By Christine Chan
I’ve been spending my evenings waiting tables in one of the snobbiest malls in the U.S. I don’t think I need to describe how desperate I am for summer. I am going to Europe for two and half months to backpack and study abroad. There is a week between the end of school and the date my friend can join me. I can either stay at home and work or go early by myself. It is an easy decision. Crazy ideas about how to spend that week have sprung up as I run yet another diet coke out to a table of cranky parents. My favorite idea is to spend that week biking around the countryside. After all, I like to bike the seven blocks to school on my $15 mountain bike that I got from Goodwill. If you are laughing at me, you are in the good company of my friends and family. This article will contain information for other clueless travelers interested in biking in Europe.
Advantages/disadvantages to biking
The European countryside cannot be fully appreciated from the confinement of a train. Biking allows for freedom and intimacy with the land. Europeans love bikers and thus travelers will find it easier to interact with the locals. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of biking on your own, there are dozens of bike tours that offer guides and vehicle assistance for luggage. Some good ones are:
Euro-Bike and Walking Tours (tel. 800/321-6060, www.eurobike.com)
Backroads (tel. 800/462-2848, www.backroads.com)
Pack & Pedal Europe (tel. 877/965-2064, www.tripsite.com)
RandonnÃ©e Tours (self-guided tours only, tel. 800/465-6488, www.randonneetours.com)
On the downside, biking is slow; an average biker travels between 40-60 miles a day. It takes an entire day to bike the distance that can be covered by train in an hour. Biking is also physically exhausting. I doubt that I’ll have energy to explore the small villages after a day of riding.
Where to get a bike
Some airlines ship bikes for free as one of your two-piece luggage allowance. Others charge a small fee. Contact the airline to find out. Most Eurail trains and hostels will allow for bikes to accompany the traveler with advance notice. If this sounds like too much of a pain, you can rent crappy bikes while in Europe. If an area is fit for biking, there will be bikes available for rent. They come cheaply at about $10-15/day.
What to do with a huge backpack
There is no way that I’m going to lug a few months worth of stuff on my back. There are a few options. 1) I can find a European friend to drop off by bag with and only take the bare necessities. 2) I can pay for a locker in a hostel. 3) I can train for the next few months with 20 lbs. worth of stuff on my back. I don’t even know why I am including the third option.
Where to stay
Many hardcore bikers stay in campsites and have to lug tents, sleeping bags, and cooking equipment. I plan to stay in hostels. Bike theft is a problem so either take the bike up to your room or beg the owner to lock it up indoors. Since I will be in the countryside, I will be in many towns with few accommodation options. I don’t want to risk biking all day to find out that the one hotel in town is full. To be safe, I will reserve ahead where I’m going to stay every night and have a backup plan in case of bad weather or fatigue.
Best countries for biking
After talking to people and doing book research, it seems like every country in Europe has great areas for biking. Of the flatter terrains, France, Holland, Czech Republic, and Britain have gotten the highest recommendations. For overall planning, read Michelin’s Europe. While in Europe, use local maps for day-to-day navigation. Those maps reveal steepness of hills, quiet back roads, which roads are closed on the weekends, etc. They can be bought from local bike shops and some tourism offices.
Any adventurer that wants to bike alone will have to do serious planning. To prepare, I am going to start going on 20 mile bike rides at least once a week. I am going to take a class on how to patch tires, traffic rules, nutrition, etc.
Supplies needed: helmet, Gortex raincoat, biking gloves, sunscreen, lights, bell (required by law), tire patching kit, cell-phone, saddlebags, power bars, and water bottle.
I am so excited to ride through part of Europe! This article contains the beginning of my research. There is still a ton to plan with routes, accommodation, equipment, etc. But that is all part of the fun, right? I am hopeful that reading this will inspire you to do some overseas biking as well!