Preparing for a Cycling Vacation: How to See Europe on Your Bicycle
The road less traveled sometimes truly does make all the difference. If you’re searching for a unique vacation that takes you off the beaten path so you can explore sights and sounds you would have missed otherwise, a European cycling vacation may be exactly what you’re looking for. While rewarding, it’s not quite as easy as simply packing your bags and hopping on the next flight to your destination.
You have to prepare well in advance, typically for as long as six months before you plan to depart. You’ll need to be physically fit and have a well-planned itinerary (or the right guide to get you where you want to go). The time spent in preparation will be well worth it once you’re on two wheels and exploring the countryside, villages and culture of your favorite European countries.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
No two trips are exactly alike when it comes to cycling tours, even tours within the same country. This diversity of experience is part of the beauty and charm of cycling vacations, and what keeps some visitors coming back to re-explore the same countries by bike more than once.
Jace Gifford of In Situ Travel appreciates that from the saddle of a bike he experienced far more of the sights and interaction with the locals than he would have from a car, bus, or train. “In particular, I fondly remember stopping at a crossroads to look at the map, when an elderly woman came out of her house to see if we needed any assistance,” he said. “We had a nice little conversation in very broken English/Italian. She was surprised that we had come all the way from the States to ride through her village and the surrounding countryside.”
As Gifford’s interest in cycling grew, so did the challenges he sought out on cycling tours: “I was intent on riding the some of the same routes as the Tour de France and other pro races,” he said. “As the routes became more challenging, so too did the logistics and my training.”
Carly Fauth, head of marketing at MoneyCrashers.com, said her cycling trip through Germany got her off the beaten path. “We were able to see a lot of sites that were located on the riverside that you probably couldn’t see from other vantage points,” she said. “We were also able to experience the sights and sounds of a lot of local farmlands, and lesser known hotels that probably wouldn’t be on the standard itinerary of a traditional trip to Germany.”
Avoiding throngs of tourists in Italy was the best part about a cycling vacation for Collette and Scott Stohler, who own Roamaroom.com. “Along the journey, we rode through olive groves, coasted around the seashore of the Adriatic Sea, biked through the trulli houses of Alberobello and rode into the white city of Ostuni, Italy,” she said. “If we weren’t on a bicycle, we would have never been able to take in the beauty, simplicity and intricacies of Puglia.”
Travel with a Tour Company
Working with a cycling tour company is the most convenient and safest way to explore the country you’ll be traveling to. While it’s possible to plan your own itinerary, a local tour company will know which roads are safe to travel, where to stop to recover during individual rides and where to find overnight lodging that fits your group’s expectations for comfort level and amenities. Some tour operators arrange for luxury accommodations so you can relax and recuperate in style, while others offer more bare-bones housing that is little more than a place to sleep.
Ken Norland, an avid cyclist and founder of Tech Strategies LLC, took two cycling trips to France eight years apart. The two trips followed much of the same route, but Norland says the second one was a better fit for their group because they used a knowledgeable tour group. “It was much better and more relaxed,” he says. “The first trip included about 50,000 feet of climbing in 12 days, and included the Pyrenees – more than we wanted to undertake with non-riders in the group.”
Customizing your trip through a cycling-specific tour company can help you head off potential problems like thousands of feet of climbing in the Pyrenees that you weren’t expecting. It can also help to ensure that you don’t speed past any of the “can’t-miss” sights on your itinerary. Margaret Hall and Moss Patashnik from Seattle used a tour company to customize their tour of Puglia, Italy. Moss says the biggest benefit of using a tour company is that it allowed him to tailor his trip to his personal preferences. “We love archeology and history, so they arranged for us to tour ancient Roman archeological ruins with a professional archeologist,” he said. “We also made cheese with a cheesemaker, spent a day cooking with a Pugliese chef, and visited an olive estate for a tour and tasting.”
Increasing Your Fitness Before Your Trip
Cycling through Europe can be rewarding and even relaxing, but it’s definitely not something to consider unless you have basic physical fitness. Most travelers who have completed – and enjoyed – their cycling trips either were already athletes or spent time before the trip building their physical fitness. Typical tours averaged 30 to 50 miles of riding per day; not impossible to do in one day, but repeating it five to seven days in a row can be exhausting if you’re not ready for it.
Collette Stohler and her husband Scott fall solidly in the “already fit” category. While Collette admits to never having ridden a road bike before the trip, the they’re both lifelong athletes and former CrossFit competitors. Scott had completed several half Ironman races (a triathlon consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run). Even with this phenomenal fitness base, they still took their pre-trip training seriously. “To train, we ran, performed hill sprints, and lifted weights,” said Collette.
Carly Fauth also warns that conditioning is key. “You should be in very good shape if you’re going to attempt something of this magnitude,” she said. “The last thing you want to do is to travel internationally for a cross-country biking trip, only to find that you’re not able to do so from a physical standpoint.” For her trip on the Romantic Road in Germany during 2007 she trained for roughly six months before the trip, both at home and in the gym. Her key to success was setting up an exercise regimen that she could stick with, and improving her diet.
Kim Prickett, who completed a cycling tour of Italy in September 2016, describes herself as in “moderately good shape” and relied on technology – specifically an e-bike – to help her get through the 20 to 30 miles per day her group averaged on the trip. An e-bike, or electric bike, looks and rides just like a standard bicycle. However, it has several additional components, including an electric motor that helps the rider negotiate challenges such as hills and headwinds. This makes it possible to travel longer distances without getting quite as tired as you would if you rode solely under your own power.
Should You Bring Your Bike?
The majority of people who take a cycling tour decide to rent their bikes from a tour operator or a local bike shop. This cuts down on the logistical overhead, since not only will you be required to pack and ship your bike to get it there, but traveling around the countries you visit is sometimes more difficult with your own bike. For instance, some trains will allow you to take a disassembled bike on board, but not an assembled bike. If you’re traveling with a tour operator, they will take care of transporting your rented bike between ride destinations if need be.
Ken Norland agrees and advises travelers to rent bikes for their trip. “On our first trip, one of the guys brought his own bike, and it was a great hassle,” he said. “But when we rented our bikes on the second trip, the normal, minor problems were solved quickly and the bikes were custom fitted to the riders.”
Knowing your measurements before you go can help you save time and find the correctly sized bicycle easily. You should know your height and inseam in inches and centimeters. If you already have a bike at home and know the frame size, that will help the tour operator select the right bike for you. Renting has the added advantage of opening up a world of different bicycle configurations as well, include electronic bikes, lighter carbon fiber frames and disc brakes for more consistent stopping power – all amenities your bike at home may not have.
However, if you’re an avid cyclist and this is the cycling trip you’ve always dreamed of, it’s understandable that you’ll want to travel with your own bike. Shanny Hill of TDA Global Cycling breaks down the process of making sure your bike travels well into three basic steps: disassemble, pack and protect. You’ll need a cardboard box big enough to fit your bike parts, a pedal tool, multi-tool and packing materials.
- Disassemble: Remove the pedals using the pedal wrench, turning the wrench toward the back of the bike. Remove the post seat and post from the bike, and tighten the seat clamp so it doesn’t fall off during travel. Take off the handlebars by removing the four bolts on the stem faceplate. Remove the front wheel by loosening the quick-release lever.
- Protect: Wrap a piece of foam or cardboard around the frame and forks to protect them from scratches, using tape to keep them in place. Use zip ties to secure the handlebars to the frame and the crank to the downtube. Place the pedals, quick release skewer and any other small parts in a separate small box. Cover the hubs and disk brakes with cardboard to prevent them from puncturing the bike box.
- Pack: Carefully lower your bike into the box. Add the front wheel to the box on the left side of your bike. Put in your seat and box of small parts. Add extra gear and additional materials like foam for extra padding. Tape the box closed, doubling up along the seams. Make sure you bring an extra roll of tape to the airport in case security opens your box for inspection.
For more on how to disassemble, pack and protect you bike for travel, view these detailed instructions from Shanny Hill:
Other Gear You’ll Need
You don’t just need to bring your bike or rent one, of course. Part of the planning is figuring out how you will travel on two wheels with everything else you need. While it would be ideal if every day on your trip was sunny and 70°F, inevitably you will hit some patches of bad weather. This is the one factor that Carly Fauth failed to anticipate:
“We didn’t plan for so much wind and rain during the days we were biking. It would have been helpful to have better rain gear as well as protective covering for all our gear,” she said. “We will definitely remember that for next time.”
Adventure Cycling suggests that you think of what you’ll need in terms of on-the-bike and off-the-bike:
- Cycling helmet — ANSI and/or Snell approved
- Touring shoes — good for walking as well as riding, i.e. some flex in the sole
- Cycling gloves
- Cycling shorts (1 to 3 pair)
- Socks — wool or synthetic (2 or 3 pair)
- Leg warmers or tights for riding (rain pants could substitute)
- Short-sleeved shirts (2)
- Light, long-sleeved shirt for layering and sun protection
- Rain gear, jacket and pants
- Waterproof shoe covers
- Comfortable shorts
- Comfortable pants (zip-off legs or rain pants could substitute)
- Underwear (1 to 3 pair)
- Sandals, flip-flops, or lightweight shoes
- Wool or fleece hat
- Wool sweater or fleece jacket
- Gloves — wool or fleece
- Swimsuit (optional)
You’ll most likely be packing your gear in panniers, or saddle bags, unless your tour operator will be transporting the majority of your luggage from destination to destination. If you’re packing your own saddle bags, keep the total weight to 45 pounds or less split over two bags. Place more weight at the front of the bike, or evenly distribute it on each side. Don’t forget to leave room in your bags for souvenirs and other things you’ll buy along the way.
Taking the First Step
If a cycling tour of Europe sounds like your dream vacation, it’s time to take the first step. For most travelers, it starts with online research and contacting a cycling tour operator to learn about vacation packages and customized trip options. Allow yourself about six months of preparation time before your trip to fine tune the logistics and build your fitness. With a little planning and hard work, you’ll be well on your way the trip of a lifetime.
- Courtesy of In Situ Travel
- Courtesy of Ken Norland
- Courtesy of Roamaroo.com
- Courtesy of In Situ Travel