The complete guide to Cycling in Europe

Don't be put off by all that garish Lycra. Cycling offers a unique view of that panoramic world that exists above the hedgerows. And it's good for your calves, your soul and your sex life.


WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT CYCLING ALL DAY?

WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT CYCLING ALL DAY?

You've obviously never felt the glow of satisfaction that comes at the end of a day spent riding through sublime countryside as a late afternoon breeze nudges you towards the final downhill run and a cool drink. That may seem a trifle fanciful, but every bike trip has its perfect moments, and they're worth waiting for.

BUT WHAT'S THE REST OF IT LIKE?

Like life: up and down. But more about hills later. You have to enjoy a challenge, but that's not to say it has to be tough. You can set your own pace, and targets, and have the satisfaction of achieving them (punctures permitting).

If you think cycling holidays are all about sweating your way up hills with your eyes fixed on the mileage computer you're in for an education. The saddle of your bike is a great place from which to watch the landscape go by, so you soon forget that you're having to pedal. Above the hedgerows that shield the views from car passengers, the entire panorama opens up. And you're not only feasting the eyes. Without a ton of metal, a windscreen and a state-of-the-art air conditioning system to deprive the senses, you're in for an unadulterated dose of the outdoors.

I'M STILL NOT CONVINCED

Cycling enhances your spiritual side as well as your calves. It is the greenest form of mechanised transport (and incidentally far cheaper than any other kind of touring holiday short of hitch-hiking). It's also an anti-depressant. According to the Government's Transport Research Laboratory, one of the many health benefits of cycling is psychological well-being, and a sense of freedom and independence. That should get you through the odd map-reading misadventure or shower. And anyhow, the breakdowns and meteorological mishaps are all part of the adventure that makes a cycling holiday a perfect escape from the stresses and strains of everyday life. And it improves your sex life.

PARDON?

The invigorating effect of gentle exercise for people used to sedentary lifestyles brings with it all manner of benefits. And an improvement in all physical appetites is one of them. Allegedly.

DO I HAVE TO BE REALLY FIT - OR WILL I GET HEALTHY ALONG THE WAY?

If you aren't that fit it could be the best holiday you have ever had. Cycling is gentle, low-impact exercise that does you good without having to be painful. The best advice is to try a 10-mile ride first and see how you feel. If it seemed surprisingly easy, you're all set. After a week of fairly regular cycling you'll notice a real difference in both your ability and your attitude. That government report says that people who cycle regularly have a general fitness level of people 10 years younger than themselves.

I WANT A HOLIDAY, NOT A LIFESTYLE STEP-CHANGE. AS A NORMAL PERSON, HOW MANY MILES CAN I EXPECT TO DO EACH DAY?

Most people are comfortable with a 25 or 30 mile daily target. It's amazing how quickly a total that seems out of reach becomes an attainable daily norm. Thinking about your average speed and how long you're in the saddle makes it easier to calculate. Forty miles can be knocked off in five hours of a gentle eight miles per hour. Slightly fitter people who start off with a 50 mile day soon find themselves clocking up 70 or so, though offroad cycling (see box, above) is a different story.

CAN I GET OFF AND PUSH GOING UP THE HILLS?

It's only the most stubborn of cyclists who won't get off for serious hills. And if they're only managing to get up that 1 in 5 incline with the aid of the "granny ring" - the tiniest sprocket on their chainset - then you could probably overtake them by walking anyway. As could your granny.

But hills can be great fun. No, really, they can. And each one means a downhill is sure to follow. That's why cyclists tend to talk about "gaining height" rather than going uphill. If you get the terminology right, the attitude won't be far behind.

SO IS THERE LOTS OF JARGON I HAVE TO LEARN?

You won't hit the bonk till you've done a fair bit of honking ("to honk" is to get out of the saddle as you painfully slog up a hill. "The bonk" is to cyclists what "the wall" is to marathon runners.

WHAT COULD BE WORSE THAN A STEEP HILL?

A stiff headwind. If you're going to be battling against a breeze all day, change direction fast. Nothing is more miserable if you're wanting a leisurely ride. It's well worth checking the forecast before deciding which direction to set off in. Prevailing winds in Britain tend to be westerly. If you can work it so that you're riding in the same direction as a strong prevailing wind, it can be heavenly.

HOW GOOD A BIKE WILL I NEED?

One of us managed the 75 miles from Lyme Regis to Salisbury on a three-speed folding Brompton (see page 12 for illustration), but a wider range of gears will help. Three on the chainset (the cogs with the pedals attached), and seven on the rear wheel are becoming the norm, multiplying together to give a total of 21 possibilities. Having your bike set up correctly will help avoid a lot of aches and pains. If there are more than a few squeaks and rattles coming from mysterious parts (of the bike, not you) then it's worth getting a check-up and service at the local cycle shop. On an organised tour, your bike's well-being will be looked after by someone else.

MUST I WEAR ALL THE GEAR?

Cyclists in Lycra tend to fall into two categories: those you watch disappear as they speed past in a day-glo blur; and those who seem to think the outfits alone will get them from A to B. The only essential kit is a couple of pairs of shorts, a few T-shirts, something to keep the rain and wind out, and sunglasses. But if you need to get into the part, then seamless padded shorts have their advantages.

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE NATIONAL CYCLE NETWORK?

Five thousand miles of designated routes that cover the country from Land's End to John O'Groats and Dover to Holyhead. This week the network developed by Sustrans officially opens, 23 summers after a group of cyclists from Bristol made the first moves to create a traffic-free bike path to Bath. And 5,000 more miles are being developed in the next five years.

ALL DEDICATED CYCLE PATHS?

Sadly, no. There are some superb parts, mainly along disused rail lines, such as the one linking York with Selby, and alongside the River Camel in Cornwall, but much of the rest is on minor roads. The quality of the signposting is also highly variable: in a few parts of Britain, the directions are clearly marked, but elsewhere there's nothing to point the way. We've covered hundreds of miles of the network, and got lost dozens of times. You'll need the official map for each route, sold in bike shops or direct from Sustrans on 0117 929 0888, but the chances are that even with this, you'll take a wrong turning or two.

I'M READY FOR A BIGGER CHALLENGE - WHERE DO I START?

How about France? One difference you'll notice immediately is the way you're treated. Everyone loves a cyclist in the homeland of the Tour de France. Instead of being made to feel like a freak as you enquire after a spot of refreshment, in France you're welcomed like a hero.

The generally higher standard of cheap and available hotels is another thing that makes France pretty easy to organise on your own. But it's also the first choice for organised tours which represent the variety that France can offer. Hub Tours, based at Liverpool Cycle Centre (0151 708 8819), has a unique entree to the wonderfully remote region of the Ariÿge on its excellent value Pyrenean Pursuits tour beginning on 21 August: miles of traffic-free country lanes and the chance to take on one of le tour's most notorious climbs.

Then there's the wine. When you're cycling every day, a glass or two more than usual is soon worked off. Cycling For Softies (0161 248 8282) offers lanes and byways such as a gentle tour of the Beaujolais region. The Chain Gang (020-7323 1730) is a good bet for "professional people with discerning tastes" that extend to fine wines. And if you'd rather watch than participate: the Tour starts at Futuroscope, the European Park of the Moving Image near Poitiers, on 1 July, and concludes on the Champs-Elysées on 23 July.

European Bike Express (01642 251440, www.bike-express.co.uk) is a proven way to get a cycle abroad: a double-deck bus, rather more luxurious than that featured in Summer Holiday, that hauls a trailer full of bikes all the way from Middlesbrough, Leeds and Leicester to the Pyrenees, Alps, French Riviera and Adriatic, for a fare of around £169 return. Departures are between late April and early October.

In terms of gradients and cycle-friendliness, Belgium, Holland and Denmark are way ahead of the rest. Ireland is also thoroughbred cycling country with scope for wonderful touring. The West Coast is most popular, but there are great rides from the centre of Dublin in virtually any direction. Bike Tours (01225 310859) has circular tours in most weeks of the summer with itineraries such as West Cork and Kerry or Connemara, Galway and Mayo.

HOW DO I TAKE MY BIKE ABROAD

The easiest way to get bicycle and owner abroad is to cycle to a port, ride onto the ferry and off at the other end. Bikes are usually carried free, and get priority boarding and disembarkation. The worst way is on Eurostar trains to Paris and Brussels, which have no room for bikes. Planes are a mixed bunch: many airlines will let you take a bike for free. Others make a charge (£15 each way on Ryanair), or may insist that the bike is boxed or bagged. All insist that tyres are deflated. Check with the airline well in advance.

I'D PREFER AN ORGANISED TRIP - HOW DO I CHOOSE ONE?

The criteria to juggle are mileage, the size of the group, and cost. Distance is crucial: if you find the pace too slow there are usually options to add on detours, but you may still find the experience frustrating. And if you're lagging, it's not much fun either. Some tours provide an option to get a lift in the support vehicle along with the luggage and spares. Large groups can feel impersonal, but can offer the most intriguing possibilities for socialites. If making friends is an issue, ask the tour company about the singles-to-couples ratio.

Large companies such as Bike Tours have the best range, with groups ranging from 60 to 70 on a Bordeaux to Barcelona tour or a maximum of 12 for their Loire Valley trip. In the lower £300 to £400 bracket there are weeks in Wales with Bicycle Beano (01982 560571), Antrim in Northern Ireland with Hub Tours, or Andalucia with Wildrides (01273 689979) - not including flights or bikes. At the other end of the scale, Headwater's (01606 813367) nine-day Venetian Countryside tour is priced at £729 with flights. The Chain Gang's Best of Bordeaux trip costs £1,155 (Eurostar transfer and bike included).

ARE THERE ANY TOURS THAT AREN'T FOR SOFTIES?

Endorphin junkies will probably find most organised tours too leisurely. Bike Tours has two-week itineraries for groups capable of 50 to 60 miles a day and there are various trips during the Tour de France each year where riders can take on the climbs a day or so after the peloton has passed (www.sportingtours.co.uk).

I'M FEELING REALLY CONFIDENT NOW - WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF A REALLY BIG BIKE ADVENTURE?

You may wish you hadn't asked. The European Cyclists' Federation has got plans for you, starting with the North Sea Route - a mere 5,500km (more than 3,000 miles) of supposedly signposted cycling. You've heard of Pacific Rim? This is the North Sea rim. The route passes through seven countries: Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In England and Scotland it follows the Sustrans routes. The opening is planned for next year (2001), with two rides departing Hamburg in opposite directions, due to meet in Aberdeen 50 days later for the "western launch" of the route on June 23. There's also a pilgrimage route from Holland through Belgium and France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The internet is also a good place to seek out first-hand reports of well-known rides such as St Moritz to Prague, Germany's Romantic Road and the Danube Path. The Trento Bike Pages are a great resource with lots of reports and other links (www-math.science.unitn.it/bike).

When you're bored with all of that, the European Cyclists' Federation may have completed its planned pan-European network. You've 15 years to get into training.

OH, AND WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO AVOID GETTING SADDLE SORE?

The secret's in the saddle adjustment. Vaseline, seamless shorts, and mind over matter, in varying degrees, also each have a part to play.

IF YOU like clocking up miles, and the regular rhythm of road riding, then this is not for you. Offroaders are not usually so concerned with how far, but how. Discovering that mountain bikes weren't designed for city pavements and potholes takes you into a world of adrenalin, adventure and ATBs (all terrain bikes - please keep up with the jargon). Offroaders are the only bikers who can truly get out into the wilds with their knobbly tyres and no-terrain-too-tough attitude. Difficult routes down a hill are classed as "technical" but if you don't get them right you could end up in a category better termed as "critical".

In Wales, the Wye Valley is a good spot for the "offroad lite" experience of prepared tracks on bridleways and paths. But you still have the fun of choosing your route. Here, as in the Peak District, bikers are in regular disputes with ramblers who see them as environmental vandals.

It's worth picking up some basic technique before going offroad, but there'll always be plenty of people to show you how to hang off the back of your saddle and fling the frame of your bike round a course. Once you're ready to go, the Med is beckoning. Greece and Corsica have some of the Med's best mountain biking. Saddle Skedaddle(www.skedaddle.co.uk) does eight-day adventures to northern Corsica. Alpine ski resorts open their lifts to offroad riders in the summer and provide limitless trails. Mountain Beach (www.mountain-beach.co.uk) offers trips to Châtel in the Portes Du Soleil as well as a "Hidden Greece" trip in the Ionian Islands. Helmet compulsory!

Exactly 22 years ago, British Rail took a giant leap for cycle kind. At a stroke, all restrictions and charges for cyclists were lifted, and for a while bicycles and trains co-existed as they should.

But the idea was just too darn popular, and instead of adding capacity, BR imposed a whole raft of restrictions like no bikes at rush hours and a £3 charge on InterCity trains.

Privatisation has made life much more confusing. Each of the two dozen train operating companies has its own rules, and these vary from one route to another operated by the same company. On West Anglia, for example, you can take a bikeon some trains at any time. But on others, they're banned completely.

The small print appears in a handy guide, Cycling By Train, free from stations and bike shops or by calling 020-8232 8484, or visiting www.bromptonbicycle.co.uk.

Hundreds of cyclists will set off early this morning from Winchester for the fifth South Downs Way Randonnée. They will cycle anything up to 100 miles to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. Next week sees the London Bikeathon in aid of the Leukaemia Research Fund Indeed, dozens of charities have jumped on to the cycling bandwagon as a good way of raising cash. The standard deal is that you pay a fee of £250, undertake to raise £2,000 in sponsorship - of which typically one-third or a half goes to pay for the trip.

For a try-out, consider the London to Bruges run, 26-29 August, in aid of Barnardo's (01483 757 501).

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