Cycling is a wonderful mode of transport and a great way to see a country up close. It is also the most eco-friendly way to get around. Nowadays there are companies that will arrange every last aspect of a cycling holiday in just about any country on earth. If you are planning a cycling tour to Mongolia or some similarly adventurous trip those companies certainly do a great job and are well worth their money. But many destinations are quite straight forward and cycling holidays can be easily arranged DIY style.
Obviously, the easiest country for a cycling adventure is always your own - you know the ins and outs of how to get to places and where to go camping or book a hotel, and all the little insider secrets that can be tricky about making arrangements abroad. If you are planning a trip abroad you first of all have to figure out how you'll get there and whether to take your own bike or rent one there.
Usually it is best to take your own bike, after all, you are used to it. However, depending on whether you want to cycle for the entire duration of your trip or just for portions of it, it may be less complicated and less costly to simply rent one in the country you are traveling to as and when you require it. Always check with the airlines - sometimes it is surprisingly cheap to take a bike on a plane with you if you ship it as 'sports equipment' instead of paying excess luggage charges.
Planning is quintessential for a DIY bicycle trip - you'll need more than the kind of general country information you'll get in any mediocre guide. You'll need information that is geared towards cyclists. The best source of such information is the destination country's local cyclists association - if there is such a thing. Not every country has one, but if there is one, the cyclists organization of your own country can probably help you locate them.
Cyclists organizations usually sell special guide books on biking routes in various countries. The advantage of buying one in your home country is that you'll be able to understand the language. On the other hand, guide books tend to simplify the really essential information by encoding it in symbols which are usually fairly easy to figure out, even in foreign language guide books. The advantage of a local guidebook is that they are more likely to offer current information and may also contain more insider tips.
The other thing you will need is a good map of your route. A large scale topographical map will do, but a special bike maps that mark the cycle route are easier to follow. Such maps usually pick routes that have little traffic and a good road surface.
In Europe, there are a number of long distance cycle paths that span several countries, as well as individual trail systems within some (unfortunately not all) countries. It's just a matter of picking a route that traverses an area you are interested in and following it for however long you like. You can calculate how many kilometers you'll want to do in a day, whether you want to add relaxation days at specific points of interests or whether you want to veer off the marked route at any point to see something else nearby that is not directly accessible via the route. Trails also sometimes meet, thus providing easy opportunities to change directions.
Many long distance cycle routes follow the rivers, which means that there is usually relatively little inclination if you go with the flow, so to speak.
Another big consideration is the question of where to spend the nights. Will you camp along the way or stay in hotels, bed and breakfasts or inns? This will depend on your need for comfort, your budget- and your willingness to cart all your camping equipment around with you. Even these days when most equipment is designed high-tech and ultra-light, camping equipment adds weight and bulk to your overall luggage. It also may not always be easy to find a campground when you need one. Not all countries allow wild camping. The other thing is that after a day of cycling it's quite nice to relax in relative comfort. If the budget is tight you can try to overnight at youth hostels and also save some money by buying supplies for the day at the market or supermarket and only splurge on eating out in the evenings for your main meal.
If you do stay at hotels and guesthouses, local cycle guidebooks will prove an invaluable source of information regarding your lodging options, their comfort level, price range and contact details, so you can book your rooms in advance. This is particularly important during peak holidays, when there may be many people on the path, all looking for somewhere to put their head down come night time.
Another crucial consideration is the question of how much repair gear you should carry with you. This is a great moot point and very much depends on whether you are a risk taker or not. I look at it in similar terms as I consider my medicine pack - take things you are not likely to find 'out there' as well as a handy multifunction tool. The important thing to consider, especially if your are taking your own bike to another country, is that other countries may have different norms and sizes for things like nuts and bolts or inner tubes than your home. The most common annoyances are flat tires. You can forestall the eventuality of spending a lot of time by the side of the road fixing them, if you invest a little money to get your bike fitted with 'unflattable' tires. They make the bike a little heavier, but it's worth it. Local cycle guide books provide valuable information as to where you'll find bicycle repair shops along the way. If you are on a major cycle route, chances are quite high that the nearest repair shop is never very far away.
If you want to cycle in different regions, check out special train service offers. In Europe it is often possible to take bikes on trains and special ticket deals may offer excellent rates for long distance travel over a limited period of time. It is also cheap and easy to take bikes on ferries, so, crossing water to reach some off shore islands is not impossible.
Finally, it's a good idea to inform your self of local weather patterns - in general moderate, off-season temperatures are perfect for a cycling holiday, whether in spring or autumn. Just make sure you are prepared for occasional cooler temperatures or rain and stay flexible enough for a change of plans if conditions turn against you. There is no point catching pneumonia just because you want to follow a pre-set plan. And if you have never done this sort of thing before, don't try to get over ambitious. Start with shorter routes and manageable daily distances. Remember - it's supposed to be fun!
© Kat Morgenstern, 2007, all rights reserved.
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