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If you are inspired to to do more on your holiday than just lay by a pool, and are a keen cyclist here are a few of the best places in Europe to cycle:
1. Yorkshire Dales, England Bank holidays and the occasional sunny weekend aside, the roads are blissfully quiet, making jaunts from dale to dale a rare joy on this crowded isle. And, while nowhere in the UK can compare with the Tour de France climbs of the Alps or Pyrenees, in Yorkshire it wouldn’t be considered proper cycling for the roads to have hairpins to even out the ascent. Instead, the climbs from valley bottom to moor top are usually a succession of false flats and intensely steep pitches. What better way, though, to appreciate the scent of heather and the curlew’s plaintive cry than the 20 minutes you’ve just spent toiling up Fleet Moss, or Park Rash, or Buttertubs Pass
2. South Downs, England It’s probably not the best known cycling destination in Europe, or even in the UK, but the South Downs merit inclusion in this list for providing 100 miles of almost exclusively car-free riding between Winchester and Eastbourne. The South Downs Way bridleway is off-road cycling at its most inviting. Hardcore mountain bikers can indulge themselves by plunging down the steep scarp faces while the rest of us can pootle along the ridge and admire the view. You don’t even really need a mountain bike for large parts of the route – anything with slightly fatter tyres than a racing bike will do. By the time you’ve added in the network of little lanes that emanate from the ridge proper and the benign climate of the south-east you have a minor cycling paradise.
3. Ireland The Republic of Ireland has an enviable cycling heritage: Shay Elliot paved the way in the 1950s and the torch was picked up with a vengeance in the 1980s by two of the decades greatest riders, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche. None came from south-west Ireland, but if you’re after locals who don’t look askance when asked to accommodate bedraggled cyclists, challenging terrain and plenty of Guinness to replace the lost calories, then take your pick of the roads between Cork and Galway. The Beara, Iveragh and Dingle peninsulas are particular gems, and the limestone landscape of the Burren up the west coast in Co Mayo is a world apart.
4. Belgium Even Italy and France have fewer cycling nuts per head of population than Belgium (probably). It certainly has more than its fair share of classic cycle races, such as the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège one-day races that make the most of the country’s relatively limited geography. If you want to experience a cycling heartland like no other then take a trip to Flanders and punish yourself over the cobbled hills – bergs – that proliferate for one of the myriad spring races. If you’d prefer something a little more scenic, head out from Liège into the Ardennes to find climbs that last three or four miles, and then descents to match.
5. French Alps Thanks to the Tour de France, this has to be one of cycling’s most important pilgrimages. As the TV pictures show, every year hundreds of thousands of fans flock to the French Alps to watch the sport’s superstars suddenly look a touch more mortal as they do battle not just with each other but also the terrain. What the TV doesn’t show is the similar number who then proceed to ride their own bikes over the same passes in homage to their heroes. The Alpe d’Huez, the Col de Galibier, the Col d’Izoard are some of the more well-known names, but don’t overlook the lesser-known alternatives. The picturesque but gruelling Cormet de Roseland is my personal favourite.
6. French Pyrenees Perhaps less well known than the Alps, the Pyrenees nevertheless exert a similar attraction come Tour de France time when the orange-clad Dutch fans of the Alpe d’Huez are replaced by orange-clad fans from the Basque country. The climbs are generally a bit lower than those in the Alps, although still reaching more than 2,000 metres, but tend also to be a bit steeper, often making for more spectacular racing. Again, any number of minor cols make for fine diversions from the major names such as the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet. Make sure you avoid the main valley roads, and if you fancy something a little different try heading west to the Basque country and the cols de Soudet and Bagargui.
7. Provence, France Provence has everything a cyclist could wish for: exceptional weather (though it can be too hot in the height of summer), beautiful scenery and empty roads. Then there’s the cuisine, the cycling-mad locals and, of course, the wine. Head to the Luberon for a proliferation of scenic hilltop villages. If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, you could try the various ascents up to the Giono-esque countryside on the Plateau de Sault. And then there’s the fearsome Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence and, sadly, home to a memorial to Tom Simpson, the first Brit to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey and who died on its flanks in 1967.
8. Italian Dolomites The Dolomites are to the Italians and the Giro d’Italia what the major passes on the western side of the Alps are to the French and the Tour de France. There are many legendary climbs elsewhere in the Italian Alps – consider the Stelvio, Gavia and Mortirolo – but it’s the name Dolomites that sends shivers down the spine of aspiring Giro winners and cycle tourists alike. Who could resist the opportunity cycling in the Dolomites affords to spend some time in the region’s capital, Cortina d’Ampezzo? Why wait until the ski season?
9. Picos de Europa, Spain Overshadowed in terms of height and renown by the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada in their own country, Spain’s Picos de Europa nevertheless provide a wonderful cycling destination. The Vuelta a Espana occasionally passes this way, but otherwise you’re as likely to encounter a shepherd – or maybe a bear – on the mountain passes as other cyclists. Situated on Spain’s north coast and subject to the vagaries of Atlantic weather, they can be wet and sometimes wild, but the sense of adventure is well worth it.
10. Peloponnese, Greece If you fancy heading further afield still from cycling’s heartlands, the Peloponnese are well worth a visit. After all, where else can you cycle through a literal Arcadian idyll and end up at the home of the Olympic Games? Or perhaps you are a hardier soul and fancy a visit to the Spartans in their home city? The cycling is mainly on roads of slightly dubious quality and you’re never very far from a hill of some magnitude. But the local enthusiasm for supplying large steak and lamb dishes as well as the unheralded recuperative powers of the country’s eponymous salad mean it’s well worth the effort.
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