One thing that will be noticeably different to the American cyclist is the respect that European drivers have for cyclists. Cyclists get much more respect in Europe then they do in America.
The big advantage of guided touring is that you can benefit from the experience of your touring company and its guides. These people usually have a familiarity with the area you will be visiting and they can make arrangements for decent lodging, meals and cycling routes. If you are new to traveling in Europe and/or you cannot speak the language of the countries which you will be visiting, then a guided tour may help ease the tension of being a stranger in a strange land.
One disadvantage to guided touring is that you are part of a heterogeneous group of people who may differ widely in cycling ability. Also, there is no guarantee that everybody will get along and become friends. Some may see the chance to meet new people as a positive side to guided touring.
Another disadvantage to guided touring is that in most cases, hotel reservations have been made in advance which means two things. First, your daily route is not particularly flexible since when you leave town A, you must be in town B that evening. Secondly, if the weather is bad, you usually do not have the flexibility to layover and let the weather clear. You either have to ride in bad weather, which is a real drag in the high mountains, or take the support vehicle or other forms of transportation to the night's destination.
Self-guided touring has the advantages that you can choose your companions, you can choose the dates you want to travel and if you haven't made hotel reservations in advance, you can vary your itinerary to meet your prevailing attitudes and weather conditions.
The downside to self-guided touring is that you are basically on your own. You make all the decisions. If you are somewhat familiar with the area or have down some research, you are more likely to make good choices of cycling routes and places to stay. However, every once and a while you may pick an unfriendly town or a horribly busy road, both of which looked good on a map or came recommended in a book. Also, if you experience any equipment failure you will be responsible for either making the repairs or finding someone who can do them. Most guided tours bring a mechanic and enough parts to be able to handle most equipment problems.
This may seem counterintuitive, but I think the more ambitious the tour, the better off you are doing it in a self-guided fashion. If you are going to be riding lots of miles with lots of climbing you want to know who you are going with and also have the flexibility to be able to modify your route if something happens.
Because I prefer self-guided touring, this guide is written with that type of touring in mind. However, I feel it contains enough valuable information for those taking a guided tour to make it worthwhile reading for all potential cyclo-tourists.
Also, allow 2-3 hours for making your international connections. Most airports have separate terminals for international and continental flights. There may be some distance to be covered to make plane changes which may result in either you or your baggage not making the flight if you cut the connection time too closely.
Some cities have multiple airports such as Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Orly. Make sure if one of your flights arrives at one of the airports and departs from the other that you have enough time to get to the other location.
I have had both good luck and bad luck with just about every major airline, so I think all carriers are basically OK. Most airlines are now "no smoking". If you are unsure about a potential carrier, it is best to check. Also, Alitalia offers good fares to Italy but be forewarned that the workers for this airline like to go on strike at very short notice.
Most airlines have beefed up their security on international flights. They now verify that all passengers who checked luggage are on the flight. This means that every time you change planes you have security checks and potential delays. Suffice it to say, the fewer plane changes the better.
Air fares differ between high and low seasons, arrival and departure locations, date of purchase(I am a terrible procrastinator), etc. High season runs from about June 1 to September 30. The internet may offer special fares, but nothing can replace a good travel agent for smoking out the best deals and the best flights.
An interesting note, one year I was flying to a town near Pisa, Italy. The fare from San Francisco to Rome was $1000. If I added the Rome to Pisa connection the fair only increased to $1007. The extra $7 charge was well worth getting closer to my final destination as the alternative was to take a 4 hour train ride. So, check when booking fares to see if you can get closer to your final destination for just a little extra money.
Chris Wiscavage advised against flying by charter. He said that charters are notorious for being overcrowded and if they run out of baggage space on the plane, then the bikes are one of the first items to be left behind. On one of his trips flying charter, he had to wait 5 days for his bike to arrive. Obviously, the conditions vary between charter companies, if you have one that you trust and the price is right, go for it!
It used to be the case that on international flights you could check your bike as one of your 2 pieces of luggage. However, some airlines (Delta and United for starters) are now charging $65-75 one way fee for bikes. Your experience may vary.
Flight delays seem more and more common. I have found that if your flight is delayed going to Europe, unless there is some catastrophic problem that cannot be fixed, it is best to stay with your original flight and wait out the delay. If you try routing yourself through another airline or reaching your destination by hopping through many cities, you may have a much bigger problem, especially with your luggage catching up to you. Be patient, sitting out delays seems to be the best alternative. This is a good reason to avoid booking hotels in advance. You can almost always get a room somewhere, but trying to stick to a regimented schedule may cause for major stress.
For group travel, try to get the same flights. If you are all on the same plane, if there are any delays, all of you are together and you can either wait it out together or make alternate plans together. Having one member waiting a day at the airport for everyone else to arrive is a drag.
First off, if you are planning an ambitious trip with lots of miles and/or lots of climbing, you will definitely feel better riding your own bike rather than renting. Add to that the fact that, these days, most rental bikes are are mountain bikes. This may be an advantage if you are planning lots of climbing since the gearing tends to be lower, but a mountain bike is not as nimble as a road bike and can be significantly heavier than a road bike. Of course, if your primary bike at home is a mountain bike, these differences may be less noticeable than if your primary bike is a road bike.
Secondly, if you are combining your cycling vacation with large portions of non-cycling segments at the beginning or end of the trip, it may be better to not worry about lugging a bike halfway across Europe, especially if you are going to use trains as your primary mode of travel (see "Taking Your Bike on the Train" in a later section). Another option in this case, is to ship your bikes, by train, to the destination where you will need them if your cycling comes at the end of the trip or to your departure destination if your cycling comes at the beginning of the trip.
Personally, I prefer to bring my own bike. I know the condition of all the components and since everything should be in good working order, I can be assured that barring any catastrophe, my bike will not let me down. Also, it just feels a lot better and hence more enjoyable to be astride my trusty steed.
Get a cardboard bike box from your local friendly bike shop. Mountain bike boxes are best because they are a bit wider and easier to pack, but as mountain bike frames get smaller, road bike sized mountain bike boxes are getting harder and harder to find.
Here is how I do it:
1) Use 3/4" foam pipe insulation to protect the 3 main tubes (top, down and
seat) and tape in place. Make sure to get the insulation with an inside
diameter that most closely matches the diameter of your frame tubes.
2) Take the seat, pedals, and front wheel off the bike.
3) Use a bit of string to attach the LEFT(non-chainwheel) crankarm to the LEFT chainstay.
4) Remove the rear derailleur from its hanger and just let it hang.
5) Remove the handlebars and stem from the frame(this may necessitate removing the cyclocomputer mount, and the front brake cable from the brake - a good reason for soldering the ends of your cables!) and hang on the top tube.
6) Place a spacer in the front fork (see below).
7) wrap downtube shifters and brake levers with thin foam to minimize metal-to-metal contact.
8) Put the seat, pedals and other small parts in a bag and place the bag in the front of the bike box.
9) Slide the frame in such that the forks are just ahead of the bag.
10) Spread the box a bit and slide in the front wheel on the LEFT side(non chainwheel) of the bike with the front axle about 8-12" in front of the seat tube. The end of the handlebars should fit between the spokes of the wheel.
11) take the pump off the bike and securely tape it to one corner of the box.
12) use foam squares(I have about 20 1' X 1.5' X 2" pieces procured from shipping crates at work) to pad the bike from any potential metal to metal contact. Be sure to put padding on top of the bike, as you never know which way the bike box will end up.
13) Close the box and tape with strapping tape. Check to make sure the bike cannot move around inside the box, there should be sufficient padding to keep any shifting from occurring.
You can make a very inexpensive, yet very effective spacer to prevent damage to the front fork from an old front axle. Leave the cones and lock nuts in place and use the quick release skewer taken off your front wheel to secure the spacer in the fork.
Bring a small amount of grease (35mm film cannisters work great for this) to aid in re-assembly and throw in some rags or paper towels for wiping off the excess grease.
Also, note that if your bike has Campagnolo Ergo levers, it is much easier to remove your stem and handlebars if you leave a little extra cable during installation. Another alternative is to loosen the brake and shifter cables, but this is a last resort as it requires that you re-adjust the shifter cable tension when you re-assemble the bike, which is a bit of a hassle if you have index shifting.
One nice thing about bike boxes is that you can pack a lot of your extra gear (and presents) inside the box. I have traveled to Europe using just the bike box as my only piece of luggage!
I also bring a roll of the 2" wide clear packing tape. This stuff can be used to reinforce or repair any damage to the bike box that might have occurred in transit.
One note of caution here. I would try and obtain a bike box that closely fits the size of you bike(i.e. if you have a 58cm frame get a box for a 58cm frame bike). You want to minimize movement in the box and the box should be packed tight enough so that you can stand it on end or even possibly upside down. I would not recommend getting a box that is too big and trying to cut it down to size. I tried this one year and suffered minor damage to the bicycle because when I cut down the top of the box, I could not get it to fold over very well and lost some of the structural integrity of the sides of the box. A heavy item was placed on top of my box and the sides of the box could not support it.
Different bike manufacturers use different strengths of cardboard with their boxes. And the same manufacturer can change the strengths of their boxes from year to year. Suffice it to say, the stiffer the better.
I have had poor results using the soft sided bags (both padded and unpadded versions) and I would not recommend them. I think the foam padding gives a false sense of security to the consumer, but more distressingly to the baggage personnel who may attempt to place heavy items on top of the bag.
Another method is to use minimal packing and minimal padding to force the airlines to handle your bike with care. This method entails removing the wheels, crankarms and rear derailleur. Turn the handlebars and lash the wheels to the sides of the bike frame. Enclose the whole package in a sturdy plastic bag. I have never used this method, it works for some but necessitates some tools like a crank extractor and crank bolt wrench.
Hard plastic cases are becoming popular. However, I am not particularly fond of them. Besides being expensive, their weight empty(i.e. no bike) is between 25 and 30 lbs. Ouch! In comparison, an empty cardboard bike box weighs only about 5 lbs. The extra 20-25 lbs. can be a real factor if you have to carry your baggage any substantial distance.
In any event, if you would like to begin and end your trip from the same airport, you can leave the bike box in "checked" or "left" luggage and pay a small daily fee for storage. One nifty trick if you have multiple bike boxes is to tape them together and check them as a single box. Hotels near an airport may also allow you to store your bike box, usually for a small fee.
Here is my pre-tour bike preparation:
1) new chain
2) new tires and tubes
3) 4 new cables(2 - brake, 2 - derailleur, esp. if STI)
4) repack or replace bottom bracket
5) repack or replace headset
6) repack hubs
7) clean derailleurs
8) check brake pads for wear
9) true wheels
10) oil/grease freewheel/freehub
11) wash bike thoroughly(check frame for any cracks!)
I would recommend soldering the ends of your brake and derailleur cables. This keeps the cables from fraying and you can take them in and out of their fittings and housing when packing and unpacking the bike or doing maintenance and you don't have to worry about losing those silly little aluminum end caps!
Also, since the riding clothes that you will be wearing during the day will most likely get washed every night, an important consideration is that they be made of a quick drying material.
I would not recommend Look cleats for touring. I do a lot of walking which is unavoidable. It has been my experience that even a little bit of wear on the Look cleat can make it behave differently in the pedal. While Look cleat covers are available to protect the cleat during walking, during a normal day on the road you do so much on and off the bike activity that it seemed like too much bother to take the covers on and off and on and off, etc.
The first method of carrying gear uses the Quix brand Max Contour Trunk rack and bag in one. A small clamp slips onto the seatpost and the bag clicks into the clamp. One restriction is that the seatpost must be round (i.e. non-aero) to hold the clamp. Another restriction is that the bag must ride high enough to clear the rear wheel by 2-3" as the bag may bounce a bit up and down. The Quix bag is incredibly stable, it is easy to attach and detach and it does not require a rack(just a small seat post clamp). It is a very nice system for ultra-light touring.
The Quix system is ideal for carrying about 550 cu. in. of gear, however several easy modifications to the bag should be made. First, I removed all the foam insulation from the bag and replaced the two side pieces with .8mm ABS plastic pieces cut to the same dimensions as the foam pieces they replaced(round off the edges to prevent abnormal wear). Adding the side stays gives the bag some integrity and allows it to stand up making it easier to pack. I purchased a small tool bag shaped like a pack of cigarettes and added some velcro tabs which allowed it to be attached in front of the Quix bag, giving about an additional 50 cu. in. and bringing the total carrying capacity up to about 550 cu. in. This is enough space for a multi-week tour, see my equipment list below for details.
One nice advantage of the Quix bag over the standard rear rack mounting systems is that for rain protection you can slide a waterproof sack completely over the bag.
For occasions where I needed to carry over 550 cu. in. of gear, I have used a Blackburn SX-1 rack and rear trunk bag. I have a racing frame, so I had to use the "eyelet mounts" which worked fine. I replaced the outer washer(black neoprene) with a wider one, (get them at a plumbing supply store) and used a piece of bicycle innertube as padding between the frame and the aluminum piece, which worked well. I had to file off the protruding tongs on the bottom of the rack so it would not contact my seatstays; I left enough of the tong so that a bungee cord could still be hooked onto it.
The bag I use with the Blackburn rack is a Cannondale rear trunk bag. This is one of the multitude of shoe box shaped bags that sits on top of the rack. Unfortunately, most of these bags are foam lined(for 6-packs) and they do not have the 800 cu in. minimum capacity that was necessary for my gear. I removed the plastic liner and sewed nylon sleeves into the two sides(not front or back side)of the bag. I made two 5"x12"rectangular pieces of 1/32" plexiglass (or .8mm ABS plastic) that fit into the sleeves to hold the bag up and give it some shape. I also sewed some lash points on top of the bag in case of overflow.
The Cannondale bag listed at 800 cu in., it had one big compartment, two side pockets, a rear pocket(with reflector) and a top pocket. All my medical stuff fit inside the rear pocket, eliminating the need for a toilet kit/stuff sack. I put my long sleeve shirt, hat, gloves, leg warmers and jacket in the side pockets so they were easily accessible. The camera, map(s) of the day, money, road food go in the top pocket. I hit upon a great way to pack the tennis shoes which takes up minimal space. Rather than crunch them together and lose the dead air in between, pack them to each side and stuff clothes in between.
A friend has used a rack top bag made by Lone Peak of Salt Lake City. It was a 1200 cu in. top loading bag and worked well.
I bought a plastic "rack top" that snaps onto the top of the Blackburn rack to provide a flat surface for the pack and also, some rain protection. I made a rain cover which fit over the entire bag, since panniers are notorious for leaking.
Another option for holding a rack top bag is the new rigid, aluminum racks which attach to the seatpost. Headlands is one popular brand. These racks weigh in at about 1 lb. and offer an interesting alternative to a full rack. They require an aforementioned rack top bag and a non-aero seatpost and may provide a good alternative to the Quix system if more than 550 cu in. of gear is required.
1 pr. cycling shorts(with quick drying synthetic chamois)
1 short sleeve cycling jerseys (quick drying synthetic)
2 pr cycling socks
1 pr cycling shoes(SPD type)
1 helmet and/or cotton cycling cap(washable)
1 pr leg warmers
1 medium weight Thermax long sleeve top(converts SS jersey to long sleeve)
1 waterproof jacket (Gore-Tex, etc.)
2 pr gloves 1-cycling, 1-warm
1 pr sunglasses
1 pr lightweight pants(North Face North Shore)
1 polo shirt or t-shirt (Patagonia Capilene)
1 pr walking shorts(Patagonia Baggie Lites are light and not bulky)
1 pr undershorts(or Speedo swimsuit, doubles for jacuzzis and swimming)
1 handkerchief/bandana(for cleaning glasses and neck protection from the sun)
1 rain cover for pack(panniers are notorious for leaking)
2 spare tubes(new)
1 patch kit with 8 patches and new glue + several tire "boots"
1 tool kit(spoke wrench, tire irons, chain lube, screw driver, chain tool, 3-4-5-6mm allen wrenches, Swiss Army "Classic" knife)
2 water bottles(20 oz. or 27oz. depending on your preference)
Maps(see below for brand recommendations)
Toilet kit(aspirin, cortisone cream(saddle sores), neosporin, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, razor, soap, sunblock, comb, fingernail clippers)
Camera + film(see below for recommendations on type to purchase)
Small "hotel" type sewing kit for emergency repairs
1 extra derailleur cable (a must for those with STI)
1 extra brake cable
rain cover for cyclocomputer
Notepad and pen
Credit cards(Visa or Mastercard, not Amex)
Driver's License (and extension if expired)
Health Insurance Card
Earplugs(for sleeping at night)
Watch with alarm
Wallet (leave the stuff you don't need at home)
Some optional items may include (if you have the space!):
second pair of cycling shorts
second short sleeve cycling jersey
1 foldable clincher(can be shared with another rider)
1 pr Tennis Shoes(get something with good support for days off)
Bike cable and lock(5/16" X 5' coated Flexweave(TM) cable)
1 pr pajamas
1 Freewheel puller + spokes - if you have a habit of breaking spokes
10-15' of thin cord to use as a clothesline
Electronic language translator (see below)
Extra cyclocomputer batteries
The synthetic material used in Federal Express envelopes, called Tyvek, makes great thin, lightweight tire boots. Cut them to fit the size of your patch kit.
"Fiber Fix" makes an inexpensive kit for use in an emergency to replace a broken spoke.
If you are going to begin and end your trip from the same destination, you can bring extra clothes for the flight over and the flight back which can be stored in your bike box while you are on your tour.
The "going light" method does not leave much room in your bike bag for momentos or gifts. However, if you find something you really like, it is quite easy and not expensive to mail the item back home. Most post offices sell an assortment of boxes so finding the correct size is easy. Also, if the item is valuable, I would suggest sending it air mail. For smaller, more valuable items like film I put everything in one or two well-sealed plastic bags before placing it in the box. That way, if the box somehow springs a small leak, you won't lose that one roll of film with the killer photos. Also, In Italy it is cheaper to mail 4kg of stuff by splitting it up into 2 - 2kg packages. The two packages together cost about 1/2 the price of on 4kg package because Italy has a special rate for packages up to 2kg. Also, the small package rate is not inspected by customs whereas larger packages may be opened and inspected.
What this means is that, for me, I normally use a 39x24 on the terrain in the Northern California Bay Area. Given the factors mentioned above, I take a 39x26 if I am going to be doing day trips or a 39x28 low if I am going to be doing loaded touring in the Alps.
The standard Shimano Ultegra and Dura-Ace derailleurs will handle a 28 rear cog. Once trick for adding that extra gear is to start with a normal 8-speed 13x26 cassette. Get an extra cog spacer and drill 3 counter-sink holes in the spacer to accommodate the nubs of the rivets holding the cassette together. Get a 28 tooth cog as well. Slide off your cassette and place the 28 tooth cog on your freehub. Slide on the spacer, then the riveted cassette making sure that the nubs of the rivets are lined up with the counter-sunk holes on the spacer. You now have seven cogs on your freehub, the single 28 tooth cog plus the 6 cogs riveted together. Toss out the 2nd to smallest diameter cog (usually a 14) and slide on the small metal spacer and the final cog. Tighten down and away you go, armed with a 28 tooth low for when it gets really steep!
Some people prefer triple front chainrings. Your mileage may vary.
Michelin is now making green regional maps that are 1cm:1km (1/100000) scale and are much more detailed than the standard yellow maps. They are also more expensive and larger which makes them great for pre-planning a route before you leave home but maybe a bit too bulky for taking with you on your trip. These maps are also date labeled and have numbers in the 100-200 range.
Also, note that the Michelin maps now have a date stamp. Obviously, the newer the date, the better the accuracy.
For Italy, I would recommend the Touring Club Italiano (TCI) maps, they are almost as good as the Michelins and come in 1cm:2km (1/200000) scale.
Also recommended are the Institut Geographique National(IGN) maps, which are marked with contour lines. There are three flavors green is 1cm:1km, red is 1cm:2.5km, and blue is somewhat finer than the green (blue is usually used by hikers).
I try not to rely explicitly on the accuracy of the most minute details on a map. For example, if you cannot decide between two roads which are about 50 feet apart and appear to head in the same direction, don't always expect your map to be 100% accurate or have fine enough detailing to allow you to make the correct decision. If you can, ask the locals.
In less popular areas, some maps are just plain wrong, indicating roads where there are none and vice versa. The Alps and the Pyrenees are pretty well covered, but small, out-of-the-way destinations and smaller roads may not be as accurately depicted.
The colors for road signs may differ from country to country. Note that in France, freeway signs are in blue and primary road signs are in green.
One important sign to note is that in Europe, a red circle with a bike in the center means that the road is closed to bicycles. In the US we are more familiar with a red circle with a red slash through it meaning the activity in the sign is prohibited, but in Europe, just the red circle means the activity in the center is prohibited.
Many tunnels in Europe do not have lighting, and some are very long. For the most part the road surfaces inside are OK, but it's best to play it safe and slow way down, don't forget to pop up the sunglasses. In unlit tunnels where it is impossible to see anything you have several options. You can walk your bike, using your arm to make contact with wall of the tunnel to maintain proper direction. Or, you can buy a cheap flashlight and use a rubber band to strap it to your handlebars. Also, it might be a good idea to buy one of those small, inexpensive flashing taillights which you can clip to your jersey or pack.
The mountain roads are generally good, but deteriorate as you go higher. Also, the width of the roads can change dramatically from 2 lanes to 1 lane, etc., tunnels spring up out of nowhere, and the turns are not marked. However you can avoid just about anything by being careful.
The roads in Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein are the best. France, Italy and Spain are very good as well.
In Europe, the big trucks are not allowed on the roadways on Sundays. This may give you an ace in the hole if you need to ride a busy stretch of roadway to link up a couple of sections of your tour.
Unfortunately, the big alpine passes like the Stelvio are much more crowded with cars and especially motorcycles on the weekends. The Stelvio is such a grand ascent that it is worth it to make sure you ride it on a weekday.
The four guides are(denoted by the subtitle "ALTIGRAPH Edition"):
1) Atlas des Cols des Alpes - North(everything north of the Col du
2) Atlas des Cols des Alpes - South(everything south of the Col du Galibier)
3) Atlas des Cols des Pyrenees
4) Atlas des Cols du Massif Central
They cost about 110ff($20 US) each (they take credit cards!) and are available from:
Au Vieux Campeur
14 Rue des Ecoles
75005 Paris France
Telephone # +33-18.104.22.168.32 (magasins/shops, librairie/book shop)
Fax : +33-22.214.171.124.66 & +33-126.96.36.199.38
Also, there are some sites on the internet such as www.cyclingcols.com which have profiles of the European passes.
Alps - July is best but can be hot and humid especially on the southern side of the Alps; September is good, but it can be cold and there is a chance of snow up high; June is OK, but it can be wet and passes over 6-7,000 feet may be snowed in.
Pyrenees - June is good, but it can be wet; September/October is good; July can be hot
Tuscany - May and October are good though they can be a bit wet. June and September are OK but they can be hot; July is too hot and humid.
In the high mountains, even in summer, there is a chance the rain may actually be snow at the highest altitudes. As a rule of thumb, air cools about 3 degrees Farenheit for ever 1000 feet of altitude gain. So, if it is 50 degrees and raining at 2000 feet and you will be heading over a pass at 9000 feet, 50 - (3 x (9000-2000)) = 29 degrees and that could very well mean snow. If you have any doubts about the conditions, a lot of the big passes have hotels on top so you can always look in the phone book and give them a call and ask about current and future conditions.
If you choose to ride in the rain, the key element to survival is keeping warm on the descents. If you have a jacket that really is waterproof/ breathable (I have yet to find one of these!) then wear it while both climbing and descending since it will keep you much drier than the rain. If your jacket is only waterproof, then wear your wet clothes on the climb, when your body is generating enough body heat to keep you relatively warm and then put on your dry clothes for the descent. Having warm hands is vital to being able to control your bike on the descents. Make sure your glove choice keeps your hands toasty in all conditions.
For the legs, some people prefer waterproof leggings. I think this clearly will increase your warmth on the descent, but not enough to offset the extra bulk of the gear, so I don't bring them. I find that about 80% of the time, my leg warmers work well enough.
Of course, everyone is different and I am merely making suggestions based on my experiences. By experimenting with your wet weather setup before you leave for Europe you will greatly increase your expectations in wet weather riding.
One item to consider is the use of ceramic rims. Yes, they do improve the braking in the rain, but more importantly, they keep your bike much cleaner by eliminating the aluminum brake dust which seems to go everywhere when you are braking in the rain. Note that you need to use ceramic brake pads as well.
The first step is to "dry clean" your bike. This entails using a dry rag or sheet of paper towel to gently wipe the bike and knock of all but the most stubborn dirt. Believe it or not, this works amazingly well in removing the vast majority of grit. Once the dry cleaning is done, you can use a small wet rag or paper towel to remove the most stubborn grit.
One word of caution, it is important to identify the stubborn grit from the not-so-stubborn grit when dry cleaning the bike. Trying to remove stubborn grit with a dry rag may scratch your paint job.
If you have a time constraint, you may want to try and get as close as possible to your starting point. Another option is to get a one-way rental car so that you can drive directly from the airport to your starting point. Be warned that with gasoline prices in Europe between $4 and $5/gallon and with freeways in France and Italy charging tolls to use their roads, the overall cost of renting a car can be much greater than the actual car rental charge. Also, renting a car in Italy is very expensive because you are required, by law, to take out full protection for accident and theft.
Below is a list of points of entry to the various mountainous regions of Europe:
1) Geneva - good for the Alps and the Jura mountains. There is a train station
in the airport to get you out of town fast.
2) Milan - good for the Italian and Swiss Alps. You can leave luggage in the airport. The airport is a fair ways northeast of the city, there is bus service to the train station downtown.
3) Nice - very nice starting point for the Maritime Alps and Provence. You can ride your bike right out of the airport.
4) Barcelona - about 100 miles south of the eastern end of the Pyrenees.
5) Paris - you can take a TGV (bullet train) south to the Pyrenees or east to the Alps.
6) Zurich - close to the Swiss Alps.
7) Pau - great for the Pyrenees.
One item worth noting is that if you pack the majority of your cash in the bottom of your bag, you should keep enough money close at hand if the hotel does not accept credit cards. Unpacking a tightly packed bag can be a real drag. Or better yet, just ask when you check in.
ATM cards are also becoming popular. They offer similar savings as credit cards as long as you are not charged a high fee by your bank for using it. I have heard that sometimes the transaction fee can be as high as $5. Interestingly, most banks charge about $5 for exchanging money!
If you are in the Alps, you should keep a good supply of the local currency as banks are not always easy to find(except resort towns). Hotels will change money, use this as a last resort as the exchange rate is not always good.
I have found that most banks have the same exchange rate, so shopping around is seems to be a waste of time. Remember, you can change your current currency as well as your US stuff when you change countries. However, if you are in France and want to change US currency into Italian lire, you will most likely be charged two transaction fees, one for changing from US to French francs and one for changing the French francs to Italian lire. This introduction of the Euro has made this practice less common, but not all countries in Europe are in the EU (European Union).
As a general rule, you cannot change small denomination coins. If you are anticipating leaving a country be sure to use up all your small change or be prepared to just give it away at the border.
In Spain, everything shuts down from 1pm-4pm and dinner is not usually served until 8:30 or so. In Italy and France, everything shuts down from about 12:30 pm to 4pm and dinner is not usually served till 7pm.
The average price of 2-3 star hotels for 2 twin beds and a toilet with shower was $40-$70. I have found that in France and Italy, 3 star hotels are quite nice and 2 star hotels are adequate. In Switzerland 2 star hotels are very nice.
It should also be mentioned that since most hotels do not have air conditioning, you need to do everything possible to get a cool room. If you need to keep the windows open, try and get a room away from the street side of the hotel or the noise will keep you up(believe me, this is important). Earplugs help somewhat. Having said that, air conditioning is becoming more and more prevalent in resort towns.
A couple of tricks to stiffen up soft beds are to put the mattress on the floor or you can take a door off of a closet and put it between the springs and the mattress.
Many European hotels use down comforters instead of blankets on their beds. If you sleep hot, like me, you can remove the comforter cover and use it as a blanket.
Security can be a problem, especially if you are going on day rides and do not want to carry all your gear. It is not a bad idea to leave your cash in the hotel's safe. You should always carry your passport wherever you go, it is your "identity" card. However, if you must leave it behind, it should go in the safe as well.
It can be hot at the lower elevations in the summer, if you sleep at higher altitudes(>1000 meters) you may be able to beat the heat.
Some regions have predictable weather conditions such as the 15-20mph wind that seems to always blow up the Sion valley from Maritgny towards Brig.
The best month to tour in the Alps is July. The weather is reasonably settled and the days are warm. September is a good second choice, though the weather is a bit more unsettled and it can turn cold and actually snow. Also, in September, it is possible that the hotels at major ski resorts, like Sestriere and Isola 2000, may be closed as they prepare for the upcoming season. Check before heading up that next climb.
I would not recommend going to the Pyrenees Mountains during the month of July (possibly even August). Even though there are a lot of 4000' climbs, the passes are for the most part low altitude compared to the Alps(1500-2000 meters versus 2000-2700 meters) and because of this it is quite hot. A better time for the Pyrenees is May, June or September. Also, I found the Pyrenees to be quite beautiful but, I really like the ruggedness of the Alps and the roads in the Pyrenees did not pass by much of this type of scenery(though it does exist via hiking trails).
August seems to be a bad time for a tour. All of Europe goes on vacation. This means that the roads and accommodations are crowded and the air pollution is also bad.
In Italy, there are special cars on the passenger trains that hold bikes. On the train schedule a little bike symbol indicates those trains. You need to pay a supplement for the bike, but its not much and definitely worth it. As with all travel with bike on a train, the key here is that you want to make sure that both you and your bike are on the same train.
On Swiss and German trains there is space at the end of most cars where you can leave baggage, which is where I put my bike. In France and Italy, I suspended the bike above the seats in the two opposing luggage racks(great trick!). There is a chance that a conductor may be displeased by the bike and start making all sorts of gyrations about the bike having to be sent as baggage. Just play dumb and as long as you are not taking up too much space they will usually let you slide.
Unfortunately, in 1992, I came under the wrath of every train conductor in Europe. I never got separated from my bike, but I had to pay an extra charge for having my bike with me on the train($30 US). However, I would rather be verbally abused than be separated from my bike!
On interesting thing about bikes on passenger trains, in 1992 I took the TGV from Paris to Pau and was not hassled about my bike because it was still in the box and in the back of the car. You may be able to cut down on your hassle quotient by keeping you bike in your box until you really need it. Just a thought.
Train service is not available in all towns (especially in the mountains). However, bus service usually is available and you can use the bus to connect to a train station. Your bike has to travel in the baggage compartment, it is a bit risky since the bike may move around a bit with all the luggage so take care in helping the driver put it in a good location.
The first thing you should know is that it is much cheaper to make arrangements for renting the car in the United States, before you leave for your trip. The more popular agencies like Hertz, Avis and National rent cars in Europe, you can make arrangements in the US.
As with rental cars in the US, you can get unlimited mileage with only a daily charge. The daily charges accrue on a 24 hour clock; if you rent the car at 9am on day 1, the charge for the next day starts at 9am on the following day (not midnight).
Small cars are the norm in Europe and are significantly less expensive than the big cars most Americans are accustomed to. For example, the Fiat Punto and the Opel Kadet are the smallest cars most companies rent. Luckily, they both have hatchbacks which allows you to get two bikes and related gear in the back, something which looks highly unlikely on first glance.
Gas is very expensive in Europe and runs about $5/gallon. Italy seems to be a bit more expensive than either Switzerland or France, but the difference is not major.
Also, the freeways in France, Italy and Switzerland are toll roads. Switzerland is the best deal, for a once-a-year charge of around $40 you get a sticker good for all its freeways. Both Italy and France use a pay-as-you-use system which can cost as much as $0.15 - $0.20 a mile (ouch!).
Also, the toll charges for using the major tunnels between the Italian and French Alps can be quite expensive. Both the Mont Blanc and Frejus tunnels charge about $25 for a one-way trip.
Note: some larger towns have laundromat facilities which is a nice alternative to handwashing. In Briancon, France it cost about $3 soap and use of the washing machine for one load.
My second choice would be Andermatt, Switzerland gateway to the Susten, Furka, Gothard and Oberalp passes and close to Wilhem Tell's birthplace(he didn't really exist but, there's a monument anyway). The day rides here are longer and more strenuous but, you won't be disappointed.
Another great basecamp is Barcelonnette, France. There are 5 major cols easily accessible(Allos, Cayole, Bonnette, Larche and Vars) as well as a number of great loops to connect the passes.
Also recommended is the northern Italian town of Bormio. The Stelvio, Gavia, Bernina, Foscagno and Mortirolo are all within a day's ride.