Some people like to relax on their summer vacations. Some like to stay active. And yet others seek out invigorating, adrenaline-pumping, even grueling holidays that test their endurance and deliver the ultimate in thrills.
If you’re in the last group, read on.
Adapted from Lonely Planet’s The Bikepackers’ Guide to the World, the itineraries below will test your mettle as they take you up, down and across Europe. The payoff? Sublime views, superb training and the endless pleasure of taking the road less traveled. (In this case, way less traveled.)
So gear up – and get ready for some continental-scale adventures.
1. Trans Dinarica Trail
Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Hercegovina
758 miles (1220km); challenging
The multi-use Trans Dinarica Trail was designed by local enterprises to encourage visitors to explore the Western Balkans by bicycle, and currently covers Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina. It’s a sister trail to the Via Dinarica hiking route, which extends into Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia. The Trans Dinarica starts in Slovenia’s Soča Valley, famous for its water sports, then rolls through the foothills of the Julian Alps beside the Italian border before dipping into Croatia for a foray into the forests of Risnjak National Park. Next, it shadows the Adriatic before a transfer takes riders across the border and into Bosnia & Hercegovina, where it visits Mostar and Sarajevo.
2. Ronde van Nederland
860 miles (1384km); easy
Holland’s long-distance cycling routes, known as LF routes, are an easy way of exploring this cycle-friendly nation. Most use traffic-free bike paths that are wide and well made. Some of the classic trips include the LF Kustroute along the North Sea and Wadden Sea coastlines; the popular LF Zuiderzeeroute around an inland sea and through national parks and historic towns; and the LF Vechtdalroute linking quiet Dutch villages. But put some of the LF routes together and you get this fantastic 860-mile (1384km) circuit of the Netherlands. Dunes, dykes, canals, sculptures, megaliths, polders, towns and villages feature. Completing the Ronde van Nederland earns riders a special certificate.
3. Iron Curtain Trail
Distance varies; moderate
EuroVelo’s EV13 route, the Iron Curtain Trail follows that great geopolitical fissure from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea, through Norway, the Baltic nations, Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria and beyond to Turkey. It’s not yet complete but will cover more than 6214 miles (10,000km) when finished. However, the German section is mostly signposted and ready to ride. The history of the Iron Curtain means that there are some fascinating sites to visit along these quiet roads and bike paths. But if you want to get further off the beaten track, consider the Iron Curtain Gravel Trail, a 426-mile-long (685km) trail crafted by Markus Stitz that runs from the Harz mountains to the Czech border (maps available via komoot.com).
4. Tour du Mont Blanc
France, Switzerland & Italy
105 miles (169km); challenging
File this trip under “do now, while you can.” Climate change is causing the glaciers of the High Alps to melt, which means that the stability of these mountains is changing and, increasingly, that trails such as this loop around western Europe’s highest peak are diverted or closed due to rockfalls and other dangers. But while it’s possible, the Tour du Mont Blanc is a fantastic challenge for mountain bikers, who need only carry enough kit for three or four nights spent in refuges. Most start at Chamonix and will enter three separate countries on their ride. They’ll also cross rivers, climb several passes above 6500ft (1981m) and eat their own weight in pastries.
5. Torino-Nice Rally
Italy & France
435 miles (700km); challenging
Beginning life as an annual bikepacking rally – a noncompetitive group ride – designed by James Olsen, this gorgeous route explores some of the lesser-known Alpine regions between Turin in Italy and Nice in France, and can be ridden at any time between late June and early September when the higher parts are free from snow. Riders take a mixture of rough gravel tracks and trails, with some road diversions available if needed. Bikes are usually hardtail mountain bikes, but gravel bikes with chunky tires will also be fine. And accommodation can be in some of the mountain refugios on the route or under canvas, depending on preference. There’s a lot of ascent, obviously, so most need eight or more days if stopping to savor the views and the local food.
6. Great North Trail
825 miles (1328km); challenging
Snaking north from England’s Peak District National Park to the tip of Scotland, the Great North Trail touches on some of the UK’s greatest cities and its wildest open spaces. This is a mountain-bike route for experienced cyclists if attempted as a single trip, but it’s easy to break it up into sections. The first leg borrows the Pennine Bridleway, which hugs the ridge of hills between Manchester and Leeds before entering the patchwork of stone walls and green fields in Yorkshire Dales National Park. The route then crosses the open moors of Northumberland National Park, and heads into the Scottish Borders at the mountain-biking hub of Peebles before visiting Edinburgh and Glasgow and taking on the real mountains of Scotland on its way to John O’Groats.