103 days. 15 weeks. 2472 hours. Three different ways to measure the amount of time I spent on my first multi-day trip cycling in Europe. I went into this knowing very little about cycling tours in Europe, or even about cycling itself. I wanted an adventure, and knew that I would learn anything that I hadn’t already learnt along the way. That said, reading other people’s accounts of their own cycling trips in Europe and further afield did reassure me and make me even more excited for my own. Because of this, I want to contribute to this database of different experiences for any potential cyclists looking for inspiration, or readers who want to find out what it’s like. Without further ado, here are some of the most important things I learnt along the way.
1. Have an Objective
I have met and read about so many people who have done cycling trips in Europe, and every trip is different. Some people challenge themselves to get from point A to B as quickly as possible. You might be keen to cross a certain mountain range by bike. One person who almost hosted me (but our dates didn’t match up) cycles around different parts of Italy picking up plastic waste. Yet another was on a cycle tour connecting the dots to important historical sites.
My own aim was to visit the various friends I have around Italy. As a secondary aim, I had in mind some beautiful spots I hadn’t managed to visit yet. After Italy, my objective became less clear. I didn’t know how to respond when a host in France asked me my objective. I realised that not having a clear aim made it harder to keep a positive mindset on more challenging days. It was also helpful to know my objective when people kept telling me what I should or shouldn’t be doing. They were inadvertently telling me their own intentions as if they were cycling in Europe. But I had to remind them (and myself sometimes) that I was the only one who knew my own plans and expectations, and that the way I was doing it was totally fine. Your purpose can be anything you like. But I’d recommend thinking it through.
2. Chocolate Is a Saviour
I’m not sure I’d have been able to successfully finish this cycle tour if it hadn’t been for chocolate. In each new country I arrived in, I spent a while in the supermarkets working out which was to be my new “go-to” brand of chocolate. The requisites were that it was dark, and had whole nuts for that extra protein. Italy’s 70% Novi chocolate was my favourite, but I always managed to find substitutes. They provided that extra motivation when I needed it most.
It might not be chocolate, but find your comfort, motivational food—and don’t be afraid to stock up on it! (But if it’s chocolate make sure you keep it cool. I had a few incidents with melted chocolate when I packed it too near the top of my (black) pannier in the Spanish sun!)
3. The WarmShowers Network Is Amazing
If you are considering a cycle tour and don’t yet know about WarmShowers, then go and have a look right away. It is a hospitality network for cycle tourers. You can read reviews for each host and information about them, and at short notice you can contact them. If they agree, you will have a host for the night. As the name suggests, they offer you a warm shower (much appreciated after a day on the bike) and somewhere to sleep. On top of this, sometimes they will prepare you a meal, let you do laundry, or give you advice about where to go next. Most hosts have done cycle tours themselves, so you can share inspiring stories of adventurous cycle rides!
I met some incredible people through this site. One unique night was spent with a Frenchman in Italy, eating fresh produce from his land by the wood fire, and listening to him recite monologues in different dialects! Another night, I slept on the beach at someone’s windsurf club and got locked in the shower! Yet another, I had a meal with a host, his family, and friends, and felt like I’d known them forever. By Lake Garda, I was put up in my own little apartment, and invited upstairs to my host’s place to share meals. I also met the most humble but incredible female cyclist, a family who cycles with their kids, a guy who let me join his pilates class, and so many other incredible people.
4. How to Deal With Dogs
On a less positive note, you also have to deal with dogs that interfere with your ride. In the south of Italy there were lots of dogs in farmhouses that didn’t bat an eyelid when cars went past, but as soon as I came along on my bike they went crazy! Frustratingly, they often weren’t confined and would run out at me. Once, in Sicily, I thought I was safe, but the dog ran through a hole under the fence and jumped right up at my pannier. I managed to hold my bike straight, but it was scary. However, I learnt that if you stop, they usually calm down. Bonus points if you stop with the bicycle as a barrier between you and them! They tended to understand when I shouted “no!” too, and I have also heard that spraying water from your bottle towards them puts them off.
5. Hills Are Actually Great!
Before I set off, I knew I’d have some big mountain days, and I was ready for the challenge. But I was also fairly certain that whenever I had the choice, I would choose the flat route rather than the hillier one. But I have completely changed my mind! If I’m cycling around town to work, I’d still rather it be easy and flat. But if I’m specifically going on a cycle ride, I’d now choose hills any day. I was excited for the officially signed EuroVelo 8 cycle route in France, but was actually disappointed. It was so flat that it became monotonous. Hills are a physical challenge, but this makes them rewarding and keeps your mind focussed. And as a bonus, they are usually followed by exhilarating downhills!
6. My Favourite Places for Cycling in Europe
I have only cycled in a small selection of countries, but from the places I visited I have some great recommendations! Firstly, Calabria—part of southern Italy—is a beautiful region for cycling. I knew virtually nothing about this place before cycling through it, and it doesn’t have many tourist attractions or things to do. But for cycling, it is incredible. I had some beautiful days winding my way along the undulating coastal roads. They are main roads, but in the spring they had virtually no traffic. The effort of the uphills was counterbalanced by the stunning views out over the sea.
My other favourite places were Lake Garda and the Pyrenees. Lake Garda wasn’t originally in my itinerary, but people along the way recommended it. The scenery is stunning! Mountains rise sharply out of the water, and the road clings to the lakeside or halfway up the cliff. There are side trips (like Strada della Forra and Strada del Ponale) for even more picturesque views and joyous downhills. I would avoid it during peak season as the roads get busy. You should also take bike lights and a reflective vest for the tunnels. It’s not the best if you don’t like cycling with traffic, but for me it was completely worth it. The Pyrenees mountain range came towards the end of my ride. It didn’t disappoint. Steep uphills led to fantastic zooming downhills. The fresh mountain air drew exhilaration from your breaths. Opportunities for hikes were endless, and peace and quiet reigned.
7. Embrace the Challenges
And finally—it’s not all easy. There will be challenges. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an adventure! Embrace them. Getting too frustrated isn’t going to help. But realising the challenges are part of what makes the trip rewarding helps lead to acceptance, and that makes it easier to carry on. When you are on a cycle tour you don’t have any other option except just finding a solution and getting on with it. And you know what? It always works out in the end, and you can be so proud of what you achieved! I had some hard moments battling headwinds, pushing my bike up steep, rough tracks, struggling to find a place to wild camp, or worrying about bad weather. But towards the end of the trip I even started to seek out these more challenging situations, as I’d learnt that they became the most memorable!
My Final Thoughts
I had a great time cycling in Europe. I loved the freedom I had, the inspiring people I met, the stunning landscapes I took in, and the challenges I overcame. My journey is proof that you don’t need to know everything before you set off on a cycling tour in Europe. It is my firm belief that almost anyone is able to go on a cycle tour if they want to, because there are so many ways to do it. I now know so much more than when I set out, so I can tailor any future cycling tours to suit me even better! Feel free to get in touch if you have any more questions.
Interested in learning more about Kira’s cycling adventure through Europe? Check out this list of packing tips she shared.