Tackling an epic cycling trip doesn’t mean you need to be an epic cyclist. Dervla Murphy, who launched her distinguished travel-writing career pedalling from Ireland to India, sagely wrote: “one of the advantages of cycling is that it automatically prevents a journey from becoming an Expedition.” These bike-based trips offer high adventure that’s achievable for most of us…
It’s fair to say that the French love cycling – and the country is laced with a network of signposted cycle routes connecting many of the big-name sites. The Veloscenic is a 450km trail connecting Paris with Mont-St-Michel, passing the palace at Versailles, the magnificent cathedral at Chartres, beautiful chateaux such as Saint-Jean and Carrouges, the medieval town of Domfront with its imposing ruined Norman castle, and of course the dramatic rock-top medieval abbey that provides a suitably climactic finish.
The USA is catching onto the rail-trail concept, with many of its disused railway lines being converted into cycle paths (the Minuteman Bikeway from Boston to Lexington and Bedford provides a good way to access key sites of the American War of Independence). But in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, it’s easy to pick your way along quiet country roads – particularly joyful in autumn, when the wooded hillsides of the Green Mountains blaze gold and red with fall foliage. Tootle alongside Dutch-gabled barns and timber-shingled farmhouses, pausing to taste local maple syrup and craft beers, overnighting in historic inns at peaceful towns such as Brandon, Middlebury and Shoreham.
Europe knows how to do a good cycle path – and the EuroVelo 6 is one of the most impressive, a 4400km-long continent-spanning adventure between the Atlantic at Saint-Nazaire and the Black Sea at Constanta. Importantly, it links trails running alongside some of Europe’s great rivers – and probably the best introduction to riverine cycling is the section between Passau and Budapest alongside the Danube. Though it loops for over 500km through central Europe, it’s a largely smooth (even downhill) ride, visiting the enticing capitals Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, via historic monasteries and castles, vineyards and Baroque palaces – a fine adventure that’s easily tackled in ten days or less, or even broken into shorter chunks.
The Seto Inland Sea is a bit of a misnomer: it’s not really inland, but rather connected with the Pacific. Flanked by three of Japan’s major islands (Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu), it’s a protected stretch of water across which stretches a string of gem-like islands. The Shimanami Kaido is a dedicated cycle route snaking 70km between Onomichi on Honshu to Imabari on Shikoku, visiting temples and torii (traditional gates), fishing ports and gardens, castles and of course cafes and restaurants where you can fuel up on local specialities such as inoko, Innoshima’s filling take on the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki layered pancake. Running mostly alongside the road, this is a flat and easy trail, though there are plenty of diversions leading up hills to shrines with dramatic views.
Arguably the world’s most famous pilgrimage trail leads to the magnificent cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, reputed resting place of St James the Apostle. Actually, it’s not one trail but many, spidering out across the Iberian peninsula; the most-tramped, though, is the route across northern Spain from the Pyrenees, widely known as the Camino Frances. Most pilgrims hike from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France west through the verdant northern fringes of Spain, covering around 775km to reach Santiago, but around 5% cycle – and anyone pedalling the final 200km qualifies for the coveted ‘Compostela’ certificate on arrival at the cathedral. En route you’ll traverse the spectacular peaks of the Pyrenees, the vineyards of the Rioja region, and medieval marvels such as Burgos – and work up an appetite for fine Spanish food: leave plenty of space for Galician octopus! There’s useful information at: www.caminosantiagodecompostela.com
Few places offer such outdoor thrills as the other Down Under – and Nga Haerenga, The New Zealand Cycle Trail, brings together 22 individual rides ranging from easy to advanced, traversing both of the main islands. You can choose to ride between volcanoes, past steaming geothermal pools and icy glaciers, alongside craggy coastlines or pristine beaches. The longest trail, and arguably the most dramatic and varied, is the Alps2Ocean, a 306km, mostly downhill romp snaking between Aoraki/Mt Cook, past beautiful mountain lakes and the curious formations known as Elephant Rocks to meet the Pacific Ocean at Oamaru. Though there are a couple of hills and a few road sections with some traffic, it’s largely rated easy.
You don’t have to get on a plane to enjoy a ride through history – simply set out west from Reading and in 137 flat, mostly car-free kilometres alongside the Kennet & Avon Canal you’ll pass appealing villages and tempting pubs, white chalk horses above Pewsey Vale, the impressive flight of locks at Caen, lofty aqueducts and Bradford-on-Avon’s vast medieval tithe barn. The canal (and the route) finishes in the World Heritage city of Bath, where you can admire the abbey, the Roman Baths and the gorgeous Georgian architecture, or simply soak those weary limbs in the steaming rooftop pool at Thermae Bath Spa. All in all, it’s a fine choice for a long weekend’s ride.