Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Tour of beauty

A lunch stop beside the Rhine on route to the Dolomites
A lunch stop beside the Rhine on route to the Dolomites
In the Dolomites: this was a great pass to ride

The road was no more than six feet wide, it would have been easy to have mistaken it for a private track leading to a rather grand house. But no, it was surrounded on both sides by vines which were soaking up the hot sun of a beautiful, lazy Italian afternoon.

We rode up through the vines on a hillside – the grapes were chardonnay, so a sign stuck into the ground informed us – and our lead rider hadn’t made a mistake, his sat Zumo Garmin nav was working perfectly.

On what other form of transport but a bike could you have enjoyed the terrific experience of riding through a vineyard? You could do it on a pushbike with a huge amount of physical effort but with as much fun? Definitely not.

It was one of those magical times when travelling by motorcycle suddenly brings home a truism that we can often take for granted. Those of us fortunate and lucky enough to use our bikes for short or longer breaks know it’s the only way to travel.

But it’s too easy to take biking for granted. However, riding through that vineyard in the company of good friends who were on three other bikes, brought it home big style: there is no better way, no better way than by bike. It’s fun, adventure, freedom, the reasons we all ride.

We were based in the Dolomites for a couple of days last summer, having ridden from Rotterdam, down through Germany, Austria and then into Italy. After leaving the vineyard, which was an unexpected bonus, we went on to spent some time at Lake Molveno.

It’s surrounded by towering mountains and not too far from Riva at the northern end of Lake Garda. Unsurprisingly, the talk that evening at our hotel base in the small village of Campitello was of our ‘chardonnay tour.’

I mention this because if you’re thinking about taking a biking holiday abroad this year now’s the time to be planning in some detail, particularly with ferry bookings, so that you’re on the sailings which suit your timetable.

Some riders I’ve met say they would love to take their bikes to the Continent but somehow never get around to it or else they lack the confidence to tackle the journey on their own.

Travelling by bike, just like riding a bike, is a drug, much worse than crack cocaine or whatever. The urge to get a map out and look for future destinations or relive former journeys never leaves. There’s always some place new to see, new to explore, great roads to ride.

Don’t leave it until you’re too old to do it. Start planning now and if you’re not sure about venturing abroad on your own, why not join an organised tour. It’s a great introduction and will wet your appetite for years to come.

If you’re travelling on your own for the first time, select a route – there’s a huge choice, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, or even further – but I would suggest that you keep your mileage manageable for your first tour.

It’s easy to look at a map and think 250/300 miles or more for a daily average. Admittedly some times you have to do big miles but 150 miles in the Alps can be a very full day’s ridings depending on the terrain, with some of the corners being taken in first gear.

Don’t over do the mileage, leave enough time for coffee breaks and to get off the bike and see the countryside and local sights. There’s no point dashing from one destination to another.

Motorways are ideal for covering large distances quickly but try and use them only when necessary. Hunt out the smaller roads – they will be more exciting to ride, for a start, and also to give you a true flavour of the country.

Before you set off you should have organised a European Health Insurance Card, for EU countries, and you can apply for one on line. May sure you have travel insurance and be particularly careful to check that it includes travelling by bike. Many policies don’t offer this, or only on machines up to 50cc or 125cc.

Breakdown recovery is also a good idea. I always hold the view that anything that’s man made is susceptible to failure. Know the speed limits of the countries you will journey in. Abroad pleading ignorance with a police officer often doesn’t cut any ice.

It’s not a bad idea to book some accommodation in advance, especially if you’re staying in areas which are likely to be very busy in the summer season.

It goes without saying that your machine should be serviced and don’t leave it to the last minute. Have it done a couple of weeks in advance so that you can be sure everything’s working perfectly and nothing’s been overlooked. Don’t bank on a tyre just holding out until you return home. Trying to source one abroad, in certain isolated areas, can be a nightmare and a waste of valuable time.

Above all, if you’ve haven’t yet tried a biking holiday abroad, go ahead, take the plunge, you’ll thank me for the rest of you life.

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