400 Bikers in a Typhoon

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Backroads Leader Tatyana biking in Vietnam400 Bikers + 1 Typhoon = Active Travel at its Best

Thirty-nine years ago, I formulated the original Backroads business plan while on a 5,000-mile solo bike trip through the western United States. Breaking free from my short-lived environmental planning career, I thrived on experiencing the world under my own power and at my own pace, reveled in challenging myself, and deeply appreciated the unique perspective of my surroundings. The fundamental principle of my new business was to enable travel experiences akin to the way I was traveling, albeit with a heck of a lot more support and comfort.

That philosophy became core to the Backroads culture and has never wavered.

So Where Does the Typhoon Come In?

Since very early in the Backroads days, we have run annual staff rides that gather our employees in one place for a multi-day adventure. These trips get everyone in the same space after being spread out across the globe for much of the year to revel in our strong community and just plain have fun together. Last month, it took place in Vietnam–right in the middle of one of the biggest typhoons in decades.

Backroads Typhoon Riders

While more rational minds might have considered cancelling the ride, we knew that our leaders and staff relish spontaneous experiences. They know that when you’re out experiencing the real world in an authentic way, unexpected things happen.

There’s no doubt that the staff ride could have been miserable if not for our company culture of positivity and adventure, of meeting challenges head on, and of embracing what the world throws at us when we’re immersed in it.

I should have known that once we started the trip, not one person would ask me “should we be here?” When things don’t go right, that’s when our leaders shine. They regard challenges as opportunities to elevate their experience into something more memorable, more adventurous, more life changing.

Because of them, the more unique the challenge, the more fun and innovative the outcome.

Backroads Biking in Vietnam

What It Was Like

As we set out on the first morning in the most colossally bad conditions imaginable, I was actually pretty excited. Someone asked me later that day, “did you ever think this wasn’t a good idea?” I actually had not thought about it, which was an interesting bit of self-reflection. Instead, I was in the moment, thinking “this is gonna be fun!” It was much more interesting riding my bike though knee-deep, muddy water than down a quintessentially classic cobblestoned lane simply because this was a new experience. Check out the video at the bottom of this page!

Vietnam - Biking in Typhoon Damri

I had certainly never biked in such ridiculous conditions, but it was 78 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the water wasn’t cold–there was just so much of it! I recall a rainy, 38-degree ride many years ago that was worse without a doubt. Or that time I pushed my bike downhill in Death Valley because the winds were so strong it was faster to push than ride.

For all the trips I’ve taken over the years, the unplanned adventures are the authentic experiences I remember most.

The same is true for those unexpected and organic glimpses into locals’ lives. Those of us on the staff ride felt more connected to the locals in Vietnam simply because we were contending with similar challenges. It was so inspiring to see them come out of their homes and businesses and, with a friendly smile, scoop away mud and debris–persevering while making the most out of a bad situation. You just can’t manufacture that sort of insight into a culture.

Backroads Staff Ride and Typhoon Relief Troops

Translating This to Guest Experiences

We definitely don’t expect our guests to have the exact same level of comfort that we do with challenging situations. That’s why we’re here. We do have that confidence and ability to problem-solve on the fly. We’re going to take care of everything and embrace the challenges for you to make sure you have the best trip possible– so that you get to experience the place on a real level, far from the bubble of regimented tours.

That being said, our guests are typically a self-selecting population who are disproportionally open to stepping out of their comfort zones and embracing the unexpected. On another trip in Vietnam, the rivers were so swollen that even our vans could not cross them. So our leaders flagged down a passing, empty garbage truck and our guests cheerfully hopped into the back to enjoy a safe lift to the hotel, where they got a lot of mileage out of their tale.

That spontaneity and access to real people in real situations is easily one of the top raves we hear from guests.

What a Team

This was an unforgettable staff ride. It exemplified how much we relish forging our own path and building our community. This is a group of incredibly experienced, spirited and talented people who have fun conquering obstacles and place a premium on deeply exploring the world in genuine ways. At the same time, they’re just plain good human beings.

Vietnam Staffride

The trip was also incredibly fulfilling for me and validated that the core values we began with are what continue to set us apart today. We work so hard to find and cultivate such amazing leaders and imbue this self-perpetuating culture among them. Their enthusiasm is genuinely contagious. These are the people our guests get to travel with and I honestly believe it’s one of the biggest reasons our guests love our trips.

If someone were to ask me who I would want to take with me on a great adventure, the answer would be simple. I’d travel with a Backroads Leader any day.

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Tom Hale

Tom Hale

Founder and President at Backroads
A native of Moraga, California, Tom Hale possesses a passion for two seemingly divergent interests—business and back roads—which he has powered into the world's most successful active travel company, Backroads. It was the back roads that first attracted him, as a competitive runner at Campolindo High School (where he still holds the two-mile record at 8:57.2) and at the University of Oregon, where he was a teammate of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. Armed with a Masters in Environmental Planning from UCLA, Hale was six months into an environmental planning position in Las Vegas when the back roads called again—big time. A middle-of-the-night inspiration to start a bike touring company motivated him to pedal 5,000 miles alone through the West, all the while formulating plans for his new business. Settling in Berkeley, Hale washed fondue pots by night and built his fledgling travel company by day. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he did it all—designed the itineraries, maintained the bikes, led the trips, produced the catalog.
Tom Hale

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