Talking travel with bicycling pro Lauren Hefferon

True, the Tour de France ended last month, but this is the perfect time to plan for next year’s event. Here to tell us how to bike in the legendary race yourself–or at least have a good time in the stands–is Lauren Hefferon, a former professional cyclist who has logged 35,000 miles cycling across Europe in her early years after college. She now runs a bicycle touring company, Ciclismo Classico, which runs biking trips throughout Italy, France, Spain, Vietnam, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand.

I’ve been following a wonderful NYTimes blog about an amateur who raced in a leg of this year’s Tour de France. How hard is this to do?

Considering the race is two weeks long and covers over 130 miles a day over the some of the toughest passes in the world, it is considered one of the toughest races in the world. The racers must train all year long and begin at a very young age training their muscles and their mind. The sport is very strategic, rider must not only be fit but they have to understand how to best work together as a team to gain the most advantage over each day’s ride. The team will always assist the favorite rider by blocking, drafting and out sprinting their adversaries,

And what’s the process for those who want to train and get involved in racing–and not just touring?

Potential racers should first be passionate about the sport, have solid endurance and be committed to training regularly and vigorously. The best thing is to join a team so you can have some of your expenses sponsored. Being on a team you will get coaching, support from team members and some of your equipment covered. Cycling can be a very expensive sport and the winnings are not that much. You must commit 3-4 hours a day to training, additional rest and a healthy lifestyle.
Are you following the Tour de France?

I have watched a couple stages. It is exciting but the whole drugging undercurrent is very disturbing. It takes away from my enjoyment of the sport.

Is that worth seeing as a spectator?

It’s fun but chaotic to be on the sidelines. The fans are so passionate and entire villages come out to cheer on their favorite, it is like the villages wake up and grab their favorite spot. Unlike other sports where the admission can be steep, cycling is by the people and for the people. It is free to watch and entire villages come out to be a part of the action. It absolutely raises community spirit.

How would you suggest setting up a trip revolving around the tour?

Well we have several trips that follow bike races. We have a tour that follows the GIRO D’ITALIA, another tour that follows the Tour De France and another one that follows the Maratona degli Dolomiti, a race throughout the Dolomites.

You have to know the course very well. It is too difficult to follow the whole race so we pick 3-4 classic stages that zig zag in the same area. We then plan rides that pedal over some of the course and maybe take a detour later in the day. We ride the course before the racers come and stake out a place to watch the race. When it is over we ride back to our hotel and watch the rest of the race at a bar or at our hotel. Our guests LOVE these follow-the-race tours. There is a wonderful energy that keeps everyone high

Have you competed in any races? I imagine that’s a good–albeit intense–way of seeing different countries.

Yes I raced for my first three years in Italy. It was an excellent way for me to connect with the local people, learn all the wonderful roads and be a part of very energetic, fun loving community. Cyclists in training have a very competitive but playful way to be engaged with their sport. I have done many sports in my life and I always like the training more than the competition. Cycling was no different. I just love to ride and be with people, so while I would ride hard and liked doing well, the people and places were always far more important. This is why I turned to touring. You can stay in excellent shape AND see the countryside and enjoy other’s company. When you are racing, your head is down, you are watching the wheel ahead of you and you do not remember much of the world or people around you.

Now shifting gears a bit (hehe couldn’t help myself). What’s the biking environment like in Europe?

Europeans have tremendous respect for cyclists. They see them as just another vehicle, which they are, just slower. Thanks to racing and the proliferation of basic bike commuting, Europeans easily co-exist with cycling. There are many more small side roads and alternatives to major highways. Gas is $16 a gallon so they woke up long ago to the costs of driving a car.

Unfortunately the car is still winning everywhere in the world and we cyclists have to make our world friendlier, easier and more fun. Cyclists have to continue to fight for their rights. In Italy, cycle commuting is most practical in the cities where you will see elderly women biking side by side with their bag or groceries on their handlebars. Outside the cities it is harder because roads are more difficult. Cycling is hugely popular in the area around Ferrara where it is flat and their is a real passion for cycling

You have to see this site and tell your readers:

In the states, I think biking cross-country would be a nightmare unless you’ve mapped out all the local routes–freeways are suicidal.

What are your top three biking destinations outside of Europe? I noticed that you’ll be hosting trips to Vietnam and New Zealand, among others.

Well Europe is # ONE for me and allow me to plug my favorite place in the world to bike: Sardinia! My other three favorite places are:

  • The Finger Lakes region
  • Chile and Argentina
  • New Zealand

If anyone is looking for info on our trips, they can of course log onto our site.

I’m off to New Zealand myself in a couple weeks. Any tips for a DIY biking trip there? Is it possible to just rent a bike for a week and bike from lodge to lodge?

There are plenty of local operators to choose from. Here’s one we use.

Speaking of DIY, is it possible to stage a weeklong+ biking trip in a more-or-less undeveloped place–where lodging isn’t guaranteed every night. Are support vehicles a necessity in these cases?

There are an abundance of web sites where you can read and copy other people’s adventures. Here is one of my favorites

Your life list for biking adventures?

1. Bike trip across the USA. Not better way to connect with our own roots
2. Bike and Boat. Island hopping around the Med with bikes on board
3. Rome to Athens, the ancient world by bike
4. Ireland and Scotland
5. Norway
6. South America, the Andes by Mt Bike
7. Australia & New Zealand
8. Anywhere the roads are smooth & untrafficked, the scenery is gorgeous and the people are welcoming

Favorite trip? SARDINIA. Mountains, sea and drop dead gorgeous scenery

See here.