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Want to go cycling in Europe? Then get the bus

Andrew Eames meets the cyclists who have beaten the red tape and the financial penalties and made it to Europe with their bikes intact
A STEADILY increasing stream of cyclists is taking touring holidays in Europe, but while transport for people and cars is getting easier, the same cannot be said for bicycles. There is one big new complication before you leave this country, which is rail privatisation. Carriage of bicycles is often on a limited first-come, first-served basis, and differs from region to region. Not conducive - for example - to making a European connection.

Many ferry companies penalise the sector by charging more for four cyclists than they do for four people in a car, says the Cycle Touring Club. Furthermore the arrival of high speed rail links Eurostar and the TGV have inhibited cycle travel. Free carriage of accompanied bicycles on both services is not feasible unless they are broken down into bags that will go on the normal luggage racks. So how do you get to your starting point in Europe at the same time as your (undamaged) set of wheels?

There is a way, although it is still relatively unknown to the general public: European Bike Express, which was established in 1993 after the passing of legislation which allowed British buses to tow.

Today, two of the biggest cycle trailers in the world depart weekly from Middlesbrough attached to long-distance coaches. They move steadily down the spine of England, picking up cyclists from motorway junctions and service stations, before boarding a ferry at Dover. Once in Europe, the buses head south along three separate routes: one to Venice, one to Spain, and one to the Atlantic end of the Pyrenees, dropping off at pre-arranged points on the way. Then they turn round and retrace their routes, picking up customers that had been deposited two, four or even eight or 10 weeks before.

I hitched a ride down to the Atlantic to witness the Bike Express in full flow.

"We're not your typical cyclists," admitted Tony and Fran from Camberwell, who were also waiting at the pick-up point outside Gravesend. "Basically we're cycling between restaurants." They only had the vaguest of plans: to start with a swim in the Atlantic, head east with the prevailing wind at their backs, and end with a swim in the Mediterranean, before returning with the Spanish Bike Express in two weeks time.

One of two sets of honeymooners on board were Brian and Jill Lynch from Boroughbridge. Brian, veteran of three Bike Express holidays and former racer, "never felt right going on holiday without my bike". Jill admitted that her body was "made for comfort" - which was why they'd invested in a made-to-measure tandem, plus trailer.

Sipping power juice from squeezy bottles were Darryl and Lynne from Sheffield, with tanned, windswept foreheads that belied many severe hours in the saddle. Darryl had cut his toothbrush in half to save weight. They aimed to zigzag along the peaks of the Pyrenees, from Bayonne to Barcelona, "only doing flat bits by accident".

By contrast, aiming to dawdle down the Dordogne were the Redferns from Wakefield, with children David and Catherine. They'd never been abroad before. "It's going to be interesting," agreed Mike. "We're vegetarian, and we don't speak French."

As darkness fell, the unprepared unfurled their maps and the veterans unsheathed their corkscrews.

The last of the mountain-climbing hard nuts disembarked at the turnaround at Pau in the Pyrenees. In 30 hours the bus had gone through four drivers, but Judy, the hostess in her Blood, Sweat and Gears T-shirt, had an hour's rest before another straight 30-hour return run of serving rice pudding and Kronenburg on the autoroute. She wasn't complaining. It was all good stuff for her CV, she said. She wanted to be an airline stewardess.

By now the smelliest things on the bus were my feet. A co-passenger kindly lent me a squirt of deodorant.

In contrast to the pale, anxious faces deposited in a succession of suburbs since dawn, the bikers picked up on the return journey were blooming with health and full of stories. Nobody had anything but kind words to say about the reception they'd received from the locals, and many had had encounters with the Tour de France.

Among the hard nuts was Carlos Cornago, half Geordie and half Spaniard, a cycle-racer on his first touring holiday thanks to his mate John, whom he had left behind on a climb - and had not seen since. "He's a vegetarian," shrugged Carlos. "He just faded away." Sight-seeing hadn't really featured in their itinerary. "Once you've seen one Plaza Mayor you've seen them all," he said. "I got cathedral fatigue."

The only injury I encountered had happened to Peter Hopkins, who had just completed his retirement cycle ride. He'd taken a tumble while trying to read a map on his handlebars, and had a wound on his elbows. It hadn't detracted from his holiday, though. It was people he was interested in, and he told of a Polish cyclist sleeping rough and surviving on a daily baguette and a huge pot of honey given to him by his father five months before.

Perhaps the most exotic of the passengers were Joan and Roland Brown of Melbourne, Australia, in their mid-fifties and on a five-month wine- tasting cycle tour of Europe. In the absence of any easier way of getting bikes efficiently across France, they had called on Bike Express to help relocate them to Brittany.

Opinions differed on the benefits of the Bike Express service. Camaraderie was a factor, as was the chance to make a proper journey from one bus route to the other without etching circles on the continent. But most agreed that the key was the certainty that body and bike would arrive together, and intact.

fact file

European Bike Express starts this year on May 2nd. Between Middlesborough and Dover, it picks up passengers and their bikes at various points; one route goes to SW France, one to Costa Brava and one through Swiss Alps to Venice. Return prices for passenger and bike for about pounds 150.

Details from Bolero International Holidays, 31 Baker Street, Middlesbrough, Cleveland TS1 2LF. Tel: (01642) 240020 Fax: (01642) 232209 Email: bolero@bolero.demon.co.uk