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Pedal power: cycling holidays

Cycling. Image: GettyCycling. Image: Getty

With cycling growing in popularity among Americans, both home and abroad, Alex Coxon looks at how the industry is catering to demand

Cycling has taken the US by storm. According to research from The Outdoor Foundation — a not-for-profit body created to promote healthy outdoor lifestyles — it’s now the third most popular activity, after fishing and running, for US adults over the age of 25, with 24.8 million participants in 2012: around 200,000 more than in 2010.

But US cycling enthusiasts aren’t restricting their biking activities to their own neighborhoods. Many are also electing to incorporate their favorite pastime into vacations, both at home and overseas.

BikeToursDirect, operating out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is just one supplier that’s seen an exponential uplift in interest in cycling holidays. Having represented only European bicycle tour operators for the first eight years of its life, the past two years has seen its service mushroom to offer nearly 500 different tours in 70 countries across six continents — from Costa Rican volcano tours to adventure cycling in Burma.

“We’ve got a really diverse client base too,” says BikeToursDirect’s marketing director, Natalie Cook. “Our traditional client, when we focused exclusively on European tours, tended to be in the middle-aged to retirement-age bracket: recreational cyclists with average fitness who wanted to participate in leisurely, active vacations. But we’re now seeing growing interest from different client groups, including avid cyclists who want serious mountain or road-biking tours, families of mixed ages and abilities — and people looking to combine cycling with other experiences, such as bike and wine tours or bike and boat tours, for example.”

Cook’s observations are mirrored by those of Tomas Leskovjan, founder of the Czech Republic-based Greenways Travel Club and TopBicycle — both of which operate cycling tours in central Europe.

Leskovjan says that although the majority of his predominantly US client base want self-guided, as opposed to guided, tours, he’s witnessed increasing numbers requesting customized options.

“Most of our clients are here to cycle, but over the past five or six seasons, we’ve seen people wanting to add their cycling vacation to another package or adding in other activities, such as hiking or canoeing,” he says.

“While most people rent hybrid bikes from us, we’re also seeing more requirement for specialized bikes, so clients can travel on different routes.”

The choice is pretty much limitless, Leskovjan concludes — catering for the most casual cyclist right through to the most ardent enthusiast. “This is what makes cycling tours so exciting — there are options for everybody.”

SOUTH AMERICA

We suggest: For summer cycling (December-March) in South America, it’s hard to beat Chile’s 770-mile Carretera Austral. Although it’s possible to do the entire route in roughly a month, many time-pressed cyclists opt to focus on either the northern or southern section, both of which can be ridden in 10 days to two weeks on a sturdy hybrid bike.

Why: The thrill of cycling through the wilds of northern Patagonia, with its dense temperate rainforests, glaciers and fjords, is what draws biking enthusiasts to this part of the world. The route — running from Puerto Montt in central Chile, south to Villa O’Higgins in northern Patagonia — isn’t for the casual weekend cyclist, though. The route is largely unpaved and the ascents can be brutal in places. But for those with good fitness levels, the rewards are great, with visual highlights including the Hanging Glacier of Queulat, the giant ferns surrounding the Puyuhuapi Hot Springs, and the jagged peaks of the Cerro Castillo.

Where else: For hardy bikers who think the Carretera Austral is too easy, the colossal 6,875-mile Andes Mountain Bike Trail could be an option, taking in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Alternatives include the newly-paved 24-28 day Cusco-Rio Branco route, showcasing some of Peru and Brazil’s best landscapes, ranging from the Amazon to lofty altiplano plateaus.

NORTH AMERICA

We suggest: The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route — a 2,007-mile trail tracing the escape routes used by slaves before and during the Civil War. Typically, cyclists will cover one of the five easy- to moderate-rated routes running from Mobile, Alabama, all the way up to Owen Sound in southern Ontario. Distances range between 373 and 435 miles, with the shortest averaging three to seven cycling days on a hybrid bike.

Why: As well as being geographically diverse — with the flat stretches sitting between Ohio and New York contrasting sharply with the Canadian sector’s challenging climbs — this predominantly rural but reasonably well-paved trail offers a great insight into US history. The route is brimming with historical road plaques — especially in the sector from Alabama to Mississippi — and passes numerous cultural landmarks, many of which are open to the public, including the Gerrit Smith Estate and Land Office in Peterboro, New York, and the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town, West Virginia (the latter was where the infamous John Brown treason trial took place in 1859).

Where else: La Route Verte in Quebec, Canada, offers cyclists a choice of 3,059 miles of trails and designated roads. For an exhilarating off-road experience, however, try sections of the demanding 2,745-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, following the continental divide from Alberta, Canada, down to New Mexico.

EUROPE

We suggest: The Prague-Vienna Greenways: a 250-mile network of scenic trails — modeled on the Hudson River Valley Greenway in New York State — linking the Czech and Austrian capitals. Most tours take eight days to complete on a hybrid bike, and run between 150 and 250 miles in length.

Why: The biggest appeal is arguably the Greenways’ hugely varied landscape. Stretching from the Vltava River in central Bohemia to the Dyje River in southern Moravia and, from there, through the Weinviertel (Winelands) of Lower Austria, the route oscillates between dense forest, gently undulating hills, vineyards and riverside trails — allowing cyclists to explore some of the most beautiful regions once hidden behind the Iron Curtain. The easy- to moderate-rated route passes six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Old Town of Prague, the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov and Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace.

Where else: Their cycling credentials cemented by the Tour de France, the French Alps are as breathtaking as they are grueling — with Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier, and Col d’Izoard frequently rated as three of the top destinations for ardent road-bikers. For less punishing but still eminently picturesque hybrid bike routes, try England’s 140-mile coast-to-coast route from Cumbria to Wearside or the 193-mile Moselle Cycle Route through some of Germany’s most beautiful vineyards.

MIDDLE EAST

We suggest: Cycling one or all eight of the stages on the 729-mile Tour of Turkey route. The predominantly coastal course, designed for road-bikes rather than hybrids, runs from the south-western city of Alanya to Istanbul, and takes between eight and 16 days to complete.

Why: Turkey’s shoreline is characterized not only by its azure waters, sandy beaches, pine forests and alluvial plains, but also by the Western Taurus Mountains, which, at certain points along the aptly-named Turquoise Coast, tumble directly into the sea. It’s these mountains that make the Tour of Turkey a particularly demanding route; this isn’t one for the rookie cyclist. That said, there are some amazing spectacles along the way for those who fancy combining strenuous exercise with culture. Highlights include the ruins of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus; and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

Where else: Israel is a great destination for anyone wanting to blend a moderate-rated cycling adventure with a pilgrimage to key religious sites. Also check out the 285-mile Red Sea to Dead Sea route in Jordan, passing through Petra.

ASIA

We suggest: Vietnam’s famous Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi route. Although the full 1,100-mile ride can take several weeks, most tour operators offer moderate trips of between 10 and 18 days’ length — combining 275 to 400 miles of moderate cycling with bus travel and sightseeing.

Why: There’s more to see than white beaches and fishing villages. Cyclists who venture away from National Road 1A can expect to pass fruit, rubber, tea and coffee plantations, paddy fields, pine forests, hill stations, colonial villages and temples. Standouts include the trading port of Hoi An and the Hai Van Pass. Most tours finish with a trip to the UNESCO-protected Ha Long Bay.

Where else: Consider the up-and-coming cycling destination of Guilin — arguably one of China’s most beautiful regions. For more challenging rides, try the 452-mile Pamir Highway in Central Asia or the 800-mile Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan, the world’s highest paved international road.

PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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