Travel: Meet Black Bear Adventures
Just because we love riding in Europe, doesn’t mean you can’t find an amazing cycling vacation a lot closer to home. Paul Wood thinks so too, and showing guests some of the best roads and riding in the south east US is his specialty.
Sometimes foreign languages, foods, and accommodations can actually add unneeded stress where it’s least needed – like on a vacation. But if you’re like the 75% of PEZ-Fans who live in the USA, you won’t even need a passport to take in what Paul considers some of the best riding on the planet. If quiet country roads, good food, and peaceful nights in clean, comfortable, (and even luxurious) lodging are things you consider important in a cycling vacation, then Paul might have a trip for you.
I recently talked with Paul Wood, owner and operator of Black Bear Adventures – who’s cycling tours focus on the Carolina states, but have branched out to include Colorado and Utah.
PEZ: “Black Bear Adventures”- Your company’s name might sound to some like more of a mountain biking/ camping outfit, yet all of your rides are on the road, and your accommodations look pretty luxurious. What’s the story behind the name?
Paul: One day after a long ride in the mountains of NC I purchased a newspaper scoured the classifieds and discovered an ad for a bicycle guide. I called and immediately scheduled an interview. During the interview I discovered that the young man I had just met had only started Black Bear Adventures and, in fact, hadn’t actually run a tour yet. His concept for Black Bear Adventures was to cater to the mountain bike crowd and introduce bicycle touring to the beautiful mountains surrounding Asheville, North Carolina. After the interview I went home and put together a plan to offer road cycling tours in what I consider some of the very best roads in America. We met again the following day, and I presented him with a proposal to: (1) develop a road cycling element for Black Bear Adventures, and (2) become a partner. He accepted the proposal, and I quickly went to work to design bicycle tours along the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace Parkways. After the first season, my partner left, I dropped the mountain biking tours, and we become a road cycling tour company focusing on the avid cyclist. The rest is history.
PEZ: What makes you different from other tour companies?
Paul: We are unique in that we fill a niche in the areas we operate. I do have a clear vision of our target market and have been lucky enough to be able to combine my passions for cycling, travel, food, and sharing those experiences into a business and lifestyle. Our customers are drawn to us because they are first and foremost cyclists. There are a number of companies doing “soft” adventure, but not many of us who design cycling vacations for people who truly want to challenge themselves. And while there are lots of cross-state rides that have substantial mileage, the model of riding hard, sleeping in a tents, dinning on marginal cuisine, and being surrounded by all kinds of disruptions to sound sleep just doesn’t appeal to me. So, I saw a need to supply cycling vacations for the avid cyclist or true cycling enthusiasts that met their desire for challenging rides, beautiful venues, with the understanding of how important a role lodging and dining play in the overall experience.
PEZ: Tell us a bit about yourself – your cycling background, and how you got into leading cycling tours.
Paul: I have ridden most of my life; for recreation, as a means of transportation, and through the late 80’s and 90’s competitively. But maybe more importantly, I have always been drawn to that sense of discovery and an appreciation for the quiet, unexplored road. There is nothing I like better than finding a new road and rounding a corner to discover an unknown waterfall, an incredible vista, or a new climb on which to challenge yourself.
PEZ: You seem to know more than the average cyclist ought to about quiet back country roads – how did you find all this pristine pavement?
Paul: The road less traveled has always been a passion of mine; I am drawn to the beauty of a quiet country road. In the southeast we are blessed to have an incredible network of state roads and as I mentioned previously I find nothing more exhilarating that exploring them. This wonderful network of roads and a low population density makes our little part of the country ideal for cycling.
PEZ: Of all the trips you offer, which one is your favorite?
Paul: Wow, difficult question. I love them all, of course, but if I had to choose one, I would say that our 10-day version of the Blue Ridge Parkway is my favorite. I am a Carolina boy at heart, and the cycling along this incredible road is simply unbelievable. Every time I am cycling on this road I feel like screaming out loud about just how lucky I am! It’s simply hard to express how special a road the Blue Ridge Parkway truly is – I mean, a 470 mile linear National Park with a great road surface, an incredibly beautiful setting, and all with the luxury of not worrying about your ride being disrupted by commercial traffic or signs. It simply has to be experienced to be fully appreciated! A quote from Elizabeth & Charlie Skinner’s book Bicycling the Blue Ridge best sums up the experience of cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway – “There is no ribbon of road in the country more ideal for bicycling than the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
PEZ: Your trips focus on specific areas of the US, the south east and Colorado/ Utah. My experience has been that trying to cover too much can lead to not enough of a good thing, so how did you choose these areas for your trips?
Paul: I personally specialize in the southeast, having lived in the south all my life this is where I feel most at home. But I’ve led tours all over the country for private groups of cyclists, as a tour operator for Medalist Sports (the management organization that coordinates the Tour of California, Tour of Georgia, Tour of Missouri and US Pro Championships), I have also led numerous tours throughout the country for various non-profit organizations. But given all that I have only recently become comfortable enough to add venues for public offering (Colorado and Utah) outside of my region of expertise. The decision to expand my offerings to other desirable areas was made after much deliberation and only after I found the right person to head up our western tours.
PEZ: What makes them such a good place for cycling?
Paul: The same things all cyclists consider when they contemplate their ideal cycling vacation; great road surface, minimal traffic, beautiful settings, challenging terrain. But we spend just as much time focusing on the other attributes that make cycling vacations memorable, lodging, food and support; the host locations we choose afford us a range of experiences from quiet remote inns and cafes offering regional delicacies to luxury boutique hotels within walking distance of the areas’ finest restaurants and I assure you that you will not find a more passionate and dedicated team to support your cycling vacation.
PEZ: What would you tell someone who has never visited this part of the US?
Paul: I have been lucky enough to cycle and lead tours throughout the United States and having done so has allowed me to see just how phenomenal the cycling in the southeast truly is. This area has been the site of and proudly represented by some this countries finest professional races; the Tour DuPont, the Tour of Georgia and the US Pro Championships to name a few. And the mountains of NC are home to the roads that Lance speaks so fondly about and sights as being where he revived his desire to return to the pro peloton. Not only do we have the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace Parkways, but we have a wonderful network of back roads that give us an incredible array of cycling experiences that can satisfy the desires of any cyclists.
Blue Ridge – Testimonials from your clients really focus on your Blue Ridge Parkway ride as one of the best rides anywhere … in the world. For those of us not yet lucky enough to have experienced this piece of cycling nirvana – what makes it so special?
Paul: The Blue Ridge Parkway is our signature tour and my favorite road. And ever since the article about cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway with Black Bear Adventures was published in Bicycling Magazine it has become our most popular destination.
A couple customer testimonials may say it best:
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a cyclists’ best kept secret. It is a quiet, peaceful road with gorgeous scenery, awesome views, excellent road conditions and very little traffic. I have cycled in many places over some wonderful areas but this trip was the best. – Patty
I’ve biked all over the country, but if I had to choose only one place to bike for the rest of my life it would be on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Why do I like it so much? There are no route changes, the road surface is excellent, no commercial traffic, the max speed limit is 45, and there is breath taking scenery almost everywhere. There’s probably no road more suited to bicycling in the world. – Mike M.
Pez: There’s a lot of mention on your site about how great the food is – but a lot of us not familiar with southern cuisine might think it’s all biscuits & bbq. When I’m on holiday, eating well is at the top of my list – so tell us what kinds of food and meals guests can expect.
Paul: I’m with you there; food is a critical element of a memorable cycling vacation. I truly understand this and work hard to seek out the very best cuisine in the areas that we operate. But don’t knock fluffy homemade biscuits and good ol’ southern bar-b-que. As an example of the cuisine on our tours:
We may start the day with Asheville’s Early Girl’s breakfast scramble – “Eggs scrambled hormone free, organically grown local pork sausage, shiitake mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and green onions, served with toast”
During the day snacks range from fresh fruit and Hammer Nutritional products to roadside gourmet lunches with sandwiches made with artesian breads and cheeses and thoughtful accompaniments.
And finally we might finish the day with a wonderful celebratory dinner at Asheville’s Zambra’s restaurant for some the finest Tapas this side of Spain or at the Corner Kitchen where a favorite choice is – “Pinenut Crusted Scottish Salmon on Creamy Orzo with Garlic Broccolini and Tomato Butter”.
Hotels – You offer a mix of lodging on the trips, from well-established chain hotels, to family-run inns, what is your philosophy on choosing the right places to stay?
Paul: I consider a number of factors when choosing the places we stay; the duration of the stay (one night vs. multiple nights), ease of access from our route (my preference is to choose inns we can ride to in order to minimize or eliminate the need for shuttles), amenities (pools, hot tubs, staff masseuse & those with quality dining are always a plus), setting (from those that overlook an incredible vista, to inns in the heart of a hip little downtown so that our guests can explore the local “scene”) and maybe more importantly I strive to build long term relationships with proprietors whose customer appreciation is in-line with ours.
The Riding – Your trips seem to be designed for a variety of cycling levels – what kind of riders are best suited to joining Black Bear Adventures?
Paul: Good question, our tag line is ‘Bicycle Tours Designed for the Avid Cyclist’ and I define “avid” as a cyclist who is enthusiastic about, capable of and willing to, ride their bikes for 4+ hours over the course of a number of consecutive days. We like to say that on a Black Bear Adventures Bicycle Tour “It Is about the Bike”. Also a significant percentage of our tours are now private vacations and in this scenario we can address most any cycling demands a group has.
Pez: What other activities are there for your guests, perhaps for spouses who do not cycle?
Paul: We run into this situation frequently and since the majority of our tours move either each day or frequently what I recommend is that the non-riding spouse have access to their own vehicle so that they can explore the beauty, history and culture of the regions we tour at their own leisure. Another plus for a non-riding spouse is that in the areas we operate our tours there are numerous opportunities each day for exploring nature and hiking.
PEZ: Why should someone choose to tour with you?
Paul: I am a firm believer in the restorative power of active travel and I am really excited about the role that Black Bear Adventures Bicycle Tours plays in providing cycling vacations for the avid cyclist. I think the combination of world class venues, challenging rides, exemplary customer service, best in class inns and dining all come together to make a Black Bear Adventures Bicycle Tour one of the best cycling vacation values in the industry!
As I like to say, you owe it to yourself to take a Black Bear Adventures Bicycle Tour!
• Get more info on all their trips at BlackBearAdventures.com