Cycling in Europe – Part 1

Europe offers superb cycling with many quiet roads through scenic countryside and great cuisine to replenish your energy reserves. Yet surprisingly, few North Americans or Brits can be found on continental European roads, perhaps because they aren’t aware of how easy it is to arrange, especially with the availability of Internet resources. Having recently returned from my 17th cycling trip in Europe, I wanted to offer some lessons learned to encourage more cyclists to enjoy the experience.

Planning your trip:

At the top end for comfort and luxury are fully supported group tours by Backroads, VBT, Ciclismoclassico, Duvine, and others. These companies usually make all hotel and most meal arrangements, reposition luggage, dispense daily instructions and maps, accompany with riding guides, provide sag wagon support and either issue or rent bikes. Cyclists generally start together each day, but string out and don’t actually ride in a peloton; longer and shorter route options are usually offered each day. Naturally, this personalized service is more expensive but it provides a greater sense of security especially for less experienced cyclists, or those unfamiliar with the local languages or destination countries.

Less costly alternatives, suitable for more experienced cyclists are offered by a number of European companies. These tours are offered for group travel as well as even less costly independent, or self-guided travel. Group tours are similar to the top end tours described above, albeit with fewer services and more modest accommodations and meals. For the self-guided options, the tour operator arranges hotels, provides detailed maps/routes and instructions, repositions baggage, rents bicycles and serves on call for bike repairs beyond simple flats. These self-guided tours are usually organized for cycling from one hotel to the next each day, though some are ‘home-based’ meaning cyclists stay in one, or at the most two different hotels in a week of cycling Both self-guided and group tours are also available in ‘bike and barge’ mode where your hotel and most meals are aboard a barge, which repositions along a river each day.

Most of our cycling trips in Europe were arranged through a very large tour operator, Eurocycle, which offers modest-priced tours throughout Europe and other locales. Based in Vienna, Eurocycle often uses local subcontractors such as Pedalo in France, HikBik and Girolibero in Italy, Eurobike and Velociped in Germany and Spain, etc. For example, our recent Mallorca tour was booked with Eurocycle but conducted by Eurobike. Surprisingly we have never paid a ‘middleman markup’ when a subcontractor is involved, and Eurocycle offers a 5% discount for repeat customers. You can communicate in English with Eurobike and Eurocycle via email and their dual-language web sites, and route directions and briefings are in English for those who do not speak German. Tours are rated according to level of difficulty and many are offered both in self-guided or group mode, with guide and sag wagon.

Typical country road in Mallorca

Typical country road in Mallorca

You can find a lot of information on the web regarding both U.S and foreign tour operators, and good sources include Bike Tours Direct, Bicycling World and Bike Tour Reviews. Note: If you book through some of these sites, you may pay a small additional service fee.

Great map books like Bikeline might give you the idea of building your own tour, combined with shipping your bike with panniers to permit you to travel without baggage transport service. That’s a clear possibility, but not likely to save you any money because tour operators get wholesale hotel discounts which are built into their prices. Also the hotels they select have been vetted for convenience and comfort by cycling tourists over the years. Bikeline sells books of topographical maps overprinted with popular routes in many European countries. Most books are available only in German, but there are several English guides. To check what’s available, select ‘International Guides’ on the left column at their website.

After you look over the choices of tours and begin selecting a few alternatives, be sure to match the rated level of difficulty with that of your weakest rider. If there is a wide disparity among rider capabilities, some tours offer tandem bikes and increasingly, many offer rental electric bikes on which the motor can be activated as desired, as for hill climbing.

Consider how you will travel to and from the start and end points. Some tours seem quite attractive until you realize the time, trouble and expense you’ll incur getting there and back. For schedules and costs of train travel from your arrival airport to start city, check here.

Also, on that note, if you would prefer going self-guided from hotel to hotel, consider your options for “Plan B” — what will you do each day if you get sick or weather is really too bad for cycling? There are often trains or boats that parallel bike routes. At worst, you may have to hire a taxi to get to the next hotel, which was the easy decision we made one day in the Langhe hills west of Milan when heavy rain was forecast for the entire day and the route was 55 miles long with over 4,000 feet of climbing. Situations like that make you appreciate the advantage of a home base tour where there is no necessity to relocate each day.

Lastly, when scheduling your tour, consider traveling outside the high season. Often the ‘shoulder season’ offers the best prices both on air travel and bike tours, and though the weather might not be the very best, tourist crowds are fewer.

Check back next week for more tips on planning your European bike adventure!

*The following tips were provided by Larry D., a retired Army colonel living in Austin, Texas.

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