Rising fuel costs and train fares; an ever-increasing interest in health and fitness; protecting the environment; and better provision of cycling facilities across Europe are all encouraging us to get on our bikes to make every day journeys. Why not take that one step further and see the world from the saddle? Here are ten of our top picks for cycling in Europe.
One of the most popular cycling challenges in Britain, the C2C (Sea to Sea) is part of the much longer National Cycle Network. This stretch runs 225 km (140 mi), 127 km (79 mi) of which are free from traffic, from either Whitehaven or Workington on the Cumbrian coast of the Irish Sea to either Newcastle or Sunderland, on the North Sea. The route ascends the Pennines, reaching its highest point at Black Hill (at 609 m / 1,998 ft, the highest point on all of the National Cycle Network), then descends on the other side to the flatter plains of County Durham’s railway paths.
The Velodyssey is a 1,200 km (745 mi) bike route that starts in Britain at Ilfracombe, Devon and stretches right along the western coast of France to the Spanish border. Along its course, it never strays very far from the Atlantic coast, so there are fantastic views of the sea and French countryside. It’s divided into 15 sections, or 62 smaller stages, if you don’t have the time, the inclination or the stamina to tackle the whole. It is France’s longest waymarked bike path and connects up with several other main cycle routes, if you fancy a detour en route.
For a sometimes grueling but rewarding road trip in Switzerland, try the Alpine Panorama Route, a 485 km (302 mi) tour from Lake Constance to Lake Geneva. The route is paved the entire way, apart from a few gravel stretches, and is subdivided into eight stages. Known as the “King of Kings”, it reaches a maximum elevation of 1,948 m (6,509 ft) above sea level as it crosses ten high and low passes en route. If your legs start to feel wobbly at the very thought, you can take advantage of the postal buses or trains that will tackle most of the steepest ascents for you and your bike.
For a much gentler but no less picturesque cycle, try the relatively new Ecovia do Litoral (‘Coastal Eco-Way’) in Portugal. This 214 km (132 mi) route runs from Cabo de S. Vicente in Sagres in the west to Vila Real de Santo António on the Spanish border, through areas of nature protection, picturesque fishing villages, historic sights of interest and past beaches. Altogether, it runs through 12 of the Algarve’s principalities, including Albufeira, Lagos and Faro. The full route can be completed in around four days, but plan to be away longer if you want to stop and explore along the way.
Back in Britain, there’s the Lôn Las Cymru Trail, otherwise known as National Route 8. The northern leg of the journey runs from Anglesey, across Snowdonia National Park and the Cambrian Mountains to Llanidoes, covering around 220 km (137 mi) of minor roads, railway paths and forestry tracks. From Llanidoes, the southern leg follows the Taff Trail through to Cardiff, or turn onto National Route 42 at Glasbury for Chepstow. All in all, three mountain ranges and miles of quiet, largely traffic-free roads and peaceful tracks.
Follow in the footsteps – or rather along the cycle routes – of Bradley Wiggins, who trained on Mount Teide. At 3,718 m (12,198 ft), this volcano is Spain’s highest peak, on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. There are five main routes up, varying in difficulty and length; and the challenges of the heat and altitude are balanced out to some extent by the freedom of virtually empty roads and the curiosity of the landscapes in which NASA have tested out their buggies for landing on Mars. All in all, a challenge for any cyclist and surreal but fulfilling experience by anyone’s standards!
Cyclists continue to be lured by the attractions of the French Alps, on routes made famous by the Tour de France. Cycling season here runs between mid-April and mid-October at altitudes below 1,500 m (4,921 ft); and mid-May to the end of September at higher elevations: many mountain passes are closed in winter due to snow. The highest true Alpine pass in France is the Col de l’Iseran, between the mountain villages of Val d’Isère and Bonneval-sur-Arc. It’s 48 km (29 mi) long with a climb over this distance of 1,955 m (6,414 ft), an average percentage of 4.1%. Other passes include the Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier and the Col de la Croix de Fer.
Similarly attractive to cyclists spurred on by a challenge are the Dolomites in Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and featured in the Giro d’Italia each year. But the area isn’t just for those with high levels of fitness and stamina; there are many flatter routes as well, making this a great area for cyclists of all abilities. The Sudtirol Strada di Vini (South Tyrolean Wine Road), for example, meanders alongside the Adige River as it winds its way down to the Adriatic with spectacular mountain views and opportunities to stop at some of the most beautiful vineyards in Italy.
For a journey of epic proportions, follow the course of Europe’s second longest river on the Danube Bike Trail as it runs from Donaueschingen in Germany to where the river flows into the Black Sea in Romania some 2,875 km (1,787 mi) later, passing through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and the Ukraine on its route. This is the most popular holiday cycle route in Europe, although most people chunk it down and cycle sections of the varied terrain through which it passes, from mountainous landscapes to famous towns and monasteries, nature reserves and along high water dams with fantastic views around.
And finally to the world’s longest, the North Sea Cycle Route, which passes through eight countries on its 6,000 km (3,728 mi) journey. One of the finest stretches is through Scotland, from the Shetlands and Orkney down 1,207 km (750 mi) of remote coastal craggy regions, past rivers and waterfalls, historic castles and rural villages and Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, then on to the Scottish Borders, ending in Berwick upon Tweed.