Some people might wonder why go all the way to Europe to cycle when you can just ride locally and save all that money. Or maybe just sign up for a bicycle tour in a nearby area and still save money. If all you're interested in doing is clicking off miles, sticking close to home is probably the right answer for you. After all long distance travel does involve not only financial resources, but a significant investment in energy, logistics, vacation time, etc. But there is another to answer to another type of cyclist: the cyclist who demands more than just a bike ride.
There is no right or wrong answer in general, only for you. The right answer for riding in Europe is to be able to see and experience a variety of opportunities that are not available locally such as scenery, history, architecture, cuisine, and whatever else matters to you. So if you think you are ready to take on the challenges of international bicycling, the rewards should be high.
This is the heart of the matter for anyone wishing to pursue riding in Europe. The best approach may be to start asking yourself is "what is it that I want to get out of this trip?" If what you see and experience along the route is important, as well as things like what you do when you’re not riding, days off, sampling the local cuisine, etc., then your questions should address these considerations. The reason to define your questions as well as their answers is that it's better to create the bicycle tour you want than to just sign up for a bicycle tour and then hope it’s what you want.
There are many different ways to pursue a European bicycling bicycle tour: sign up for an existing commercial or other organized bicycle tour, hire a bicycle tour organizer to facilitate a bicycle tour for you, or just do your own bicycle tour. They all have pros and cons: a pre-planned bicycle tour, commercial or otherwise is someone else's idea of what a bicycle tour should be. If the bicycle tour description sounds good to you, maybe that's the way to go in that you put your money down and everything (or at least what is included in the description) is already taken care of- basically, you just show up and ride. But it’s always good to know what you want rather than trying to hold someone else responsible for your bicycle tour needs. Some pre-planned bicycle tours may be hit and miss as far as your needs go.
There are now experienced cyclists that for a fee, act as bicycle tour organizers. Try searching on google.com or yahoo.com the key words and you should find plenty. If you do some homework and know the areas that interest you these organizers can facilitate the bicycle tour for you, including the right kind of hotels and the type of route you want and are able to ride. Some more ambitious cyclists with a head for exploration and a robust attitude may want to create their own route and make their own arrangements, attempting to save on cost. This effort may be successful, but challenging, considering such things as language barrier, lack of experience and knowledge of the areas. Consider the possibility that paying a reasonable fee to a bicycle tour organizer may actually save you money, not to mention frustration, by using their knowledge and connections to the bicycle tour area.
One of the challenges of international bicycling is the long flight along with bicycle luggage, and the extra fees the airline may charge. The "good old days" were when the airlines basically took whatever luggage we had without charging any extra fees, as part of the good service they wanted to provide. In most cases that's gone, as most airlines charge for baggage and even more for oversized baggage. Be sure to build that into the cost of your bicycle tour rather than end up being angry when you get dinged at check-in at the airport. Another consideration is making flight or land connections with a bike. The simplest way to go if possible, is to stick with one airline so you can check your bags through to your destination. Otherwise you may have to reclaim your bike before making your connecting flight, and re-check it with the new airline. Sometimes a traveller can find a flight discount by using more than one carrier, but with a bike it may not be worth it. Furthermore if you have to make a land connection such as catching a train in Europe to get to the start of your bicycle tour, consider lugging your bike around to do so. Critical thinking can play a significant role in getting to Europe with a bike. After all, this is your vacation- right? These issues may be troubling to some, but if you use good judgement and make your travel easy, the dividends will come rolling in for you once you arrive.
Choosing the area that's right for you is of fundamental importance. Generally speaking Europe is similar to North America climatologically in that north tends to be wetter and cooler, south warmer and dryer. Cycling in a northern European area should be great for the months of July and August in that the weather should be cooperative, notwithstanding the possibility of a little rain. But in spite of nice discounts in the cost of airfare, too early or late- April, May, even early June, or October may result in weather that is too cold and/or wet to ride in. The same with a route that involves the high country such as the Alps, or Pyrenees- snow could fall on you in the spring or fall. If you want to take advantage of shoulder season discounts, southern Europe such as Spain and Italy may offer great weather. But be aware that the heat will come on there during the summer.
All of France has beautiful countryside with quiet back-roads that are perfect for bicycling. Quaint villages are found throughout the country, so one doesn't have to worry about going to a region that would not have a desirable bicycling environment. Basically the northern part of France, or Brittany, offers fairly flat countryside, cooler, wetter weather. Other areas like Perigord and Dordogne in central France are quite hilly and will offer challenging bicycling without the big mountain climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees areas. The southeast of France has wonderful Provence, steeped in history from the Roman empire, great food and of course, lavender fields and wine.
Named above are just a few of the popular bicycling regions. There are many more areas that may offer bicycling that is just as good, maybe even better, in that they are less travelled and just waiting for you to discover them. Websites make it so easy and fun now to do your homework. There is more information out there than you even could possibly digest, so enjoy the process.
Most are aware of Michelin tires but probably of more use to you when bicycling in France would be their extensive maps and hotel guides. To some extent these are available in the US at some bookstores, but you should also be able to order much more localized editions that focus on the details of the specific region that interests you. This valuable resource will describe and rate hotel/lodging options and provide you with local maps that will identify all the back-roads so you can plan a bicycling route.
Lodging in France can run the gamut from the ultra luxury chateau, or historic estate or even castle, to quaint old family run inns located in small rural villages. Obviously the former will dent your budget much more seriously, but travelling all that way, consider treating yourself to one or two nights in ancient royal luxury. But even the inns of Old France can provide ambiance that will contribute to the European experience, while saving you money. Most lodging will have the option of a meal plan such as dinner or breakfast and dinner, served on the premises, possibly even at their sidewalk cafe- very convenient!
Capturing the historic and colourful flavor of France may be critical to many who travel there, as it is not something you can experience in your local habitat. But for those who may be uncomfortable with different culture and cuisine, you may want to seek modern hotels that offer a more familiar environment.
The type of lodging that suits you best should be an important factor in creating a successful bicycling trip. It should be expected that you will be tired from bicycling and thus, important to arrive each day feeling robust about where you will be dining and bedding down for the night. So choose the type of lodging that you can afford, but that will also enhance your European experience.
If you elect to join an existing bicycle tour, the route will most likely have already been determined by the bicycle tour operator. But even so, it might be a good idea to check out that route with Michelin maps of that area. As mentioned above, detailed regional maps will give you a good idea of the type of terrain, scenery, and maybe most important of all, the level of traffic to expect while bicycling. The true bicycling roads of France are classified as D, for "district", then the number of the road- e.g.- D21. Michelin maps designate D roads by the colour white. You can count on these D roads as being the most cycle-friendly, as they will have the least traffic and lower speed limits; they are generally quiet country roads. You may find it necessary to travel on some yellow and maybe even red roads to get where you need to go. As long as you minimize riding on these coloured roads, bicycling should be good, as the colours mean more traffic and higher speed limits- red being the busiest. You may find even the yellow and red roads have a good shoulder, but after the quiet D roads, it just isn’t the anywhere near the same quality experience.
So if you sign up for an organized bicycle tour make sure the organizer can provide you the route, so you can determine that the quality of bicycling is what you demand. If organizing your own route, be sure to get your hands on the Michelin maps and follow the white D roads as much as possible.
So many things to consider! But if this is exciting to you and not troubling, move ahead and start playing with it. Look over the maps and promotional material for the beautiful sights you want to see such as castles, vineyards, and fields of lavender that stretch as far as you can see. Think about taking a break from your ride every day to have some fabulous pastry and coffee at a sidewalk cafe, in a village that is 500 years old. Cycling through several dozen such villages every day, past houses with overflowing flower boxes in the windows. Acres and acres of sunflowers punctuated by even larger lavender fields. This is typical scenery all over France when bicycling along the rural D roads. Again if you deem the effort discussed above is just what you have to do to get what you want out of life, get going! Warning- one bicycling bicycle tour in France may not be enough!
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