Recently, my wife and I went on this guided tour. You can find my tour writeup here.
The tour was 6 days long; a half-day at the start, four full days in the middle, and a half-day at the end. It’s really two separate rides; the first half is along the coast, and the second half is inland in wine country.
I loved all the riding along the coast, with the possible exception of a small sidetrip that wasn’t great but which we were amply warned about. The views were breathtaking, and travelling it on a bicycle is much more immersive than doing it in a car. And we had a tailwind for most of the section. The riding options were a reasonable compromise for the more and less experienced cyclists; I was able to find most of the challenge I wanted, and my wife was able to have a good time as well. We could ride some sections together and some sections apart.
The riding in the wine country was a little less exciting overall (well, I just like the coast scenery better) and was much hotter, but it did feature a hard mountain climb option, and that was a good choice.
All of the places that we stayed were fine. They were a little higher-end than my typical preference (due to my well-known frugality), but it is billed as a “Premium Inn” tour, and it does live up to that. The food was good to excellent, with some great usages of local ingredients, with the exception of one dinner at the Ventana Restaurant, which managed to disappoint in both food and service.
We had heard in the past that there was a bit of attitude associated with the Backroads folks, and I’m sorry to say that it was true. After being introduced into the ride food table and being told to ask if there was anything we wanted that wasn’t there, I asked for some cheese-its, only to be told that “we don’t usually get that because most people don’t think they’re healthy”. On one morning, we left as scheduled at 8:30PM, and when we rode the 31 miles to lunch in just over 2 hours, we were told that “lunch is scheduled to be ready until noon”. Most of the interactions were fine, but these are a bit annoying, because there were much better ways to handle the situations. There was also this weird thing where we had two ride leaders and one part-time ride leader; the implication was that the part-time one wasn’t there to help us but was there to help out the main ride leaders. I don’t really understand the arrangement, nor do I understand telling the guests about it in the way they did.
The first day was a bit uneven. The Backroads folks showed up late to the hotel that we were departing from, and when we got to our lunch destination, they sent us out to stand in the sun on a grassy spot while they set up lunch, pulled all the bikes down, and set up the ride snack table. Then we had to do introductions before we could eat. It would have been nice to have something to drink while we were waiting, and they could have put the introductions after lunch. Then, the ride starts with a steep climb up out of the park where we had lunch. Not really a very kind introduction for people who don’t really ride that much.
Things got better after that, but there were still a few hiccups along the way. I missed a turn with another rider on the second day, which was mostly our fault, but I think they could have anticipated the mistake that we made and given us a bit more help not making it. There was a big climb at the end of that day that really didn’t get talked about during the ride briefing.
As a serious cyclist, there were a few additional things that bothered me. My tires got pumped up (great), but I think the inflation wasn’t where I wanted it. It would have been simple to ask me what I preferred. The elevation gains on the third day were way off, the three options were listed as 3700’ / 6000’ / 7000’, but the actual elevations were 2256’ / 4008’ / 4603’. That’s a pretty significant difference; I ride a 4500’ day very differently than a 7000’ day, and there are lots of easy ways to do that right, so it was a bit annoying. All the other days seemed pretty close. I was disappointed that the daily route directions didn’t have elevation profiles on them; it seems like a really obvious thing to do and something that would be useful to all of their guests.
One final low point – Backroads has started offering electric-assist bicycles on their tours. We had one person on our trip riding one of these bikes, and found a few issues:
- It makes it too easy for somebody with little or no cycling experience to hop into a tour. The route along the coast was pretty busy at times, and somebody can easily get in over their head.
- Cyclists on the electric-assist bicycle are faster up hills, but tend to be slower on descents. That means the electric-assist bike passes me on the hill, then I have to look for a place to safely pass them, which is hard to do because they are not predictable descenders. I finally pass, and we repeat it on the next hill.
- They have the speed to ride with a faster group but don’t have the skills or the experience to do it well. I’m leading a paceline with two other riders, and an e-assist rider as the fourth person. I pull off the front, and drift back. I’d like to grab the 3-spot, but I can’t, because the e-assist rider is there, and they don’t know the etiquette. I therefore have to drift back to the back, but I can’t draft because I don’t trust the skills of the e-assist rider (they move around and slow down randomly). I have to hang back from the e-assist rider and just wait. Cyclists tend to self-organize on speed, with faster riders tending to be those with group-riding experience, so those at the front are generally fine on their own. Throw in e-assist bikes, and this breaks down, and makes my experience decidedly worse.
- They cheapen the experience. Everybody came here with a bit of challenge in mind; maybe it was riding fast for a whole day over a hilly route, maybe it was just riding 30 miles over a hilly course.
It was annoying with one e-assist bike. If there were multiple ones, it could be much worse. I can understand the marketing potential, but I don’t want to be on a tour that has them.
Despite all the things I found to complain about, we both really enjoyed the trip, but we enjoyed the ones that we did with Bicycle Adventures in the past more.