Q&A with Peter Stock, Founder of Hosted Villas and Ensemble Cycling
Why create Ensemble Cycling?
Ensemble Cycling came about because, as a keen cyclist myself, I saw a big hole in the traditional cycling vacation options and realized that we had the solution at our fingertips.
There are really two types of cycling vacations and they both have the problem in that they each really only suit one type of rider and leaves any others out or dissatisfied.
At one end of the spectrum are the hardcore cycling trips. These might move from point-to-point like the Trans Alps or they are based in hotels – Spring training camps in Majorca, Spain are popular. But they are tough. They are designed to follow the hilliest routes possible – often mountain passes covered with snow - and to cover long distances, up to 150 miles a day. And that type of trip would be impossible for a novice rider.
At the other extreme are the luxury hotel-to-hotel cycling tours. While these are cushy, they aren't challenging enough for serious riders. You only cover about 35-50 miles a day which a strong rider could complete in about 2 hours.
Our solution is to take a mixed group of travelers – friends or family, of all cycling skill levels – base them in one of our boutique hotel like private villas and then design daily loop rides. The group can split up in the morning – some will take off on the Performance routes, others can follow the Recreational routes which include market visits, cafe breaks, sightseeing detours. And then they can all meet up for lunch or an afternoon off-bike activity like a winetasting or a guided walking tour. In the evening they can have dinner prepared at the villa by one of our chefs and swap stories of their cycling adventures. And our Local Host can make sure the non-cyclists have a full day of activities too. End of the day, everyone comes home happy.
The short answer is that villa-based
Ensemble Cycling vacation is what I would like to take myself.
What is your experience cycling in Europe?
When you live in France, as I did for most of the 1990s, you would be foolish not to consider cycling as a hobby. Europe (especially France, Italy and Spain) seems to have been purpose built for cycling.
I started riding when I started working for [ luxury bike tour operator ] Butterfield & Robinson in Burgundy in 1990. When we weren't out on the road guiding cycling groups in the Loire Valley or Provence, we'd often go riding for a couple of hours after work, from Beaune, our home base. One of my favorite routes will always be from Beaune through the vineyards to Savigny les Beaunes and then up a slow steady climb through the woods to Bouilland.
Later, I moved to Provence, which was wonderful because I could roll a bike out of my front door and be instantly in the middle of some of the best cycling routes in the world. I particularly liked the variety of quiet car-free routes around the Uzes area west of Avignon.
But my most memorial European cycling adventure was in 2006 when I undertook a solo, 18-day trans European half-loaded cycling trip from Nice to Amsterdam. 1347 kms, 837 miles. You can do a lot of thinking on a trip like that.
Describe your perfect cycling week?
I would like to do another “campaign” (as these long distance trips are sometimes called) but they are awfully lonely sometimes.
Instead my perfect cycling week would be like the one I am planning for my upcoming birthday. I've invited a variety of friends – some ride, some don't – to join me for a week at Le Jardin one of our villas in Provence, near the Mt. Ventoux. This region north of Carpentras has as tremendous variety of easy and hard routes, excellent restaurants and markets and things to see and do. Plus the villa itself sleeps 10 people very comfortably and is located in a quaint little town, so my guests could all have a degree of independence and would not even need a car.
What is a Ensemble Cycling vacation like?
On arrival at the villa your rental bikes are waiting and our mechanic is available to fine tune the setups.
Your Local Host has done your initial shopping and put the final touches on the villa preparation. Your Local Host will spend an hour or two orienting everyone and dealing with any immediate concerns. Since everyone is now typically running around charging cell phones and checking out the bikes and routes, the arrival evening is a great time for a light buffet dinner that your Local Host will also have prepared and laid out.
Things start in earnest the next morning. Typically the groups will split into a fast riding group and a more leisurely group and meet up in the afternoons. In the Ride Guide there is a section of both Performance Routes (60-100miles) and Recreational Routes (25-50miles). But on the first day we usually suggest a ride that everyone can do together, to get your bearings.
Some groups ride all day everyday. Others limit themselves to the morning after which point the put the bikes aside, clean up and do some of the many Off-The-Bike activities suggested in your TripBook [our local area guide book.] Guided wine tastings and cultural tours (like the Roman ruins at Vaison la Romaine) are popular.
Evenings are either dinner out at restaurants we recommend and reserve in advance or a home cooked meal back at the villa.
Why wouldn't someone just plan their own cycling week?
You can of course but having just sent a group of 6 couples off to Provence for a week of cycling, I am reminded how much time, energy and expertise is required to do it right.
Each little special need related to each group's trip – best car rental arrangements, bike rental options, restaurant dinners reservations, picnics, iPod chargers, wine tastings. etc etc... – is dealt with through a Query, a back-and-forth online conversation with the Local Host, the on-the-ground local person in charge of each group.
There were 25 Queries for this group, and each query required as many as 8 exchanges to resolve. The group wanted each night's dinner pre-planned and reserved. We coordinated the fixed menus for a 16-person dinner. Some participants had some food allergies. They wanted a French decoration theme for their Thursday evening 4-birthday dinner buffet. Would we make sure there were iPod speakers (of course there were), some people wanted super duper professional rental bikes (no problem). Etc. etc.
It's the little details and local knowledge that makes the difference. Would you know for instance that you have to secure your bikes when visiting the “don't miss” Isle sur la Sorgue market? How would you arrange that on your own?
And of course there is route planning. We've spent so many years in these areas that we instinctively know which roads are scenic, too busy, hilly or flat. We can advise where there are good restaurants, sandwich places, grocery stores. Goult [a small town in the Luberon in Provence] for instance, is the Go To place for a mid-ride coffee or beer on the sunny main square. Neighboring St. Pantaleon or Cabriere are not.
All that riding knowledge for each villa is rolled into the 60-page Ride Guide with cycling tips, suggested routes and maps, village maps.
And finally what if something goes wrong? A mechanical problem with a bike? We get it fixed or replaced fast so that you don't waste time.