How I Decide on A European Cycling Destination

Or . . . the devil’s in the details.

Germany | Italy | Belgium | Denmark | Sweden

I have tickets and I’m headed out. I have the great opportunity to travel in a twelve month period to the above destinations. And I'll explain why they will end up as stamps in my passport in the hope of trying to share my strategy for finding the perfect cycling destination.

Tegernsee, in the heart of Bavaria

Tegernsee, in the heart of Bavaria

Germany

In May, I found myself in Munich visiting friends that are close to family and spent my time in and around the city riding and exploring.  I can’t say that I chose Munich as a destination to ride, I chose Munich as a destination, and was able to ride . . . a lot.  I went to visit, to laugh, to drink rivers of beer and see the great and beautiful culture in the heart of Bavaria.

The city has an endless and powerful cycling infrastructure enabling anyone with a bike to go anywhere with relative ease and safety. I found bike lanes, bike traffic signals, bike courtesy and bike culture.  I found respect expressed by pedestrians who dared not cast their foot fall onto the bike lane, and respect by drivers who slowed down at every turn to watch for cyclists who were inevitably coming up from behind. I found countless intersections that pulsated alive with every green light with a steady mass of bicycle traffic swarming up to the next intersection. I saw a collective culture that supported sweet throngs of bicycle traffic. I found trains that were, for the most part, willing to take a bike on and park it conveniently by the door for ease of unload at your stop.  I found near perfect weather and absolutely perfect beer.

Every bike I saw had bells, fenders, headlights and taillights supporting a culture of riders in any weather and time. I rode daily and often and frankly loved it all.  Would I go back? Certainly. I would rank Munich among the best urban riding in Germany, but I would add a few suggestions in order to prepare yourself for the experience.

My strongest recommendation, whether you are riding in a new area of Massachusetts or Munich is to ride out early in the morning for the first ride. With far less traffic, you are able to move about more freely without ending up in the middle of a pack of riders during rush hour traffic. Take time to adsorb the neighborhood, roadway surfaces and bike infrastructure. I glean a world of information on these quiet rides, with the freedom to explore while most of the city sleeps.

My second strategy involves giving it up. Give up the idea that you have to turn right at the next intersection or exactly follow the route you have planned to cycle. Turn right when that opening in the flow of traffic is available to you. Ride the wave of bicycle traffic even if it means turning around at the next intersection and doubling back. When in doubt, and you may be lost beyond measure, follow the person in front of you until you can find a still and quiet space to pull out of the bike lane and get your bearings. Basically, allow yourself to take a wrong turn and head in a different direction. Give yourself the freedom to wander.

Italy

The Italian Lakes and Sardinia are at the opposite ends of Italy, but have a similar cycling legacy. Both destinations have massive climbs and both are known for their grueling and stunningly challenging bicycle culture. At the end of the day, I’m just not that kind of girl. Will I ride there? Absolutely have and will. Will I be carrying gear and putting on 50 miles a day? Nope. I have very little reason to get on a bike in these extreme ends of Italy apart from my early morning and late night exploring. I will be heading out for dinner by bike, and using a bike to get to the beach. I’ll probably be wearing flip flops and borrowing a hotel bike. But that’s just me. If you want a challenge, want to climb into the clouds, want to push yourself, Italy is perfect.

In these two destinations, cycling has a much less tolerant and supported bicycling culture than Germany and the riders I see working the system best are skinny tire riders who can easily use their speed to blend in more safely with traffic patterns. I saw one limited bike path in the Italian lakes, forcing riders to take to the streets and negotiate with vehicles and pedestrians along these ancient roadways.

There are countless little pockets of Italy I have yet to explore, and look forward to finding my kind of ride somewhere between the two ends, but for now, I leave long Italian rides to the talented and courageous and luxuriate in its wonderful history, weather, culture, cuisine and magnificence.

Belgium

Last summer I was in Belgium for a long cycling trip and can’t wait to go back. We were in Bruges, headed out into the fields of Flanders and then back into Bruges. We had two Gazelle bikes, one of which was purchased while there and brought home as a piece of luggage/souvenir. The bike worked out perfectly for the journey as we tested out Belgium’s improved and brilliant new bicycle mapping system. We bought a bicycle route map for eight euros and quickly learned how to use it. Every single intersection has a post with a few numbers on it for bicyclists. One number tells you exactly where you are in relation to the map. The other number(s) point in the direction of nearby numbers at the next intersection. A long ride might include a route that is “23, 50, 10, 34.”  You are, essentially number hopping from intersection to intersection. In one word, it’s awesome. We rode about 300 miles and turned around only twice.  

Beyond the new mapping system, Belgium possessed all of the elements of a perfect holiday. Near perfect weather, defined as neither too hot or too cold and occasional rains. But there is wind. A great long exhale of wind that slides over the ground. It is sometimes a yawn, and sometimes a powerful sneeze, but it is always there. This is the land of windmills, the land of hundreds of miles of flat open fields. The land where you can, on occasion, put all your might into moving along and be maddeningly slow. But it is a land to which I will return to ride again in the open fields where poppies blow and see the powerfully endless horizons that made my time there in and out of the saddle amazing.  

Denmark and Sweden

Within the week I am headed for my next stamps to Copenhagen and Sweden to experience first hand their world-renowned obsession with the bicycle and I can’t wait to see it all! Beyond amazing deals on flights, and an arguably unparalleled focus on local foods, beyond the beautiful reputation for happiness, I am finding a near perfect city to ride. Copenhagen is quite flat, with a climate that makes my little tender heart sing. It is a far cry to the north, and therefore cool during midday with an average high of 63 in August. I expect to have daily rains and daily sunshine. I am packing for everything and prepared for anything. Upon my return, I”ll spend time sharing the cycling culture and testing fully my techniques, tricks and route planning. I can’t wait! Until then, I encourage you to ride slow. Ride thoughtful. Ride organized.