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10 Tips for Biking Through Wine Country

Wine country bike tours have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years.
Wine country bike tours have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years.
David Epperson/Getty Images

Imagine riding a bicycle on country lanes past vineyards and quaint villages, sharing the beauty and bounty of nature with close companions. Now and then, you stop for refreshment and relaxation at a winery, where you sample the local wares.

Does that sound pleasant to you? If so, you understand how bicycling through wine country has become popular virtually everywhere wine is made. In the United States, the Napa and Sonoma valleys in California are the best-known areas for bicycle touring. But wherever winemaking has begun to flourish -- Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon and other states -- bicycle touring through wine country has followed.

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You could just head out with your bike and a map to your favorite wine region and pedal away. But if you want your experience to be as great as that picture in your mind's eye, you'll probably need more of a plan. There are many different ways to bike through wine country. Choose the way that suits your interests and needs.

Read on for some helpful tips.

There are lots of ways to bike through wine country. There are bicycle races and charity fund-raising rides through a variety of wine regions, usually with a celebration at a winery after the finish line. If you're interested in such events, cycling clubs and Web sites are good sources of information.

If you're more interested in touring wine country via bike than in participating in a competition or event, you have many choices and decisions ahead.

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Think about what you want and what you're able to do. Wine-country bike tours can be as short as one day or even part of a day, or they can be several days long and involve international travel. Some organized tours are as long as a week. You can travel inexpensively, or you can spend thousands of dollars. The emphasis can be on the cycling, with the winery stops as a fringe benefit. Or the emphasis can be on touring wine country and sampling wines, with the bike riding as a leisurely, green and healthy way to travel. The first step toward choosing the tour that suits you is figuring out your goals.

Read on for tips about other important choices.

Plan carefully -- you don't want the Tour de France intruding on your quiet wine-country bike tour through Bordeaux, for instance.
Plan carefully -- you don't want the Tour de France intruding on your quiet wine-country bike tour through Bordeaux, for instance.
Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Your choice of where to bicycle through wine country may be dictated by the constraints of budget and time.

If you're in California, you might want to head for Napa or Sonoma. The next consideration is the season. By mid-spring, you can expect mild temperatures and clear days. Spring is a great time to see wildflowers, too. Summer will be warmer, and the grapes will be ripening. Fall can be hot, but you can still see the grapes get picked and crushed. If you choose to go during the winter, take rain gear.

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In Virginia or North Carolina, you can tour the rolling hills of the Piedmont region and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The dead of summer is likely to be too hot and humid to be pleasant, and winter can be cold and snowy. Late spring, when flowers bloom and the weather is pleasant, or fall, when temperatures get more moderate and leaves blaze with color, are good times for biking in wine country.

If you can go further afield, there are other considerations. A major one is the kinds of wine you're interested in. Maybe cycling through any wine country will be fine. But if you're a serious oenophile (wine lover), you may want to research wine regions. If you love Sauvignon Blanc, for example, head for the Marlborough region of New Zealand's South Island. Crazy about Malbec? You can take a bicycle tour through Argentina's Mendoza Province. Tour companies will provide advice on the best time of year to ride.

The basic options for wine-country bike touring are the same as with any bike touring: Choose an approach that suits you. If you're experienced and have your own bikes, you can save money and be independent. There are two basic ways to head out on your own without paying a touring company for help:

Rough it. Live off your bike. Take what you can carry, including your tent. Some purists insist this is the only way to tour by bike. You get the feel of the country you're traveling through. A major drawback, especially in parts of the United States, may be that there are few good places to camp. And roughing it may not suit the more casual cyclist who's interested in the full wine-country experience.

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Self-supported touring. This is also known as credit-card touring or roof-to-roof touring. You travel light, chart your own course, and find inns or hotels each night. If you go this route, make sure you do your research, and be flexible in case you're overly optimistic about distances. Call ahead to make sure that the inn you saw online is still open and has a vacancy. A variation is to go in a group with at least one person traveling in a support vehicle -- cyclists call it a sag wagon -- bringing luggage and supplies.

Want more help? Read on for tips about tours.

You can travel with a group during your bike tour, or go it alone.
You can travel with a group during your bike tour, or go it alone.
Philip and Karen Smith/Getty Images

Commercial bike tours through wine country come in various styles. Costs range from less than $100 for a day trip to a few thousand dollars per person for a top-of-the-line tour lasting a few days with high-end accommodations.

There are two basic types of tours, with variations:

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Self-guided touring. You pay a tour company to do the research for you, plan routes and wineries stops, and book your accommodations. The details are taken care of, but you're free to travel at your own pace and with chosen companions without being part of a larger group. For an extra fee, you may be able to have your luggage moved from stop to stop. Some companies offer a range of standard tours, but others will plan a custom tour for you.

Fully supported touring. This is the luxury option: The tour company does everything but the cycling and the wine tasting -- they plan, provide accommodations, book at least some of your meals, transport you and your luggage, take care of breakdowns or injuries, and even provide water and snacks. You may be part of a larger group or pay premium rates for a guided tour for your party only.

Most tour companies offer bikes and helmets for rent for those who may not have road-quality bikes or don't want to transport equipment.

You don't have to be a skilled cyclist to bike through wine country, and you don't have to be in perfect racing shape. But if you're just a casual biker who wants a pleasant trip that includes visits to wineries, be realistic when you plan your outing.

Whether you're planning your own route or going with an arranged tour, don't take on more than you can handle. Choose terrain that suits your abilities, and don't try to cover more miles in a day than you can comfortably handle.

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Maybe you're not sure what sort of climbs and downhill plunges a particular route involves. Maybe you don't know how many miles you can reasonably cover in a day if you take time out to visit some wineries and relax. That's where experienced tour companies can help, whether you choose a self-guided tour or a fully supported one.

Tour companies offer various levels of trips, including those designed for people who haven't done much biking since they were kids. Don't book a tour on the basis of what you read in a brochure or online. Talk to a guide who has biked the route. Be honest about what you want and what condition you're in.

Even if your trip lasts just one day or part of a day, you'll want to be comfortable. Saddle sores at the end of the day will make that wine-soaked dinner you've earned a lot less pleasant.

Some basic items of clothing include:

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  • Shorts. Padded bike shorts wick moisture away, keep you cooler and prevent chafing. Panels make shorts more flexible. If your trip lasts more than a day, wear shorts of different styles. That way you won't get all the wear and tear in the same places.
  • Layers. Carry a few layers of lightweight, wicking clothing for changeable weather.
  • Shoes. For a day trip, you can probably get by with your favorite athletic shoes. But if you'll be biking long or far, consider biking shoes. A good outfitter can help you choose the right type for the terrain and bike.
  • Socks. Socks should fit snugly. They should be flexible at the ankle. They should be well ventilated and wick moisture away. Some good ones are padded and have little or no seam at the toe.

Bikers should also remember to bring extra shoes and socks, as well as rain gear. Gloves aren't essential and can even annoy experienced bikers, but they do help with grip.

Keep reading to find out what else to bring.

You may be on a wine country adventure, but you're still riding a bike. Be prepared. If you're on a tour, the guides may provide some basics, but don't take things for granted. Make sure you pack the following:

  • Sunscreen and lip balm
  • Medications and insurance card
  • Plenty of water
  • Food, including energy bars, granola bars and whatever gives you a quick boost
  • Money and/or credit/debit card for wine-tasting fees (if not included in your tour) and wine purchases
  • Camera
  • GPS and maps, if you're guiding yourself
  • First-aid kit
  • Bicycle and tire repair kit
  • Helmet. This is essential, but tour companies often provide them if you don't have one.

Read on for a common-sense tip.

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Have fun, but try not to overindulge on your bike tour.
Have fun, but try not to overindulge on your bike tour.
Victoria Yee/Getty Images

Bicycling through wine country requires restraint and common sense. Wine tasting is fun, but you don't want to drink enough wine to impair your judgment or balance. It's not just yourself you have to worry about: Most tours through wine country are along roads also traveled by motor vehicles.

Of course you can stop at wineries along the way. Just remember, you're only there to taste. A good tactic is to swish and spit. Savor the taste, but don't swallow. If it helps, try to sample food along with the wines. Taste only a few wines if you have more riding to do, and try to visit only one or two wineries during a day's ride. Save the serious sampling for the evening, after the day's pedaling.

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It's always important to stay hydrated when cycling. If you're stopping to sample wine along the route, staying hydrated is even more important. Alcohol can dehydrate you and make you more susceptible to heat. To avoid this, carry plenty of water and drink it frequently.

What if you find some wine you really like? Keep reading.

Touring wine country on a bicycle raises one obvious logistical problem. You don't want to carry fine bottles of wine on a bike. For one thing, you don't have room and don't need the extra weight. To make matters worse, bumping along in the great outdoors is no way to treat a bottle of wine. So, what if you discover a wine or two that you really like? Where there's a will, there's a way.

If you're participating in a fully supported tour, the tour operators will likely offer to transport any wine you buy to your hotel, or help you arrange for shipping wines to your home. Wineries may also offer discounts if a number of people in a tour group make purchases.

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If you're on a self-guided tour with an accompanying sag wagon, there may be room for a few bottles of wine in the vehicle. Otherwise, most wineries will arrange shipping to your address of choice on a schedule that suits you.

Keep reading for one more important tip.

If nothing else, make sure you enjoy your excursion through wine country.
If nothing else, make sure you enjoy your excursion through wine country.
Comstock/Getty Images

What's the point of bicycling through wine country if you don't have the time of your life? You chose this out-of-the-ordinary trip for a reason, so keep those reasons in mind. Balance is as important to a cycling trip through wine country as it is to pairing wine and food.

You want to travel through wine country because you're interested in wine and love the scenery and climate of those beautiful areas. You chose to travel by bike because you like the outdoors and an active lifestyle. Don't let either set of goals interfere with the other. Don't feel that you have to prove yourself as a cyclist. Choose a trip that won't be a strain. This is a pleasure trip, not a competition.

But don't forget that you're traveling by bicycle. Use common sense. Don't overindulge in the wine (or the food that goes along with it). Practice basic safety. Stay hydrated. Dress properly. Sleep well. After all, this is all about enjoying yourself. Savor the experience -- as you would a glass of fine wine.

Keep reading for lots more information.

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