Cycling season is finally here! As I “gear up” (See what I did here? I cannot promise that other lame puns like this one won’t happen again!) to bring my beautiful hybrid bike into the shop for its annual tune-up, I am smiling and reflecting upon the fabulous memories of my week-long cycling tour through Nova Scotia, Canada with Backroads.
Backroads is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year as a leading active travel company. They operate biking, hiking, walking and multi-sport trips all over the world. Seriously, there is a trip to Bhutan! I remember a very recent time in history when Bhutan was not open to the outside world! I dreamed of travelling with this company for about 15 years but other trips or circumstances won out. Then in Fall 2012, I decided to get my adventure travel mojo “spinning” in a new direction (Sorry, I told you I might not be able to control the lame puns!). But how would I decide which destination to choose? Also, I just knew that none of my friends was up for this type of trip. Of course, this would not stop me from pursuing a long-time dream…Solo!
After combing through several, glossy Backroads catalogues and digging further into their website for details such as exact altitudes, average daily mileage, strenuousness of hills vs. flat terrain, etc., I narrowed down my choices to Puglia, Italy, Prague to Vienna, along the Danube river and Nova Scotia. Since airfare to Europe was exorbitant for Fall 2012 and it would be separate from the total cost of these trips which are NOT inexpensive, I chose Nova Scotia. “This is perfect,” I thought. For my first ever cycling tour I would stay a bit closer to my home in Chicago and I was guaranteed to enjoy all of the freshly-caught seafood which the Maritimes has to offer. Done!
But, holy crap! Now, I needed to begin training for this cycling adventure. So, for 4 months prior to my departure, I rented a bike (as I did not own one at the time) for a few weekend rides with the Chicago Cycling Club (CCC). These fun rides got me back in the swing of riding in-line with a group, using hand signals, road safety and, especially, riding LONG distances. Also, riding with fellow cycling enthusiasts allowed me to hear their personal cycling adventure stories. On one particular ride, I met a couple who had recently travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia with Backroads, no less! Now, I had yet another glowing testimonial of this company, from a neighbor of mine who I would never have met had I not decided to meet up with this group of total strangers on a Saturday afternoon. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to go solo!
In addition, a leader on a different CCC ride once owned a bike shop. She offered me some great advice on what type of hybrid bike I should purchase since I was in the market for a new one. Her initial advice proved to be very useful, as I have been enjoying my beautiful Scott Metrix Solution 20 bike for a 3rd season now.
Also, I must mention that I took A LOT of spin classes at my gym, Fitness Formula Club (FFC), in preparation for my Nova Scotia bike trip. Training for a week-long bike tour on the flat, prairie roads and trails of Chicago, Illinois was NOT going to prepare me to be back east in the hills of the Maritimes. I am from New York City, originally. Hilly terrain had not been a part of my everyday life for the last 7 years in Chicago. Spin classes would have to simulate the hills I would encounter in Nova Scotia until I could actually get there.
How Backroads cycling tours work ~
Backroads generally takes no more than 16 people on any given trip, in order to give the participants the proper individual attention they need. As I mentioned, these trips are expensive because Backroads researches and chooses upscale accommodations, restaurants and local tours that provide the best possible comfort, food and experiences befitting their rigorous vacation schedules.
The idea is to cycle from inn to inn (or hotel to hotel; hotel to inn, etc.) along stretches of stunningly beautiful, jaw-dropping and peaceful backroads, both countryside and waterside. In the case of Nova Scotia, we toured The Lighthouse Route & Bay of Fundy. There are 2 vans and 3 tour leaders on each trip. One van holds all the guest luggage and it is driven by 1 leader from one accommodation to another. The other van serves as a respite for cyclists who want or need to take a break from being in their saddle for a bit. Also, all of the snacks, water, etc. for the day are held in this van. The roof of this van holds the tracks on which the bikes are racked when not in use. A third leader usually cycles along with the guests for additional support and encouragement. Very cool!
Backroads uses titanium road bikes with 27-gears which also include 2 BACKROADS water bottles. Although guests can bring their own bikes (shipping them ahead of time), it is discouraged. Backroads will only take responsibility for managing and maintaining the bikes it provides for its guests. However, many guests choose to bring along their own pedals for their cycling shoes or their own bike saddles. I packed my own saddle from my new bike to ensure that my very first week-long cycling trip was not ruined by a sore butt! After all, I had spent months training in my own saddle with my own padded bike shorts, so I saw no reason to mess with that personal relationship 🙂 You simply need to advise Backroads in advance that you plan to bring your saddle or pedals, so they know how much time to set aside for affixing those items to their bikes when they are adjusting bikes for each person before the group hits the open roads.
Who are the Backroads Leaders?
Backroads has extraordinary tour guides leading their trips. They not only assist in getting guests to and from each destination on a given trip, but they also handle all bike maintenance, prepare/cook picnics, provide wonderful snacks and water all day long and arrange additional local tours and special events with some interesting and colorful local experts in each region. The leaders will also accompany guests to most of the meals at restaurants which increases the bonding experience. They also are trained for troubleshooting and thinking quickly on their feet.
Backroads leaders go through rigorous training and many of the leaders already have very impressive experience prior to joining. For instance, the leaders on my Nova Scotia cycling tour included Ben, a veteran mountaineer guide, mountain biker and climber and cast member on Discovery Channel’s Mount Everest Expedition. I also found out during my last dinner of this trip, that Ben wrote a “how-to-guide” on winter backpacking (I know!). Alastair, is also a mountain climber, cyclist and survivalist guide (really!). Needless to say, I felt as safe as I was ever going to feel with these 2 guys tending to me 🙂
Each evening, Ben and Alastair prepared an itinerary which included the next day’s events/schedule and slipped it under our doors. This itinerary set out meal times and locations, points of interest, local events and the very important “route options” which allowed you to decide how many miles you wanted to log on that day. Depending on the particular day, I rode anywhere from 28 miles on day 1 to 56 miles (my personal best!) on day 5.
After breakfast each morning, the guest would gather together with the leaders to pack individual snack bags and have daily “route talk.” During “route talk” the Backroads leaders provided us with a paper, turn-by-turn, self-guide of instructions to help us along our individual chosen route. Since everyone cycles at a different speed, these instructions get you to the next inn/hotel safely. Of course, the leaders are constantly keeping tabs on all the riders from views of the vans and their bike.
Who Are the Guests Travelling with Backroads?
Depending on the particular trip, you can be joined by people from anywhere in the world, of all different ability levels. In Nova Scotia, I was one of 3 solo travellers. There were 2 other women around my age. One woman was from Pennsylvania. The other woman was from Boston. The other guests included 4 couples (2 from California, 1 from Kansas and 1 from Alberta, Canada) and a family of 5 adults who were from Alabama. Backroads does offer trips that are exclusively for “Singles and Solos” on certain dates throughout the year and to certain destinations.
My fellow guests were all fun and interesting. I was very lucky. I was probably the slowest rider on most days because I did not have the East or West coast advantage of training on hilly terrain. However, I can say proudly that all of my training paid off and I soon mastered all 27 gears on the titanium, hybrid, bike which Backroads provided! I never once had to dismount and walk my bike up any hills or flag down the van for a break!
TRIP HIGHLIGHTS ~
Conquering long distance rides over hilly terrain at altitudes reaching over 4,300 feet for 1 week;
- Beautiful sights and smells from both countryside and bayside cycling routes, including mountains, pastures, Bay of Fundy, animals, flowers, plants;
- Extraordinarily fresh seafood;
- Some of the very best bakeries I have EVER visited – I climbed a very steep hill in the pouring rain during a 53-mile ride, motivated primarily by the chocolate-cherry-cheesecake muffin which was awaiting me on the other side at one particularly fabulous bakery!
- Traditional, Nova Scotia lobster dinner prepared by an award-winning chef at our inn in Annapolis Royal, followed by a historical graveyard walk with lanterns in the rain which was led by a 10th generation Acadian;
- Fort Anne, Historic Gardens and Tidal Generating Station in Annapolis Royal (population 442!);
- Wine tasting and lunch at Bear River Winery in Bear River (population 150!)
- Lunenburg Bay via Blue Rocks;
- Pre-dinner wine/cheese tasting in Liverpool, accompanied by local fiddler and bawdy singer/storyteller who keeps traditional Scottish folklore alive in Nova Scotia;
- Grand Pre Winery and Le Caveau restaurant in Annapolis Royal;
- Beautiful and charming historic inns to call my home for 1-2 days at a time;
- Knowledgeable, accomplished, fun and inspiring Backroads leaders
- Delightful, fun and interesting fellow guests
My Nova Scotia cycling tour with Backroads was by far the most challenging vacation I have ever taken. Not only did I travel solo again(although I met up with 18 strangers on this particular trip!) but I trained my butt off for it, proving the mantra of my spin instructors that, after all…I AM “stronger than I think I am.” I CANNOT wait to plan my next few Backroads vacations. Stay tuned…
ROAM. REVEL. REPEAT.