What's Cool In Road Cycling

Meet In Situ Travel

We’ve introduced PEZ-Fans to a number of new tour operators in recent months, and here’s another worth checking out. I talked with In Situ’s founder Jace Gifford about some pretty cool trips he’s running to France, Germany and Spain…

Provence has its share of climbs, besides the famous Mont Ventoux.

You’ve got maybe the most unusual name for any cycling tour company I’ve come across – what does it mean and where did it come from?

Jace: The name In Situ means “in its original place” in Latin. I first learned of it while studying art history in college. Besides its use in art, it’s used in a variety of contexts: geography, architecture, even computer science. The significance for me really stems from one of the main goals of our company: to provide our cycling guests with a true sense of place by not having them transfer from hotel to hotel (region to region) throughout our bike trips. We believe that sometimes the best way to learn about an area is by staying there for the duration of the trip. But one location doesn’t mean repetitive riding. We carefully choose our locations based on their abundant variety of cycling routes.

In Situ Founder, Jace Gifford with the cobbles of Roubaix in the backrgound.

How did you get started in the cycling tour business, and why did you choose it?

Jace: Well, I’d first say that I feel like it chose me, rather than I choose it. Starting In Situ Travel was a culmination of my work and personal experiences up to the company’s launch. I grew up overseas, so traveling is something that I’ve been doing since I was 6 months old. I’ve also spent several years studying French, Italian, German, Spanish and even some Czech. I’ve always enjoyed studying languages as a way to connect to locals when I’m abroad.

As for cycling, I think I was first pulled into the sport during the 1989 Tour de France. I still remember watching LeMond’s historic 8 second win in the final time trial stage. But it wasn’t until 1996 that I starting riding seriously myself. It started by training and riding in centuries and other longer 1 day rides. Almost immediately, I joined a local cycling club and started racing. I raced for about 10 years, before I began working for one of the larger bike tour companies. It was a great opportunity, combining my love of cycling with my love of travel. I did everything from leading and managing trips to designing the bike tours from scratch. While I enjoyed it, I felt that there were some key things about the company that I would do differently. It seemed that so many of the bike tour companies out there focus on what I tend to call “sightseeing by bike” rather than catering to the serious cyclist. Don’t get me wrong, I think that taking any type of bike vacation is far better than sitting in a tour bus or car, but I saw I lack of true “cycling vacations” in the market.

For my own business, I also wanted to add an element that is virtually non-existent in other bike tour companies: using just one lodging for the week. I heard again and again from guests of other companies that they wish they could actually stay in these fantastic, small, European villages longer. Many bike trips keep you moving so much, you never get a real sense of where you’re staying.

The hillside village of Montbrun-Les Bains in Provence.

Do you attend each trip?

Jace: Yes. It’s my goal to be on every trip to ensure that our guests get the best, personal experience possible.

The Val du Sault, Provence.

2. The Trips & Rides – of your six trips offered, four are based in France – the Alps, le Tour, Provence and the Pyrenees. Why your focus on here?

Jace: Our focus on France is primarily for two reasons, we found that many people want to ride the legendary climbs of the Tour de France, and it’s the country where we hold the majority of our background experience.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other amazing routes out there. We know there are. Italy is perhaps our most requested “non-France” inquiry. We’ve ridden there quite a lot and agree that there is some phenomenal riding to be had. So we plan to expand there in the future. For now though, we are sticking to our core experience and that core is more or less in France.

Literally, “Dead Man’s Pass”. Fortunately, we were luckier than him crossing this col on our bikes.

What criteria do you use when planning your daily ride routes?

Jace: I personally think that a cycling tour should have a variety of easy and difficult days. Even in the inherently challenging regions (i.e. Alps, Pyrenees), I think it’s good to give guests a day or two to take it a little easier (if they want). I know that it’s tempting to ride hard every day and in some regions it seems that a famous climb is around every corner, but I try to remind people that it’s still their vacation and that they might want to take it easy a day or two. Of course on those “easy” days, there’s still a few challenging options available for those want it.

Every route is chosen to give the guest the best possible experience of the region. We choose smaller, less travelled roads whenever possible and focus on challenging and rewarding rides.

Keep in mind also that on all of our trips, guests will be using our preprogrammed bike mounted GPS units. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of staying on route. We’re amazed at how many other companies hand guests several pages of printed directions or a map and expect them to read (or stop) while riding. On our trips, you’ll be prompted at every turn. That means more time riding and less time trying to figure out where you’re going.

Descending from the Abbaye de Frigolet.

I haven’t see a lot of cycling trips into Germany, what was the appeal for you to set up your Black Forest Trip? I’ve done a little riding there nmyself and it’s pretty nice…

Jace: Well, I’ll admit it’s somewhat personal. I studied German in the Black Forest years ago and it was then that I discovered what an amazing riding region it is. You’re right, not that many people offer tours there, nor do people always think about it as a cycling destination. It doesn’t have the big name climbs or the status that is associated with the Alps or Pyrenees. What it does offer however are continually rolling/hilly roads with little traffic and fantastic views. It’s the reason that some German pro cyclists have made this region their home.

One of the many amazing vistas in the Black Forest.

What kind of cyclist is best suited to your trips?

Jace: We use the term “avid” cyclists when describing our guests. For us that means someone who likes to ride and looks forward to the next time they get on the bike. It’s someone who sees the challenge in a hill and relishes the thrill of the descent. That’s not to say that they are racers, even century riders or even care about how fast they are riding. But we use the term “avid” cyclist to distinguish ourselves and our guests from all of those “sightseeing” bike tour companies that seem to cater to people that only ride once a year…. when they are on the bike tour. Our guests consider themselves cyclists and are looking for a challenge.

If you’re looking to ride hard and fast, we’ve got the routes for you, but we never push our guests to go faster than they want. It’s about them enjoying their ride, whatever that might mean for them.

There will be a support van on every route, just in case you need mechanical assistance, a snack or want to ride a bit less that day. I understand that most cyclists don’t normally consider using the “sag wagon”, but just know that it’s there in case it’s needed. Remember… it’s vacation, not a race.

Waiting for the Tour.

Your website talks about how you split the days into morning rides and afternoon ‘free’ time, so guests can do whatever they like. Do you have organized sightseeing or cultural offerings for these free periods?

Jace: Yes, we do. Our afternoon activities vary by location. Wine tasting, for example, is a great thing to do in Provence, but less so in the Alps. Every region has it’s special activities and we offer our guests the chance to experience them firsthand through our optional afternoon activities. We designate the afternoon as “free time”, because we want to give our guests the options to do as they like. They may choose to join us for a cultural activity in the afternoon, or they may prefer to stay at poolside at the hotel, get a massage or do some shopping. It’s their choice.

The medieval village of Gordes in Provence.

3. Lodging – most of your trips are based out of one hotel, eliminating lengthy transfers (which can chew up a lot of time). Following the links from your website, I see you have some pretty nice looking hotels selected. What is your criteria for a good hotel, and how do you find these places?

Jace: We know of the lodging from our previous and extensive experience in the regions. When looking for a hotel/inn it’s very important that its location provides a full trip of riding, right from its front door, without having to duplicate routes.

Secondly, we look for lodging that has a small and local experience. Anyone can book a big, tourist class hotel, but wouldn’t you rather feel that you’re getting more personalized service and doing something that not everyone is doing too?

Small, family run hotels also offer our guests a chance to interact with locals even more. Some of my favorite travel experiences involve those unscripted moments that give insight into the local culture. I recall on several occasions when the inn’s owner has joined us for dinner to chat and share their stories about what life is like in the region. In some of our hotels, the owners/managers are also keen cyclists, eager to hear what our guests are up to on the bike and exchange stories of their favorite climbs in the region.

4. Eating – Most of the tour guests I’ve met over the past 9 years are like me – they want to do some great rides, but enjoy a great meal and great food as part of their trip – it is vacation after all. What’s your philosophy on food and drink on your trips?

Jace: Food and Drink is such an integral part of traveling. It’s another great way to learn about a country or region. We know our guests come on our trips because of the cycling, but we also want to create amazing off the bike experiences too. The sharing, conversing and friendship building that takes place during group meals is integral to that goal.

In Situ Travel currently offers six trips in 2011 – four to France and one each to Germany and Spain. Get more info at the website InSituTravel.com

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