Cycling holidays for beginners: a survival guide

Going on a cycling holiday? Before you throw your leg over the crossbar, read this

If you have always wanted to go on a cycling holiday but something’s been holding you back, right now is the perfect time to get in the saddle. Age, experience, fitness and family circumstances are no barriers as long as you choose the right type of trip. But before you throw your leg over a crossbar, here are a few things to consider.

The bike
Whether buying or renting, think carefully about the type of bike you need. Unless you are planning to negotiate rough terrain, steer clear of mountain bikes; they are really heavy. Hybrid bikes, those with wheels that are similar in thickness to a racing bike, but with upright handlebars, are the best for leisure cycling. Also make sure the bike fits you. You can raise or lower a saddle if you get it slightly wrong, but you will get a sore back if you are constantly overstretching to reach handlebars on a frame that's too big for you. Any bike shop will be able to advise you.

Bring, rent or buy
If you're travelling by ferry, taking your own bike is little hassle and can be done without a charge or having to do any dismantling. Airlines generally charge about €30 to €50 each way and often charge lower prices if you book online. However, you will be required to have a bike bag or box, and you may have to make significant adjustments, such as removing wheels and pedals, so it's important to make sure you can put your bike back together or have someone to do it at the other end. Also, no matter how padded your bike bag is, stick in a bit of extra cushioning, particularly around the delicate bits, such as the chain rings.

Being able to put your bike on a train is handy, not just for getting you to the starting point, but to get you across any boring or treacherous bits of terrain. It’s also a great safety net if you have been overoptimistic about your abilities. France and Britain are particularly accommodating in this regard, as are most European countries.

Iarnród Éireann’s on-board provision is limited. Its cycle spaces are too short for some frames and, in the same space that a French train would carry five bikes, an Irish train carries two.

Bike rental fees in Europe vary widely and can cost anything from €50 to €200 per week, depending on the country, bike and the service offered. You also may need to factor in pick-up fees if you’re not planning on a round trip.

There are any number of companies doing cycling packages where they provide the bike hire and the accommodation and even carry your bags for you.

If your trip is a couple of weeks or longer, and you're not taking your own, you may be better off buying a bike. This option works well in countries where cycling is popular as there will generally be a good second-hand selection and resale options. Most reputable shops will need to see your purchase receipt if you're selling on at the end, so remember to hang on to it.

If you are going to be cycling in the rain, less is more as far as rain gear is concerned. As long as it's not too cold, cycle with bare legs. Skin dries faster than cloth, and while waterproof trousers do the job, the drag they create on your knees will wear you down. A light rain jacket is a must, but if you keep your upper body warm, your legs won't get cold in summer – even in Ireland.

Cycling shorts, however aesthetically unpleasing, are the way to go. If you can't bear the thought of popping in somewhere for lunch so attired, wear ordinary shorts or a loose short skirt over the lycra. Go for the best quality you can afford. Decent padding really does make a difference, and remember there are male and female-specific shorts. If you want more leg coverage, choose tracksuit bottoms; jeans are about the most uncomfortable things you can wear on a long cycle. Cushioned saddle covers can also help on long trips.

Pack very, very light. A 16-litre pannier can last you three weeks in summer if you're prepared to do a little handwashing. Do invest in panniers, the bags that attach to your bike, usually on the back carrier. You don't want to carry any weight on your back; it will make you hot and, even if it feels relatively light, it will quickly start to hurt. Buy waterproof bags only.

Planning your route
You need to think not only about where you want to go, but the type of holiday you want to have. If you're not entirely sure how keen you are on cycling, or if you see cycling as simply a nice method of getting to the next pub, choose a base and do day trips.

The other option is to cycle point to point, staying in a different place each night. If you choose this type of trip, particularly if it’s your first time, don’t camp. It might seem like a nice idea, but it’s a recipe for misery. Camping gear adds massively to the weight you have to haul.

Unless you are a very experienced Tour de Francey type (see below), small hills are about as much as you will probably want to tackle. You also need to make allowances for hills in your timings; if you’re on reasonably hilly terrain, it can take twice as long to get from A to B as on the flat.

Cycling guides will tell you if your route has climbs or not. However, even if a route isn't marked as hilly or is labelled "easy", treat it with caution. Have a look at the contour lines to make sure there are no nasty surprises. To find flatness look for routes along canals and rail lines. Rivers can be good too, as long as you're going with the flow. The sea is a tricky one. There are coastal cycle routes that are perfectly flat. However, the ragged shoreline of many seaside areas means cliffs and climbs.

If you don't cycle at home, about 40km on flat terrain is probably your maximum in a day. That's 20km before lunch and another 20km after, with as many breaks as you need in-between. On flat ground, even for the most inexperienced cyclist, 20km can be done in less than two hours, including breaks. However, if at all possible, get your hands on a bike for a few weeks before you go and see how far you get in a round trip of an hour.

If, on the other hand, you use a bike daily to get to work, or as your main method of getting around, 60km per day is an entirely reasonable prospect, and you’d probably be able to do more than 80km the odd day.

Unless it’s a short trip of five days or less, don’t cycle every day. You’ll have a better time if you stop for a couple of days every now and again, particularly if you’ve found somewhere nice.

Combine your cycling trip with a few days at the beach at your final destination and you have the perfect holiday – a reward for all your pedalling and the satisfaction of knowing you look better in your togs than if you had flown straight there.