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Bicycle Touring in Europe

Rick and Kathy’s 2-Wheeled Travel Checklist

Bikes in Amsterdam

The most rewarding part of bicycling in Europe is meeting people. Europeans love bicycles, and they are often genuinely impressed when they encounter that rare American who rejects the view from train windows in favor of huffing and puffing through their country on two wheels. Your bike provides the perfect bridge over a host of cultural and language barriers.

Unlike cities in the U.S., many European cities—like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Munich—are great for bikes. Riverside bike paths in Salzburg and along the Rhine lead to top-notch memories, and biking in cities cuts transportation times in half. Consider these tips on bicycle touring in Europe:

Determine if a bike is right for your trip. Choose which part of Europe you want to experience, and then ask yourself some basic questions to see whether your bicycle will be your key to freedom or a ball and chain. Remember that it takes an entire day to travel the same distance by bicycle that you could cover in a single hour by train or car. Sixty miles per day is a high average. With bakery stops, some people average about 40. Do you want to spend much more of your time in rural and small-town Europe than in cities?

Go solo, with a partner, or with a tour? As a loner, you'll go where, when, and as far and fast as you want. Traveling with a companion or two is more cost-effective and can be more fun, but make sure your partner's cycling pace and temperament is compatible with yours. Organized tours, which usually have sag wagons to carry gear, average an easy 30 to 40 miles a day.

Take practice trips. Make sure you really enjoy taking long rides weighted down with loaded panniers. Try some 60-mile-a-day rides (five hours at 12 mph) at home. If possible, take a weekend camping trip with everything you'll take to Europe. Know which tools to bring and learn basic repair work. (Ask about classes at your local bike shop.)

Bring your bike from home. Although you can buy good touring bikes in Europe, they're no cheaper than here, and you're better off bringing a bike that fits you, your racks, and your panniers. The ongoing debate among cyclists is whether to tour on a thick-tired mountain bike or a touring bike with skinnier tires.

Mountain bike tires are much more forgiving on the occasional cobblestone street, but the chunky tread design will slow you down. In addition, straight mountain bike handlebars will limit your hand positions, increasing fatigue on long riding days. If you already have a mountain bike, go ahead and take it, but add some bolt-on handlebar extensions.

Some airlines will ship your bike for free. Call the airline directly to determine the airline's bike-checking policy, Some airlines will fly it to Europe free, considering it to be one of your two allotted pieces of checked baggage. Most airlines require that bikes be partially disassembled and boxed. Get a box from your local bike shop, the airline, or from Amtrak. Reinforce your box with extra cardboard, and be sure to put a plastic spacer between your front forks (any bike shop will give you one).

You can also toss in your panniers, tent, and so on for extra padding, as long as you stay under the airline's weight limit. Or consider a folding bike, which packs neatly into a suitcase (Green Gear Cycling Inc. makes a nifty Bike Friday. Bring the tools you'll need to get your bike back into riding form so you can ride straight out of your European airport.

Obey Europe's traffic rules. Bikers generally follow the same rules as drivers. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, have rules and signs just for bikers. A bike in a blue circle indicates a bike route; a bike in a red circle indicates bikes are not allowed. The blue bike signs will get you through even some of the most complicated highway interchanges. Beware of the silent biker who might be right behind you and use hand signals before stopping or turning.

Use good maps. Michelin's Europe and individual country maps are fine for overall planning. In Europe, use local maps for day-to-day navigation. Michelin and Die Generalkarte 1:200,000 maps reveal all the quiet back roads and even the steepness of hills. Don't be obsessed with following a preplanned route. Delightful and spontaneous side trips are part of the spirit and joy of biking.

Taking bikes on a train extends reach trip. Every hour by rail saves a day that would have been spent in the saddle (and there’s nothing so sweet as taking a train away from the rain and into a sunny place). To make sure you and your bike can travel on the same train, look for trains marked in timetables with little bicycle symbols, or ask at the station's information window. In some countries, trains that allow bikes require advance reservations.

Bike thieves abound in Europe. Use a good Kryptonite-style bike lock to secure your bike to something sturdy. Never leave your pump, handlebar bag, panniers or water bottle on your bike when you can't see it. Keep your bike inside whenever possible. At hostels, ask if there is a locked bike room; if there is none, ask or even plead for a place to put your bike inside overnight. Hotels and many pensions don't really have rules against taking a bike up to your room. Just do it unobtrusively. You can even wheelie it into small elevators.

Bicycle touring is cheap and rewarding. To see Europe on $20 a day, you don't need a time machine. What you need is a bike, farmers' markets, and campgrounds or hostels. Traveling this way, you'll not only save money and keep fit, but you'll experience a quieter side of Europe that travelers rarely see.

Gearing Up for a Bicycling Tour in Europe

Biking guidebooks

Consider the excellent Cycling the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg (Bicycle Books) by Katherine and Jerry Widing (Publisher).

Other good resources:

2-wheeled bicycling tours

Mix train and bike travel

Ask at stations fro information booklets such as:

  • "Bahn & Bike" (Germany/Austria)
  • "Train + Velo (France)
  • "Velo und Bahn" (Switzerland)
  • "Treins en Fiets" (the Netherlands).

What to Bring for a Bicycling Tour in Europe

  • Good biker's rain gear (a Gore-Tex raincoat can double as a cool-weather wind-breaker).
  • Bike belt—generally required by law in Europe and good for giving a multilingual "Hi!".
  • Strobe-type taillight (for nighttime and the many long and unavoidable tunnerls)
  • Presta tire valves—standard in most of Europe. Take an adapter if your bike has automotive-type Shraeder valves.
  • Helmut, biking gloves and sunscreen.

Rick Steves extends special thanks to Kathy Widing for her contributions to this article.

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