From kids to older travellers, cycling is the hot new way to explore at a different pace.
“What’s not to love,” Intrepid Travel cycling product manager Frank Cheshire says.
“There’s nothing between you and the destination. No big bus window. No iPhone screen. No maps or walls or guidebooks. Just the wind and the open road. There’s a nice simplicity to cycling. You start at A and slowly ride your way to B, powered by nothing but your own legs and a desire to take in all the experiences on offer.
“Locals treat you differently when you are on a bike and they don’t see you as a tourist. Cycling enables true local interaction, which we believe travel is all about,” Mr Cheshire says.
That sentiment rings true for travellers. Cycling holidays have gone mainstream as travellers seek a closer connection to their destination.
“A decade ago, many travellers would have considered a cycling holiday to have been more like a mini Tour de France for the serious, lycra-clad cyclist rather than a relaxing way to experience a country or region," UTracks general manager Kate Baker says.
“Perceptions have changed as cycling holidays have become more accessible to the mainstream traveller and we now have a diverse range of people across different age groups booking cycling trips.
"Families, couples, solo travellers or even groups of friends travelling together are all embracing the active cycling holiday experience.”
Ms Baker says cycling gives the best of both worlds — it’s faster than walking so you cover more distance each day, but slower and more engaging than a bus or train journey.
“You get to interact with your surroundings, smell the flowers, stop and take a photo, wave to the locals, have a coffee at a village cafe or cold beer at a local bar. All that and you get to still see the sights you would see on a coach tour,” she says.
SpiceRoads Cycle Tours, which has been operating in Asia for more than 15 years, is often one of the first to plan new tours in the region as countries develop and infrastructure improves.
Marketing manager Sally Phipps has seen the popularity of SpiceRoads’ cycling tours increase in line with interest in cycling and health in people’s everyday lives.
“Travelling by bike is a great way to get up close and personal with the destination you want to explore. You can experience all of the sights, sounds and smells firsthand. It’s a true off-the-beaten-track experience, as you’re often going on smaller, very local roads where tour buses can’t go, and most tourists will never see,” she says.
UTracks has experienced year-on-year increases of more than 10 per cent over the past decade, Intrepid Travel has increased its itineraries from five last year to 19 this year and World Expeditions has more than quadrupled its itineraries over the past five years to about 30 purely cycling and another 20 multi-activity trips with a cycling component.
With the elevation of cycling tours into the mainstream, the who goes question becomes a little more difficult. Intrepid has an even split of genders and people of all ages (the oldest being 79), nationalities, backgrounds and interests.
World Expeditions sees a similar demographic spread, the average age depending on the itinerary, level and destination.
“Typical clients range from school groups, to families, to people who haven’t cycled for years to very keen cyclists who cycle distances every day,” World Expeditions cycling expert Scott Pinnegar says.
Generally, UTracks’ average traveller is 45-plus, with the bulk of travellers 54-65 years old.
“We’ve introduced more introductory itineraries for people wanting to try a cycling holiday for the first time, plus we have electric bikes on the majority of our itineraries which allows people of different fitness levels to cycle together or to allow less confident or fit cyclists to take on routes that they may otherwise consider too tough for their current capability,” Ms Baker says.
“And we’ve also introduced travellers to cycling holidays by combining cycling with cruising and sailing, such as our bike and barge or bike and sail itineraries. This has opened up a whole new experience for the active traveller.”
Bring the kids, too
Utracks has also seen an increase in families looking for an active holiday. Plenty of itineraries across various companies cater for children.
SpiceRoads Cycle Tours recently launched its first family-friendly cycling tour in Vietnam with five days in the lush mountains of northern Vietnam, cycling through villages, hillside rice terraces, and fantastic scenery.
The tour covers 162km of concrete and dirt paths with an easy, gentle ride. It is designed to include children of any age, fully equipped bikes are available for child riders aged 11 and up and children 10 and under can accompany their parents on a detachable bike trailer or seat.
Self-guided v small group
Small-group tours offer the security of travelling in a group with qualified guides and a support vehicle.
“Having an expert guide and support gives many of our clients the extra confidence to tackle a more challenging cycle than they would if they were travelling without a guide,” Mr Pinnegar says.
Mr Cheshire says the feedback Intrepid has received is that participants love the support of a group tour.
“It pushes them to try new things and there’s a sense of camaraderie that comes from sharing experiences and achievements together," she says. "They also don’t have to worry about the boring details, so can focus on the best bits about travel.”
Ms Baker says those on a guided cycling holiday don’t have to worry about navigating, can still pedal at a leisurely pace with like- minded travellers and have a guide with local knowledge.
Alternatively, Mr Pinnegar says a self-guided holiday offers more flexibility.
“You have the delicious sense of discovery that comes from navigating yourself,” he says.
Ms Baker adds self-guided cycling offers the flexibility and freedom of independent travel with the benefits of an organised tour.
“You have the freedom of moving at your own pace but without having to do all the research and planning that an independent traveller needs to do such as where to stay and what to visit,” she says.
“We remove the worry about logistics from the holiday so travellers can enjoy the experience. We provide detailed route notes and maps (which are updated more often than a guidebook), we pre-book all their accommodation and we organise luggage transfers each day,” Ms Baker says.
She adds that while independent travel has its place, a self-guided holiday offers the flexibility and freedom of independent travel and the benefits of an organised tour when looking for the road less travelled in popular parts of the world.
Ms Baker says “we shouldn’t underestimate the sense of achievement that comes with completing an active cycling holiday, whether it’s a guided or self-guided experience”.
Where in Europe?
“France and Italy are unbelievable," Mr Cheshire says. "While they both offer amazing scenery, fascinating history and some of the best food in the world, they also show cycling the way it should be — as a part of normal life.”
“Here you don’t get abused by a car driver for being slow or taking too much room — instead they will take a wide berth around you or, in the hilly parts of the country, encourage your efforts with a friendly ‘allez, allez, allez’ or ‘ale’ (Go go go!).”
Ms Baker says when it comes to cycling in Europe, it’s virtually impossible to look past France.
“World-class food and wine, beautiful villages and contrasting landscapes (from vineyards to alpine peaks); France is blessed with every single element that makes cycle touring fun and safe.
“The respectful attitude of locals in France towards cyclists cannot be overlooked by first-timers. While countries around the world jostle with laws to help motorists and cyclists share public roads amicably, France seems to be in a league of its own. In the French countryside motorists must give cyclists a berth of at least 1.5m, which they actually do.
“And I’d also recommend The Netherlands for a cycling holiday. Holland is a nation in love with travelling on two wheels and is one of the most cycle-friendly countries in Europe.
“The multitude of bike paths and cycle-friendly laws and the flatness of the land make it very suitable for cycling holidays.”
Where in Asia?
Mr Pinnegar says ever-popular Vietnam offers a magical combination of sensational food, varying landscapes, friendly and colourful locals and it can be enjoyed almost all year around.
He says Japan is poised as the next big cycle destination because of its first-class infrastructure and a government that continues to invest millions in new cycleways.
“Its food is incredible, the culture is so rich and the people are the most polite in the world,” he says.
Ms Phipps says SpiceRoads most-booked tours include Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok, Bangkok to Phuket, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Our experts’ picks
For a family trip, Ms Baker suggests UTracks Provence Backroads, for younger kids, the Croatia Family Adventure or Catalonia by Bike for primary school age and the Ionian Islands Bike and Sail, which has islands, beaches, Greek mythology and a real cycle challenge for teens.
“When travelling with my husband, the Puglia Cycle in south-eastern Italy was very romantic and took us to some fascinating sights including the Sassi of Matera, the Trulli houses of Alberobello and the ancient city of Lecce, known as the Florence of the south,” she says.
Avid cyclist Mr Cheshire’s picks are Intrepid’s Tanzania, Provence and Indochina trips.
“Tanzania was amazing as we got up close and personal to African wildlife, Provence was incredible because of the stunning landscapes and I loved Indochina as it took the best of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, while meeting friendly locals along the way.”
Mr Pinnegar’s favourite trip has been World Expedition’s Ho Chi Minh City to Angkor Wat.
Ms Phipps loves cycling in Thailand and Vietnam for the fabulous food and culture.
“The most eye-opening tours for me were Remote Laos and Vietnam by Bike and Ancient Korea by Bicycle.
“The former was a look at some of the most beautiful and least-visited areas of Laos and Vietnam, the latter was a trip on South Korea’s cross-country, bike-only path with stretches the length of almost the entire country,” she says.
- What better time to go on a cycling holiday in Europe than during the Tour de France in July? Bike Style Tours is offering 2017 Tour de France with itineraries that encompass watching different stages of the race, venturing into little-seen villages of France and cycling some of the famous climbs of the race. The 25-day Le Grand Tour costs $13,200. Shorter itineraries are available. bikestyletours.com or 1300 882 494
- The eight-day Amsterdam to Bruges bike and boat holiday has the must-see highlights of The Netherlands and Belgium. With introductory grading, there are three options to suit different budgets. It costs from $1499 per person, twin share including meals and bikes. utracks.com or 1300 303 368
- Provence Backroads is an eight-day self- guided introductory level cycle through Van Gogh’s Provence, with time in Arles and St Remy de Provence plus a night in the pretty hilltop town of Le Baux de Provence. It costs from $1650 per person including breakfast and most dinners daily, luggage transfer and accommodation. utracks.com or 1300 303 368
- Spanish Camino by Bike over 200km from Leon to Santiago de Compostela costs from $1550 per person. utracks.com or 1300 303 368
- Cycle Provence spends eight days through southern France taking in scenic trail riding, historical sights and wine tasting and costs from $2389 per person. intrepidtravel.com or 1300 797 010
- Spend eight days on Cycle Tuscany through picturesque hills and olive groves from Florence to Pisa from $1777 per person. intrepidtravel.com or 1300 797 010
- Intrepid Travel’s longest operating and most popular itinerary is its 15-day Cycle Vietnam which ranges from the frenetic cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to beachside Nha Trang and the rice paddies surrounding Mai Chau and costs from $2725 per person. intrepidtravel.com or 1300 797 010
- Cycle Japan is a 14-day trip covering bustling Tokyo, cultural Kyoto and serene Noto Peninsula countryside. intrepidtravel.com or 1300 797 010.
- Spend 12 days cycling from Ho Chi Minh City to Angkor Wat from $2490 per person. worldexpeditions.com or 1300 720 000
- Combine your activities on an 11-day Bike, Hike and Kayak Northern Vietnam tour. The tour departs Hanoi and costs $2390 per person. worldexpeditions.com or 1300 720 000
- The five-day, four-night Family Cycling tour in Vietnam tour costs $US950 ($1251) per adult and $US760 ($1001) per child. It includes meals and accommodation, bike hire, local guide, support vehicle, and insurance. The tour departs every Monday from March to May and September to December. spiceroads.com
- Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Bangkok by Bicycle covers 607km and takes 14 days. It visits Vietnam riding the quiet back roads along the Mekong Delta, Cambodia along the Mekong to Phnom Penh and then to visit temples including Angkor, before hitting Thailand’s beaches. The tour costs $US2750 ($3614) per person, twin share. spiceroads.com
- The 14-day Burma Adventure explores central Myanmar, travelling from the Shan Plateau down to the plains and the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The tour costs $US4100 ($5389) per person, twin share. spiceroads.com
Cycling tours offer grading systems on each departure allowing you to match your ability and fitness to the itinerary.
(Picture at top: Vietnam by bike with World Expeditions. Picture by Richard I'Anson.)
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