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Robbin McKinney inspiring people to embark on their own “great bike journey”

The longtime cycling guide speaks Feb. 24 at Whistler Public Library

You’ve probably heard of frequent flyer programs. Well, if frequent biker miles were a thing, Robbin McKinney would have a whole lot of them. 

For over four decades, McKinney has made cycling and travel his lifestyle of choice. His professional guiding career began in 1983 with a Toronto-based outfit called Butterfield & Robinson. 

McKinney, then just 23 years of age, encountered a guide during a months-long bike trip in Europe. He quickly realized the appeal of being paid to go on exotic excursions with luxury hotels and breathtaking views. His command of French, Spanish and English made him an ideal candidate to lead others around the European continent and beyond. 

By now, the self-identified “traveler at heart” has embarked on numerous professional and independent journeys across the world, from New Zealand, Morocco and Portugal to Japan, Vietnam and Turkey. He owns two companies: Great Explorations and Randonnée Tours, and he wants to inspire others to approach travel with a more adventurous mindset. 

That’s why McKinney is dropping by the Whistler Public Library to give a familiar talk: “Great Bike Journeys of the World”. 

Fresh air, morning light 

One can use one’s hard-earned vacation days in any way, theoretically: bus tours, road trips, concerts, sports games, or drinking piña coladas on a picturesque beach. A long bike odyssey through unfamiliar territory tends not to cross one’s mind. 

McKinney hopes to change that. His presentation is chock-full of images, videos and anecdotes from 40 years of navigating places that he returns to often: most recently Provence, Catalonia and Majorca, to name a few. In his opinion, the bicycle is an ideal method of travel. 

After all, bikes are simple vehicles that can often be fixed with a few tools and a bit of know-how. They allow you the freedom to go at your own pace and speed, and to take detours on short notice—things that planes, trains and automobiles don’t necessarily provide. 

McKinney remembers feeling exhausted and cooped up the few times he’s ever rented a car on vacation. Not so on his bike: he feels invigorated all day long. 

“You can’t beat it—you’re riding with fresh air and morning light, people are waving to you and they’re intrigued,” he said. “As a North American, they're curious about you, right? They're like: ‘wow, you've come from where? You're on a bike riding through this country?’.

“I’ve found that in all my trips, the connections you make with locals are very different than what you might have if you're on a bus or driving through the region. You're outside with them, you're riding beside them and they're always thrilled to see that.” 

Some might find the idea of a multi-day ride physically daunting, but McKinney insists that one need not be a former triathlete and racer like himself to enjoy the experience. He’s had clients in their 70s and 80s not only get by, but have an absolute blast. 

“To most people who have thought: ‘I don't know if I could do that,’ I'm like: ‘you can’,” said the Ontarian. “It’s 40 or 50 kilometres a day and we've got support as needed. It will change your life in my opinion. That’s a bold statement, but everyone I know who has done a bike trip has changed the way they think about travel.” 

Tires on the road 

If there’s one thing McKinney loves as much as riding, it’s personally curating a memorable journey.

In this day and age, most North American players in the active travel industry outsource the nitty-gritty of trip-planning to destination management companies (DMCs) located in various countries. McKinney and his team weren’t interested in that—instead they’re passionate about maintaining a hands-on approach. 

While he definitely hires local guides, the Prince Edward County native tries to personally ride any route that either of his companies would sell to tourists. His boots-on-the-ground (or tires-on-the-road) method is not only fun, but allows him to consider what types of routes, accommodations and restaurants his clientele would enjoy the most. 

Both Great Explorations, which offers guided trips, and Randonnée Tours with its focus on self-guided experiences, use very similar itineraries. It’s important to McKinney that he plays a role in ensuring customer satisfaction. 

“For any tour operator, you want people who come back saying: ‘wow, that changed my life.’ Of course, not every trip can be that, necessarily, but you get a lot of people who are truly wowed by the experiences [we offer].” 

McKinney’s presentation takes place on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. Spots can be reserved at