Last summer, casting around for a holiday to entertain all three of my children — Jimmy, 12, Dolly, nine and Evangeline, just nine months — I fell upon the idea of a cycling trip. With my husband, we cycled 145 miles along the Danube, from Linz to Vienna. Watching the landscape of Austria unfold, enjoying picnics on secluded riverbanks, or exploring impressive Habsburg castles, it was a life-changing holiday which was both great fun and made us feel closer due to our sense of joint achievement — not something that can be said about all family holidays. Fears Evangeline would get bored proved unfounded, since she was happy and safe in a seat on my bike, and enjoyed the company of her siblings cycling beside her. They, meanwhile, loved the challenge and variety of a real journey, cycling through industrial suburbs, then spinning through apricot orchards in the Wachau, while finishing every day with a very respectable 25-30 miles under their belt every night.
We’re now cycling converts, and it seems we’re not alone. Whether you prefer to call it the ‘Wiggins effect’ or the ‘Pendleton effect’, the London 2012 Olympics had a huge influence on the popularity of cycling trips. Specialist cycle operators are reporting record numbers of enthusiasts jumping into the saddle. Research by VisitEngland indicates the market is growing by 10-15% annually, and is forecast to be worth a fairly staggering £3bn by 2015. In the UK, there’s been some healthy investment in infrastructure to maximise this trend, with £160m forecast to be spent on ‘cycle-proofing’ Britain’s roads, while National Parks are investing £12m in cycle paths.
Specialist bike shops and cafes are emerging as post-pedalling pit stops, where cyclists meet, repair and refuel. On Old Street in London, Look Mum No Hands! combines a workshop with a bar and cafe while hosting major cycling events. In Newcastle, The Cycle Hub, is a social enterprise welcoming everyone from mountain bikers to BMX specialists, and in remote rural Yorkshire, the Dales Bike Centre provides hungry cyclists with unsurpassable bacon sarnies and chocolate brownies after a long, challenging ride. Even seaside towns across the country are getting in on the act with new promenades for cyclists.
And cycling’s not just linked to holidays, either. Ben Thorburn, marketing manager of Wilderness Scotland, believes the increase in the popularity of cycling trips in Scotland can partly be put down to the fact cycling is “the new golf”, where professionals do business while cycling, instead of doing deals on the greens.
“While Bradley Wiggins has stood out, the amazing success of British women in London 2012 like Victoria Pendleton and Lizzie Armitstead also had an unexpected effect,” says Peter Robinson, co-founder of Global Adventure Challenges, who has seen the number of people signing up for charity bike rides doubling, with a 303% rise in the number of women registering.
According to Cycling Weekly, the trend is set to increase as cycling moves higher up the political agenda with unanimous cross-party support for a ‘Get Britain Cycling’ motion, with a target of 10% of all journeys to be by bike by 2020 and 25% by 2050. This isn’t just down to Olympic fever, but also environmental, fitness and transport issues.
“Bike sales are up as more people use two wheels to get around town, commute to work, and have fun during their free time. It’s a natural progression for them to eventually think of a cycling trip,” says Andy Ross, cycling programme manager at Exodus, which has reported a 32% growth in cycling holidays. “It’s the fastest growing part of the business.”
But the Wiggins/Pendleton effect cannot take all the credit for having brought new enthusiasm to this sector. In an increasingly frenetic world, cycling enables anyone from complete novices to budding Tour de France competitors to switch off. After all, it’s hard to fiddle with an iPhone or update your Twitter feed while riding a bike — not something you can say about lying on a sun-lounger. And there’s a certain organic pleasure to riding a bike, plunging you into the natural world, which simply cannot be replicated by travelling in a car. I chose a cycling trip for my family not because I thought it might encourage my kids to aim for Rio 2016, but because I wanted them to venture off the beaten track, away from more traditional holiday destinations of museums, beaches and yet another hotel pool.
“There’s no better way to experience a place than from your bike saddle,” says Tom Kevill-Davies, author of The Hungry Cyclist, which details his adventures to some of the furthest flung corners of the globe by bike, while indulging his twin passion for food. Tom is now opening a small hotel in Bordeaux, especially for cyclists. “I love the fact cycling takes you out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be an endurance test, but enjoying a meal and glass of wine after summiting that hill you didn’t think possible is so rewarding. You sleep well, you drink well and you eat well. That’s what a holiday should be!”
The therapeutic effect of cycling is something cycle tour operators are capitalising on, as the demand for authentic travel experiences, as opposed to generic packaged ‘deals’, steadily increases. “Many people now experience the journey without thinking of it as a function or task,” says Kate Warner, product and PR exec at Black Tomato, whose trips include mountain biking in the Rocky Mountains. “We’ve noticed that breaking away from convenience culture while travelling to complete a personal challenge in a geographically extreme terrain is triggering a new wave of ‘earned experiences’. People don’t want travel to be ‘cocooned’.”
In this sense, it could be argued that cycling is helping redefine what really constitutes ‘luxury travel’. From my point of view, for example, there’s nothing more luxurious than a trip which takes me out of mobile phone signal, since it means I cannot be at the beck and call of my mobile phone — a rare luxury today. “Luxury travel derives from the satisfaction of having achieved or returned to our wanderlust roots, and the fantastic thing with cycling is that you don’t have to be a pro,” agrees Kate.
The sense that cycling is truly universal — as demonstrated by the fact my nine-year-old daughter could cross Austria by bike — is part of its appeal. “The really lovely thing about cycling trips is there’s no one ‘type’, since we organise getaways for everyone from families or empty nesters to young couples and solo travellers. What unites them is a desire to explore off the beaten track, at their own pace,” says Wendy Carter, founder of Capital Sport, which organises cycling trips throughout the UK and Europe. “Feedback illustrates the broad appeal of cycling trips, with people raving about everything from the sense of carefree adventure, to the joy of discovering local pubs, to enjoying the details of nature.”
For travellers looking for serious adventure, too, there are few more thrilling ways to explore an unknown landscape than on the back of a bike. KE Adventure Travel have been organising cycling holidays for a quarter of a century, but has seen demand increase by 74% in the past five years, including crossing Tibet from Lhasa to Kathmandu, or from Lake Titacaca to Machu Picchu in Peru. Far-flung doesn’t necessarily exclude the novice cyclist, either. In response to a demand for trips to suit all abilities, the company has tailored journeys such as cycle tours of Rajasthan and Cambodia. “Our biggest growth has been in road cycling holidays where we support small groups who’ve already cycled classics such as Geneva to Nice across the Alps, but are looking to take their road bike further afield, and trips crossing Jordan, Morocco or Thailand always prove popular,” says Tim Greening, director of KE Adventure Travel.
For the really adventurous traveller, cycling offers direct access into relatively untravelled pockets of the globe. Inspired by her experiences of leading a team of women cycling from London to Paris for charity, Larissa Clark co-founded Another World Adventures, catering for couples and small groups. Their trips, which are proving popular among friends who want to holiday together, include mountain biking in the cloud forest of El Salvador, and a bike tour passing through Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. “Cycle adventures capture the imagination,” says Larissa. “We’ve noticed people are happier exploring a smaller area in a more in-depth way, perfect for two wheels. And there’s a pioneering quality to cycle trips which people love.”
Preparing for a physically gruelling adventure tour on a bike clearly requires some careful forward planning, not least in ensuring you achieve a relatively sound level of fitness before setting off. The right operator will also make sure you have the correct bike for the terrain, along with panniers, helmets and lights. Beyond that, you actually need relatively little specialist kit. We might have raised a few smiles from the pro-cyclists, clad head to toe in lycra, bombing past us along the Danube cycle track, but we completed our journey in normal ‘holiday’ clothes — cotton shorts, T-shirts and regular trainers, proving it’s not necessary to spend a fortune on padded pants and fingerless gloves.
But while it’s possible for absolutely anyone to pick up a bike and head off into the sunset, a cycling trip is one in which even the most independent minded may be grateful for the helping hand of a tour operator. We biked across Austria using the services of Macs Adventure, which transported our bags between hotels and provided bikes, panniers and specialist maps to make our adventure more enjoyable.
“This can be really important, particularly in challenging environments,” agrees Larissa. “I remember seeing two guys in Mongolia who’d planned a huge cycle through the country. They’d be stumped at the first hurdle in terms of just getting their bikes to the starting point as they hadn’t factored in not being able to take them on the bus, and finding a taxi that could transport them was surprisingly expensive.”
This is a trend that’s looks like it will grow — especially since electronic bikes, or e-bikes, are becoming increasingly popular. In Germany, sales have tripled in the past 18 months, while in Holland one in eight bikes sold is now an e-bike, and in China sales have already topped 120 million. “They’re great fun for competitive couples who want to race to the next hill village, yet are the perfect solution for people wanting to share travelling experiences, but who don’t necessarily share the same levels of fitness,” says Tina James, managing director of Headwater.
While we passed several e-bike charging stops in Austria, I still prefer a conventional pedal bike, and as a family we’re determined to spread our cycling net a little wider. Who knows — by the time Evangeline is a teen, perhaps we’ll be cycling through Afghanistan, or cheering Jimmy along as he completes the Tour de France. Stranger things have happened.
Macs Adventure: Danube Cycle Path from £415 per person, as well as more than 50 cycling trips around the UK and Europe. macsadventure.com
Wilderness Scotland: Road cycling in the Outer Hebrides from £1,195 per person including six nights’ B&B and boat transfers. wildernessscotland.com
Black Tomato: Seven-night trip to Aspen, staying at the Sky Hotel and Hotel Jerome from £2,675 per person. blacktomato.com
KE Adventure Travel: Nine days’ cycling in the Atlas Mountains around Marrakech from £795, including all meals and hotels. keadventure.com
Exodus: Loire cycling trip for five days from £499 per person including accommodation and meals. exodus.co.uk
Global Adventure Challenges: London to Paris charity ride, 21-27 July 2014. Registration £149 plus £660 to self-fund. globaladventurechallenges.com
Headwater: Trialling electric bikes on eight selected cycling holidays in Europe, from £1,127 per person. headwater.com
Another World Adventures: 13-day trip through Alaska, crossing Prince William Sound, from £3,799 per person. anotherworldadventures.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)