I was up for adventure and signed on as a solo guest, confident that the Greg and his crew would get me close to the race, riding on the stage routes, and enjoying Italy by bike. They did everything they promised and I was hooked, and have made cycling in Europe a regular part of my life.
There’s plenty to look at on the Dolomiti Tour.
Doing Things Right
Running a travel company is not a business everyone can do well – just count how many operators have come and gone with Lance’s career and the fluctuations of the Euro. So when a cycling travel company has been in business for 25 years, you know they’re doing something right. I talked with Greg, who founded and owns Breaking Away Bicycling Tours, about what makes his company has been so successful.
PEZ: You’ve been in the cycling travel business for 25 years – you have to be one of the oldest companies showing cyclists around Europe. How did you get started?
Greg: I came from a triathlon background but enjoyed cycling the most of the 3 disciplines, and for my 30th birthday my brothers and I went to Vermont for a bike tour. I came away with the feeling that producing bike tours would be something I could be good at and offer trips for more experienced cyclists. So we started in 1984 and in 1985 we offered trips that included riding and viewing the Coors Classic and the Hawaii Ironman in addition to trips in Napa Valley and other Southern California locations.
At the time I was dating a girl who spoke French and when Greg LeMond was emerging as a force in the European peloton I felt it was time to offer a cycling trip that viewed the Tour de France. We were the 1st company to offer such a trip and the success led to trips to the Giro d’Italia, Tour de Suisse and the World Cycling Championships. In the early 90’s we noticed that our clients wanted to ride many of the famous routes of this classic event but not during the races themselves, so that they could enjoy the thrill of these amazing historic routes with more time for cycling and sightseeing. These trips are now the emphasis of our year – offering exclusive riding in the most scenic regions of France & Italy.
Europe offers endless miles of pristine roads, like this one on the Tour des Alpes trip.
PEZ: Why have you lasted so long when so many of your competitors have disappeared?
Greg: Our repeat clientele (which makes up more than 80% of our yearly business) is the main reason we’re approaching our 25th year. Most have become very good friends and return year after year – some have done as many as 30 vacations with us. Our guests appreciate that our Tour Staff has not really changed much in the last 15 years so they know exactly who is taking care of them. I travel personally on every trip we offer along with an amazing staff to guarantee a fun, exciting, “attention to detail” cycling vacation that is always consistent in its high quality.
Our trips have a very casual, family of friends feeling with fantastic
cammaraderie that our guests feel on and off the bike. Our trips are defined by our experience of traveling in Europe for almost 25 years – we know the best roads, villages, cafes and gelaterias on every trip to surround our guests with a spectacular combination of sights, tastes and challenges. It’s not just hammering out a cycling route each day – we want our guests to feel like locals in our trips.
Here’s what you see from the hotel in Tuscany.
PEZ: You offer a selection of trips to Italy and France (plus one in the US), why focus on just those two countries and those specific trips?
Greg: I feel that France & Italy offer the finest cycling roads in the world. When you combine their scenic routes with picturesque villages, delicious food & wine, and cycling respectful local drivers – it can’t be beat. There’s a reason that the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia have such a historic place in cycling – it’s the roads, the climbs, the scenery that are the most incredible in the world.
We’re constantly modifying our itineraries to offer new experiences – fortunately the road network in the Italian & French countryside allows for many route combinations. We usually rotate a brand new trip into our schedule each year as well. In the past couple years we’ve offered a new trip in North America for those who want to travel closer to home like Colorado Rockies, North Carolina’s Blueridge Mountains or Vermont/New Hampshire.
Bruschetta pomodoro – an antipasto favorite.
PEZ: When I travelled with you in 1994, you were pretty strict about guests being on the bus at the set time (so as not to delay the day for other guests), and you were not afraid to leave someone behind if they dawdled. Are you still this ‘enthusiastic’ about keeping your guests on schedule?
Greg: Year’s ago we would follow the Tour de France or Giro with a very firm schedule in order to see as many stages as possible and still fit in daily personal cycling. It was very popular with the clients then but made for an exausting schedule. In recent years we’ve offered trips to the Giro or Le Tour that stay in a specific region like the Alpes or Dolomiti that usually allow for riding your bike from hotel to hotel and not the manditory van transfers we needed to make before to keep leap frogging ahead of the race. We have found that our present guest’s appreciate more riding, soaking in the local culture and still viewing a couple key stages- all in a very flexible daily itinerary.
Here’s Greg and one their many support vans.
PEZ: What is your philosophy on hotels and lodging?
Greg: We offer a very special combination of deluxe modern hotels, charming chalets and villas as well as smaller family run establishments – all adding up to a great lodging experience. Most of our lodgings are 3 & 4 Star properties with relaxing pools, quiet rooms all with private bath/shower, lively bar, delicious restaurant & helpful staff members.
We stress location, medieval villages and the restaurants in the hotels in our selection process.
Picture yourself in this… picture.
PEZ: In my own experience traveling with various tour groups around Europe, I’ve seen guests who never quite adjust to the European way of things being ‘different’, while others love that everything is so European. How do you present a balance that keeps everyone happy?
Greg: When a new client signs up for one of our trips we provide a “Life in Italy” or “Life in France” information packet which describes all the nuances that traveling in one of these countries offers. Things like the specific hours of operation for banks, markets, shops, restaurants, etc. How to order meals with language/phrase tips. How to use the public telephones or if they want to rent a Euro/local cell phone from us.
We also have a “Welcome/ Orientation Meeting” when they arrive the 1st day in Europe where we go over all the little things that make traveling on a bike in France or Italy so special and different. By having local “native” Tour leaders on staff on each trip it’s also is a great support system for them as they can ask any questions or concerns they may have on a daily basis. Having run trips for almost 25 years we have encountered probably every situation possible. Our trips offer a flexibility that allows guests to really join in and mingle with the locals and feel part of the culture or our Leaders / group can insulate them to make them feel more comfortable. Most of our clients enjoy the difference that travel in Europe offers. They can get Big Gulp Pepsi when they return back home.
…Just another hilltop town on the Abruzzo Tour.
PEZ: Tell us about a typical day on one of your trips.
Greg: We have an evening meeting before dinner, usually in the bar or by the pool of our hotel and we go over the next day’s route – handing out the maps with written directions/profiles. We discuss the different options for those that don’t want to ride the full route and offer great places along the route for cappuccino stops, sightseeing/photo tips and best lunch spots.
Each morning we have a buffet breakfast around 7 or 7:30 to 8:30. If it’s a hotel check-out all we ask is that luggage is out by our vans by 9am.
People ride out in little groups of 2-6 people that they have chosen to ride with. If someone wants to ride with myself, or one of the other Tour Leaders they can do so as well. We never do one large group of 15 or 20 people as it takes away from the fun of riding along and smelling/hearing the sights at a pace each little group is comfortable with.
Most people take a coffee stop at about 10:30am or so and then a lunch stop at about 1pm (we have vans parked at our suggested lunch stops so guests can also get to their day bags (things we will take for them in the van that they may not want to carry on the bike – extra clothes, camera, sandals, etc.). Lunch is their choice of a full sit down or just a salad & quick spaghetti pomodoro. Some don’t like to stop for long at all and they just have a pannini sandwich and are off again.
We like guests to choose their schedule and ride each day. Some stop multiple times for photos and village sightseeing along the route and others hammer out the ride without stopping much but just enjoying the challenge of the route and it’s beautiful scenery. Most guests arrive at the next hotel between 3-5pm and a Tour Leader is there to give them their luggage, have their bike worked on by our mechanics and then get check-in to their room. They can relax by the pool with a drink or go shopping/sightseeing in town.
Dinners are usually a mix of Group dinners or an open night to explore the village with our suggestions. Group dinners consist of usually a four course meal of local specialties (we do cater to special diets) as well as including fine regional wines.
The stage is set for another delicious group dinner.
PEZ: Describe a memorable experience from one of your trips.
Greg: On one trip in the Dolomiti we had a guest who has an amazing voice and had just finished riding to the top of a mountain pass. She was so overjoyed with her experience and the beauty at the summit that she began singing an Italian opera song only to have a local Italian rider join her in a unbelievable duet.
There are also many days where our guests are joined by local French or Italian riders from local clubs and they become great friends on the road- stopping for a drink in a village and having fun asking questions about the USA and cycling- checking out each other’s bikes, etc. as well.
There are so many experiences that happen on each trip that you can not describe in a brochure or website that make our trips so unforgettable.
… say ‘formaggi’…!
Pez Sez: As a guest, it’s always important to me to feel like my business is really appreciated by the company I travel with. On my trip to the ’94 Giro, we caught the train from our hotel out near Malpensa airport into Milano to see the last stage. I was staying in the city and not returning to the hotel for the group’s final night. Of course train travel with suitcase and bike into central Milano is a hassle at the best of times, so Greg easily agreed to bring my bike into town later that night. It had been a long trip and everyone was tired, but Greg rolled up in the van right on time and handed over my bike, and thanked me for joining them on the trip. I thought that was pretty cool.
• Check ‘em out for yourself: BreakingAway.com
• All photos courtesy of www.ClintonPhoto.com