CYCLING holidays seem to have developed something of a split personality. With the advent of the mountain bike, there are endless opportunities, from the Welsh Black Mountains to the New Zealand back country, to leave the road and boldly go where no ordinary bike has gone before (if, that is, you don't mind getting a full facial mud pack at the same time).
Meanwhile, traditionalists who prefer to keep their spokes clean continue with their more stately progress through the country lanes of Europe. There's a wide choice of tours - guided, or non-guided. Some offer the soft but convenient option of luggage
transportation: you can cycle without the
extra weight and find your bags ready for you at the hotel ahead. Whichever type of holiday you choose, don't underestimate the level of fitness required. Even the gentlest of cycling tours can quickly develop into a saddle-sore nightmare of stiffened limbs, aching backs and wind-cracked lips. Inexperienced cyclists will probably find a week is enough. Try to spend at least a month beforehand getting reasonably fit, and getting used to the saddle - it's also worth buying decent cycling shorts. Prices listed below are per person sharing a double room and include bike hire and full board.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE: They say you never forget but, in case you have, you could try one of the Millfield Village of Education's (0458 45823) short courses on 'Cycling for Fun' which cover riding skills and maintenance. If you have not ridden a mountain bike before, it's wise to know how to use all the gears before you head off across country on your own. For those who fancy a taste of a racing track, Calshot Activities Centre (0703 892077), near Southampton, can arrange evening courses for beginners on its indoor Velodrome.
THE OFF-ROAD FACTOR: There are plenty of mountain- biking holidays to choose from. The cheapest winter weekend will cost from around pounds 75. Try Rock Lea Activity Centre (0433 650345) in the Peak District, Scottish Border Trails (0721 22934) or Rob Hastings's Adventure Holidays (0525 379881) in Wales.
TAKING IT EASY: France is probably the ideal environment for cycling. Most of the heavy traffic is funnelled down the motorways and routes nationales leaving the by-ways and country lanes clear apart from the occasional tractor. The French love cycling, the hotels are cheap and usually reliable, and you can look forward to a decent meal at the end of the day. Susie Madron's 'Cycling for Softies' brochure features holidays all over France.
Programmes vary, but you leave your bulky luggage at a 'home base' hotel and carry only the minimum of clothes in the panniers as you move between the other hotels on the itinerary ('Gentle Tourer' holidays usually mean that you stay at least two nights in each hotel). One-week holidays start at around pounds 500. Several other French specialists go a stage further and will take your luggage from hotel to hotel to save you carrying it. Try French Expressions (071-794 1480) for the Dordogne, or Headwater Holidays (0606 48699), which offers a choice of 11 regions of France. Moswin Tours (0533 719922) will also transport your luggage on a choice of cycling holidays in Germany. If you don't mind carrying your own luggage but want to minimise the amount of hill-climbing, Anglia Cycling Holidays (0250 886 201) has a varied programme exploring the gently undulating landscape of East Anglia from around pounds 155 for a week (bed and breakfast).
BREAKING AWAY: For those with deep pockets and a head for heights, the Karakoram Experience (07687 73966) runs three dramatic mountain-bike tours. The 19-day Silk Road holiday ( pounds 1,745) begins at 4,733 metres on the China-Pakistan border; a 25-day tour of Tibet ( pounds 2,595) includes one day with a descent of 15,000 feet; while 620 kilometres over 20 days through the Indian Himalayas costs pounds 1,895. Further away still, All-Ways Pacific (0494 766766) offers a variety of holidays in New Zealand both on- and off-road through local specialist Pedaltours. Prices start at around pounds 1,000 (excluding air fare to New Zealand).
FAMILY FAVOURITES: H F Holidays (081-905 9388) runs a cycling week for families in the Peak District with short rides which they say are 'ideal for small children'. The basic price is pounds 279 per person. For fit families who can cope with 35 miles a day, Holiday Scandinavia (0689 824958) offers a nine-night, unescorted tour of Denmark staying at youth hostels and including a day for the kids at Legoland ( pounds 350 including ferry from Harwich). PGL (0989 768768) will guide families round the cycle lanes of Holland for a week. Children aged 8-12 get a pounds 100 discount off the adult price of pounds 399 (including ferry fare).
GOING SOLO: Usually there's no problem with accommodating singles (once you've paid a single room supplement), although Susie Madron warns that her holidays are not organised into groups and there's a 'strong possibility of cycling alone'. PGL (see above) particularly welcomes single parents and, if you book early, you may get a single room without the supplement. You can get in touch with other cyclists through local clubs, or try the British Cycling Federation (0536 412211) or the Cyclists Touring Club (0483 417217).
CUTTING COSTS: You can save money on many of the French holidays by driving to the start point. Some companies offer discounts if you take your own cycle and helmet. It's likely to be cheaper if you plan it and book it yourself.
THE INDEPENDENT CYCLIST: Putting together your own itinerary shouldn't be a problem as long as you have a decent map (for France the large-scale IGN maps are best) and choose an area where you can take your own bicycle. Outside school holidays there's no real need even to pre-book accommodation. Mountain bikes are available for hire by the day or week almost anywhere suitably interesting enough to merit using one. For instance, Black Mountain Activities (0497 847897) at Glasbury on Wye charge pounds 12.50 per day. Contact local tourist offices for details.
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