Without a doubt there are more than a handful of great routes to ride in Europe, but trying to decide which one to ride is only the beginning. Trying to figure out how to get back to do the rest of them may be the bigger challenge.
Each of these rides are challenging, but all are completely doable for the adventurous cyclist:
There are several different routes to take in the Dolomites, but the one to do can be done on your own or sans traffic as part of an annual sportive event (brevet) called Maratona Dles Dolomites, one of the best Gran Fondos in Europe. This ride encompasses 138 kilometers (85 miles), and seven climbs with a total of 13,000 feet of vertical ascent (five of the climbs ascend more than 6,500 feet). The views are stunning, the climbs memorable and challenging, and the descent is an experience unlike any other.
The French Pyrenees
Tour de France fans well versed in the Raid Pyrénées will love this informal but challenging ride. It starts in Hendaye and traverses 440 miles across the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic (Bay of Biscay) to the Mediterranean (Balearic Sea). You’ll ascend and descend 18 cols (passes) total, with the highest reaching 6,500 feet. You’ll cruise coastal rollercoasters, grind uphill along hemmed-in hairpins in narrow shaded gorges, and tackle relentless climbs that are either bordered by deep woods or offer wide-angle views of the surrounding valleys. The ride ends in Cerbère.
If you register for the organized ride, you get checkpoints and a time limit of 100 hours. DIYers can nixé the schedule and do it self-supported over a few more days. Small hotels and lodging along the way eliminate the need to carry camping gear, but also require pre-booking to ensure a place to rest your rear. Major cols are signposted and marked with mileage and gradients. But make sure you have a good map. The otherwise unmarked route generally follows low traffic roads (though they can be sketchy during the tourist season). The busier ones typically have a decent shoulder to ride on. The hardest section, in terms of traffic, is from around Ax-les-Thermes and into Andorra. But the seaviews at Cerbère, at the route’s terminus, are a perfect touché to a seriously fun, beautiful and challenging ride.
The French Alps
The best way to ride the Alps is to connect the stages (as in Tour de France stages) in a series of consecutive rides. Start at Saint-Foye-Tarentaise, heading over the Col du Petit St Bernard and then back down the other side (68 miles/110 km and 7545 feet/2300m of climbing). Next day, head to Col d’Iseran, a 31 miles/50km over the pass and down into the beautiful Bonneville Valley and then up into the upper Maurienne Valley before climbing 5 miles/8km to the village of Aussois (62 miles/100km 8,202 feet/2500m climbing). From there, it’s a long descent to the Col du Lauteret and then upward again toward a fresh summit finish in Les Deux Alpes (62 miles/100km and 8,858 feet/2700m climbing). The next day, head off to the Alpe D’Huez—known by fans as the Mecca of road cycling and a well-known Tour stage—with its relentless 21 hairpin turns. Then it’s on to the Col de la Croix de Fer, ending the day at La Chambre (68 miles/110km 8,530/2600m climbing).
The next day/stage, tackle the mighty Col de la Madeleine (62 miles/100k with 8,202 feet/2500m of climbing), which gracefully descends to Tarentaise. Squeeze in one last climb for the day up to Notre Dame du Pre. The ride is 12.86/20.7km miles long and climbs to 6,020 feet/1835m. On your last day, head to the Cormet de Roselend, perhaps the most memorable of all. Starting from Bourg Saint Maurice, the 12-mile/19.35km route ascends to 3,786 feet/1154m. The scenery is a huge cliché—drop-dead gorgeous.
Hadrian’s Wall (England/Scotland border)
Hadrian’s Wall is a testament to the ingenuity and skill of its Roman builders. It is also Britain’s greatest Roman monument and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire.’ The stone remnant wall stretches 80 miles from Wallsend near Newcastle upon Tyne to the Solway Coast in Cumbria. With plenty of do-in-day cycle routes, the 174-mile Hadrian’s Cycleway, which passes through the entire World Heritage Site, knits together existing shorter cycle routes, quiet roads and off-road tracks. Well marked (signposted), the Cycleway takes you near many major Roman sites, across the collarbone of Britain. Both the Sea to Sea (C2C) and Reivers cycle routes run from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, taking in portions of Hadrian’s Wall. The Pennine Cycleway travels along the backbone of England straight through Haltwhistle (encompassing the outstanding central section of the Wall and its landscape). The National Byway also touches the Hadrian Wall area, passing through Hexham and the North Tyne valley.
The South Downs
Looking for long easy miles minus motor traffic? Try one of Britain’s National Trails treasures: the South Downs Way, between Exton (passing through Winchester) and Exceat. The final 10-mile stretch climbs out of Eastbourne and descends into the bucolic village of Alfriston before following the River Cuckmere to Exceat. The 100 motor-free miles is best suited to mountain bikers and cycle tourists riding bikes outfitted with street (fatter) tires. From historic villages to fascinating landscapes like Coombe Bottom and Ditchling Beacon, the route traverses over the famous Seven Sisters cliffs to Birling Gap and onto Beachy Head. Most of the path is a bridleway, so expect to share the path with horseback riders as well. Hands down, it’s one of the most memorable rides you can pedal at leisure in the English countryside.