This is planning season. Most of you reading this probably know that and have already got the wheels in motion to sort next year’s bike trip out – especially if you’re on a budget. The biggest cost on any trip is the accommodation and the reality is that the smaller places, which often tend to be the budget places, tend to get booked up well in advance. Those giant 100+room, £150-a-night, four-star hotels will almost always have one or two unbooked rooms waiting for you, while space in the funky five-room, £60-a-night gasthaus down the street will be snapped up pretty much as soon as the calendar for 2023 bookings is opened.
So now’s the time to get serious about your planning. To get started there are two key decisions to make as soon as possible: first, who’s going; and second, when can you all make it? Those of you travelling solo or as a couple – either as rider and pillion or on two bikes – have it relatively easy. Just quickly align your diaries. Organising groups can be tricky: everyone needs to be able to get the time off at the same – from both work and family life. It can be a delicate dance… which is why I’d recommend getting that sorted before looking at where you can go.
This is important because there’s no point everyone agreeing that this year’s dream destination is the high Alps if the only time you can all go is May… the high passes won’t be open. Equally, if France is the desired destination but the only time you can go is in July when the Tour de France is in full swing, you may find all kinds of problems if your planned route overlaps with the cycle race. And if August is your only option, you’ll likely find a lot of the holiday hotspots are very busy – finding a less-predictable destination may be a good idea.
Where to go
Once you know when you can go and for how long, then you can decide where is practical. This is potentially the biggest can of worms if people have different ideas – so the key is to work out what you all want to achieve, then pick a destination that best fits. Having a fixed length of trip in mind is crucial because, for instance, there’s no point looking at southern Italy and Sicily if you only have five or six days. Destinations on the far side of the Continent need a two-week trip; with a week and some careful planning you can get a surprisingly long way; but five days or less means a less-ambitious plan is sensible.
For those shorter trips, you’re looking at destinations like the Ardennes in Luxembourg and Belgium or Germany’s Sauerland and Eifel mountains, or the Moselle around Cochem and Koblenz. Northern France is practical – especially Normandy if using the ferries to get there. With a week, the Vosges and the Black Forest are accessible, or the Hartz mountains in Germany.
Your options really expand once you have the nine days provided by a week off work and the weekends on either side of it. If you’re looking for laid-back riding with lots of sightseeing, pick areas with plenty of history. The roads are more flowing and less technical in lower areas than in the high mountains. Northern and western France, the Loire, Germany and Czechia are all good options.
If you’re looking for lots of twisty roads, you’re spoilt for choice. All of Europe’s mountains and hilly areas can provide those. The challenge is deciding which ones to aim for… though I always suggest going somewhere new, if you can – not just returning to the same place you rode the year before.
For laid-back back but scenic mountain riding, with plenty of cafés and interesting villages along the way, look to the Dolomites or the Swiss alps. If you don’t mind going a bit further, doing a longer trip, the Austrian alps, possibly dipping into Slovenia’s Julien alps is a good alternative.
For concentrated mountain riding, I still don’t think you can beat the French alps. It’s a big area and the fastest way to see a lot of it is to cross the peaks from Lake Geneva to the Med following the Route des Grandes Alps, returning on Route Napoleon. But there’s so much more to discover, if you have time you. You can peel off from these classic routes to explore around them or even put together a multi-centre tour – stopping for a few nights in towns along the way to ride daytrip loops, to explore in real depth.
The Pyrenees present different possibilities. The French side is a real mix of roads: some broad and smooth; and others narrow and challenging. You can put together routes to suit all kinds of bikes, depending on what kind of roads you want to experience. There’s a fair bit of history to discover as well, from romantic castles to ancient caves, with spectacular views at every turn.
The Spanish side of the Pyrenees has a slightly different character. There are bigger distances between the villages and fewer really high passes but many more miles of twisty roads through the series of hills and peaks that march south towards Barcelona at the south/east end of the mountains. Hardly anyone explores the super-quiet roads of the Basque Country at north/west end of the range, blending into the mountains of Cantabria.
The Cantabrian mountains feed smoothly into the Picos de Europa and the range extends all the way west to Galicia. That’s a lot of fabulous, quiet and usually sun-kissed riding – though sometimes it rains beside the Atlantic even in summer. The further south you head, whether that’s into Portugal or central or southern Spain, the hotter and drier things become (though in August it’s probably too hot).
If you’re after somewhere a bit different, look outside the most-famous mountain areas: the Massif central in France has amazing riding, through the Limousin and Auvergne regions and down to the Ardeche and the gorges of the Tarn. If you can do a longer trip, the Apennine spine of Italy, from Emilia-Romagna through Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria has some truly amazing roads. The run to Croatia lets you not only enjoy that amazing country but also takes in many classic mountain roads along the way. Though if you really want your mind blown, head to Corsica and Sardinia.
Putting your route together
Working out whether the dream destination is practical comes down to time. How long will it take to get there? How long will you have there? And how much time will you have to get back? You need to make some decisions about motorway use: will you sacrifice a day to the motorways to cover a lot of ground; will you mix motorways with good riding to save a bit of time; or will you do your best to keep to good-riding roads, even if it takes a lot longer?
I prefer to at least mix motorway with good riding, if not stay off it altogether. I spent years blasting back from the Alps in a day and, as well as being a boring way to use a motorbike, it’s surprisingly exhausting. I’d be good for nothing for a day or two after doing a 1000-miler back from the south of France or Northern Italy. Now I’d rather take an extra day for the journey and make sure I enjoy every mile.
If you do have to put some solid motorway chunks into the tour plan, my advice is to try saving them for the return leg: make the ride out as much fun as possible, but accept that in the last two days people normally start thinking about getting home so a bit of multi-lane in the mix is more acceptable. For my off-the-peg tours, I keep motorway to an absolute minimum – because I believe every day should be about great riding – and generally use the major roads only for the runs into and out of the ports.
If you’re looking at the Spanish Pyrenees and the Picos, the ferry v ride-across-France debate comes in. For me, it’s about time as much as money. I’ve done that ride to and from Spain enough times to know that the faster you do it, the more gruelling and hateful it becomes… it can be done in a day if you want to punish yourself and your tyres, but even two days is mostly trial by motorway. This changes dramatically with more time and you can have a pretty good ride if you’re prepared to spend three days getting to the Spanish border from a port on the north coast of France (whether Caen or Calais) but then you could end up spending more of your holiday in France than Spain – and you’ll probably spend as much on fuel, food and hotels getting across France as you’d have spent on the ferry.
Which roads to use
How do you decide which roads to use? Naturally, I’d suggest starting with my two Bikers’ Europe books – but as it’s expanded, there are now many more routes in the daytrips section of the website than in the books, so do check there as well. Forums and magazine features, Facebook groups and even Twitter feeds and YouTube videos can also be a source of inspiration.
Always plan your routes based not on mileage but on riding time. While 200 miles is a dull morning on motorways, that’s a decent day in the mountains where twisty roads keep average speeds down. Google Maps can give you an estimate, as can Basecamp. Worth getting them to give you estimates for routes you already know… so you can gauge how their predictions compare with your riding. For instance, if Google says a route takes an hour but you ride it in 45mins, or an hour-and-a-quarter, you’ll be able to assess how realistic your route plans are.
Never forget to factor in time for your stops – and remember that the bigger the group, the slower the stops. If you’re solo, you can top up the bike and be on the way in under ten minutes; a group can take half an hour, easily. Lunch and coffee stops can eat into the day – and every minute you’re stopped is a minute added to your arrival time at that night's hotel… so what might look merely ambitious on paper can quickly become utterly impractical once you’re on the road.
Of course, you don’t have to plan the trip meticulously. You can just make a decision on where to go, get a good map and then head off when you’re ready. You can book your hotels as you go along (I stop for a coffee at 3pm and get Booking.com out to find somewhere for the night, an appropriate distance ahead).
This way of travelling is great for following your nose, for exploring, for changing your route at a moment’s notice. It’s spontaneous, liberating – it lets you adapt for bad weather or good news, heading to see a festival you hear about or avoiding any rain the forecasters are predicting. There are only two catches.
First is the route: if you have a tick-list of roads you want to ride, it’s pretty easy to get knocked off this when you’re improvising; sometimes detours are necessary to get to the accommodation you’ve found and you can either face a long day to fit in that must-ride road as well, or you sacrifice it.
The second trick is getting that accommodation. It’s easy if you’re travelling solo or as a couple, but it's trickier for a bunch of blokes and only becomes more difficult as the group gets bigger. You can almost always find one room close to where you think you want to stop, but you might struggle to get three twin-bed rooms (never mind six singles) in the Alps in summer. But even if you only need one room, you might not find one in a budget hotels… they’ll have been booked up months ago by people who read this piece!
Which brings us full circle to: this is the time to plan your tour! And let’s face it, while it’s dark and wet outside, planning your dream trip is perhaps the best biking kick of all in winter.