5 Bucket-List Bike Rides in Europe

©istockphoto/Saro17

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:


Ital­ian Dolomites
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.


Pyrenees

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.


Alps

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.


Hadrians Cycleway

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.


South Downs

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.