To be (guided), or not to be

Fly-ride, fully guided tour, fly and buy? Many options exist if time is against you or crating your own bike is impractical. Ian Woolley has tried everything…

I’m going to be presumptuous; I’m going to presume that as you are reading this you like motorbikes and that you have an interest in travelling. Like me you may even browse each issue of Overland Magazine sighing to yourself as you read about daring adventures in faraway places. When you get to the part where the dashing adventurers say that they sold up everything and set off into the wide, blue yonder without a backward glance, you mutter something like, ‘if only’.

The truth is that we are not all able, for lots of reasons, to take extended trips around the world. Abandoning partners, parents, children, grandchildren and pets is just not possible. Not to mention all the other detritus of our lives. However, that doesn’t mean that adventures are off limits. Indeed, if you have your own bike and even limited funds there are plenty of adventures to be had in the UK, and Europe; just drag your bike out of the shed, put fuel in it, pack a few rags to wear, and sally forth.

Actually, I usually spend a lot of time poring over maps, planning and plotting before I leave, so if you want to venture further afield, what options are there?

Ignoring sending your bike abroad in a crate, or buying a bike overseas, there are three choices: a guided tour, a self-guided tour, and hiring a bike. Assuming that you are going far enough that taking your own bike to join the tour isn’t feasible, each option will mean you are riding a bike that you may not be familiar with and may not be your first choice. As long as you pick a reputable company the bikes will be in good order and fit for the trip you have told them you are going to take: if you’ve told the hire company you are taking a road trip to ride the Pacific Coast Highway, don’t expect to be riding an agile off-road bike – a heavyweight tourer like that Goldwing pictured above, is much more likely. Bigger companies will have a bigger choice of machines and may be able to accommodate you in your choice of bike but do expect to compromise.

The Guided Tour:

The difference between the three types of tour is largely the freedom you can expect and the support you may get. If you go on a guided tour you might reasonably expect to have a tour leader who knows the route, who can comment on what you might see, explain about the area you are in. The leader will know interesting places to stop for a gawk or a brew. Indeed, on a good tour you are likely to be staying in fantastic accommodation that you would be unlikely to find by yourself, or at least the best possible accommodation the area has to offer. On the last tour of this type I was on, we stayed in a mission that took in children from the streets of Maseru, Lesotho, and offered them an education and space to sort out their problems. It was a brilliant place to stay and it doesn’t even appear on google maps!

However, be warned that on a Himalayan tour six of us had to share an unheated room in a guest house where the toilet was a hole in the floor and washing facilities were a cold tap – as I said, the best there was in the area. Another benefit of a good guided tour is that it can gently, and safely, move you out of your eating comfort zone: many of the big food brands are now truly global and the high streets of large towns in surprisingly remote areas will have brands you recognise, and maybe love, from home. Eating at a McDonalds in Shimla is OK, but it does fall a bit short of being adventurous. Stopping at a roadside eatery that you would have avoided like the plague at home, and being educated that it is OK to eat there, is all part of the fun, as is working out which of the local specialities you can cope with. I know deep fried bugs are good, safe and nutritious, but no. Just, no. There is also likely to be a vehicle following you that can rescue you if the bike fails, or you have an accident or feel unwell.

Organised tours tend to be in bigger groups: the tour operators negotiate discounts based on the number of people that they bring to each hotel/guest house. Your pace will be determined by the leader and will be just fast enough that you can make the next stop at about the right time. You may have to rider faster than you want, or you may have to sit back and chill/fume as the other members of the party faff about. This can mean that if terrain is rough the tour leader may have stragglers gathered up by the chase vehicle to improve the speed of the group and ensure that you make the chosen night stop; this happened to some of the group that I was riding with in India. All the overnight stops will have been pre-booked, and the tour leader will have only limited ability to change the stops. Sometimes they have no choice: when I was on a tour taking in the Spiti Valley, India, the week before we arrived there had been lots, and lots of rain. This had literally washed the road off the side of the mountain; our tour had to spend an extra night at one location. Then, although the road wasn’t open, we had to move on as the tents were booked by others for the following night. Then the leaders had to scratch round in a small Himalayan town to find enough beds for everybody. The following day we spent a few hours watching as the new road was blasted out of the rocks. Who says organised tours cannot have any adventure in them?

Having a large group of people will often mean that you are enjoying your trip with a bunch of people that you hadn’t met before you spotted them on the flight out. Wearing motorcycle jackets and boots or carrying crash helmets tend to give the game away. How you feel about this is up to you: sometimes you make friends that you keep forever, not just as a holiday romance. However, spending two weeks with someone that you just don’t like can take the edge off your holiday. Another downside of a tour-type holiday is that you follow the route, exactly, in the way that the leader wants you to. That enticing little sideroad? That’s a no. The drop-dead gorgeous view? Probably not. A little exploring at the end of the day on your own? That might be by foot; the bike may have to stay put. I may be maligning some organised tours where you are given a destination and told to find your own route there, but I suspect those will be in the minority. Mind you, with all the others on the trip you may just be happy to adjourn to the bar and tell each other tall tales until bedtime.

And there’s another issue: in a large group you will have to make an effort to break away from the group to interact with the locals. It is often easier just to stop with the herd and not go and chat to a local. This is a bit of a shame as you can often end up being in a bit of a bubble and not getting the full flavour of the area.

Another consideration is price: organised tours are often very good value – you get to lots of places that you hadn’t thought of, or known about and the price of your accommodation, flights and bike hire are often less than you could easily negotiate for yourself. But … as well as the company needing money for the admin, and to make a profit, you need to pay all the helpers. That’ll be the tour leader, the chase vehicle driver, a mechanic or two, a medic, and so on. With a good crew each one of those staff will add to the experience: the leader taking you to the best stops on the route, the mechanics pampering your bike so it feels perfect every day, the chase vehicle driver always having a spare bottle of water or tasty snack, the medic being good company and hopefully not needed, but they do all need to be paid for.

So, an organised tour with a guide: being led by the nose to places that you may or may not want to see, at a pace you’re not comfortable with, in a group of people you would avoid at all costs when you were at home. Or, a trip that will take you to places that you would have never found, with the safety and security of being in a group that is looked after by experts, riding comfortably with a bunch of your new best friends. You decide which, but the experience will be in that range.


What about the self-guided tour? You are likely to be riding by yourself, or with a bunch of friends who have booked with you. You are unlikely to be riding with strangers, unless you pick up waifs and strays along the route. You will have all your hotels booked for you, and a booklet that tells you how far it is by the suggested route between each stop. The booklet will make suggestions about places you might like to stop – cafés, sights, viewpoints and the like.
Of course, you are now free to do as you please. You can ignore the route completely and whiffle off up an intriguing dirt track, head in the opposite direction to that little bar that Simon Calder tells you serves the best oyster in the world, or just stop and gaze slack-jawed for hours at the amazing valley you are about to ride into. All brilliant options, but your bed for the night is still at the end of the route written in the booklet, and you still must get there.

If you are lucky the booklet will be written by someone with an intimate knowledge of the area and will suggest the BEST places to stop. If you are unlucky it will be written by some poor slob working in a windowless room in an anonymous office who only has Google and a five-year out-of-date copy of the lonely planet to refer to.
Touring California on a self-guided trip my son and I were advised that the road known as 17-mile drive which went around the coast and passed some posh peoples’ houses would be good to do. We duly turned up at the booth to find that we were not welcome. “The folks who live there don’t like mo’cicles.”, said the gatekeeper. As he had a gun and would not be convinced that Mr Honda’s Goldwing was more than a mere motorcycle, we turned around and went away. On the same trip we were due to look at Hearst Castle: for those who are not familiar with this it was the home of William Randolph Hearst, an American newspaper magnate. It may be considered an architectural treasure incorporating many iconic styles from around the world and housing a treasure trove of sculpture, art and fine furnishings.

Alternatively, it could be considered an over-glitzy, confused, hotchpotch of mismatched styles built to house looted items from all over the globe. Wherever the truth lies, we were unimpressed and chose to spend longer at the beach looking at the elephant seals. Nitwit Ridge impressed us more: a house created by an artist from junk. Arthur Harold Beal, the creator, described it as his ‘Castle on the Hill’, which is the same phrase that Mr Hearst used about his monstrosity. On the self-guided trips, you do have that choice.

You should have some back-up, should things go fruit-shaped, however, bailing yourself out of a predicament may take more effort that you expect. On the same Californian trip when we collected the bike, we were told by the rental company that we had full AAA membership and in the event of a problem we just had to call a number and wait a few moments to be rescued. In the next sentence we were told that we couldn’t take the bike into Canada, or Mexico – not a problem – or into Death Valley. That was a problem. The route I’d been given by the same company took us from Las Vegas to Lone Pine via Death Valley. Detouring around Death Valley would take a lot of miles and time. I queried this with the hire company representative to be told “You’ll be fine, don’t worry about it”.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point on the continent of North America, and is just a hop, skip and a jump from Furnace Creek. There you regularly get temperatures into the mid-fifties, Celsius, and it’s where I got a puncture. Not a problem: ring the hire company and sit back to wait for the AAA. Except I shouldn’t have been in Death Valley so they refused to help. To cap it all it was the 5th July, and a weekend, and no one was going to rush to my aid. Luckily, and ironically, an organised tour arrived with their chase vehicle and they had a puncture plugging kit. I was so grateful. They only had a single barrel foot pump to inflate the tyre with though and, not unreasonably, I had to do it. I was so hot! The point is, even if the support package that the hire company offer sounds good, make sure you can cope with most things by yourself. If all else fails, such adversity forces you to interact with the locals. Sitting by yourself, staring forlornly at a broken bike tends to bring out the best in people. Even if they cannot help you fix it, locals will often stop and commiserate.

The other thing that being on a self-guided tour gives you the opportunity to do is make a stupid mistake. Mis-reading the itinerary and not stopping at a hotel for the two nights that you were supposed to is entirely possible. Then, for the rest of your tour you are arriving at places where you don’t have a reservation, and when you get to the airport you have a whole new level of fun. Don’t ask me how I know this… Self-guided: more freedom, more stress, more opportunity for things to go wrong, greater chance of finding things that are special to you. What’s not to like?

Renting a bike

The fly-drive option. Turn up, hire a bike, disappear into the sunset. Your only deadline is getting to the airport for your flight home. Much more freedom, much greater opportunity for error. This option gives you the chance to tailor the tour to exactly what you want. I have a couple of friends who used to spend weekends and holidays touring the UK. They used the Good Beer Guide as their map and always ended the day with a pint of the barman’s best foaming ale. I feel that this style of tour needs much more planning, but you could just wake up in the morning and see where the sun is shining, and head that way. It really is all up to you.

The bike hire companies will offer a little support: they will mostly have breakdown assistance included in the hire. However, the choice of hotel, destination, boutique coffee shop, and so on are all on you. This does open a vast array of ways that you can make mistakes – or gain experience, if you prefer. Sometime ago my wife and I were travelling across the mid-west of the United States. It was getting time to stop for the night, and we needed a motel. As it was nearing the end of the holiday and money was getting tight, she forbade me from stopping at the usual motel chains: too expensive she said. We stopped at a place on the outskirts of St Louis advertising a bargain rate. I began to suspect it wasn’t the sort of place that we were used to when the reception area resembled a WWII army pillbox. Affixed to the outside was a notice that read ‘No refunds after 20 minutes’. We were young and naïve.
The room we rented had an air conditioning unit that made enough noise to almost drown out the sound of the carnal activities in neighbouring rooms, without managing to reduce the temperature by more than 0.5°C. What surprised me most was the vibrating bed and the education we received from the TV… Like I said, we were naïve. Unless you are very specific about your requirements, I suspect you are unlikely to get this sort of accommodation on either a guided, or self-guided tour.

The riding;

I may sound blasé here, but the riding is often one of the simpler, easier bits of adventure holidays. On the guided tour you are likely to be constrained by your choice of tour and the company’s desire to keep you safe. If you have signed up for a motocross trip in Spain, that is what you will get. If you have signed up for a tour of rural South Africa on road bikes don’t expect things to get too rough. Your tour leader will try to balance the needs and desires of the whole group vis a vis speed, overtaking, and general road manners, but that may mean compromising your normal style of riding. On the self-guided and fly-drive trips how you ride will be up to you, but don’t expect sympathy if you end up in a gaol for riding like an idiot. If you stick to the suggested route on a self-guided trip the roads are not likely to be too challenging. Fly drive: it’s up to you … but taking a mangled bike back to the hire desk is likely to prove expensive.

I appreciate that this overview is a little generic but what I have tried to show is that each type of tour can be brilliant fun. There is a lot to be said for finishing work on a Friday and turning up in a faraway place on Saturday, having a week or two riding around saying WOW! When you get back to your wage slavery you’ll have great memories and your colleagues will be amazed. That’s got to be worth a bit.