Choosing a winter cycling holiday

Warm weather cycling abroad is really appealing now that summer is a distant memory. You may be looking ahead to 2017 and have set your sights on an event, want to kick-start the new year or simply keep up momentum from your summer training. Whatever your motivation, a winter cycling holiday could be just the ticket.

I worked as a bike guide in Andalucia back in 2013 and guided clients from all over the world. Riding around 400kms each week, I met all kinds of cyclists – novices through to Kona-qualifying Iron Women. In this post I will share tips and experiences from my year of Spanish adventure to help you get the most out of your cycling holiday, wherever you decide to go.

Lead or follow
If you consider yourself an independent traveller, you may prefer to find your own way and put together your own tour. Adventure cyclists are sure to favour this option as it provides the most freedom and scope to make the trip truly yours. Be sure to get to grips with your GPS before you go and don’t forget to go metric if you’re cycling in Europe. Use Google Earth to plot routes, check out road surfaces to get a fuller picture of the type of terrain. Ensure you have invested in decent maps – Spanish maps are notoriously poor and lacking in detail so make sure you check them when you get to your destination as road numbers often change.

The semi-independent option is to find a company that provides self-guided tours, giving you freedom to decide when and where you stop along a pre-determined route. You’ll have the reassurance that someone with local knowledge has done all the hard work and tested the route. Route cards, maps and/or GPS will be provided for you to use for the duration of your trip. Consider whether you want a single or multi-base trip. Some companies offer a bag transfer service (via a van) allowing you to cycle between hotels whilst your luggage goes ahead of you and reaches your destination before you get there.

A local perspective
A guided holiday is a great way to gain a local insight into the area. You won’t have the hassle of planning your routes or carrying maps, you can simply focus on enjoying the ride each day. If you hire a guide, you will spend a lot of time with him/her and they can really make (or break) your holiday. Guides are more than just good cyclists, they are experienced leaders and encouraging coaches.

You will need to be able to trust your guide and talk to them openly and freely to get the most from your cycling experience. Due to the challenging and remote areas bike guides work in they will have professional training. Bike guides have health and safety, route planning, mechanical and first aid training which is essential should an emergency occur. I spent a lot of time on the road fixing punctures, broken chains and blown tyres not to mentioned servicing the fleet of hire bikes while guests enjoyed a post-ride beer.

If you choose to go it alone, it’s worth running your route(s) past a local when you reach your destination as they may be able to suggest improvements, points of interest and good coffee stops. It might cost you a beer in a bar but worth it to get some added local knowledge and avoid any nasty surprises.

Higher and hire
Don’t forget to factor in elevation. This was the biggest mistake made by many of the guests I guided. Be prepared to get comfortable in the saddle as you get stuck in to long mountain climbs. It’s not unusual to be climbing for over an hour so you may need to lower your expectations of how much ground you think you can cover in a day. In Andalucia, many of my clients commented that 40 km felt like 40 miles because of the relentless climbing.

You should think about whether you’ll be taking your own bike or hiring one. If you take your own bike on an airline you’ll need to pack it down into a bike bag or box. This takes a bit of advance planning at either end of your journey but if you follow BikeRadar‘s advice you won’t go far wrong. The cost of transporting your bike by air is usually somewhere near hiring a bike for a week so it’s worth considering. In Andalucia, I experienced the weekly panic of guests putting together their beloved steeds only to find they’d been damaged in transit or were missing a wheel skewer. Always invest in a good bike bag/box and pack your bike properly!

Keeping it real
Having a good idea of what you want to get out of a winter cycling holiday will help focus your search. There are lots of companies offering a range of different cycling experiences – training camps, season kick-starts, leisure cycling, skills improvement, triathlon training, mountain biking etc. Decide what’s important to you in a holiday and what type of cyclist you are. A training camp holiday may not be suitable if you want to take regular stops to enjoy the scenery. If you are travelling solo, you may be looking for a more social experience with opportunities to meet other cyclists after rides.

Regardless of your cycling style or discipline be realistic about your riding ability, fitness and skill level. Make a note of your recent rides to record distance, time, speed and climbing. You may need to do some pre-training and improve your core strength to get the most from your rides abroad. Remember you are likely to be cycling for consecutive days and this requires more stamina and proper nutrition so it’s an idea to try riding on consecutive days to prepare for your holiday. Look on company websites for information such as ride speed, typical metres ascent, distance and technical aspects of trails (if mountain biking) and contact the company if you are in any doubt that the terrain they offer is appropriate for you.

Some companies provide vehicle backup for guided riding. This can be reassuring if you are feeling challenged by the terrain so it’s worth asking if this service is available and if there are opportunities to shorten or lengthen rides. Undertaking this kind of research before booking your holiday can reduce the risk of feeling out of your depth and give you peace of mind.

Finally, if you decide to use a travel company, choose one that behaves responsibly, employs local people (and pays a fair wage), respects/protects the environment they operate in and uses local businesses. Check company websites to see if they have a policy or commitment to responsible tourism and are registered with their local tourist board. You can use Responsible Travel to find trips that are respectful and fair.

Have I missed anything? Get in touch below to share your tips.