Cycling Holidays and Landscapes



The miles came easily last year. They were good miles. But for me, 2013 was the vintage cycling year. I rode my bike in the Pyrenees, following part of the 2014 Tour de France route; I pedalled through the Dauphiné region of the Alps, across southern Italy, down the Amalfi Coast and even along the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Brazil. At home, I cycled through Cornwall, round Dartmoor, down the Tweed Valley and back and forth to the local pub in the Black Mountains where I live. In their own way, they’ve all been great journeys. I feel spoilt by the variety. Together, though, all these good miles have set me pondering afresh an old question: what is the perfect landscape for a long bike ride?

By Rob Penn

Friday 6th March 2018

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Of course, the answer depends on what kind of cyclist you are. Initiates to two wheels usually prefer flat roads. The many disused railway lines that Sustrans have successfully incorporated into the National Cycle Network shape their ideal. Yet when I was riding a bike around the world fifteen years ago, I dreaded flat countries. A landscape without features is a breeding ground for winds born purely to menace lone cyclists. Riding across Nebraska, Norfolk and Turkmenistan, I’ve been harried and haunted by headwinds.

At the other end of the cyclists’ spectrum are the masochists who only get a kick out of suffering in the mountains, often in the tyre tracks of their Tour de France heroes. I do like riding in the mountains. Occasionally I feel the cols calling, but I choose to ride over mountains for the experience, not for the pleasure of the pain. You certainly won’t catch me riding up the same mountain two, three, four or five times in the same day. To me that’s an act of ritualistic self-flagellation rather than a bike ride.

My ideal pedalling landscape lies somewhere between these two extremes. Ernest Hemingway – a keen cyclist, he rode round Europe with F. Scott Fitzgerald and edited the proof of A Farewell to Arms watching six-day races in a box at the Velodrome d’Hiver, Paris in 1929 – wrote: ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them… you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through.’ I have a sense Hemingway was thinking of my ideal cycling landscape when he wrote this.

I like rolling countryside best. I like roads that rise up to meet me, and then fall away with grandiose views over hills that fold in pleats and seem somehow married to both the earth and the sky. I like roads that test the legs and sharpen the appetite on the way up, and then nourish the childish sense of freedom that lies at the heart of cycling, on the way down.

Bikecation PyreneesA good bicycle ride, like life, is about balance. The ascents should be steady: if you’re counting, never above 6%. The descents should be on smooth, pothole-free tarmac and again, gradual, with glorious views at every bend in the road and perfectly cambered corners. This rolling terrain should be lightly wooded, with a mix of farms and open moorland, and mountains in the distance. Ideally, the sun would be shining and the wind pressing gently on my back.

Some of the roads I wheeled down in 2013 were very close to this ideal. That may just be luck, or it may be that, after 39 years of pedalling, my nose for an ideal cycling landscape is finally maturing into an instinct that can be relied upon. If so, here’s to 2018.


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