The 10 best long-distance bike rides around the world
For many, travelling by bike is the antithesis to the modern trend of fast, fly-in-fly-out travel. In fact, it’s hard to envisage a better way to explore a country than on two wheels, slowly meandering along as the landscape unfurls before you. Cycling gives you time to admire your surroundings, draws you away from the tourist crowds and, perhaps best of all, it’s sustainable – causing no harm to the environment you’ve travelled to see.
If you have a deep-rooted or burgeoning passion for pedalling, be inspired to take on one of these epic bike rides around the world; life-affirming, unforgettable trips that’ll have you freewheeling across the salt flats of Bolivia or wobbling up the hills of the Moroccan High Atlas. Time to saddle up! For more cycling inspiration, check out Lonely Planet’s Epic Bike Rides of the World paperback and eBook.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.
1. Southern Namibia
End: Felix Unite
Distance: 621 miles (1000km)
Namibia has the second lowest population density in the world. Most of its people are in the north, so the south is empty indeed. Not surprisingly, it’s dry and unforgiving land. Towns and amenities are few and far between. Roads are mostly loose gravel. But it’s also unutterably gorgeous.
A seven-day, 621-mile (1000km) unsupported pedal through this astonishing landscape, from Namibia’s capital of Windhoek to the South African border, requires planning, packing, perseverance and profound self-reliance. Factoring in the vast distances between towns, roadhouses, campgrounds and great attractions, an ideal itinerary is to head south-west to Sesriem for a visit to Sossusvlei’s red dunes and salt pans, then turn south via Helmeringhausen and Seeheim to pause in Hobas and view Fish River Canyon (rivalling the Grand Canyon), and then point south again to Felix Unite, near the Noordoewer international crossing to South Africa.
2. La Farola, Cuba
Distance: 34 miles (55km)
Hailed as one of the seven modern engineering marvels of Cuba, La Farola (the lighthouse road) links the beach hamlet of Cajobabo on the arid Caribbean coast with the nation’s beguiling oldest city, Baracoa.
Measuring 34 miles (55km) in length, the road traverses the steep-sided Sierra del Puril, snaking its way precipitously through a landscape of granite cliffs and pine-scented cloud forest before falling, with eerie suddenness, upon the lush tropical paradise of the Atlantic coastline.
For cyclists, it offers a classic Tour de France-style challenge with tough climbs, invigorating descents and relatively smooth roads. La Farola starts 124 miles (200km) east of Santiago de Cuba and is thus best incorporated into a wider Cuban cycling excursion. You could also charter a taxi to drop you off at the start point.
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3. Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia
Distance: 186 miles (300km)
Cycling atop the salt crust of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni – and the more petite but perfectly-formed Salar de Coipasa – is an undisputed highlight of many a South America journey. It’s a high-altitude ride that takes five or six days, segmented by an opportunity to resupply with water and food at the midway settlement of Llica.
As the largest salt flat in the world, cycling here provides an other-worldly experience. There’s nothing quite like pitching your tent on a bleached white canvas, seasoning your dinner with the salty ground on which you’re sitting, and awakening in the morning to a glow of ethereal, lavender light.
This journey can only be undertaken in Bolivia’s winter, as during summer the salt lakes are inundated by seasonal rain.
4. Blue Ridge Parkway, USA
Start: Shenandoah National Park near Waynesboro, Virginia
End: Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, North Carolina
Distance: 469 miles (755km)
The iconic Blue Ridge Parkway rises and falls like a roller-coaster track running from Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most bikers budget about ten days to complete the 469-mile (755km) route, which crosses four national forests and features 176 bridges, more than two dozen tunnels and hundreds of historic sites.
Riders will experience the America that inspires patriotic songs: uninterrupted forests, burbling rivers, splashy waterfalls, vibrant wildflowers or foliage (depending on the season), and mountains haloed in clouds.
Roadside diversions abound, such as the Blue Ridge Music Center, Julian Price Memorial Park and Craggy Gardens. Time your visit to Waterrock Knob with the sun’s sky spectacle.
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5. High Atlas, Morocco
Distance: 342 miles (550km)
A route from Marrakech, Morocco to Zagora on the edge of the Sahara Desert can take you over the High Atlas in the shadow of the mighty Mt Toubkal. At 4167m this is the highest mountain in Morocco and a serious undertaking, but with a guide in summer it is one worth considering, so pack a pair of hiking boots in your panniers.
Your bike route heads out of the mountains via Agdz and on through the Drâa Valley and some of the most incredibly arid scenery imaginable. With travel to Morocco very affordable from anywhere in Europe, this is a route that could give you your first taste of cycling in a more remote and adventurous destination.
Zagora is a great place to take a tour of the desert, by 4x4 rather than by bike, if you want to see the best of it.
6. The Camel Trail, England
Distance: 18 miles (29km)
Once the railway track that linked the south-west to London, carrying sand and fish inland, and immortalised in Betjeman’s Cornwall as ‘the most beautiful train journey I know’, the Camel Trail is now a super family-friendly cycle path.
The trail cuts through some of Cornwall’s prettiest countryside. From Rick Stein’s famous fishing port of Padstow to Wadebridge, it hugs the vast Camel Estuary before heading through the woodland of the Camel Valley and onto Bodmin. The trail then heads inland to the foot of Bodmin Moor, finishing up at the moorland village of Blisland.
The route is mostly traffic-free and includes both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation. The estuary section is especially great for birdwatchers, look out for peregrines, ospreys and mute swans.
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7. Doi Suthep, Thailand
Start: Chiang Mai
End: Doi Suthep
Distance: 11 miles (18km)
A visit to Chiang Mai wouldn’t be complete without tackling the imposing Doi Suthep, located right on the city’s outskirts. The road snakes through dense green foliage as it climbs steeply up the 1600m high mountain, famous for the sacred 13th-century Buddhist temple near its peak known as Wat Phra That.
As you climb, the panoramic views of bustling Chiang Mai are replaced by the tiny hill-tribe villages, which peek from the luscious greenery. The road alternates between steep switchbacks carved into the mountainside, and long, sweeping bends traversing the contours of the land.
Upon reaching the glistening golden temple the road narrows, leaving the tourist buses behind and sneaking into the shadows of the deciduous forest that guards the mountain’s upper reaches. Away from the tourists, you’re left alone to pedal in cool silence to the peak.
8. The Karakoram Highway, Pakistan and China
Start: Islamabad, Pakistan
End: Kashgar, Xinjiang province, China
Distance: 808 miles (1300km)
The Karakoram Highway is a cyclist’s classic. Climbing out of the hot and dusty plains of Pakistan’s Punjab, it weaves a path through a knot of 8000m peaks, before crossing the highest paved border in the world – the Khunjerab Pass (4695m).
Pushing onwards through China’s Xinjiang province, the KKH passes the stunning Karakol Lake (3600m), flanked by mighty Muztagh Ata, part of a mountain range that forms the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau.
Skirting the Kyrgyz border, the KKH’s final destination, Kashgar, is a melting pot of Central Asian culture, renowned throughout the region for its Sunday market. Allow a full month for this challenging ride. In fact, many choose to start in Gilgit (a region also popular with motorcyclists), 373 miles (600km) into the journey. There, cooler temperatures prevail in the Hunza Valley, a region famed for its hospitality, its tasty apricots, and the rich hiking potential that extends within its mountain folds.
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9. Lake Geneva, Switzerland
Distance: 124 miles (200km)
With the French Alps on the horizon, vineyards staggering down to glittering shores and countless petite villages, a spin of Lake Geneva bundles some of Europe’s most sensational scenery into one neat package.
Largely flat and suitable for most levels – families included – the newly-marked, 124-mile (200km) Tour du Léman follows Cycle Route 46. Bidding Geneva au revoir, it weaves largely along country tracks, with views of the lake opening up as you pedal past beaches and hamlets to the Olympic city of Lausanne.
From here it gets incredibly scenic, dipping into the Unesco World Heritage vineyards of the Lavaux, before descending to skirt the lake and take in Vevey, Montreux and the turreted romance of medieval Château de Chillon. The route then swings clockwise back to Geneva, via the Rhone delta and small market towns straddling the French-Swiss border.
10. The Forgotten World Highway, New Zealand
Start: Stratford, Taranaki
Distance: 93 miles (150km)
Following the road carved by early pioneers, The Forgotten World Highway takes in abandoned townships, the ‘republic’ of Whangamomona (don’t forget to get your passport stamped and a photo with the president), rugged countryside and prehistoric landscapes.
Start the adventure in Stratford, named for its apparent similarities to Stratford-upon-Avon, situated below the spectacular snow-capped Mt Taranaki. From here the Forgotten World Highway begins surrounded by farmland, but lush green valleys, raging rivers, wooden-roofed tunnels, narrow bridges and unsealed roads all feature on this route.
Riders will need to be well prepared or travel with a support vehicle, as there are very few opportunities to restock supplies along the way.
Article first published in January 2020, and last updated in November 2020.
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