Cycling: it’s cheap, green and good for your health. And it’s also a great way to get out and absorb all that a country has to offer. Moving relatively slowly, without barriers, cyclists can get immersed in a country’s detail, and experience a quieter side that tourists rarely get to see.
In Europe, the two-wheeled traveller is held in high esteem. Author, journalist and devoted cyclist Robert Penn writes of his first bicycle tour, “I discovered there is something virtuous in a bicycle. It’s a ubiquitous form of transport used by the rich and the poor. People understand the physical effort involved, and that raises the status of cyclist from traveller to pilgrim”. (Wanderlust)
And it’s fun, too: free-wheeling down a mountain or pedalling beside a sleepy river, stream or sea, it’s hard to imagine a better way to travel.
But making that progression from pootling around your home town on a Sunday to a week or more touring by bike can seem like a big step. Will you be fit enough? What if you don’t take to it?
A format for everyone
With an increasing number of both specialist and mainstream tour operators offering cycling holiday options, even rank amateurs can find a fitting ride and holiday to suit.
Non Tour de France types might want to start their cycling careers in one of Europe's flatter expanses and let someone else deal with details, via a guided or self-guided tour. And what about fitness? Most operators will offer a grading system (usually from easy/beginner to challenging) to indicate level of difficulty. Obviously you should be able to ride a bike, but as long as you cycle a bit, the trips recommended for first-timers shouldn’t be a problem for most people. In practice, most travellers surprise themselves: with ample time for ad hoc photo stops, sightseeing or long lazy lunches, suddenly a day’s cycling doesn’t seem so strenuous.
Many cycling and adventure tour companies offer complete cycling holiday packages, including accommodation, guides, gear, and often a sweep-up bus that the weary can retire to if necessary. While people don’t sign up with the intention of spending time in a van, it can be comforting to know it’s there. The camaraderie and support offered by a group trip can be ideal for first timers lacking in confidence.
Guided groups are not for everyone. But it's rather nice when someone else takes care of logistics. Enter the supported, self-guided cycle trip: travellers ride independently, but along detailed, pre-mapped routes (pausing wherever they fancy), with luggage transported ahead to the next night's hotel.
Of course, you could do it all yourself, and plenty do. There’s nothing like the autonomy, freedom and sense of accomplishment granted from a self-styled cycling tour. Independent cyclists take to the road abroad in a variety of ways, largely depending on budget and experience. From so called “credit-card” touring with a minimum of equipment and plenty of money, to “fully loaded” touring, where cyclists carry everything they need with them, complete with food, clothing and tent. Planning is essential for a DIY bicycle trip - you'll need more than the kind of general country information you'll get in any normal travel guide. You'll need information that is geared towards cyclists. The best source of such information is the destination country's local cyclists association, or online communities like bikeradar or cycle-route.com.
Should I hire a bike or bring my own?
The question of whether to take your own bike is a balance of cost and comfort. If you’re an experienced cyclist going on a harder grade trip over more technical terrain, you’re more likely to want to take a bike you’re familiar and comfortable with. Most (but not all) airlines will charge for transporting bikes, which you must pre-book. Prices vary but expect to pay £20-35 for each leg: Skyscanner has a comparative list of bike charges for most major airlines.
For gentler trips, or for those where cycling will only make up part of the time, hiring can often be easier, involving no excess baggage charges or packing difficulties. Also, if something goes wrong with the bike, it will be replaced/repaired by the hire company. However, condition and quality can be variable. If venturing outside one of the cycling meccas, consider at least taking your own saddle.
What should I wear?
You don’t need to look like one of the Lycra-clad elite, but comfort and manoeuvrability should be high on the agenda when packing. Think “chafing”. Or rather, minimising chafing. Avoid cotton, which can hold sweat close to your skin. Padded shorts of some description are also rarely an addition you’ll regret. Many cycling tour packages will include helmet hire, but check with your provider in case you need to bring your own.
What if something goes wrong?
Guided and self-guided tours almost always include emergency assistance, and most will also kit you out with things like a puncture repair kit and pump. That said, it’s worthwhile knowing how to carry out basic repairs (like punctures), to avoid needing to call someone out for something you can fix yourself on the road.
If cycling independently, it’s worth having an experienced bike mechanic give your machine a thorough service before you go. In case something does go awry on the way, elementary tools and a working knowledge of basic repairs will stand you in good stead. Cycling blogger Molesoup (www.molesoup.com/touringtips) suggests carrying along tools and spares in a half size drink bottle, attached to the frame.
10 Classic Cycling Destinations
1. New Zealand – the west coast of the South Island, taking in the Otago Peninsula: mountainous, varied and glorious. http://www.nzcycletrail.com/
2. France: the Loire Valley – perfect for cyclists who like to lunch. Incorporate a spot of wine-tasting. http://www.cycling-loire.com/
3. USA – from northern California via the redwoods, along the coast around Mendocino to finish in San Francisco. www.terrymorse.com
4. Holland – perfect for beginners. Flat, gentle and supremely cyclist friendly http://www.holland-cycling.com/
5. Scotland – from Aberdeen to the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, coast to coast along forest trails and loch-side paths. http://www.visitscotland.com/see-do/activities/cycling/
6. Croatia – Follow the Istrian peninsula, and island hop down the coast via the ferry network. http://www.find-croatia.com/cycling-croatia/
7. France: Provence – gentle pedalling and fine food through vineyards and lavender fields. http://www.provence-cycling.co.uk/
8. Wales – The Celtic Trail takes in much of the Pembrokeshire coast, showcasing Wales at its wildest www.routes2ride.co.uk/wales
9. Canada – Quiet roads and spectacular scenery through the Rockies from Banff to Jasper. http://www.cyclingcanada.ca/
10. South Africa – the Cape and the winelands offer exceptional scenery on lightly trafficked roads. http://www.irideafrica.com/