Cycling in Europe is a test of stamina, all right.
After a six-course dinner in Vincenza, Italy, that begins with mounds of proscuitto piled on fresh melon and ends with a thimble of espresso and a luscious fruit torta, will there be room for tomorrow’s alfresco, four-cheese pasta lunch in the wine-rich town of Soave plus a mid-afternoon stop for the best gelato north of Naples?
Most cyclists readily answer, “Si, signore.” Pumping a bicicletta past piazzas and palaces more than justifies a week of gastronomic indulgences, not to mention detours to gelaterias.
Rambling through Europe on a bicycle hardly qualifies as a warm-up for fitness freaks. And forget the Grand Tour syndrome. Instead of a checklist of “must see” sights, the agenda in France can read more like a grocery list: Burgundy degustations in Beaune, olive oil tastings in Provence, foie gras in Perigord and walnut oil vinegar from a 16th century mill in Dordogne.
It’s a bon vivant pace that befits a vacation. There’s always a day or two when the route covers less than 25 miles, a two-hour sprint even when hills intervene. Rarely do itineraries require more than 35 or 40 miles except on trips rated as strenuous. And always, a support van is nearby to rescue sagging cyclists or recalcitrant cycles.
- The European cycling concept was pioneered by the tour operator Butterfield & Robinson, .
- “We ran one trip in 1980, offering mopeds as an alternative to bicycles,” said George Butterfield, president and founder. B&R sold out three trips the following year, 30 trips by 1984, and this year, as the largest European cycling operator, will offer nearly 400 departures covering 61 cycling and hiking routes in 26 countries.
- B&R, Progressive Travels, Backroads and a handful of others dominate the upscale cycling market. At the other end of the price range are small operators specializing in one or two regions. They typically offer more moderate accommodations and less extravagant meals.
Even with hundreds to choose from, some trips were sold out before the catalogs were published late last fall.
Here’s a country-by-country update from several cycling tour operators.
- France: This is the most popular destination; Italy is second. Both have world-class wine and cuisine, but Italy has hills.
“The fact is that France’s network of perfectly paved, nearly traffic-free secondary roads doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” said Butterfield. “In India, New Zealand, Morocco and most of the rest of the world, we’ve been challenged to find good routes. But we could throw a dart at a map of France and devise an extraordinary itinerary.”
B&R offers nine French itineraries. The most popular are Provence, Burgundy and the Dordogne Valley. Trips run five to eight days; the shorter ones are usually booked by first-timers. A chartered flight allows B&R cyclists to experience both Bordeaux and Burgundy.
- Italy: “Of the 28 countries where we run trips, Italy is hard to beat,” said Tom Hale, founder and president of Backroads, another major cycle tour operator. “The entire population is pro-cyclist and you’re likely to meet a pack of 20 cyclists from a local club. Plus, there’s beautiful scenery, wonderful food, great wine and strong coffee.
“Despite its hills, Tuscany is our most popular Italian region,” he said. “On the plus side, the hills tend to be only a mile or two long.”
In Tuscany’s Chianti region, Backroads offers a nine-day camping option (hot showers every night) that reduces the price by almost two-thirds from its regular hotel-based trip.
- Spain and Portugal: “I grew up in France,” said Dominique Parisot, vice president of Progressive Travels, yet another of the larger cycling companies. “When I cycle in northern Portugal, I’m reminded of France 40 years ago. People still work the fields with their hands and plow with oxen. The roads have less signage and are more challenging to cyclistst. But the hotels and pousadas are every bit the equivalent of those in France.
“As soon as you cycle from Portugal into Spain (one of Progressive’s trips combines the two countries), you’ll see more billboards, industry and commercialism. But Spain’s roads are better and the rolling green hills are lovely,” he said.
Progressive Travels offers self-guided options in Burgundy and southern Portugal. Hotel accommodations, routes, maps, luggage transfers, bicycles, daily breakfasts and pick up on arrival are provided; travelers choose their date of departure and have complete freedom regarding meals. Progressive also offer two levels of cycling trips which, by varying only the accommodations, can reduce prices by one-third.
- Austria: “For us, Austria ranks in popularity right after France and Italy,” said Malte Kluetz, president of Uniquely Europe, a competitively priced operator. “Its roads are excellent and the scenery unmatched. We cycle in the Danube Valley and along the Tauern Bike Trail, which actually careens downhill most of the way.”
Cyclists stay in three-star inns, most of which are run by the owners and almost all of which have a profusion of flowers on the balconies. The food is typically Austrian, with little influence from California no-fat cuisines.
- Holland: “Everyone knows Holland is flat, but the surprise is that there’s such a variation in scenery,” said Fay Grassi, the U.S. representative for Holland Bicycling Tours . “I’ve cycled past sand dunes, acres of tulips, heather fields, and pine forests that were hideouts used by refugees in World War II.” The trips are guided by the company’s two Dutch owners, one of whom has a Ph.D. in history.
Holland Bicycling Tours’ 10-day trip through central Holland concludes at the Kroller Muller Museum with its impressive collections of Van Goghs.
Prices for all trips vary from $1,300 to $4,100 per person, not including air fare. Companies provide 18- or 21-speed hybrid bicycles (some also offer touring road cycles), all breakfasts and most dinners, a support van, guides, detailed route notes and maps, and selected entrance fees.