The Tour de France is preparing to set off – but you don't need to be Lance Armstrong to enjoy an exhilarating European cycling holiday, as Sarah Baxter reveals

What's the attraction?

Even before Chris Hoy and company won a pannier-full of gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Brits had started returning to the bicycle. It's cheap, green and good for your health (an hour of moderate pedalling burns about 600 calories). And it's also a great way to get out and absorb: moving relatively slowly, without barriers, cyclists can get immersed in a country's detail.

In Europe, the two-wheeled traveller is held in higher esteem – perhaps as a result of the pre-eminence of the Tour de France, which gets set for its Grand Départ in the Vendée in western France, on Saturday.

Even rank amateurs can find a fitting ride: perhaps the pancake-flat Netherlands (leave the Pyrenees to the Lycra-clad elite). And it's fun: free-wheeling down an Alp (after the upward grind) or pedalling beside a lazy river, stream or sea, it's hard to conceive of a better way to travel.

Push off from home

The National Cycle Network, createdby the transport charity Sustrans, (, now extends to 20,000km of dedicated bike trails (some on former railway lines) and quiet roads and lanes that combine to create some tempting long-distance trails. The flagship ride is National Route 1, from Dover via London and Edinburgh to the far north of Scotland. Sustrans' latest long-distance route is the "Way of The Roses", a 270km coast-to-coast ride through Lancashire and Yorkshire's best bits, passing Ripon and York in the process(

Beginners' guide

Non-Tour de France types should start their cycling careers in one of Europe's flatter expanses and let someone else deal with details. Many adventure tour companies offer packages including guides, gear (bikes, helmets, repair kit) and often a sweep-up bus that the weary can retire to if necessary.

U-Tracks (0845 241 7599; has a wide range of options. Its "Venice to Florence Cycle" (from £1,090) is graded "introductory to moderate", with daily distances averaging a manageable 50km and a supporting cast of orchards, vineyards and sunflower fields.

The "Prague to Vienna" route (from £990) is "moderate" – longer days, more hills – but still achievable by most. The pay-off: cycle paths through the little-known national parks and medieval towns of the Czech Republic.

Both eight-day tours are guided, including accommodation, most meals, luggage transfers in a support vehicle, 21-speed bike hire and some excursions. Flights are extra.

Go solo

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 pre-mapped routes (pausing wherever they fancy), with luggage transported ahead to the next night's hotel.

Inntravel (01653 617001; www.inn specialises in such leisurely rides. Its one-week "Rolling Hills & Vineyards" trip ambles around the wine hills and walled towns of Rioja. Detailed trip notes lead cyclists through the Ebro Valley, in the shadow of Spain's Cantabria Sierra; days end in characterful accommodation, from an old nobleman's house to a converted monastery.

The trip costs from £730 per person including accommodation, most meals, bike hire, luggage transfer and route maps. Flights are extra.

Bike & boat

Those unsure how much they'll take to life on two wheels should combine biking with something else. Explore (0844 499 0901; is adding more European cycle trips to its portfolio in 2012 due to their popularity. An example is the "Cycle & Cruise Croatia" jaunt. This one-week September trip mixes sailing around the Adriatic on a traditional vessel with docking at Dalmatian isles for simple pedalling – around lakes, monasteries and citrus groves. Your kit stays in the floating hotel. The trip costs £1,128 including return flights from London to Dubrovnik, bike hire, accommodation and most meals on the boat.

Off-road riding

Mountain biking – "riding your bike at whatever natural terrain the land throws at you", according to Footprint's idea-packed Mountain Biking Europe guide (£19.99) – is a sterner undertaking. The reward? Remote, spectacular surrounds and a shot of adrenalin. Exodus's (020-8772 3936; eight-day "Biking in Bosnia" trip offers a pedalling and pioneering buzz, using Bosnia's extensive network of trails to explore this little-visited nation. The September trip costs £1,099 including return flights from London to Zagreb, transfers, six nights in hotels and one in a mountain cabin and most meals. Bike hire is an additional £70. Bear in mind that the going can be tough – one day involves tackling the "Herzegovinan Himalayas" – but views are special and the detours to Sarajevo and Mostar add an extra dimension to the trip.

Tackle the tour

"Ten years ago the thrill was going on holiday to get a tan. Now people want more," says Brendan Fox of Sports Tours International (0161 703 8161; As the only official UK operator to work with the Tour de France, Sports Tours International caters to that need. It takes keen cyclists on stretches of the infamous road race just hours before the pros, so they pass cheering crowds and get to stand atop the winners' podium. Though this year's trips are booked up along the Etape du Tour sections in France, other cycle race trips run throughout the year, such as the "Etape Hibernia"; a 135km cycle sportive along the wild west coast of Ireland. Departing on 19 August, the trip costs £229, including three nights' B&B and a guided cycle along the route, but not race entry, bike hire, flights or transfers.

What Google will tell you

"Bicycle touring is cheap and rewarding. To see Europe on £20 a day, you don't need a time machine; you need a bike, farmers' markets and campgrounds or hostels. You'll not only save money and keep fit, but experience a quieter side of Europe that travellers rarely see," says the guidebook writerand publisher Rick Steves (

What Google won't tell you... until now

"Mainland Europe is unique for cycling – it's more an accepted part of the culture there than in the UK. Cars tend to be more understanding in their overtaking; cafés welcome pedallers. The cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands amazes at first – a small glimpse of Utopia, perhaps. The flip-side? Drivers in Bosnia are the maddest outside Latin America. And the hairpins in the Alps are quite a shock – but that's what makes them wonderful, too. If you don't like hills, follow the marvellous Danube cycle path right the way into Eastern Europe," says Alastair Humphreys, round-the-world cyclist. For more information on his travels, see

Who said that?

"If you worried about falling off the bike, you'd never get on."

Lance Armstrong, pro cyclist

"When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking."

Arthur Conan Doyle

"The bicycle is the most efficient machine ever created. Converting calories into gas, a bicycle gets the equivalent of three thousand miles per gallon."

Bill Strickland, The Quotable Cyclist