For cyclists, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a world-class bike trip

I went to Kentucky for the bourbon, but came back in awe of the biking. I mean rapturous.

I’ve done cycling vacations all over the world, from classics like Tuscany and Burgundy to hotspots like Majorca to less-visited destinations like Japan, but several things about riding in Kentucky stood out above any other place I’ve been. .

Upon arrival, one of the guides with active travel specialist Backroads told me that although he had done trips for the company throughout Europe and the American West and on his own in Asia and South America and just about anywhere else, he had never they saw the drivers as polite as in Kentucky. That didn’t make sense to me, so of course, I figured it was marketing hype and didn’t believe him.

I was wrong. Where I live in Vermont, the drivers are usually very good at interacting with cyclists, and in Spain and Italy, where cycling is the national sport, the drivers are even better, very used to cyclists and patient when it comes to passing and such. But Kentucky is next level in terms of politeness, and on a windy country road you might look back to see three or four cars piled up and huddled together, waiting for a long drive to take place and then pass with lots of space. Everyone waves you through intersections and politely pulls over to let you in when turning, and in 5 days and over 200 miles, I have not encountered a single rude driver, comment, or gesture, or even once a car came very close. If you ride a bike, you will know that it is simply remarkable. I can confidently say that the drivers in Kentucky bourbon country are the kindest I’ve seen in the world.

But this is only the tip of the big cycling iceberg. While motorists are polite, they’re also rare – the first day I drove 21 miles before seeing the second car on my route. Bourbon country is rural and it’s also horse country, the heart of American thoroughbred racing and breeding. The views are constantly breathtaking, they pass thoroughbred farms on tree-lined empty roads with perfect hedgerows and bluegrass, endless views, all with almost no traffic. The roads are well maintained and there are plenty of elevation changes so you get the workout of gaining significant elevation each day, as well as the thrill of downhill rapids, but all without any of the long grinding climbs you find almost everywhere else. it is not level. In short, the riding is amazing, and would be great even without the bourbon. But there is also bourbon.

With the sole exception of Scotland, there is probably no place on earth more synonymous with whiskey than Kentucky. Bourbon can be legally produced anywhere in the United States, but 95% of the world’s supply is made here in the Bluegrass State, along with even more non-bourbon Kentucky whiskey. There are more barrel-aged bourbons in the state than there are residents, and many of them are located in welcoming distilleries with excellent tours and excellent visitor facilities.

To make the journey even more user-friendly, in 1999 the Kentucky Distillers Association partnered with some of the most famous names in the distilling industry—think Maker’s Mark, Evan Williams, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey, among many others— to create the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Most tourists explore the trail by car, but since it opened and grown in popularity, more distilleries and route options have been added to the trail, and the Kentucky Distillers’ Association has mapped and published directions for three official “self-supported” bike rides tours of the Bourbon Trail, from 1-3 days, totaling 55-188 miles and visiting 3-10 distilleries. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail website has partnered with active mapping specialist RideWithGPS to offer printable maps and tip sheets, as well as turn-by-turn GPS directions using the app on your smartphone. All of the distilleries listed along the way have public tours and tastings.

However, this is not a trip I would personally recommend doing on your own, with the exception of the day trip – but not enough to experience the fascinating area. Once you stay overnight, you have to carry a lot of gear, which makes it much more cumbersome. There are very few bike rentals available in the area, and if you do find one, it won’t have the racks or racks you’d like, meaning you basically have to drive here and bring your bike. Even if you do, you’ll need to carry a lot of weight and you can never be sure when you get to a distillery if a tour will be available, as they are very popular and sell out, or the next one might not be for hours. If a storm or other bad weather hits, you’re on the road alone and out of luck, and you generally have to do everything yourself and rely on the same publicly accessible tourism options that all drivers seek out.

Whenever I go on a cycling holiday, I go with a well-regarded tour operator that provides expert guides and truck support along the way for mechanical or weather-related issues (or if you just get tired). But they also have pre-booked hotels, pre-booked dining reservations, carry your luggage from hotel to hotel, and add VIP extras like private tours and experiences. You know before you hit the first mile what you’re going to see for sure and all the special activities you’re going to experience, and you don’t have to worry about missing anything.

There are several top active travel experts who run organized bike tours, especially in iconic places like Tuscany, and I’ve written about many of them here on Forbes. But there are very few options for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and Backroads was the first top tour operator to seize this unique opportunity and is by far the most experienced, having done so for several years. Backroads is also the country’s oldest and largest operating tour operator and one of the most luxurious. They provide pre-loaded GPS bike computers with turn-by-turn directions and have a fleet of custom-built European titanium bikes and custom e-bikes, with pro-grade upgrades like Di2 electric shifting on road bikes. I had traveled with Backroads before and knew the high level of quality to expect and was not disappointed.

The 5-Day Kentucky Bourbon Trail Bike Tour begins in Louisville, which is a wonderful city with many urban distillery experiences and great hotels, as well as the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center, and the world-famous Churchill Downs Racetrack, home of Kentucky. Derby. You can come a day or two early and enjoy some of these attractions. I did just that and stayed at the gorgeous new Hotel Distil, a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, a brand that brings together independent boutique properties too unique to fit into more cookie-cutter labels like Westin or Sheraton. Housed in a historic building on Louisville’s Whiskey Row, the vibrant heart of Downtown, Distil is just steps from several top distilleries that offer tours and has its own notable restaurant, Repeal Oak Fired Steakhouse. I’ve written extensively on top steakhouses around the world, but Repeal is the only one I’ve ever heard of that cooks over live fire from burning whiskey barrels, and while it sounds like a gimmick, the steaks were delicious and uniquely crusted. I would happily eat there again tomorrow.

The 5-day trip goes from Louisville to Lexington, the heart of both Kentucky’s thoroughbred and whiskey culture, and home to the state’s other world-famous track, Keeneland, which is hosting the 2022 Breeders Cup. I had never been and I stayed an extra day to watch the races, and the track is great, one of the best and most classic anywhere, so between the two tracks and all the horse related stuff along the way, you can see this as the Kentucky Bourbon and Thoroughbred Trail, a two-for-one cultural immersion.

The hotels Backroads uses are notable, from the historic Shaker Village to the unlikely but impressive Kentucky Castle, a Bluegrass nod to Versailles, culminating in the final two nights at Louisville’s premier luxury property, the 21c Museum Hotel. All breakfasts, lunches and dinners en route are included (which is not the norm on this type of trip), as well as some private distillery tours, large and small, bourbon tasting and many special behind-the-scenes activities such as a spectacular private tour of a premier thoroughbred stud farm, a visit to the exciting Kentucky Horse Park, home to the International Museum of the Horse, and even a private live bluegrass music performance. There is the optional opportunity to blend and bottle your own craft whisky. The trip has been so popular in recent years that it has grown and grown, and next year there are 21 scheduled departures from April to October 2023. However, despite its popularity, Backroads customer reviews have never given it anything but a perfect 5 Star rating.

The cycling in the area is simply fantastic, a draw for whiskey lovers, horse lovers and anyone interested in learning about the culture of the area and I can’t recommend it enough, whether you tackle it on your own or go the gentler route with expert tour guides. luxury accommodation, private tours and all the travel support you could ask for. It’s not the most famous bike trip in the world, but it’s one of the most fun. To help you plan or extend your trip before or after, the Kentucky State Tourism, Louisville Tourism, and Lexington Tourism travel sites are great.

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