trips I have been on usually have the vast number of meals as a group, the Trek Travel trip in Andalucía had a number of dinners and lunches that were left up to us. I was initially not real excited about this, but as the trip went on I actually grew to enjoy these meals on our own. I’m used to eating lunch in 5-10 minutes and the few lengthy sit-down siesta group lunches we had were actually physically uncomfortable for me, especially in the middle of a bike ride. Many of the restaurants in Spain are smaller and would have difficulty sitting over a dozen people at once in the evening as well. Lianne and Ioanna made good restaurant recommendations and eating the food of your choice with a few other people from the group in a cozy corner of a small restaurant was very nice.
While the hotel in Ronda was quite nice, the second hotel we used was my favorite. A converted monastery high on a hill, our room was huge with 20′ timber ceilings and a shower with fire hydrant like pressure. There were no restaurants for many miles and thus we had group meals in their dining area by a nice warm fire and enjoying the fantastic views. A local band even sang and demonstrated flamenco one night for us. The band likely got more than expected with our group who did not hold back in joining the dance or liberating instruments from for their own personal use. I’m not sure who was more entertained, our group or the band. Hopefully the hotel will overlook this evening and allow Trek Travel to stay again in the future as it is truly a special place.
The lodging on the Trek Travel trip to Andalucía was all that I had hoped and the food gave a good taste of the land. I found the restaurants in Spain to cover the gambit of quality, presentation and tastes. Spanish restaurants like salt, so much so that the running joke was that we needed to find a McDonald’s so that we could eat a less salty meal. Lunch is frequently the main meal and drinks and tapas make up the evening meal for many a Spaniard. Many restaurants don’t open until 8 p.m. and don’t become crowded until 10 p.m.; I often eat late and this was fine with me, but it can be a big adjustment if you are used to eating at 6 p.m. In the end, during my time in Spain I had some good meals, some so-so meals and found one “hole in the wall” that was so good that we went back twice on the same day. Before you fly out of the beautiful city of Malaga at the end of your trip, look up “Mamuci’s” in the Soho district. We spent almost three weeks in Spain and Mamuci’s had by far the best salads and vegetables (it would be rough to be a tourist vegetarian in many parts of Spain…). The sushi they served at dinner was as good as I have had and was prepared beautifully.
I believe it was Mark Twain who once said, “I would have written less, but I ran out of time.” and this piece is reflecting that sentiment. I will conclude by saying that Trek Travel put on a great trip. The guides did a great job enhancing and individualizing the experience (they were even nice enough to layout some honeymoon Champagne and flowers in our room the night before the hotel did!) and they handled the usual hiccups and challenges that managing a large group present well. Furthermore, we had a really fun group and while the cycling, culture and scenery are a huge part of the experience, the people on the trip with you create the comraderie and the texture. When we first met at the train station in Seville we didn’t know what to make of each other, but by the end saying goodbye to everyone was hard as you knew you were going to miss them and the experience you all just shared. The ride was populated by all types of people with a wide range of riding experience, ages, abilities and goals and yet they all came together to enjoy a great six days exploring new lands by bike. This universality and variety of people and experience is part of what I love about cycling in general and these trips in particular. I’m so glad that companies like Trek Travel are there to make sure these opportunities are available and I would not hesitate to recommend what they offer to most anyone. I’ll bet that they’ll see me again someday…
Trek Travel trips can be booked through many Trek dealers, including Fit Werx in Peabody, MA; Waitsfield, VT and Bergen County, NJ (Ridgefield Park).