Growing up in Madison, Trek Travel guide Jenny Binkowski always rode her bike around her neighborhood. But she didn’t start cycling seriously until high school. And while she never raced, she says riding helped her recover from soccer and running injuries.
“It kind of began as cross training,” said Binkowski, 23, who has led bicycle touring trips from California to Spain to Ireland for Trek Travel, a Madison-based company affiliated with Trek Bicycles. “Over time, I fell in love with the activity and now do it pretty much every day.”
Binkowski said she knew of Trek Travel from living in Madison and interned there on her summers off from the University of Denver in Colorado “because there’s no place I’d rather be in the summer than Wisconsin.”
She rode a lot in Colorado, too, and developed an affinity for climbing mountain roads on her bike.
“There is great cycling in the Rockies,” she said. “Climbing hills in the mountains breaks up the rides for me. And I’ve always liked the challenge of getting to the top of a grade and seeing what there is there to explore.”
After graduating, she went through Trek Travel’s rigorous guide hiring process and signed on as a trip leader two years ago. When she’s not on the road leading tours around the world from May through October, she works in the company’s marketing department.
She said would-be guides, who often live in far-flung corners of the globe, are first interviewed via Skype. After follow-up discussions, those who make the initial cut come to Madison for a one-day hiring event.
“You get in late at night and things start the next morning at 8 a.m.,” she said. “Some of the interview stuff is what you’d expect, but there are also some off-the-wall things, like an Iron Chef Challenge where you have to create a picnic – which is what you’ll often be doing as a guide. There’s also a social hour and a dinner.”
The potential employees fly home the following day and those who are chosen are invited to the next round, a 10-day training camp that was held last year in Solvang, Calif.
“It’s pretty much all-inclusive,” she said. “You learn to be a guide. It’s 10 days of bike mechanics and you also lead a mock group of guests. Not all make it, but at the end, the best are given contracts. We don’t want to hire too many, though, because then they might not have full schedules or as much work as they want.”
Binkowski’s first real guiding trip was with a group of Trek Bicycle dealers. She helped lead them on a trip in California, which featured the Amgen Tour, a multi-day professional Tour de France-style cycle event.
After that, she guided a cycling sojourn in Europe that included an up-close view of the real Tour de France, then spent three months leading trips in Vermont where she said the fall colors were “incredible.”
This year, she was in Spain on the Costa Brava for a month and then led trips in Ireland for two months. She hopes to cycle in Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and in Portugal in 2016.
She said a full season of guiding for many of the company’s 60 or so trip leaders is six months, though that period is increasing for some guides as Trek Travel adds outings in Central and South America.
“We have an eclectic group of trip leaders, some of whom are ski and snowboard instructors in Colorado, others are nurses, even a few are parents who spend the rest of the year with their families,” she said.
Though the salaries aren’t in the six figures, Binkowski said guides are often able to save money because they don’t have many living expenses while they are working. They often stay in the same luxury hotels and guests and nearly all their meals are covered. During breaks, they stay in “guide houses” rented by Trek Travel.
“But most of us do it because this is our passion and we love to be outside riding our bikes and showing people new places around the world,” she said. “Some of our guides have been working for Trek Travel for 10 or 20 years, almost as long as I’ve been alive. I don’t think they started out thinking this would be a career, but it’s turned into one for them.”
Wanna be a guide or simply go on a Trek Travel cycling trip? See the company’s website at Trektravel.com or call (866) 464-8735.
— By Brian E. Clark