Saddle up: The world on two wheels

They're healthy and good for the planet. Martin Hickman explains why cycling holidays have become all the rage
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The Independent Travel

Tuscan pensioners gossiping in dusty squares have something in common with bed and breakfast proprietors near Hadrian's Wall and souvenir sellers at Vietnamese temples. They are all encountering a new sight: sweaty British people on bicycles.

Jaded with the traditional "fly and flop" beach holidays and with greater concern about global warming and personal health, travellers are increasingly opting for physical exertion at home and abroad.

Specialist cycling holiday operators are reporting booming business with sales rising 30 per cent or more a year. According to a new report today, bicycles featured in 2.7 million holidays in 2006 and the number is set to rise. As modern jets and high-speed trains have proliferated, one might ask why people are opting to move about on a machine from the Victorian age.

According to Mintel, which produced the report, Cycling Holidays, the resurgence of vacation pedal power stems from several environmental and lifestyle factors. Firstly, it says, cycling is a beneficiary of the "21st century zeitgeist", which manifests itself in concerns over sustainable transport, eco travel and health and fitness. Then there are moreindependent-minded holidaymakers seeking a more authentic experience - cyclists can enjoy intimate contact with a local culture and help local economies. And wealthy, well-travelled "hyperactive holidaymakers" are bored with sun worship.

There is even a suggestion in some parts that cycling could become the "new golf' - a way for the new generation of bicycling bourgeoise to network while in the saddle.

But the environment is believed to be a big reason for the resurgence of cycling. "The new vogue for cycling can be explained in two words: climate change," said Mintel, adding that while the number of "no impact" men and women might be small today, their numbers would increase. This year, more people have requested holidays to Saddle Skedaddle, a specialist operator in Newcastle, whose sales are up 45 per cent.

Managing director Andrew Straw says, though, that the climate change is merely one of a number of factors popularising cycling holidays. "There has been a lot of negative PR about lying in the sun," he says. "And there's a lot more emphasis on keeping fit and healthy and there are a lot of people stopping smoking."

Of course, more people may be cycling on holiday for the simple reason that more people cycle. The number of Britons using two wheels rose by 10 per cent in the four years to 2006 to more than one in eight of the population, 14.4 per cent, according to polling for Mintel. In July, crowds lined the road from London to Canterbury when the first leg of the Tour de France was staged in Britain. Publicity about the 2012 Olympics is expected to increase interest.

Of the 2.7 million holidays involving cycles, 450,000 were dedicated two-wheel expeditions. Most of these were in the UK but 50,000 were abroad, with locations ranging from the Pyrenees to the Great Rift Valley in Africa.

In Britain an infrastructure is growing up around cycling routes, such as the Coast to Coast in northern England, with specialist bed and breakfast operators and luggage transporters catering for daily needs.

Mountain biking is particularly popular in Britain, with the most popular destinations being in Scotland and Wales.

Overall, the biking specialist holiday business is worth about £120m, according to Mintel. Those who cycle on holiday are mostly likely to be either young, aged 15 to 24, or middle-aged "wealthy achievers" aged 45 to 54 with a household income of more than £50,000.

For the travel industry, offering specialist cycling holidays provides attractive returns. The hassle of organising daily travel and nightly accommodation mitigates away from the DIY internet-based booking and in favour of specialist tour operators.

Mintel believes that the greatest future scope for the cycling holidays market lies in combining biking with mainstream holidays. Operators could, it says, re-brand more holidays as "cycling-plus" trips, offering cycling with relaxation, spa treats, walking, boating and other hobbies.

Despite all this, there are still three times as many walking holidays as cycling holidays. And six out of 10 Britons have no interest in incorporating cycling into their holidays.

Simon Calder's pick of the cycle trips

Tour de France highlights, Provence

Saddle Skedaddle: www.skedaddle.co.uk

Mont Ventoux (6,266ft) is the most iconic summit in cycling: "Put me back on my bike", the great Tommy Simpson reputedly gasped just before he died on the ascent of this Provencal peak 40 years ago, while he was leading the Tour de France. It has remained a firm fixture of the world's greatest cycle race, and has become iconic for every cyclist with something to prove. This peak is an optional extra on a trip that traverses the spectacular south-east corner of France, possibly the most rewarding place on earth in which to work up an appetite.

The Danube, through Austria

Explore: www.explore.co.uk

Downhill with the prevailng wind behind you is a comfortable position for any cyclist, and the 21 gears on the bikes provided for this nine-day trip are unlikely to be tested to the full. It begins at the German border town of Passau, and follows the great river of central Europe - almost all of it using cycle paths beside the Danube. Villages and vineyards, monasteries and castles punctuate the drift downstream. Vienna itself is a real cyclists' city - though beware of those tram tracks. Participants should have plenty of energy: their luggage will be transported by road from one night-stop to the next.

Hanoi to Phnom Penh, Vietnam/Cambodia

Intrepid Travel: www.intrepidtravel.com

Indo-China is natural cycling territory, not least because if all the citizens had cars the countries would quickly run out of road space. Before that happens, take in the best of Vietnam from its capital via the spiritual (and scenic) heartland to Ho Chi Minh City - where you can let someone else do the cycling with a rickshaw ride. The highlights of Cambodia - including Angkor Wat - conclude the Tour d'Indochine.

Descent of Maui, Hawaii

Maui Downhill: www.mauidownhill.com

Every morning, well before dawn, dozens of figures wearing bright clothing assemble at the summit of Haleakala Crater on the Hawaiian island of Maui, 10,023 feet above the Pacific Ocean. The sunrise is observed with reverence, before a scramble for the mountain bikes that have been towed up the road to the volcanic peak. This is a ride that tests your hands and your nerves, not your legs, as you struggle to keep control of the bicycle and your gaze, as you descend through lunar-like scenery, then temperate forest and finally, lush tropical flora. What are those metal things for, again: footrests?

Revolutionary Cuba

Exodus: www.exodus.co.uk

The term "donor" was soon attached to cyclists when Cuba's economy went into post-USSR meltdown in the early 1990s. With the flow of Soviet oil depleted, Fidel Castro's government imported hundreds of thousands of bicycles from China. The combination of terrible Flying Pigeon bicycles, apocalyptic roads and young men with a lust for speed proved fatal far too often.

In 21st-century Cuba, some cyclists are more equal than others. For those with a decent bike and a keen eye (and ear) for the approach of lumbering American classic cars, Cuba is superb territory. This itinerary starts amid the chaos of the Caribbean's largest capital, but beyond Havana the traffic dwindles and the rewards begin: mile after mile of sugar-cane territory, drowsy towns and glorious beaches. You also pedal past revolutionary shrines such as the Bay of Pigs (location for a failed US-backed invasion) to the Moncada Barracks in Santiago (location for a failed Fidel-backed insurrection).

Hadrian's Cycleway, Cumbria/Northumberland

Sustrans: www.sustrans.org.uk

"Coast to coast, the Roman Way", is the slogan of the latest addition to the National Cycle Network of tempting UK journeys. The 174-mile trail links the ancient Roman settlements of Glannaventa (outside present-day Ravenglass) and Arbeia (in South Shields), swerving around the coast of Cumbria before cutting across parallel to the wall that Hadrian built in the second century AD - and which became the best-known frontier in the entire Roman empire. The stretches of the Great Wall of Britain are more impressive on the Northumberland side than in Cumbria, and the landscapes are more dramatic too.

Across the Andes, Chile/Argentina

CycleActive: www.cycleactive.co.uk

Che used a motorcycle to traverse the spine of South America; the rebel with an environmental cause will choose instead to make the journey on two human-powered wheels. This trip involves some taxing mountain stretches, but you can rest in between as you traverse lakes - the only way across this majestic terrain. Bear in mind, though, that while you may be meticulously green in your choice of local transport, reaching either end of the trail requires a flight of 20 hours or more.

Mount Kosciuszko, New South Wales

RawNRG: www.rawnrg.com.au

Skiing in Australia can be a frustrating experience because of low numbers: both of altitude (Mount Kosciuszko, the nation's highest peak, tops out at just 7,310 feet) and latitude (only 36 degrees from the equator). But the less it snows, the more you can mountain bike. Mount Kosciuszko national park covers an area one-third the size of Wales, and adrenalin-addicted guides will test your skills and courage to the limits on trails that mountain bikes were made for.

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