Route Planning for a European Bike Tour

No matter if you’ve been dreaming of it for years or it’s a spur of the moment idea, when you decide to go on a European bike trip you’ll want to make sure you have many of the details buttoned up before you head overseas.

For the best experience, plan as much of your route as possible in advance from home. This organization frees you up to be open to spontaneous adventures and interactions with locals. It also frees you up in your spare time; you won’t have to spend your time overseas planning, you can spend it adventuring and sharing a pint with strangers at the local watering hole. Be open to spontaneous side trips and deviations that pop up along the way. Take advantage of “on the ground” local info – this will give you a much richer and more enjoyable experience.

At first glance, planning a European Bike tour can feel overwhelming. But in the end it’s not much different than planning a tour back home. And after several years of traveling back and forth from Oregon to Europe, and around the continent, I’ve found planning a multi-day, even multi-week or open ended tour comes down to answering four simple questions.

1. “Where do I want to go?” – the research

France, Germany, Austria are all great, maybe head east past the former Iron Curtain. Slovenia is nice, so is Italy… It’s a big continent. Pick a region, maybe highlight some places you already know about, and make this your starting point.

But don’t stop there. Research the places, even the place 10 miles past the places, you want to go. There’s a lot to see and you likely have only a limited time to see it. Once you have a list, put it all on a map, and following the next steps, begin to winnow your planning from there.

2. “How much time do I have?” – the schedule

I’m talking about both on and off the bike. Determine how much time you want to spend riding then subtract 20%. You’ll always find side trips and spontaneous diversions soak up more time than planned. Leave space in your schedule to stay an extra day someplace or peel off the route to find a local gem you just heard about.

Trust me.

Time off the bike is as precious as time in the saddle. Take an extra hour at the farmer’s market you weren’t expecting. Stop to buy homemade wine from the nice little man beside the road. Take the back road the locals at the pub warned you about. Stops like these add up to a lot of extra time, but they literally make the trip.

It can also be helpful to plan a “buffer day” in your schedule. That could be a day when you plan to have a layover somewhere you think you’ll want to stay for one more day, but you’re not sure. That’s okay, you can always shift this day to be elsewhere if your reserved accommodations aren’t dependent upon a strict schedule.

3. “What to see?” – the plan

Europe is full of great sights. Far older – and steeped in history – than the US, most European places, especially in the East, are marked by historical buildings and sights. You will find these in your research. Following local roads, add these variants into your route. In my experience, small, out of the way places far surpass larger iconic cities in bike touring goodness and richness of experience.

Here are some features I look for when planning a route:

  • Castles – Germany, Czech and Poland are littered with them. And we don’t have Castles. So…
  • Churches/Monasteries – beyond the spiritual, these make for interesteresting historical/local info stops and waypoints.
  • River Valleys and Mountain passes – this is what it’s all about.
  • Wineries – I think we can all agree on this. Europe has great wines. You should have some.
  • Medieval Fortifications – Often combined with churches and castles these make great waypoints and historical pit stops to gain more local insight.
  • Historical Sights – Every region is known for something. Take a detour and find out why
  • Villages/Towns known for something special – Many small towns have famed local produce or foods specific to just that region – highland cheese in Slovenia, wines in Italy, go find it and enjoy it.

4. “How to get there?”- the route comes together

When developing your route itinerary from home, the first stop should be EuroVelo. The Pan-European cycling network, administered by the European Cyclist’s Foundation, is an international collection of local and national routes. Several of the routes are still under development, especially in the East, but a few, like EuroVelo 6, are among the best-signed and served cycling routes in the world.

Each country is responsible for organizing the info for their section of EV routes, and as you can imagineFrance, Germany, Switzerland and Austria are the best organized with only intermittent signage in some of the Southern and Eastern routes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t follow these routes. In fact I’ve followed several sections of “future EuroVelo” routes and made my own connections into an incredible tour.

Take a look at online route resources too. Sites like Open Cycle Map and Cycling Waymarked Trails provide user generated map data of routes all over the world. And Europe is covered with map nerds who have filled both of these sites with thousands of tracks. Incorporate them into your plan.

National tourism boards are another great resource. Slovenia and Czech Republic, in particular, have tremendous touring opportunities and significantly fewer tourists. Both nations’ tourism boards provide great resources adaptable for touring cyclists.

Add these resources into your planning arsenal. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Contact tourism boards and ask for advice or resources. If you’re traveling through out of the way places, these folks are often most excited to show their home to outsiders.

Using these resources as a base, fan out your search and begin to identify where and how long you want your route to be, but don’t be confined by prescribed routes. You’ll travel slower, but you’ll travel richer if you’re open to spontaneity.

5. Make it Your Own

In the end, your tour is exactly what you make of it. You can follow docile riverside routes from the EuroVelo network, you can plumb the depths of some off the beaten path village roads, or you can link famous cities together, all rather easily. It just takes a bit of preparation.

Tyler Robertson has many touring miles (and stories) under his belt. He shares his wisdom on his blog Two Wheel Travel and he’s currently working on a book about bike touring in Slovenia. Tyler lives in Portland.

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