It’s been over a year since I’ve done a bike tour of significant length and off in some interesting locale. I routinely search for interesting tours but the timing has to be just right because of my work schedule. So this year it worked out October had some time. After a fair bit of searching, I landed on one offered by Backroads.

In a nutshell, the tour was billed as the Napa/Sonoma wine country tour. 6 days of riding in the beautiful California wine country. Sounded good to me.

I’ve known about Backroads for ages but never booked them because they seemed to me to cater more toward really plush tours – not to mention they are also more expensive than average. I thought it might imply the routes might be boring or easy or both and it’d be entirely filled with first-timers. Turns out at least for the tour I booked, most of that wasn’t true. It was indeed plush – more on that later – but the routes turned out to have some great options and I found a few people I enjoyed riding with.

There were indeed some first-timers on the trip but there were also vets of other tours. For a group this size (23 of us and 3 guides) most people got along very well and the tendency I have seen in other tours of that size to have cliques form that never cross paths after the first day or so didn’t really happen. In a group this size there’s ‘always at least one’ person or couple that doesn’t quite fit the mold and that was true in this case too. Funny how consistent that has been over the years. Otherwise, the demographics were what I expected. People my age or a little younger, professionals.

Logistics for this tour were a little more challenging than others. Partly because there wasn’t airport pickup built into the plan. Instead, we started from a hotel in downtown San Francisco and later returned to the same hotel. But the transfer from the hotel had to be made independently. Why that couldn’t have just been arranged by Backroads I don’t know. Because we ended on a Friday it seems natural that some would just want to hang out in the wine country till Sunday and then fly home but there was no accomodation for that. And renting a car in the wine country after and returning it at SFO later is more costly than most would want to arrange. So in my case I ended up going to the hotel after and then SFO to get a car. It amounted to 6 hours out of my precious vacation in transfer time.

Enough of that and on to the cycling. After shuttling to Etude winery, we immediately got exposure to the Backroads touch. There was a wine tasting at Etude followed by an elaborately prepared gourmet picnic lunch. Nice. Who’s ready to ride!? I really should have taken pictures of the lunches. The picnic lunches were outstanding.

Time to ready the bikes… I brought seat, pedals and helmet and my own bike computer. A bike comes with the price of the tour and by all accounts on the website it seemed like a nice enough one that I didn’t need to bring my own. I missed my own as it turns out but the rental bike was actually a nice bike. It just wasn’t the same perfect fit as my own bike. The bike was a titanium frame with either Shimano 105 or Ultegra or in the case of the rear derailleur some mountain bike component. Gear ratios were plentiful. Triple crank with (I didn’t count) probably at least a 30 tooth cog in the back. Some really low gearing available and I appreciated that later. It was a decent bike and suitable to the task.

The ride that first day was easy peasy. We rode from Etude over flat country to Sonoma and to the Sonoma Mission Inn. Weather was fantastic. Warm, sunny and just right. Click through for the route and details.

The Sonoma Mission Inn is plush, very plush. The highlight was the spa and the Santé restaurant.

As guests, we had at least the “bathing ritual” access to the spa. That alone was nice because it included showers with exfoliating scrub, hot tub, steam room and sauna. With only 20 miles under our belt it hardly seemed like we’d earned it but it was sure nice!

Did I mention the wine? We’d already had a wine tasting at lunch, then along the way we stopped in and had a fantastic tasting of wines at Ravenswood and once we arrived at the Inn there was a complimentary (er, included) bottle in the room and then more to choose from at a meet and greet at 6pm at the fire pit at the Inn. Oh, and of course we could order more with dinner later too of course.

Dinner at Santé was excellent. We dined in 3 groups but in the same room. I went with the heirloom tomato salad, a filet and some ice cream/fig type dessert I couldn’t possibly remember exactly but it was all very good.

First day ended with everyone clearly getting to know one another. Some nice folks on the tour. Doctors, lawyers, business owners… from USA, Canada and Mexico.