If Lance Armstrong is any indication, professional bikers are a particularly hardy. The man survived testicular, brain and lung cancer—and went on to win seven consecutive Tour de France races.
Similarly, the owners of bike tour companies seem to share his gritty determination. In the summer of 1979, Tom Hale had “midnight inspiration,” and embarked on a 5,000-mile ride through the American West. Shortly afterward, he single-handedly launched a tour company called Backroads. When not leading trips through regions like Death Valley, he answered the phones, repaired the bikes and worked part-time at a Berkeley restaurant called Fondue Fred’s.
Today, Backroads is one of the world’s largest and most successful biking and active trip outfitters. But don’t be intimidated by Hale’s drive and athleticism. (He still holds his high school track team’s two-mile record at 8:57.2.) You needn’t be that extreme to enjoy one of his excursions. In fact, hardcore athletes should probably even steer clear of Backroads’ tours through regions like Puglia, Umbria and Piedmont, where you’ll spend just as much time viewing pre-Renaissance art and sampling cheeses and truffles as you will pedaling. Or, on the Coastal Wilds of Connemara tour in Western Ireland, fishing and golf round out the biking, and the accommodations include two castles and a traditional Georgian manor.
Andy Levine is another biker with an interesting story. He spent two years riding all over France before founding DuVine Adventures, a high-end outfitter that offers journeys in Europe, Chile, Argentina and Napa. The concept, he says, is “all about good eating, drinking, sleeping and biking.” Not surprisingly, his tours tend to involve a lot of vineyards, Michelin-starred restaurants and grand châteaux.
Both Hale and Levine’s trips are considered luxury biking tours. Like that of upscale walking tours, their appeal is best summarized as “slow down to see the world,” which is the mantra of Butterfield and Robinson, pioneers of the luxe-active vacation phenomenon. Biking vacations, though, allow you to move a little faster and, hence, see a little bit more than their walking trip counterparts. In other words, a bike is a happy medium between the engine and one’s feet.
Forbes Traveler researched some of the best active and biking travel companies to compile a list of ten luxury biking tours that spans the globe. Scenery, one of our many criteria, runs the gamut from the expected (rolling vineyards and cobblestone streets), to the more exotic (antelope and dolphins in South Africa and rice farms in Vietnam). We also looked for spectacular dining and equally spectacular accommodations, as well as dynamic and varied itineraries.
Our picks tend to offer a lot of non-cycling activities. The Bike Riders Tours excursion through Argentina, for example, includes horseback riding with gauchos, while bikers on a Trek Travel trip can go to wine school in St. Emilion. For adrenaline junkies, there’s even bungee jumping when traveling with Butterfield & Robinson in New Zealand.
Some may be surprised to learn that cuisine is a factor on these physically intensive trips. But as Andy Levine explains, “we want people to experience everything and that includes the fine food.” So, while these trips may be centered around cycling, they’re not just for hardcore athletes. “We’re not a fitness camp or some sort of Tour de France vacation,” he says. “We’re more a Tour de Life.”