As cycling holidays become the first choice of travel for a growing number of us, there is no shortage of places to conquer, writes Andrew Bain.
Sometimes when travelling, a car can move too fast and walking can be too slow. Pedalling through the middle of the two is bicycle travel, and it's one of the fastest-growing sectors in travel, with major operators such as World Expedition, Intrepid Travel and Exodus Travel all reporting exceptional growth in cycling holidays.
"It's the fact that you're travelling at a different pace, a much more immersive pace, so you hear more and you smell things," says Steve Wroe of Intrepid Travel. "It's a different perspective to sitting on a mini-bus or a train and zooming along. You really absorb a lot more."
Once, cycling holidays were the almost exclusive domain of adventure operators, but it has become so popular that it's now infiltrating all forms of travel.
European river cruise boats typically carry bikes so passengers have the option to cycle beside the vessel as it heads down the Rhine or Danube rivers, while in the Greek islands, yachts set out with bikes on board for guests to pedal the islands when docked.
Last month, in response to the growth in cycle tourism, Europcar Australia announced that some hire vehicles would now come fitted with bike carriers. The boom in bikes may reflect that dramatic rise interest in cycling at home in Australia where Lycra, like it not, has become an ubiquitous sight on roads and streets.
"Bike sales are up and more and more people use two wheels to get around town, commute to work and have fun during their free time," says Exodus Travel's Andy Ross. "It's a natural progression for these cyclists to eventually think of a cycling holiday. This boom is set to increase as cycling moves higher up the political agendas in the developed countries."
New Zealand is already a prime case in point. In 2008, the government set aside $NZ50 million to construct 18 cycleways across the country, creating a niche in its busy adventure-travel market.
"What's largely driving [the boom] is government developments in terms of cycleways and things like that," says Sue Badyari of World Expeditions. "It's wonderful. The more they're doing, the greater the number of cyclists."
Almost any road and track in the world can be an invitation to cycle, but here's our pick of a dozen of the best bike rides in the world, on and off road.
FOR THE FAMILY AND THE GOURMAND
Murray to the Mountains, Victoria
Head deep into Victoria's High Country while barely climbing a hill. This gentle rail trail runs for 83 kilometres from Wangaratta to Bright, crossing the foot of Mt Buffalo through the Ovens Valley.
It can be cycled in a day but is better stretched across a couple of days, since the pedalling is only part of the experience in this gourmet region. The trail passes a number of cellar doors - Gapsted, Ringer Reef, Boynton's Feathertop - while you can stay fuelled at the trackside Bright Berry Farms, Ovens Hotel and the Myrtleford Butter Factory.
It's a great introduction to bike travel for families - break the ride into two days with an overnight stop in Myrtleford. See murraytomountains.com.au, which also has a full list of accommodation options along the trail.
Get in the cycling spirit at trail's end with a night at Bright Velo, Australia's first dedicated bike hotel.
FOR THE FAMILY AND THE HISTORY BUFF
Otago Central Rail Trail, New Zealand
Pedal through a golden history as you follow the course of a former railway through the once-bustling goldfields of Central Otago.
This popular 150-kilometre gravel cycleway connects Clyde to Middlemarch, making a horseshoe journey through a chain of valleys inland from Dunedin.
Gradients are never steep - bless those railway builders - and the ride cuts through narrow gorges and across a host of railway bridges and tunnels. Take it as easy as you like, because the trail is lined with character-filled pubs and a string of B&Bs, including an old schoolhouse at Lauder and a working merino station at Middlemarch.
Finish the ride in fitting style with a train journey from Middlemarch back to Dunedin on the Taieri Gorge Railway.
There's copious trail information at otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz, while Adventure South runs tours and offers bike hire.
FOR THE GOURMAND AND THE FAMILY
Confederation Trail, Canada
Canada's smallest province, Prince Edward Island (PEI), is almost custom-made for a great cycling trail. It's flat, it's noted for its produce and food, and motor vehicles were once banned on the island. It's also traversed by the Confederation Trail, a 470-kilometre bike path that cuts through the heart of the island famed as the home of Anne of Green Gables.
If you only have time for a small section, head east towards PEI's red cliffs around Basin Head and the expanse of sand dunes in Prince Edward Island National Park. An online cycling guide can be found at tourismpei.com/pei-confederation-trail.
One of the best hotels along the trail is Inn at St Peters, where every room has a bay view and the restaurant has an island-wide reputation for quality food. See innatstpeters.com.
Bikes and panniers can be hired from Outside Expeditions, which can also organise cycling itineraries.
FOR THE FRANCOPHILE
Burgundy Voie Verte, France
France is veined with cycling voie vertes - greenways - but only the Burgundy Voie Verte has a 1600-metre-long former railway tunnel to cycle through. Stretching for 70 kilometres between Macon and Chalon-sur-Saone, this trail is like France distilled into a day or two of cycling. It threads through the vineyards of the Cote Chalonnaise, passes the 17th-century Chateau de Cormatin and then disappears into the Bois Clair tunnel, said to be the longest voie verte tunnel in Europe. The ride has some low, steep climbs in the south, but flattens out in the north.
For information and a trail map see burgundy-tourism.com. If you want to break the ride into two days, a quiet and isolated midway stop is the Auberge du Grison, with simple rooms and a fine restaurant.
FOR THE FAMILY AND THE CULTURED CRUISER
Danube Trail, Germany/Austria
The most famous long-distance cycling trail in Europe follows the banks of the continent's second-longest river. Its most popular section is the 320-kilometre route between Passau and Vienna, where the trail follows both banks - take your pick - as the Danube writhes through northern Austria.
This section of the trail passes through the World Heritage-listed Wachau region, where the hillsides are terraced with vines and orchards. The Benedictine Melk Abbey is another highlight. So popular is this stretch of the Danube Trail, it even has dedicated cyclist information centres.
If you're just getting warmed up by the time you reach Vienna, pedal on another 45 kilometres to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, crossing from west to east in the old European political divide.
A good trail resource is danube-cycle-path.com. Exodus and UTracks run cycling trips along the Danube. Between Passau and Venice there are about 25 Bett+Bike endorsed hotels, offering cycle-friendly accommodation.
FOR THE MOUNTAIN BIKER
Munda Biddi Trail, Western Australia
Created as a sister trail to the bushwalkers' Bibbulmun Track, the Munda Biddi Trail stretches for 1000 kilometres from Mundaring, just outside of Perth, to Albany. Constructed in stages, it was completed last year, piecing together a world-class mountain-bike trail through natural corridors. The terrain is gently undulating in many parts, though there are some difficult sections.
Towns and custom-built campsites are spaced at manageable distances - usually about 45 to 50 kilometres apart. The campsites have a sleeping shelter, water tanks, toilets and bike storage.
You can ride the whole trail in about three weeks, or choose a section - highlights include the tall forests around Pemberton and Walpole, and the coastal run through Denmark to Albany. Get more information on the Munda Biddi Trail Foundation website.
FOR THE SERIOUS CYCLIST
East coast Tasmania
Perhaps the most popular cycle touring route in Australia, leaving from Launceston or Hobart and pedalling along Tasmania's beautiful east coast. It's a journey from beach to beach and towns are frequent, providing plenty of stops.
The Tasman Highway is fairly quiet and you can veer out to Freycinet Peninsula to see Wineglass Bay, and detour up into the Bay of Fires from St Helens.
This coast is Tasmania's flatter edge, but expect some challenging hills on the section between Launceston and St Helens. Allow about a week to cycle from Launceston to Hobart.
There are good accommodation options along the length of the coast; for listings see discover tasmania.com.au. Green Island Tours operates guided and self-guided trips along the east coast.
FOR THE DAY-TRIPPER AND ISLAND-LOVER
San Juan Islands, USA/Canada
Pinched between Seattle and Vancouver, the San Juan Islands might be cycling perfection. Each island can be easily pedalled around in a day, there's reliable sunshine, no large climbs, and ferry connections between the islands are good. There are more than 100 islands in the archipelago, though cyclists will be drawn to three of them - San Juan, Orcas and Lopez.
Lopez is the flattest and most popular among cyclists, while Orcas has the most challenging climbs (and, thus, the best views), including a 730-metre road ascent of Mt Constitution, the highest point in the island group.
Keep an eye out for the island's namesake, orcas, as you pedal along the coasts. Accommodation options are plentiful on the islands; see visitsanjuans.com. Backroads offers a San Juan Islands Bike Tour.
FOR THE READER AND THE SERIOUS RIDER
Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence put the Luberon massif on the general travelling map, but for cyclists the appeal is the marked 236-kilometre-long bike route.
Circling the massif, the ride links town to town, boulangerie to boulangerie. It's the hilliest of all the cycle routes mentioned here, but passes through up to 30 quintessentially Provencal towns and villages. Highlights include Menerbes, where Mayle was based, and Oppede-le-Vieux, with its abandoned walled town climbing up the slopes.
Download a guide to the Luberon circuit at veloloisirluberon.com. Hotels and B&Bs throughout the region are listed at theluberon.com. Exodus runs a Cycle Provence and the Luberon trip.
FOR THE CULTURED CRUISER
Vietnam is the most popular destination for Australians travelling to Asia for a cycling holiday. Few cycling experiences compare to that of pedalling among a crowd of local bikes as you tour through this country. Choices here are plentiful. For hill-free cruising, cycle through the pancake-flat lands of the Mekong Delta, a waterworld of floodplains and bridges in the country's south.
For a combination of culture and climbs, head to central Vietnam, where you can combine regal Hue and the colonial French beauty of Hoi An with an ascent into the highlands and the hill station of Dalat. Descend from Dalat to the coast and you can finish the ride cooling your legs in the ocean at Nha Trang. World Expeditions, Exodus and Intrepid all run cycling trips in Vietnam.
FOR THE ROMANTIC AND THE OENOPHILE
The Tuscan travel dream is even better on a bike, rolling past vineyards and beneath hilltop towns and castles. Rides here tend to be hilly, but there are plenty of options to stop, taste or simply admire the Tuscan countryside.
Base yourself in Siena for day rides to the beautiful Monte Oliveto Maggiore abbey (70 kilometres return) and the 13th-century walled town of Monteriggioni (40 kilometres return), or go the whole hog and cycle for two or three days from Florence to Siena through the famed Chianti region. Food and drink stops are never far away.
There's an excellent guide to cycling in Tuscany at turismo.intoscana.it/en/cicloturismo. Siena's official website - terresiena.it - has accommodation ideas for cyclists. UTracks and Exodus run cycling trips through Tuscany.
FOR THE FAMILY
Isle of Wight (England)
Long held to be one of Britain's most bike-friendly places, the Isle of Wight has also been named by Lonely Planet as one of the world's 10 best cycling destinations. The towns, narrow lanes and chalk cliffs are high on scenic charm, and the signposted Round the Island cycle route is just over 100 kilometres in length, making for an excellent two-to-three-day circuit.
The island's hilliest sections are in the south, around Wroxall and Blackgang, with flat cruising across the northern shores.
Vehicle traffic is light at any time except summer weekends.
A map and notes on the Round the Island cycle route can be downloaded at sunseaandcycling.com. The links page also has a list of cycle-friendly accommodation options. Wight Cycle Hire rents out bikes and offers island-wide mechanical support.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andrew Bain specialises in adventures and has cycled his way around four continents. He's the author of Headwinds, the story of his 20,000-kilometre bike ride around Australia, and the lead author of Lonely Planet's Cycling Australia guidebook.
CHOOSING A CYCLING HOLIDAY
If you're new to bike travel, there's little point in deciding to ride over the notorious Alpe d'Huez or Passo dello Stelvio on your first cycling trip.
There are a number of personal factors to take into account when choosing your holiday, including daily riding distances, terrain, road surface and whether you want to carry your own gear on the bike or have it transported for you.
A reasonably fit newcomer to cycle travel will probably be comfortable riding between 60 and 80 kilometres a day. Experienced riders might stretch it to 100 or 120 kilometres.
If riding in traffic is new to you, you might want to look at trips that stick to quiet country roads or tracks - lobbing into Asia and pedalling out on to a highway can be a daunting introduction.
If a peloton of bikes isn't your thing, recent years have seen the growth of self-guided cycling trips. Companies such as UTracks and Exodus offer a range of self-guided rides, which are especially popular in Europe. Allowing you to ride at your own pace with a map and instructions, and luggage transported ahead to your night's accommodation, they're an ideal option for families.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR A CYCLING HOLIDAY
Start training a couple of months before you depart. Cycle the length of your longest day on at least one occasion.
Choose a bike according to the terrain: a hybrid or touring bike for road trips or a mountain bike if you're heading off-road.
TAKE A SADDLE
If you're hiring a bicycle, take the saddle from your own bike for comfort. If you don't take your own saddle, consider buying a gel seat cover to soften the ride.
KEEP A SPARE TYRE
Carry a couple of spare tyre tubes so you don't need to make running puncture repairs by the road. A spare folding tyre is a good idea if cycling somewhere remote.
PROTECT YOUR EYES
Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from stones and insects.