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Pedal Pushing

By Angela Arsenault
Posted On Sep 23, 2016
Pedal Pushing

If your spirit cries for your freedom and your body calls for action, set your sights on a cycling vacation for the best of all worlds.

Imagine your tough decisions and tedious logistics handled by a trusted advisor. Imagine a world with enough room for spontaneous choices, yet free of the worry that goes with them. Add to that an elevated level of physicality that’s hard to achieve when real life gets in the way. It’s the perfect healthy break from reality: It’s a cycling vacation.

Jean Eskra, 60, of Pueblo, Colorado, experienced this slice of utopia on a bike tour in Croatia, led by VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations (vbt.com).  “When you’re vacationing, you’re trying to get away from that structure,” Eskra says. “Yet there’s the other piece; that everything is taken care of. You know you’re going to a place that night, and it will be a good accommodation. And just when you’re getting hungry or thirsty, the support van is there with fruit and nuts and water. It’s just too wonderful.”

Beyond the feeling of complete care, Eskra recalls myriad opportunities to make personal connections to a region as experienced from the seat of a bike. “I kept thinking, what a wonderful way to see a place,” she says. “I loved Croatia so much, maybe in part because I wasn’t in a train or car just whizzing by. We were pedaling through these little villages and farms. You stop and talk to people. I don’t want to travel any other way now.”

That feeling is precisely what Gregg Marston, president of VBT, hopes for each of his clients. Marston says his company’s clients traditionally range from age 50 to  65. “They’re not fit to do the Tour de France or an Everest climb, but they want to be active, to renew their youth. They want to learn. They want travel.”

VBT encourages its riders to linger in a location, to “pick a region and just slow it down.” Daily cultural activities are integrated into the trips to help facilitate a manageable pace, and participants have the freedom to choose long or short routes and join the group for lunches or discover charming cafes on their own. All the while there’s van support to help you arrive at each day’s final destination—whether  you’ve intentionally wandered off route or you simply need a rest from all the riding.

While there’s no shame in needing an occasional lift during a 10-day bike tour, there are a few key ways to prepare the body for such a ride. Dr. Mark Timmerman, a sports medicine physician who advises Trek Bicycles, says that most people should start training two to four weeks prior to their vacation, and shoot for riding five to 10 miles every other day. He points out that a limiting factor tends to be the comfort of the posterior region. As a mitzvah to your gluteal muscles, put in time on a bike before your trip.

Just as important is that you’re on a bike that fits you properly, so Timmerman suggests booking a bike fit session with a trained professional. This might,
in fact, be “the best investment you can make before a bike trip.”

To customize your cycling vacation further, send your bike specifications to your tour company so that they’ll have a bike set up perfectly for you when you arrive. Bringing along your own saddle (or seat) will further ensure physical comfort on your trip.

The right clothing can help, too. Padded bike shorts have come a long way in recent years and, as Marston explains, are no longer only available in that most dreaded material, spandex. “Padded shorts today just look like a normal pair of shorts and that definitely makes the bike more comfortable,” he says.

Once you set out, a few common aches and pains may point to an improper bike fit. If you experience pain in the front part of your knees, your seat is likely too low, shortening the quadriceps and forcing the body into a virtual squat position. Alternately, back knee pain is often an indication that your seat needs to be lowered to relieve hamstring strain.

Upper back and neck pain might be a sign of incorrect handlebar width, which is of particular concern for women. Dr. Timmerman explains: “Women tend to get a lot of upper back and neck pain on the bike if their handlebars are too wide. Women’s shoulders tend to be looser jointed than men. If you have a relatively loose joint and then your hands are too wide, your upper back muscles have to work really hard.” Handlebar width can be corrected by measuring the width of a person’s shoulders and adjusting accordingly.

Away from the bike, core strength really matters, too. “The stronger your abdominals, the less you sag on the bike,” says Dr. Timmerman. “Your back and neck don’t take as much of a hit.”

A bike trek is a great way to get in shape. But don’t go overboard and use this trip to starve yourself skinny. Proper nutrition plays a
key role in pedaling with proficiency. Exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Dr. Stacy Sims says to start the day with “a good breakfast that isn’t too heavy, about 1 1/2 to two hours before heading out.” High-protein, low-sugar cereal will work, as will a four-egg white and two-yolk omelet with mixed veggies.

Hydration throughout the ride is vital, too. “Focus on hydration first, food second,” says Sims. “Shoot for 0.15 ounces per pound of body weight per hour,” and take temperature into account. “The hotter the ride, the more fluid a person will need.” Liz Einbinder from Backroads, an active travel company, agrees: “Some people find that a water-pack hydration system—worn like a backpack and equipped with a plastic tube for drinking—is a good accessory on long outings or in hot climates,” she says. “It enables you to carry more water and drink regularly without having to stop.”

Post-ride, the focus shifts to recovery, in the form of protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods. Sims suggests a 16-ounce smoothie with one banana, a half cup of nonfat milk, one scoop of protein powder, and a half cup of unsweetened low-fat yogurt. This should be slurped down within 30 minutes after you finish riding for the day.

With the right blend of conditioning, nutrition, and touring company in place, you’ll be well on your way to an unforgettable adventure.

Far and Away

When you finally decide you’d like to embark on a beautifully active cycling travel adventure, the next step is to ask: Where to? Here’s a sampling of options.

South Africa

One of VBT’s newest offerings takes riders to the top of Table Mountain, stops for tastings in the Franschhoek Winelands, and meanders along the Indian Ocean via the lush Garden Route. Visit vbt.com.

Provence, France

Experience a quintessential cycling route with features like private wine tastings, medieval villages, and the ever-present scent of lavender. Visit backroads.com .

Belgium and Holland

Great for new cyclists. The river- and canal-side terrain is mostly flat and a barge follows riders from town to town so you can unpack and settle into your temporary floating home. Visit vbt.com.

Argentina

A breathtaking trip in northwestern Argentina, beginning and ending in Salta, known locally as simply “The Beautiful.” Visit butterfield.com.

Vietnam to Cambodia

Outdoor gear cooperative REI has an adventure travel arm that will take intrepid cyclists on an awe-inspiring ride from the bustling streets of Saigon to the wonders of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Visit rei.com.

Cross-country USA

Prepare to tackle the Big One: a 45-day, 3,600-mile journey from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. Don’t worry. Two of those days are for resting your road-weary bones. Visit trektravel.com.