Cycle Europe

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A lot of people look for adventure in their retirement years, but my brother and sister-in-law have taken it to the next level. This year they spent two months cycling through the Netherlands.

Last year, they spent about the same length of time biking from just outside Paris to Budapest, a distance of about 1,200 miles. Before retiring from their jobs as social workers, they had logged hundreds of miles cycling in the area around their home in Southern California, but they were surprised by how different cycling in Europe was from cycling back home.

Throughout the European countryside, small towns and villages are located close together and connected by bike trails and minor roads. It’s relatively easy to ride from one village to the next in less than a day. Most of the time you are riding in open countryside with rivers, lakes, hills and villages in view. Traffic is light, roads and trails are well maintained, and cyclists can feel safe. In contrast, the size and scale of U.S. geography, along with the lack of official bike trails in many areas, limit the areas where long-range bike touring is possible.

Besides the benefits of great roads and bike trails, a large part of the enjoyment of cycling in Europe comes from passing through unique historic areas and meeting local people who have maintained their traditional culture. Most people who have cycled in Europe will tell you there’s more exposure to local food, drink and social customs compared to staying in larger cities.

Before setting out on a European cycling adventure, there are a few decisions to be made.

What Type of Tour?
My brother and sister-in-law favor self-guided and self-organized bicycle touring. If you’d rather not do everything on your own, there are commercial options, including both guided and self-guided. The advantages range from not having to do your own research and planning to not having to carry all your own luggage. You don’t have to worry about getting lost or stranded and you won’t have to repair your bicycle yourself. The trade-off is less control over the itinerary and possibly less adventure. You also may end up spending more money for a commercial tour.

Bring, Buy or Rent a Bike?
You can expect to pay extra to bring your own bike with you when you fly to Europe. Some carriers don’t allow bikes as baggage or require special packing, so check ahead before bringing your bike to the airport. Cost is a factor if you’re thinking about buying a bike in Europe, but bike rental is a good option for commercial tours and shorter (less than a week) self-organized tours. Most rental agencies have websites, so you can make arrangements before arriving in Europe.

How Far to Ride?
If you’re planning your own tour, you’ll need to decide how far to ride each day. Even if you’re a very experienced cyclist, you probably won’t ride as many miles per day as you might expect. Carrying baggage in panniers, or bicycle saddlebags, adds weight and wind resistance that will slow you down. You can expect to travel about 15 to 20 percent less ground in the same amount of time when biking with baggage. My brother also suggests that you factor in time for sightseeing along the way.

Where to Go?
There are great bicycle touring routes in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Italy, England and the Netherlands. In all of these countries, cyclists can expect to encounter historic churches, palaces and monuments; charming houses and quaint villages; and interesting locals who often speak conversational English. You can also expect to find an excellent railway system with special cars for bikes in most of these countries, which can come in handy if you want to travel farther than you care to bike.

Additional Tips
Here are some additional tips from the experiences of my brother and sister-in-law. When choosing where to go, stick to river valleys such as the Rhine, Loire, Elbe and Danube. These routes are usually flat and pass through historic towns. There are abundant bike trails in the Netherlands; in other countries, follow the EuroVelo, a network of 15 long-distance cycle routes that crisscross the European continent. To avoid surprises, plan your route and lodging ahead of time. Many villages have hostels and bed-and-breakfasts rather than hotels. Always carry cash and a debit card, since many lodgings and restaurants along the way are cash only. If you prefer camping, many town have municipal campgrounds with hot showers.
Numerous websites offer resources related to cycling in Europe, including travel articles, cycling journals and trip itineraries. Here’s to having a happy, safe biking adventure! ■

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