Guided cycling adventures are a great way to put all of the planning and preparation required for a successful trip onto someone else. Planning and preparation, after all, are the essential ingredients to keep a cycling adventure from becoming a misadventure (see Cycling Adventures Succeed or Fail Based on These 2 Ingredients).
The longer and more remote an adventure is, the more unknowns there are to try to anticipate. The story below illustrates the lengths to which guides go to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip.
Venturing Out into the Unknown
Whether it’s a route you’ve never ridden, or the unknown condition of a road or trail, venturing out into the unknown requires careful consideration of possible detours and bailouts and the ability to make decisions in the field to navigate the unexpected challenges–what we call “unexpecteds”–that arise.
I was fortunate enough to work recently as a guide with The Cycling House on back-to-back weeks of their Montana Gravel trip. The Cycling House’s 17 years of experience are apparent in the way trips are planned and prepared for so that every cyclist on a trip gets the experience and level of challenge they are looking for. One of the ways they do this is through meticulous route planning and then route reconnaissance prior to taking guests on a route.
When I arrived in Montana one of the first tasks was to pre-ride some of the routes to determine whether snow might still be covering forest roads at higher elevations.
Our first recon ride was aimed at determining whether Huckleberry Pass was clear of snow. After a gorgeous ride on dreamy smooth gravel across the valley floor, we began encountering patches of snow about two miles from the pass. Some patches could be ridden while others forced us to push out bikes. But as the road turned onto a west-facing slope with direct sun the snow disappeared. Conditions change rapidly in the mountains, however, and as we neared the pass the snow was nearly two feet deep and spanned the width of the road.
Our plan had been to turn the ride into an out-and-back if snow at the pass prevented us from continuing so we added a layer for the descent, grabbed a snack, and pointed our wheels back down the way we had come.
The next day we set out to investigate Rice Ridge above the Swan Valley. The fresh grizzly tracks at the start of the ride reminded us why we all carried bear spray. The ride would become more ominous as halfway up the climb to the ridge a steady rain set in. Gaps formed between us as everyone settled into their own rhythm and mantra for managing the wet and cold conditions.
When the rain finally paused we took the opportunity to regroup and study the maps to figure out a route option that would give us the intel we needed but also shorten the ride. We were able to verify there was still snow at around 5,000′ and then quickly start our descent.
The following week I went back with another guide to see if we could ride the full length of Rice Ridge. Once again we headed out into a steady rain. Not far beyond the point where we had cut our ride short the previous week we began encountering snow. Several patches of 100-200 yards forced us to push our bikes. But the road cleared as we reached the second high point of the route and the junction with a section of singletrack that would drop us down to the Morell-Clearwater Rd. for a fun gravel descent back to our start.
But the terrain was new to us and in creating the route on Ride With GPS we failed to look closely at the singletrack connector which actually climbed to 6,700′ before descending to the gravel road we had used the week before. Almost immediately on the singletrack we encountered snow. Sure we would be descending out of the snow soon, we decided to continue pushing and carrying our bikes over and through the deep snow.
After a mile and a half we were committed to our decision. Turning back at this point would have entailed retracing our steps across the snow and then following our inbound route back to the start. Pushing forward entailed the uncertainty of how long the snow would continue but also offered the certainty that once we reached the road we would have a quick descent back to our start.
Finally we began losing elevation and were sure we’d drop below the snowline soon. In the end, we covered close to four snow-covered miles on foot. This was definitely an unexpected that gave the ride the feeling of adventure.
Guided Cycling Adventures as a Path to Self-supported Adventures
The on-the-ground knowledge we gained led to some re-routing that helped minimize the kinds of “unexpecteds” guests would encounter during the trip. The point is not that a trip with a touring company like The Cycling House is guaranteed to go smoothly. Nor is it that a guided trip allows you to sit back and relax while your guide handles all the decision-making.
The point is that there is no better way to learn the nuances of planning and preparation than from a guide willing to share their experience with you. In the field, a good guide will engage you in most of the decision-making. Is there weather moving in? Have unexpected road conditions slowed the group’s pace? Can we continue on the planned route or do we need to re-route or opt for a bailout? Engaging with a guide as they go through these scenarios will build your ability to prepare for your own adventure and to handle the unexpecteds that arise.
The Cycling House draws on years of experience and a high retention rate among its guides to offer top-notch trips. I highly recommend checking them out, especially if you enjoy meeting other passionate cyclists who also happen to be really interesting people. But don’t get lulled into the idea that everything goes smoothly on its own.
A guided trip should be an opportunity to build your trip planning and preparation knowledge base and to improve on riding and/or bike repair skills. Even if you’re not interested in heading out on your own epic self-supported cycling adventure, your knowledge and experience can make you an asset on your next group ride or even come in handy when things go sideways on the local loop you’ve ridden hundreds of times.