Rick Steves: Bicycle touring in Europe
Travel writer, Rick Steves takes a look at cycling your way across the continent.
Biking is big in Europe. Riverside bike paths near Salzburg, Bruges, and along the Rhine have left me with top-notch memories. Some people travel almost exclusively by bike and wouldn't have it any other way. Rich Sorensen and Edwin McCain, who for years have gotten their travel thrills crisscrossing Europe by bike, helped me assemble the following tips on bicycle touring in Europe.
Bicycle touring is cheap and rewarding. To see Europe on $30 a day, you don't need a time machine. What you need is a bike, farmers' markets, and campgrounds or hostels. Traveling this way, you'll not only save money and keep fit, but you'll experience a quieter side of Europe that travelers rarely see.
While bicycle touring is one of the cheapest ways to see Europe, most bikers choose to pedal for the sheer joy of it. Imagine low-gearing up a beautiful mountain road on a bike (smell the freshly mown hay), then picture an air-conditioned Mercedes with the windows closed and the stereo on (smell the upholstery). The driver might think, "Masochistic nut!"...but he also might notice the biker's smiling face — the face of a traveler who can see clearly from mountain to village and hear the birds singing, while anticipating a well-earned and glorious downhill run.
Determine if a bike is the best transportation for your trip. Define what part of Europe you want to experience, and then ask yourself some basic questions to see whether your bicycle will be your key to freedom or an albatross around your neck. Remember that it takes an entire day to travel the same distance by bicycle that you could cover in a single hour by train or car. Sixty miles per day is a high average. With bakery stops, Rich averages about 40. For example, if you have the entire summer free, you and your bike can cover a lot of ground through, say, France, Germany, Benelux, Switzerland, and Italy. But if you have a month or less, will you be content to focus on a single country or region? Given what you want to see in the time you have, is the slow pace of bicycling a worthwhile trade-off for the benefits? And finally, do you want to spend much more of your time in rural and small-town Europe than in cities?
Read a biking guidebook. Cicerone offers cycling guides to England, Scotland, Wales, France, the French Alps, the Loire Valley, the Danube, Spain, and the "Way of St. James" (Camino de Santiago). Consider Cycle Europe: 20 Tours, 12 Countries, by Jerry Soverinsky; John Powell's Cycling the Rhine Route; or Katherine Widing's Bicycle Touring Holland with Excursions into Neighboring Belgium and Germany. For Italy, try Italy by Bike: 105 Tours from the Alps to Sicily, by the Touring Club of Italy. For Britain, there's Lands John O'Groats to End: The Official Cyclists Challenge Guide, by Brian Smailes.
Adventure Cycling Association's Cyclists' Yellow Pages is a good resource directory (available annually in print or online), and their Cyclosource online store contains first-rate books, clothing, maps, and bike gear (www.adventurecycling.org, tel. 800-755-2453).
Take practice trips. Make sure you really enjoy taking long rides weighted down with loaded panniers. Try some 60-mile-a-day rides (5 hours at 12 mph) around home. If possible, take a weekend camping trip with everything you'll take to Europe. Know which tools to bring and learn basic repair work (like repairing flat tires, replacing broken spokes, and adjusting brakes and derailleurs). Ask about classes at your local bike shop.
Decide whether to go solo, with a partner, or with a tour. You can go it alone, with occasional pick-up pals on the way. As a loner, you'll go where, when, and as far and fast as you want. Traveling with a companion or two is more cost-effective and can be more fun, but make sure your partner's cycling pace and temperament are compatible with yours. Organized tours, which usually have sag wagons to carry gear, average an easy 30–40 miles a day. For information, check out Euro-Bike and Walking Tours (tel. 800-321-6060), Backroads (tel. 800-462-2848), Pack & Pedal Europe (tel. 877-965-2064), or Randonnée Tours (self-guided tours only, tel. 800-242-1825). You can also check the ads in Bicycling magazine or Adventure Cyclist magazine.
When to go depends on where you go. Ideal biking temperatures are between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so May is a good time to bike in the Mediterranean countries. Edwin started his five-week trip in Greece in May before it got too hot and then pedaled up through the Balkans to England. He had good temperatures all the way, but he also had headwinds (the prevailing westerlies). Rich and his wife, Risa, set out from Barcelona on a more leisurely spring-to-fall route that took them through France, England, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece, and they had not only ideal temperatures but also fewer headwinds.
Bring your bike from home. Although you can buy good touring bikes in Europe, they're no cheaper than here, and you're better off bringing a bike that you're sure is the right fit for you, your racks, and your panniers. Cyclists debate whether to tour on a thick-tired mountain bike or a touring bike with skinnier tires. Mountain-bike tires are much more forgiving on the occasional cobblestone street, but they are more durable than necessary for most European roads, and the chunky tread design will slow you down. In addition, straight mountain-bike handlebars will limit your hand positions, increasing fatigue on long riding days. If you already have a mountain bike, go ahead and take it, but add some bolt-on handlebar extensions..
Airlines have different bike-checking policies. Call your airline directly. More and more airlines are charging a fee for your bike and for the "bike box" they provide. Some airlines will fly it to Europe free, considering it to be one of your two allotted pieces of checked baggage. Most airlines require that bikes be partially disassembled and boxed. Get a box from your local bike shop, the airline, or from Amtrak (which sells cavernous bike boxes). Reinforce your box with extra cardboard, and be sure to put a plastic spacer between your front forks (any bike shop will give you one). Airlines require that pedals be taken off the bike; never leave them loose in the box. Attach them either to your rear rack or put them in one of your panniers. You can toss in your panniers, tent, and so on for extra padding, as long as you stay under the airline's weight limit. Bring the tools you'll need to get your bike back into riding form so you can ride straight out of the European airport.
Be prepared. Expect rain and bring good bikers' rain gear. A Gore-Tex raincoat can double as a cool-weather windbreaker. You'll also be exposed to the sun, so plan on using plenty of sunscreen. A bell is generally required by law in Europe, so you should have one on your bike — for giving a multilingual "Hi!" to other bikers as well as a "Look out, here I come!" Even if you never ride at night, you should at least bring a strobe-type taillight for the many long and unavoidable tunnels. Smaller Presta tire valves are standard in most of Europe, so if your bike has the automotive-type Shraeder valves, take along an adapter. To guard against unsightly road rash (and worse), always wear a helmet and biking gloves.
Obey Europe's traffic rules. Bikers generally follow the same rules as drivers. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, have rules and signs just for bikers: A bike in a blue circle indicates a bike route; a bike in a red circle indicates bikes are not allowed. Be alert; if you follow the blue bike signs, these required bike paths will get you through even some of the most complicated highway interchanges. Beware of the silent biker who might be right behind you, and use hand signals before stopping or turning. Stay off the freeways. Little roads are nicer for biking, anyway.
Use good maps. Michelin's Europe and individual country maps are fine for overall planning. In Europe, use local maps for day-to-day navigation. Michelin, Touring Club Italiano, and Die Generalkarte 1:200,000 maps reveal all the quiet back roads and even the steepness of hills. Don't be obsessed with following a preplanned route. Delightful and spontaneous side-trips are part of the spirit and joy of biking.
Taking your bike on a train greatly extends the reach of your trip. Every hour by rail saves a day that would have been spent in the saddle (and there's nothing so sweet as taking a train away from the rain and into a sunny place). To make sure you and your bike can travel on the same train, look for trains marked in timetables with little bicycle symbols, or ask at the station's information window. In some countries, trains that allow bikes require advance reservations.
Bike thieves abound in Europe. Use an improved Kryptonite-style bike lock to secure your bike to something sturdy. Never leave your pump, handlebar bag, panniers, water bottle, or computer on your bike when you can't see it. Keep your bike inside whenever possible. At hostels, ask if there is a locked bike room, and, if not, ask or even plead for a place to put your bike inside overnight. Remember that hotels and many pensions don't really have rules against taking a bike up to your room. Just do it unobtrusively. You can even wheelie it into the elevator. Rich and Risa found campgrounds to be safe, but they always locked their bikes together.
Travel light...or camp. Unless you really love camping, staying in hostels or hotels makes more sense, since it frees you from lugging around a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment. European campgrounds tend to be more crowded than American ones, so if you're willing to sacrifice privacy in order to mix with Europeans, camping can add a fun dimension to your trip.
A bike makes you more approachable. The most rewarding aspect of bicycling in Europe is meeting people. Europeans love bicycles, and they are often genuinely impressed when they encounter that rare American who rejects the view from the tour-bus window in favor of huffing and puffing through their country on two wheels. Your bike provides an instant conversation piece, the perfect bridge over a maze of cultural and language barriers.
Consider short-term rentals for bike-friendly cities or regions. Most of the tips here are for long-distance bike trips, but bikes can also be a fun change of pace if you're traveling by car or train. You can take the train from Paris to Amsterdam, then rent a bike for a few days to get around the city...and out into the tulip fields and windmills. In many countries (especially France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands), train stations rent bikes and sometimes have easy "pick up here and drop off there" plans.
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