You may not recognize the name “Podium Tours” as this is their first year of operation, but the folks behind the name have been in the tour biz for years and have a wealth of experience guiding groups to the biggest races like le Tour, the Spring Classics, the Vuelta, the Dauphine, organizing an international event for Multiple Sclerosis Society, training camps at the CMC (World Cycling Center in Switerland) and of course the Giro d’Italia.
In fact the founder – Francis Kelsey, has lived in France for the past 20 years with his Dutch wife Edmee – and new baby Tyler. Anyone who’s traveled with a tour group knows this local knowledge is a huge benefit and should be a mandatory requirement for showing guests around. I’ve traveled with several different groups over the past few years, and can say that waiting for a lost driver to pick you up after a ride is no fun. Europe is criss-crossed with endless – and usually amazing roads – that make the riding unparalleled and getting lost an ever present danger. Local knowledge is key.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Francis’ focus with Podium Tours is a different from other groups he’s worked with… “I’ve worked from both ends of the spectrum in terms of budget’s and luxury” – says Francis, “and have positioned our trips in between the extremes of “big-budget lot’s of luxury” and “low budget no frills”. Over the years I’ve learned that guests want to feel taken care of, so they don’t have to be concerned with details, but they do want good food from the local regions, decent hotels with comfy beds and modern bathrooms, and awesome rides and hassle free (and minimal) transfers.
“I’m catering to the market of avid cyclists who come to Europe not only to experience the astounding beauty and culture found here but also the greatest cycling anywhere. I spent countless hours as a teenager memorizing the roads, climbs and towns that pro races went through. It was “my dream come true” when I moved to Europe some 20 years ago. I have the opportunity to actually ride in legendary places just about any day of the year. Now, I’m able to share these moments with my guests”.
Don’t Mess With The Formula
It sounds like a simple plan, but Kelsey knows the only way to present the ideal vacation is with tons of upfront planning – which usually starts months early in October when the last season has ended – and includes countless hours driving the tour routes, personally checking out the hotels, planning logistics, lining up staff and more – all so guests have a smooth, relaxing – and rewarding vacation.
With so many tour operators popping up, it pays to know that your chosen leaders really knowing their stuff. I traveled with Kelsey at the 2003 Tour de France – and saw firsthand that he knows his biz. What’s more – his laid back attitude and calm demeanor keep guests relaxed, even after a day cycling over a couple of huge passes.
HERE COMES THE GIRO
Kelsey has been on the road this past two weeks, choosing routes and selecting hotels for his upcoming Giro D’Italia trip – but found enough time to tell us a bit about what he’s got planned.
With the relaxed atmosphere at the Giro, it’s a snap to get snaps with the pros.
PEZ. The Giro route was announced late this year, so you’ve been scrambling to get your trip in place. With the route traversing the entire north of Italy in the last 10 days – what are your plans to show guests the race while minimizing van transfers?
Francis: Well Pez, I love spending time in Italy and have learned to speak a fair bit of Italian in addition to speaking French. I live on the French–Italian border and know the areas where the final stages will take place really well. In fact, I have ridden all the major climbs the race will tackle several times. This Giro should be a great one, since I truly believe this year’s race will be decided in the final few stages of the Alps.
My plan for this year is to take in the final exciting week that will include 2 mountain stages and the final individual time trial. The guests will view the final 5 stages live and even have the chance to ride on the race course nearly everyday. The route is never more than a couple of hours from Milan during the last week, which makes things quite a bit easier logistically, requiring minimal transfers. As always, I have a special evening planned for the guests on the eve of departure.
CHOOSE YOUR VACATION WISELY
PEZ. With limited vacation time, and overseas flights on either end, most guests choose only one trip like this per year – and the Tour de France is by far the most popular race-vacation of recent years. Why should someone consider seeing the Giro over the Tour?
Francis: The Giro is now part of the new Pro Tour, which means all of the top teams must ride the Giro and show up with a pretty strong team to boot. There’s been an unprecedented amount of rider transfers since 2004 which reflects this. This will add to not only the quality of racing but also the added difficulty the riders will now encounter. I think we are in for one of the most interesting and exciting stage races in quite a few years. Of course the charm of the country, cuisine and Italian hospitality are already beyond Pro Tour standards!
No true Italian meal is served without pasta, but you don’t want to miss the antipasto to get things started….
PEZ: I’ve seen the Giro a few times and it’s my fave Grand Tour, the country, the riding, the food – what can your guests expect on a typical day?
Francis: Oh, la dolce vita for sure. I’ve been to the last 9 out of 10 Giros and my guests are always overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and friendly people they encounter. The day usually starts with a great pre-ride buffet breakfast with more carbs than you would ever think of eating, followed by some of the best riding you can and probably will ever do. It’s the little things that make cycling in Italy so fantastic – they re-pave the roads the Giro will ride over every year. They may be steep and narrow but there are thousands of cycling fans out enjoying the day right there with you either on or off the bike. It isn’t unusual to be invited to share a picnic lunch or glass of wine or grappa as you are doing your best to get over the very same climbs as the pros. The fans love you and love cycling. Italians are so friendly and go so far out of their way to encourage you, it is a great feeling. Then we pick a strategic spot to see the race go by and have a lunch of our own. Once the race goes by we either head back to the hotel by bike or van depending on the day’s following ride. Then its massage time before a 3 or 4 course dinner that always includes pasta!
Hotels in Italy can be pretty nice – and Podium Tours select each of theirs personally.
PEZ: How much riding can guests do, and where? Will they actually be riding in the races routes?
Francis: Well on average you can expect to ride about 50 or so miles a day. There are opportunities to ride more or less depending on how your legs feel. The best viewing takes place in the mountains. Here the peloton gets strung out over several minutes and the riders are going much slower (well slower anyways) than on the flats. These are key moments to witness the riders up close and offer some prime occasions to take some great photos. Our trips also allow you to experience stage starts and finishes where most of the riders are very happy to pose for a picture and even chat a little. Additionally, our staff have all worked with pro teams and know many of the riders and staff which means our guests get even closer to the “behind the scenes”. All exquisite moments that make it even that much more memorable. During the Giro we try and ride as much of the race route as possible. The roads the race organizers choose never lack beauty and this year we plan on doing one of the stages from start to finish, which will be a real treat!
Behold – coffee as it should be. Made right before your eyes, served by a proud Italian bar owner, and tasting like heaven in a cup.
PEZ: Food and wine are better known in Italy than even bike racing – what you do have planned for guests who are there also to appreciate the great cuisine?
Well, if the guests are anything like myself, they will come away raving about the table-side as much as the riding side of Italy. We always plan for a couple of special meals and some really nice bottles of wine during our trips but Italy is by far a top destination amongst our guests. Many of the regions we will visit also offer a special “local” dish or specialty of some sort, which we will definitely enjoy sampling! Not to be forgotten is the caffe – Italian’s have espresso making down to a science.
PEZ: Accommodations – tell us a little about the hotels we’ll be staying in.
Our guests can expect to stay in some really beautiful places that range from 3 to 4 star standard. I personally visit the hotels and select the ones that best suit our needs. We try and stay in areas with a little more culture as well. But then again in Italy there is always something to be discovered. The majority of our hotels offer a pool, ADSL, a social lounge and of course great food!
This year’s Giro will visit some spectacular regions of this spectacular country.
PEZ: And finally – do you have anything planned for guests or spouses who may not want to ride every day, or are perhaps more into seeing some of Italy’s other cultural offerings – I know Mrs. Pez would be happy to shop for 10 days!
Francis: Better be careful there Pez, shopping in Italy can get out of control molto rapido….The vast majority of the guests that join a Podium Tours cycling vacation are avid cyclists, regardless their level of ability, they come to ride. Although we don’t yet have a separate itinerary planned for non-riding guests, we do make sure that everyone who joins a Podium Tours trip gets to experience some interesting cultural events. It would be a shame to not sample a bit of what Italy has to offer. There is time during most days to explore the towns and villages where we will be staying and we are always up for a detour to see or visit something special. Many guests end off staying a little longer to experience even more.
The Podium Tours main office is located on the French/Italian border, which means a week does not go by without me nipping across the border for my Italian fix. Andiamo!
Links and Contact Info for Podium Tours
Get more info on this and other trips at www.PodiumTours.com