If – during my 38 years of guiding bicycle tours – I would have gotten $10 for every time someone asked me what’s my favorite ride, I would no longer need to work. Not that I’d ever want to quit my job, because I love it so much!
Naturally, being the salesman that I am, my answer would always be a trip they hadn’t done yet.
But here it is, my official Top 10…, eh….Top 11 best bike rides in Europe (and there’s no way these can be ordered, because they all have their reasons why they should be #1)
1) France: Dordogne valley between Argentat and Beynac (110 miles); One of my favorite regions of France, for its authenticity, the peace, the great food, the old Romanesque churches, the castles and the history (such as the Hundred Years War between France and England). Make sure to divert from the valley every now and then to visit villages like St-Céré, Autoire, Loubressac, Rocamadour, as well as the lively town of Sarlat.
2) Italy: South-Tyrol from Reschen Pass to Merano(50 miles); Starting at the top of the pass, it’s all pretty much all downhill for about 50 miles on specially marked bike paths, and you’re always surrounded by some of the most majestic mountains of the Alps. Pass by villages, lakes, meadows, apple orchards and end your ride in the noble spa town of Merano.
3) Italy: The Tuscan hills around Siena; Tuscany has some of the prettiest hills in the world. Surely you have seen those epic photos of fields of red poppies, the cypresses, the ‘Siena’ colors of the soil, multiple horizons and hill-top towns like Monteriggioni and San Gimignano. Seeing it from the bicycle seat is like immerging into this landscape of Chianti Classico and the eternal ‘Le Crete’ hills.
4) Spain: Rioja vineyards between Logroño and Haro (35 miles); this is best done in the fall (October), when the leaves are turning. The colors are so incredible no matter in which direction you look. And you’ve got the roads to yourself. Villages/towns to include are La Puebla de la Barca, Laguardia, Navaridas, Elciego, Baños de Ebro, San Vicente, Rivas de Tereso, and of course Haro. Prepare yourself for some hills. And be sure to visit some of the tapas bars in Haro for an unforgettable and fun meal while mingling with the locals!
5) Germany: Tauber Valley from Rothenburg to Wertheim (63 miles); Take two days to follow the Tauber river until its confluence with the Main river. It’s easy to follow, and you’ll pass through many villages and medieval towns without having to study the map. Don’t forget to visit the splendidly carved Riemenschneider altar pieces in Rothenburg, Detwang and Creglingen.
6) Germany: Mosel Valley from Trier to Koblenz (132 miles); You’ll need four days to do this stretch. Every couple of miles you’ll pass another quaint wine village, each tempting you with its delicious white Riesling wine. Throughout the trip you will always be surrounded by the steep hills covered with vineyards, whereas you stay on you bicycle down by the river. Essentially, it can be considered as a downhill trip (very, very gently) and you are even making use of the prevailing winds. Numerous Roman buildings to be discovered in Trier, and a hilltop castle or ruin around every bend of the river .
7) Austria: Salzach Valley from Gerlos Pass/Krimml to Salzburg (115 miles); This could very easily be the most scenic of all the routes listed here. With the snowcapped Grossglockner and many other mountains by your side, enjoy lots of downhill and flat meadows (and a few ups) as you descend from Gerlos Pass (1628m = 5340 ft) to Salzburg (443m = 1450 ft).
8) Austria: Danube Valley from Linz or Enns to Krems (80 miles); Easy cycling along the wide river makes this an unforgettable experience. Especially the stretch through the wine region Wachau between Melk and Dürnstein (23 miles) is some of the most pleasant cycling you’ll encounter anywhere in Europe. And be sure to visit the Baroque abbey of Melk: it’s a masterpiece!
9) Netherlands: the canals of Giethoorn (4 miles); This community is nicknamed Venice of the North because there are no roads as all transportation takes place on the canals. One cyclable path passes through the village, consisting of an endless string of humpback bridges. Stay in low gear and do it either in early in the morning or evening. It’s outrageous! However, you should feel comfortable on the bike, because it does take some skill to negotiate the bridges.
10) Netherlands: Tulip fields near Keukenhof (in April: 20 miles); does this need any further explanation? The colors and the scents of the flowers (tulips, narcissus, hyacinth) get you high…, in a natural way! And the North-Sea is nearby, across over the dunes.
11) Denmark: Danish Riviera between Copenhagen and Helsingør (30 miles); the route consists of bike paths along Denmark’s ‘gold coast’, consisting of sumptuous villas, quaint fishing villages, and dotted with interesting museums such as the Karen Blixen Museum (author of Out of Africa), the Nivagaard art museum and the supreme Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in an incredible setting overlooking the Sound.
your friendly European expert,
Ron van Dijk
Cycling is truly a journey of the senses. And there is no better place than Europe, where the villages, castles, cathedrals and museums are unrivaled and the reward of breezing along under your own power is an exhilarating experience. What you see, what you feel, what you encounter is sharper and more relaxed, more complete, when the warm yellow sun, the lush green pastures and the crystal blue lakes dissolve the tension of our everyday lives.
You see the details that are only a blur to most tourists. You meet the country folk – on bicycle just like you. You come to understand the tranquility of a pace of life that is no faster than the pumping of a pedal. Free of gas…. Free of schedules and crowds!
But how to go about it? Well, first you will need to decide whether you wish to do an organized Europe biking tour, or whether you prefer to do it on your own, or maybe something in between. Here are your choices:
1) Sign up for a bicycle tour with a tour operator: This is certainly the most convenient way to travel by bicycle, because everything has been taken care. In effect, all you need to do is show up, pedal, enjoy, sightsee, eat, drink, sleep. When you are tired or don’t want to climb a hill, the support van will help out. The multi-lingual guides share with you their local knowledge and passion. The group size will normally range between 8 and 20 participants.
2) Do it yourself: This means a lot of preparation, because you will need to bring your own bicycle (or rent one abroad), find your own route, arrange your own hotels, fix your own flats. You are likely to end up on roads which you would not have chosen, had you know the alternatives. Last but not least, you will have to carry your own luggage on your bicycle.
3) Do a self-guided trip: In this case, an organization supplies you with a bicycle and maps. The hotel reservations are made on your behalf. Often, your luggage will be transported from one hotel to the next. However, there will be no support during the day (i.e. no sag-wagon, no repair service, no snacks, no water refills). There are no tour guides to share with you their stories. Nor will you experience the camaraderie with like-minded travelers as you would on an group bicycle tour.
Travelling with a bicycling tour operator gives you the fullest experience, in terms of overall enjoyment and efficiency. But how do you choose the bike tour operator that is right for you? Here are some aspects you can consider asking/investigating regarding the tour operator(s):
1) What kind of hotels do they use?: Do they openly list their hotels, or are they somewhat secretive about them? In general, two-star hotels are considered to be low-budget, whereas three to four-star hotels are quite comfortable. Five-star hotels are more difficult to find in the countryside. Checking the websites of the hotels will give you insight into the amenities.
2) What kind of bicycles do they use, and is the bike rental included in the trip price?: Which brand? What type of bicycle (road bike, hybrid bike)? Unless you are planning to ride through very hilly terrain, a hybrid or touring bike will suffice. The medium-width tires make for a comfortable ride no matter what the road surface is, and a back-rack plus a front pannier facilitates you to carry your ‘day-stuff’. Watch out for hidden costs, such as surcharges for the bicycle.
3) Do they operate their own trips?: or do they simply act as a travel agent? Tour operators which run their own trip are closer to their product and therefore tend to do a better job because the ‘own’ the product, feel responsible for it and constantly make adjustments based on direct feedback from their guests and guides.
4) Which meals are included?: Usually, all breakfast, some lunches and most dinners are included in the trip price. What kind of restaurants do they use? Are the drinks during dinner included?
5) Which events are included in the trip price? e.g. museums, castles, wine tasting.
6) What is the maximum group size? Groups of 16 or over become a zoo, especially if the number of guides and support vans are kept to a minimum. This leads to the next question:
7) What is the guide to guest ratio? i.e. how many guides are on the trip? With a ratio of 1 guide per 6 guests, you can be assured of perfect service. With a ratio of 1 guide per 10 guests or more, there is no way they can keep track of you and you practically end up on a self-guided trip.
8) Are there daily mileage choices? Does everyone ride the same route or are there longer/hillier routes for avid cyclists and shorter/flatter routes for those who wish to ‘take it easy’?
9) Do you get route descriptions and maps? Or do you always ride in one group? A detailed route description will give you the freedom to ride at your own pace and choose your own distance. Having a guide on a bike gives you the opportunity to simply follow. A good touring company can offer you both choices on the same trip.
10) Do they allow children on the trips? Or do they offer separate family trips?
11) How long have they been in existence? Have they just begun operating trips, or do they have decades of experience? Go for the latter, because nothing is as frustrating as being ‘misled’ by people that don’t exactly know what they are doing or where they are going.
12) What is the level of difficulty? Are the trips rated? And what is your level of experience? Needless to say, this is all very subjective. See below for recommended regions and their expected ratings.
13) Has the trip already been confirmed? Or is there a chance that it will be cancelled due to insufficient demand?
14) And don’t forget to read the small print: What if you need to change the dates or cancel the trip? What about travel insurance?
15) What will the weather be like? Naturally, no tour operator, no matter how upscale, can control the weather. But what they can do is offer the trip during the most agreeable months. For example, be aware of companies which offer Italy during the (usually) grueling hot months of July and August. Nor do you want plan a bike tour in Holland in October. And by November the days get very short no matter where you are in Europe.
Last but not least, you need to decide where you would like to travel and what kind of terrain you are looking for.
Easy destinations (flat or gently rolling) include the following:
If you don’t mind a few hills, you could consider:
The intermediate cyclists will enjoy:
Avid cyclists will have a ball in:
Some last advice: if you have never been on a Europe biking tour and aren’t sure which trip is right for you, why not start with an easy destination. If you find out during the trip that you want more miles, your guide can always find them for you! Another piece of advice is that you will enjoy your vacation more if you plan several 20-mile rides during the weeks before your trip. It gets your body (especially your behind!) and mind in shape for the riding position.
Your friendly Europe expert,
Ron Van Dijk
If you have any question about Europe bike tours, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Canal in Harlem
Today I met up with Anneke (one of our European guides) and our guest in Haarlem (located in western Holland) to check out the tulips on our Haarlem to Odoorn tour. Holland is a breathtaking country, where biking is the standard mode of transportation. There are almost as many bikes as there are people in Holland, 16 million and counting! Everyone bikes here and since the country is so flat, it makes for an ideal location for a biking tour. Not to mention it’s home to the Kuekenhof, the worlds largest flower expo. Today was the first day of biking on the trip, so we set out through the streets of Haarlem and along the canals that run through the city.
Once we got out of the city there are fietspads (dedicated trails for biking and walking) everywhere. We headed out to the countryside and through the woods. All of a sudden you find yourself in the dunes just outside Zandvoort. The dunes are part of a nature reserve, with a fietspad going through it all the way to the beach in Zandvoort.
We made it to Zandvoort where our guide Anneke was waiting with bananas and apples served up on a silver platter (the ALA way) we enjoyed our WOW moment while overlooking the beach and taking in the sea breeze.
Once we left Zandvoort and headed back inland, the tulip fields started popping up left and right. That’s when we knew we were getting close to Lisse, home to the Kuekenhof. The Kuekenhof was almost overwhelming to see; there are over 7 million hand planted flower bulbs each year, including 4.5 million tulips in 100 different varieties. Needless to say it smelled wonderful there and they had flowers that I couldn’t have dreamed up.
Sue playing in the tulips
After we got our dose of tulips we rode back into Haarlem where they were still displaying the floats from the flower parade. The theme of the floats was musicals; there were floats from the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins.
Sound of Music float in Haarlem
Holland is great choice for a biking tour: easy rides, plenty of fietspads (bike paths) and an amazing diverse landscape. I don’t know any other country that you can stroll by canals, play in the sand and frolic through tulip fields, all in the same day! That’s it for my first Austin-Lehman adventure, it started in Holland and ended in Holland. But along the way I got to drive on the autobahn though Germany, see the Austrian Alps, cycle through Tuscany, save the leaning tower of Pisa and smell the tulips of Holland.
This has been a trip of a lifetime, a big thank you to my boss Dan Austin for sending me on this adventure. With a 35-year legacy as an adventure travel company and specializing in multi-sport, hiking, biking and family travel experiences that are immersed in history, wildlife, culture and geography’s natural beauty. It’s no wonder why Travel + Leisure ranked us #1 in 2009 and #2 in 2010. The service and experiences that our trips provide is extraordinary. With guides who go the extra mile to make each and every moment special to offering adventure vacations all over the world. I got to see first hand that ALA is the real deal and I can’t wait for my next adventure!
Never stop exploring,