If, like me, you’ve ever found yourself day-dreaming about exploring Europe by bike I’d recommend you look into the wonderful Brake the Cycle. As I look back on a summer spent on the saddle the impressions of the communities we’ve visited, the landscapes we’ve seen and the people I’ve met will stay with me for a long time. Director, Joe Reid summarises “we love cycling and believe there is no better and healthier way to explore the world then from the saddle. We are also passionate about eco living and creating a better world. Combining our two loves we organise fully supported cycle tours staying with inspirational eco villages and beautiful organic farms. The result is an epic journey into alternative living, growing muscles and opening minds.” This opportunity to learn from pioneering community projects has fed into my work and thinking here in London and I thoroughly recommend the experience.
However, there was one caveat – 8 years ago I made a commitment to quit flying and barring 1 long haul trip to visit my brother to cycle around Japan (and make a pilgrimage to the farm of Masanobu Fukuoka) I’ve found the principle really helpful in defining my relationship with travel, adventure and my impact on the planet. For someone who might wish not to fly and appreciates the impact doing so has on the planet– you’ll find there are plenty of options for the environmentally-conscious traveller to take on a low-carbon, cycling Europe-based eco-adventure.
Whatever the trip, useful websites such as Seat 61 can guide you in your journey. My first tour was the stupendous Lisboa > Sevilla ride utilising two affordable ferry/train train routes to get me there and back. As the Brake the Cycle challenge geographically furthest from the U.K., this experience bears testament to the feasibility of plane-free travel around any European cycling trip.
Leaving the U.K. with your bike generally requires you to either take the Eurostar train, or one of a number of ferry routes to mainland Europe. Hitching a lift may also be an option for the more intrepid of you but be aware that combining hitching with subsequent pre-booked train connections can be stressful due to the uncertainty around timings. It will always be cheaper to book trains in advance so, unless you leave yourself plenty of time, it’s not a combination I’d recommend. There is also coach travel which, while not the most comfortable, may well be the cheapest option for a European adventure. For example, I’ve braved the 21 hour coach trip to Berlin with my bike before and, as long as you bring some travel essentials, it’s a simple and not too gruelling alternative.
The beauty of using trains and ferries, however, is that you have the ability to break the journey, take in your surroundings and explore as you travel. My route from the U.K. to Lisboa started at the Brake the Cycle Embercombe training weekend on the hills of Dartmoor, took in dolphins cavorting on the brow of the Plymouth > Santander ferry and presented opportunities to explore Santander and Valladolid en route to Portugal. For cheapness and expediency, I recommend trying to book overnight ferry and long distance train journeys so as not to have to fork out for accommodation – leaving you to explore stop-offs by day. In this way, en route back from Sevilla, I similarly took in overnight trains via Barcelona and Paris – giving me plenty of time in each amazing city. Travelling from Barcelona > London before, I’ve made stop-offs in Avignon, Perpignan and, in this case – Latour de Carol on the Andorran foothills of the Pyrenees. With plenty of options to suit your time/money needs listed on the Seat 61 website. Travel to Lisboa presents slightly fewer options although a ferry to Bilbao and changing at other stations on the Arun > Lisboa line is possible.
On ferries and trains your bike is safe with options even available to travel into mainland Europe without the need to dismantle your bike into a bike bag. Renfe, the high-speed train operator in Spain, will require your bike to be in a bag but local train operators are available that can get you all the way to Paris from where you can, again, avoid the TGV and get local trains (or even cycle, it’s a great ride!) to ferry ports such as Dieppe. With the Eurostar, I believe they do offer a bike-box service but a £30 reservation is required – bike bag or no. Whilst possible, for the most part however it’s best to assume you will need a bag for train and coach travel so be mindful of having to reassemble your bike or carry around your bag in order to explore stop-offs. This isn’t the case with ferries where you can gloriously cycle on and off, simply tying up your bike in hold. However, reassembling your bike needn’t be a pain. I’ve always gotten away with not having to collapse your handlebars or remove your pedals so simply reattaching your wheels and pannier rack shouldn’t be beyond you and you’ll get skilled at the procedure in no time.
I can certainly say, travelling as far as Athens, Berlin and now Lisboa plane-free has provided some great adventures and with U.K. ferry options to Holland, Ireland and even Iceland yet to be explored – there’s plenty of scope for future cycling trips and eco-community exploration. Until then, why not consider taking a plane-free cycling tour and do your bit for the planet, whilst living it up en route!