Some people seem to have been born on a bike, and others are born to bike. Chris Winter is both. In conversation with Pique, the Whistler-based cycle-tour operator recalled how, when he was a toddler, his parents, Mike and Linda Winter, took him to England and Wales in the early 1970s. "My parents pioneered bringing North American riders to Europe. I'm a rare second-generation bike-tour operator."
In a Whistler cabin with their son, Mike and Linda Winter weighed in with memories of their own. "We got the crazy idea while chaperoning high-school students on a bus tour in Holland in 1970," said Linda, whose husband was an Ottawa English teacher. "One day we rented bikes to explore the Apeldoorn forest and it turned out to be a much more in-depth experience than on a bus. The next year we put together a bike trip on the Rhine. Only three students signed up. Mike tried harder, putting up signs at the entrance to school cafeterias and giving lunch talks. He signed up 18 kids."
Mike recalled the price: $350 for three weeks including air fare. "In those days only students were interested. Adults wouldn't be caught dead on a bike," he said. "We rode Peugeot bikes with drop handlebars, toe clips, and outfitted them with Jofa hockey helmets as there were no bike helmets in those days." Linda remembered how European children reacted at the bizarre sight by throwing stones. "Two years later I got a letter from one girl who by then was in university thanking us for the character-building lessons on coping with hilly conditions in England and Wales. We just imagined it would be flat. It was anything but."
Those were the years before Google Earth and websites such as steephill.tv helped cyclists in planning mode put topography in perspective. "When my parents started there weren't even fax machines," said Chris. Linda added: "All we had were Teletypes."
By 1985, adults began to sign on as well. "That was the last year we camped or stayed in youth hostels. From then on it was hotels," said Linda, who today acts as an advisor to Cycleventures, the company the Winters founded in 1972 and ran for three decades before Chris took charge in 2002. In Chris's eyes, his mother still holds the reins of the road company. "The clientele have returned time and again for thirty years. Mom has a following like you wouldn't believe." An older brother, Sean, a secondary school teacher in Vancouver, also guides with the company in summer.
Prior to settling in Whistler in 2002, Chris had already made his presence known locally when he founded the youth-at-risk charity Zero Ceiling in 1998, a move he described as one of his proudest moments. "At the height of my freeskiing career I blew my ACL while filming with Teton Gravity Research. I didn't want to sit back and be depressed. I love challenges so contacted friends at Whistler Blackcomb and quickly realized people in Whistler were craving a way to give back, so I started Zero Ceiling." These days, the non-profit brings 150 street kids to the resort for both winter and summer outdoors programs.
As well as taking on responsibility for Cycleventures, Chris, who also co-created Crankworx's signature Joyride downhill contest, simultaneously launched a mountain-bike touring company, Big Mountain Bike Adventures. "Whistler did it to me," he said. "This is where I got the bug. My first mountain-bike branch off from Cycleventures was in the Valais region of Switzerland, a bit like when my parents started. Back then it was a far-flung adventure to take mountain bikers to Europe. Twelve years later it's finally catching on with riders who've spent years at Moab [Utah] and are game to try something farther afield. Whereas my parents — who have ridden every backroad in France — focused on Europe, with my new venture we go to Third World and developing countries."
Asked how mountain bikers differ from road cyclists, Chris Winter said that fat-tire riding is quite specific to each individual's comfort level. "They tend to be hardcore cyclists who typically own several different types of bikes. Demographically, there's an 80-20 blend of male and females with a good mix of couples and singles on our trips." Whereas Iceland is among Chris' new favourites, his father pointed to Scotland as a place that holds the most emotional attachment for him as a cyclist. As for Linda, the Alsace and Black Forest regions of France and Germany, respectively, keep calling her back. All three agreed that France, Italy, and Spain were the most cycle-friendly countries of all.
When Pique met up with Robbin McKinney at his office in Vancouver's South Granville neighbourhood, the longtime cycle-tour operator agreed with the Winters' assessment that Europe remains the most popular choice with North American cyclists. "Provence is where I first began in 1997 with my own company, Great Explorations. It remains the best place for families in search of food and culture. It hits everything on the list. My kids are seven and nine and we cycle with them on ride-along bikes. I can't wait to take them on the Camino [de Santiago] when they're a little older."
Much like Chris Winter, whose four-year-old daughter Ella rode her own bike on a multi-generational family outing in France last summer, McKinney said that how soon a child is ready for cycle tour depends on the parents more than the offspring. "Choose appropriately," he counseled. "Bike paths in the Loire Valley, for example, are mostly level and separated from motor traffic. We just had a reservation from a family who want to ride the Canadian Rockies with their 13- and 15-year-olds."
Have websites that help people plan their own tours had any effects on business? McKinney said they're both a threat and an opportunity. "People still value that someone like me who has been guiding since 1985 has ridden routes for the type of audience who value culture over simply riding from point to point like a lot of keen athletes who are the hardcore Gran Fondo types. Our groups are more about a route researched with them in mind for a more relaxed adventure. Behind the scenes support is the attraction of Randonee. Clients choose their own dates and save money. We tailor trips to their individual needs plus supply comfy bikes."
Bikes are personal. Most cyclists relate to their own like a favourite pair of shoes. A comfortable fit matters most. When asked about choosing equipment to take on a cycle tour, Trish Sare, director of BikeHike Adventures, listed helmets, clipless pedals (for those who wear bike shoes), and seats. When interviewed at her Granville Island office, Sare, who has guided trips for 20 years, said that Costa Rica has been her company's bread and butter since day one. "We mountain bike 40-to-50 kilometres a day on rugged roads — but not North Shore rugged," she added. "We're not all about biking because people who go with us are older so we add multi-sports like hiking and horseback riding to the mix."
While some cycle tour companies such as Cycleventures favour a "hub-and-spoke" approach where clients spend multiple nights in a single location and go out on day trips, Sare said that rather than bike part way and take a van to a hotel, point-to-point trips without assistance from a motorized vehicle are a big trend. "Owing to the distances between hotels in Cuba this isn't possible but our clients say they have a greater feeling of accomplishment when they cover all the distance on their bikes." Chris Winter agreed. "I recently ran a focus group to see where the market is going. What turned out was the nouveau group of mountain bikers in the 35-to-60 age range are fit and want more challenging outings with less touring and more riding." To that end, companies such as Great Explorations offer optional lengthier routes for those riders who crave longer distances. As well, McKinney now tailors outings to road cyclists who want to cover the same route as the Tour de France.
What sets BikeHike apart? "We're very ecotourism focused. When National Geographic Adventure magazine spotlighted us we gained so much credibility overnight. Our demographic has aged with us. A big part of what we are is very personalized. Out of the 30 countries we visit on multiple trips, I guide five a year with clients who are always surprised to see me, plus I'll go on a fam trip to places like Albania which along with Bulgaria is an emerging market. I also attend the Adventure Travel World Summit each year."
Perennially popular "bucket list" destinations with BikeHike's clients include the Galápagos and Ecuador. "This year especially, it's Cuba," she said. "Every second call we're fielding these days is someone, particularly Canadians, who wants to see Cuba before the country changes. I've been leading trips there for three years now. We ride mountain bikes fitted with semislick tires. Cuban roads are in not bad shape compared to dirt-and-rock trails in some countries we visit. The countryside is more hilly than mountainous. Cuba is about the people, not wildlife." Besides Cuba, Sare pointed to Slovenia ("It's finally taking off"), as well as Vietnam and Morocco. "People rave about Morocco. It's our most culturally authentic trip, as we follow nomads on their annual migration. We are their guests."
No matter where, McKinney summed up cycle touring's enduring appeal: "We're all after the same thing — wind in our hair and biking through exotic places."
For information on Cycleventures, visit www.cycleventures.com.
For Big Mountain Bike Adventures, see www.ridebig.com.
Details on self-guided cycle touring with Randonee Tours are posted at www.randoneetours.com;
for Great Explorations, visit www.great-explorations.com.
For BikeHike Adventures, see www.bikehike.com. n