A cycling friend called me and mentioned that he and a friend were headed over to Germany for three weeks of bicycle touring and could I offer any advice. I soon recognized that he was looking at Europe the same way he goes bicycle touring in North America. Meanwhile, European Bicycle Touring is very different and a much more organized experience.
The friend commented that he had a brochure from the tourist office listing over 200 bike routes in Germany. To his surprise when I started mentioning some of the top bike routes they were not listed in the brochure.
For example the 420 kilometer Romantic Road bike route from Wurzburg (near Frankfurt) to Fussen near the Austrian border seemed to be missing. Actually it is mentioned but only as small bike trail in one of the states. The brochure promotes cycling by region and does not cover long distance cycling. You need to purchase one of the excellent maps to take advantage of the many routes.
The concept of getting and staying on one bike trail for 400 – 500 or more kilometers was foreign to him. There are only a very few routes of this nature in Canada or the USA and none offered the facilities available in Europe.
I mentioned he could either cycle right from Frankfurt airport or roll his bicycle right onto the bike car on the train as only some of the ICE (Intercity expresses) don’t carry bicycles in Germany. If he uses the trains on weekends the prices could be a great deal.
The friend wanted to do some camping and also stay in some Bed and breakfasts plus a few small hotels. The fact is that most of these establishments include a full buffet breakfast in the rate and have storage facilities for bicycles is truly amazing, it makes planning simple. I have never, ever found this in North America, although some hotels do permit bicycle storage when asked, they do not have bike storage rooms.
I advised him not to be concerned about road traffic as on the long distance bike routes, whether in the countryside or cities you are riding along with motorists who are used to people bicycle touring and well local cyclists out for shopping or a fun ride.
But this not only applies to Germany as all European countries offer some sort of long distance bicycle touring routes. Whatever you decide you will need two sets of comfortable cycling clothing which you can wash frequently along the journey although I know of some cyclists who carry more.
Where to Go Bicycle Touring in Europe
First timers should consider the Danube Route from Germany continuing through Austria and Slovakia which is well signed, with plenty of other cyclists, bike hotels, repair shops. The route continues through Hungary to Budapest (no signs so you require a guidebook) to the Black Sea.
Austria – there are over 25 well signed bicycle touring long distance routes. The most popular is the Danube bicycle path from Passau (Germany) to Vienna. You should also consider the the Taurern and Salzkammergut routes which can be combined with the Danube route.
Belgium & Holland – there are plenty of bicycle paths in both countries most people do a circle tour including Brugge and Amsterdam. Although Holland is flat the the country is bike friendly keep in mind you can expect strong headwinds at times..
France – one of the most popular countries for European cycling has few long distance signed routes. Get one of the guidebooks tor go bicycle touring through the Dordogne (and nearby Lot River), Provence, Burgundy, the Châteaux Country (easy route) or Normandy.
Germany – there are over 200 signed long distance routes crossing this country plus numerous regional bike trails. Visitors generally cycle the Rhine River route, around Lake Constance (3 countries) or along the Moselle River (France & Germany). My favorite is the Romantic Road Bike Route.
Ireland – most cyclists head out to the Dingle Peninsula in the western part of the country.
Italy – although you will find cyclists everywhere there few long distance signed cycling routes so you need a guidebook. Most visiting cyclists head to Tuscany (and Umbria next door) or the Veneto (flat route near Venice).
Switzerland – there are 9 national routes and numerous local routes, many in valley’s so you do not have to cycle up those famous mountains unless you want to. The most popular is the Rhone Route along Lake Geneva and the river, with a connecting route that goes from Lake Geneva to Zurich. They have a nationwide bike rental program with over 200 depots scattered around the country that is excellent and they do offer touring bikes.
UK – bike routes are being developed by Sustans. Consider cycling in the Cotswolds (no signed route), the signed C2C (coast to coast) through the Lakes District or Sustrans route 4 from Bristol to London (signed).
Wherever of these routes you choose you will require comfortable cycling clothing. I hope this list gets you started thinking as there really are so many choices for where to go cycle touring Europe.
Cycling Culture in Europe
The cycling culture is Europe is different than North America so be prepared for some pleasant surprises.
The routes – although there are long distance routes in North America such as the East Coast Greenway it is nothing compared to cycling in Europe. There are numerous routes with very detailed signs crossing many countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, etc. Also the local citizens cycle and are generally aware of the bicycle routes and it is easy to get help with directions. On a number of times local cyclists have even led me a fair distance to my destination.
Great cycling travel guides – these guides and maps which show the routes, terrain, where to stay, possible sightseeing are available in European book stores and on-line.. There are a few guides such as to the Pacific Coast route in North America but nothing compares to the detail and variety of maps and guides you can find in Europe.
Very popular locally – in Europe, and particularly on weekends, expect to see lots of other cyclists who are long distance touring. In many places in Germany and Austria there are outdoor cafe either strictly on the bike routes or in the countryside just for cyclists.
Places to stay – besides campsites there are many small local hotels along the route cater to cyclists and have locked bicycle storage rooms. They are not surprised when we arrive by bicycle unlike in North America. Along the Danube and regions of Frances you can find bike hotels which cater to long distance cyclists. It gives you the opportunity to talk with like minded people about the routes.
Special local transit for cyclists – Across the Danube for example there are bike ferries for crossing the river which are rare in North America. And the trains, except for the fastest express trains have bicycle storage room at the front or rear of a train.
Local drivers – the local motorists are used to cyclists and with the exception of a few cities are generally very patient around cyclists on the local roads, even in Italy where everyone drives like they are in a Formula One race.
Get your cycling clothing and gear prior to departing as I found a better selection in Northern American shops. Of course Europe has history (castles), museums, terrific scenery but what sets it apart is the cycling culture in most of the countries. For the local distance cyclists generally you will find Europe much more welcoming with services and facilities for a great visit.
So before going bicycle touring in Europe clear away those North American views about bicycle touring and have a wonderful time!