Two-wheeling through Europe

One of the many canals of Venice , viewed by the cyclists. The group maintained a comfortable pace of 25 or so miles a day. Biking lends itself to exploration; a car is too fast, walking too slow.
One of the many canals of Venice , viewed by the cyclists. The group maintained a comfortable pace of 25 or so miles a day. Biking lends itself to exploration; a car is too fast, walking too slow.
Posted: July 31, 2011

A dozen or so years ago, when my wife and I were living in Hanoi, Vietnam, and needed a break, I booked a seven-day bicycle tour of Ireland through one of the big international touring companies. Two weeks before we were to fly to Dublin, the company notified us it had canceled the trip.

My first reaction was, well, that shoots down our vacation. The Internet was just becoming part of everyday life then, and before abandoning ship, I thought I'd give it a try on the chance it could salvage our trip. I typed "cycling Ireland" in my browser. Up came the name of a family in Killarney, County Kerry, whose business was putting together customized bike tours on the Dingle Peninsula for individuals and groups. The O'Callahans' price was about a third of what we'd have paid the company that canceled.

Sandy and I signed up and e-mailed some friends in the States, asking if they wanted to join us. Fifteen did. Thus was born what is now an annual tradition: Every June I find a local tour operator in a foreign country who will organize and customize a bicycle trip for 15 or 20 friends. Our costs generally undercut what the international touring companies charge for the same trip by half or more, and we aren't denied any of the comforts or amenities of the pricier itineraries.

So that explains why, as I write these opening paragraphs, I'm sitting with friends on the deck of an 11-cabin boat built in Rotterdam 84 years ago. We are docked on the small island of Albarella, Italy, awaiting a dinner of mussels, clams, and sea bass the cook just purchased in the fish market. The skies have cleared and a warm breeze wafts across the harbor. We are midway through a 125-mile bike ride from Venice to Mantua. I paid $26,000 to charter the Vita-Pugna ("Life Is a Struggle") for the week, which, split among 20 people, comes to $1,300 each - pretty reasonable for a "hotel," three meals a day, bicycle rentals, and a guide who bikes with us.

Our route takes us through the Po Plain, which links the Alps and the Adriatic Sea. Each morning we unload our 24-gear unisex bikes from the Vita-Pugna after breakfast and our skipper bids us farewell for the day with a loud blast of his air horn while the cook and her assistant jump and wave on deck to the beat of Tom Jones' amplified, scratchy recorded voice: "It's not unusual to be loved by anyone; it's not unusual to have fun with anyone . . ." Late in the afternoon, 25 or 30 miles downstream, after several stops for cappuccinos, a picnic lunch, and some sightseeing, we will catch up with our floating hotel in a new town for the night.

Venice is two days behind us now and our path along and over the Po, Italy's longest river with the shortest name, has been flat and largely free of traffic. Our German guide, Helmut Witt, 60, who leads hiking and cycling tours from April to September and tends his olive trees on property near Rome in the off-season, sets a leisurely pace. I am reminded that a bicycle offers the perfect way to explore. A car is too fast, walking too slow. A bike gives you a sense of intimacy with your surroundings. The difference between driving a car through Italy and biking in Italy is the difference between watching a movie and being in a movie.

Since I became the self-appointed leader of what my friends call "Dave's Dream Team" after I rescued the Ireland tour, our annual excursions have taken us to New Zealand, Sweden, the Cotswolds of England, France three times, Holland, Belgium, and Germany for the 215-mile ride along the Danube bike path to Vienna. All told, we're closing in on 1,000 miles and we're far from done.

This might lead you to believe - quite incorrectly - that we're a bunch of hard-core cyclists who eat granola bars for breakfast. Fact is, we're in our 60s and 70s. We like good food and good wine and don't subscribe to the misguided slogan "no pain, no gain." Several in the group rarely get on a bicycle except during our yearly tour. Our goal is simple: an adventure without risk. An exploration of doing, not just seeing. A holiday made up of equal parts challenge, exhilaration, and relaxation.

And that's the beauty of a bicycle. Unlike a tennis racket or a pair of skis, it rises to meet you at your level of ability. It accommodates the overweight and the underweight, jocks and non-jocks, the weak and the strong. Some people I've asked to join the team are intimidated by the thought of biking a hundred-plus miles in a week. But anyone who can walk four or five miles can comfortably knock off the 25 or so miles a day we pedal on our trips.

If I've piqued your interest in gathering friends or family to take one of the hundreds of bicycle tours offered throughout Europe, this might be a good place to share some of the lessons I've learned.

The first is that the success of the trip depends on the cohesion of the group. Leave the complainers, whiners, and compulsive talkers at home. Second, choose a tour with terrain and daily distances compatible with your riders' ability. Lastly, the comfort level and the costs: You can find great self-guided European tours, such as the Danube tour we took, for about $700. But when we're traveling inn-to-inn, rather than doing a bike-and-boat, I usually upgrade the accommodations to include a few castles and luxurious mansions and top-flight restaurants. The bill goes up accordingly.

The choice of tours can be bewildering. How about Innsbruck, Austria, to Munich, Germany? Or the Nile by bike and boat? The Loire Valley? Vienna, Austria, to Budapest, Hungary? Or Iceland's fire-and-ice tour? The first few years I sifted through all of them and exchanged scores of e-mails with the tour operators. Now I'm smarter. I found an online company in Tennessee, BikeToursDirect.com, that acts as a U.S. broker for 30 foreign bike-tour companies. The founder, Jim Johnson, an avid cyclist, does the heavy lifting and customizing by acting as a middleman between me and the operator. He gets his commission from the company, not the client.

Regardless whom you book with, start your search with Johnson's easy-to-navigate website. It lists, country by country, virtually every foreign tour available in Europe and Asia, and provides detailed itineraries, levels of difficulty, and prices for each.

On some tours you have a choice between a self-guided and a guided journey. I've never known anyone who regretted taking a guide. He can fix a flat tire and adjust a brake. He knows local history and the best pub or cafe. His mind is a road map of tricky turns and hard-to-find bike paths, meaning you'll never get lost. Just as important, every guide we've had has been sociable and a fun addition to the group.

With Helmut Witt in the lead, we made our way through the saltwater marshes of the Po Delta, home to flocks of flamingos, and the ancient Greek port of Adria and the walled town of Ferrara where most residents travel by bicycle, and tied up the next-to-last night in Zelo, a community whose population has dwindled to 300 from 1,400 since the United States closed its air-defense missile site there more than a decade ago. About all that is left of downtown is a church, two pubs, and the abandoned eight-story apartment building that once housed American servicemen and their families. A lone biker, carrying bulging saddlebags and a tent, pedaled by on the dike and seemed to look enviously at the Vita-Pugna, where we sat on deck, enjoying before-dinner cocktails.

Heavy rains swept the Po the next morning and we traveled downstream on the Vita-Pugna, disembarking with our bicycles when the skies cleared and our Dutch skipper found a dock he could tie up to. We pedaled the final 15 miles into Mantua and lugged our bikes back onto our 108-foot-long boat, which years ago had carried cargo on the waterways of Holland. Docked nearby was a luxurious ship much longer and taller than ours. Our captain said La Bella Vitto carried only six passengers, men who had chartered it for $40,000. They toured by van during the days and sheltered aboard ship by night.

What a pity. La Bella Vitto had plenty of room for some bikes. Its passengers had missed all the fun.


Bike Trip Help

Europe and Asia

Bike Tours Direct has information on more than 200 bike tours in 40 European and Asian countries. You can peruse itineraries or book directly with no added commission. www.BikeToursDirect.com

New Zealand

New Zealand Tours is run by husband and wife Steve and Tania MacKay in Christchurch. They did the best job organizing and leading a group tour we've yet encountered. No website. stevemac@caverock.net.nz.

England's Cotswolds

A family-run business offering self-guided tours for any size group with support backup, quality accommodations, and superior bicycles. www.cotswoldcountrycycles. com

Ireland

General cycling information and tours from Irish Tourism. www.irishtourism.com/

walking-cycling-tours-

ireland/cycling-tours-

ireland.htm

Mantua, Italy

The Albergo Bianchi Stazione, about $130 a night, is a pleasant family-run hotel located across from the train station. www.albergobianchi.com

 

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