Follow the yellow brick road - Cycling holidays
Now I would never call myself the least healthy specimen of mankind, as I have always taken a more philosophical approach towards keeping the weight off. As I have grown older, I have worked invariably on the basis of ‘look after the pounds and the stones will look after themselves’. In fact, I took my first activity holiday a few years ago, when we sailed off the Cornish coast to go island-hopping. Mrs Merryweather and me took the bikes then and most useful they were too, allowing us to explore Lundy in much greater ease than had we been pedestrians.
Yet, I can recall a most intriguing break that the memsahib and me enjoyed in ‘The Big Apple’. To be fair, it was a bit of a voyage of discovery and it was also before that tragedy in the Twin Towers, however, we discovered that New Yorkers are quite a healthy lot really and, while a lot of them are into skateboarding and those in-line roller skates that I just cannot get the hang of, just as many take their bicycles into Central Park and it was not unusual for us to be overtaken by the same handful of Lycra-clad, ardent enthusiasts, while we were enjoying our first and only lap of the park’s roadways.
Riding New York’s grid
Of course, we did not fly to JFK with our bikes folded up in the baggage. Truth was, we took the opportunity of booking a Holiday Inn in Norwalk, Connecticut, which was a lot cheaper than residing in the centre of New York, which meant that we could traipse along to the coast for the seasidey bit of the holiday, while the lights and clamour of the big city were only a fast transit train directly into Grand Central Station, which is a fabulous tourist haunt in its own right.
In fact, it was on the corner of 42nd and Park Avenue, directly outside the station, next to the Yellow Cab rank, where we were able to rent our fixed chain bicycles and set off to explore the city. They cost a deposit of $25 each, although we received $15 each upon their safe return several hours later. Now that represented great value in my book. Of course, a fixed chain means no brakes (you have got to back-pedal for them, which takes a brief practice to come to terms with), although the bikes were sophisticated enough to have a freewheel, which was great for the slight downhill to Battery Park, where we caught the ferry to Ellis Island and onwards to visit the Statue of Liberty.
Visiting Twin Towers and being surprised to be allowed to take our bikes up the elevator with us, was a real joy, although it did seem odd to park them against the wall, just outside the Windows On The World restaurant, on the 106th floor of Trade Tower One. To boast about cycling to the top of Twin Towers has been part of my holiday memories for the past few years. Riding back up to Park Avenue, we took in the Italian and the very bohemian arts and music quarters, as part of our education. We enjoyed the noise of the streets and stopping where we wanted for a pastrami-on-rye sandwich and coffee. It was magical and highly memorable and, while Mrs M and me enjoyed our second honeymoon, the kids informed us about how jealous they were, so we endeavoured to redress that issue subsequently.
The Scottish play
Taking late teenage children on holiday can be a bit of a bind. However, my preconceptions were utterly silenced during and following our cycling holiday to the lovely Kingdom of Fife, in Scotland. Our trek commenced in the delightful City of Perth, which the locals told me jokingly is also the smallest city in the world. When I asked them why, I was told that it is because the city is located between two inches…North and South Inch, which happen to be expanses of parkland at either side of Perth.
We spent our first night of seven in two rooms of a very comfortable B&B. Both the supper and breakfast were truly wonderful and, as we had been provided with our machines the night before, we were ready to head off nice and early on the second day, working on the basis that we would take a longer look at Perth upon our return. On that first day, we covered a quite decent 30 miles, arriving at Newport-on-Tay for our next overnight halt. The old bottoms were feeling a bit painful but the beds were comfortable and we were raring to go after breakfast the next morning.
While we were offered the opportunity to cross the bridge to Dundee, we decided to remain in Fife and to head to the ‘Home of Golf’, St Andrews, which was around 19 miles ride away. Although we did not require it during our holiday, the tour organiser also provided emergency support, for punctures and incidents. Our 24- speed ‘hybrid’ bicycles were comfortable and sturdy enough, with a level of durability to handle gravel tracks, as well as the tarmac sections of the Fife Cycleway. Of course, our luggage was moved by van from one place to the next by the organiser.
St Andrews is teeming with fascinating things to see, from its ancient monuments and the historical harbour, to its medieval walled aspects. As a major university town it is packed with students and holidaymakers and no trip to the town is complete without riding along the roadway that divides the Old Links Course from the North Sea. It is a fabulous place, well worth a separate visit. However, next morning we had to endure the long uphill climb towards the county’s East Neuk and the villages of Crail, Anstruther (‘Ain-ster’) and Pittenweem. The countryside around here is gorgeous and you can forget the old stories about it always raining in Scotland, because we never experienced a drop….which means that we were probably quite lucky.
We stopped at The Smugglers Inn, at Lower Largo, for a spot of lunch and received the complete Alexander Selkirk story that had inspired the tale about Robinson Crusoe. Delightful and true. Our fifth day was the longest section of 38 miles, which we took in our stride quite readily, as we headed through the village of Ceres, with its Folk Museum, before an early evening arrival in Aberdour, famed for its Golden Sands beach. As a measure of how used to our bikes we had become, we even rode out in the evening down to the harbour area, to see the lights of Edinburgh, across the River Forth. Both bridges were just visible to the west.
Our penultimate day involved a 25 miles ride from Aberdour to Kinross, past the tranquil shores of Scotland’s only inland, tidal, freshwater lake, Loch Leven. Surrounded on two sides by the West Lomond, Bishop and Benarty hills, it is very picturesque. We did pay a brief visit to Dunfermline, which was where several of the kings and queens of Scotland were crowned. It is a fascinating town. Our final day involved the return to Perth via the ancient Burgh of Falkland, complete with its Stuart hunting palace and castle ruins.
The ride into the hills above Auchtermuchty was quite arduous but there was a sense of completion as we headed into the Tay Valley and returned to our starting point in the ‘Fair City of Perth’.
We actually stayed for an extra night in Perth, before heading back home but both of the children declared their total satisfaction for the cycling tour. We all felt pleasantly exercised but none the worse for our adventuring and instead of the more customary sleepless nights in strange hotels, we all slept soundly, as much due to our exertions, as anything else. At a cost of around £475 per person, including all luggage shifting, I believe that our cycle holiday represented moderate value for money.
Of course, travelling into Europe does present a wide range of cycling opportunities in each country. In truth, the only limiting factor is your own imagination, because there are either companies prepared to provide you with all of the necessary services, the bikes and full support, or you might decide to take your own wheels and plot your routes to suit your strengths and capabilities. Naturally, it does pay dividends to know and understand the European equivalent of our Highway Code, as there are some priorities given to bicycles that we do not have in the UK. Apart from the obvious safety items, such as reflectors, helmets and lamps, there are some idiosyncratic rules worth learning about.
The Vienna Convention prohibits the transport of passengers on bicycles but enables the agreeing parties to authorise exceptions. In some countries, the transport of a passenger is allowed only if he is under a statutory age limit (for instance, 14 years old in France) and if the cyclist himself has a minimum age (do not ask me, those are the ‘rules’!).
Germany has added new elements to its traffic code for cyclists recently. They are allowed to ride contra-flow in selected one-way streets, while in so-called ‘bicycle streets’ cyclists may make use of the whole street, whereas cars have to stay behind the cyclists. As in some Scandinavian countries, cycle tracks in Germany can be made compulsory only if they meet an appropriate minimum quality standard, otherwise cyclists can choose not to use them.
Some national legislations insist that cyclists can only ride on a road after a certain age. In Switzerland, a cyclist must be at least the legal age to go to school before he can ride on a road (do not ask!). In Denmark, children under the age of 6 years are not allowed to ride alone, unless they are escorted by a person who is at least 15 years old. In Germany, children must be at least 8 years old with the same provisions as in Denmark. In Poland, children over 10 years old must have passed a test to be allowed on a public roadway.
It is terribly confusing but it is worth having a look or asking some questions before you start cycling in Europe.
Getting there: travel to your destination then either rent, or use your own bicycle to commence your holiday. There are several bike trekking specialists, both in the UK and abroad, which can provide you with all necessary equipment, or various levels of support packages. levels of fitness: while it will help if you are not on medication, or if you struggle for breath after taking just a dozen steps, bike riding is wonderfully low impact on the human body, even though its effects have positive longer term implications. It might take a day, or so, for you to become accustomed to riding a bike and saddle soreness is an inevitable side effect.
Equipment required: although even safety equipment can be hired, if you want to be comfortable, take your own ‘skid-lid’ and anti-chaffing creams. Flexible footwear is preferable but check out your local sportswear supplier for cycling shoes and even light kid gloves, to cut down on blisters.
www.awayfromthecrowds.com, www.holland.com, www.bike-eu.com, www.freedomtreks.co.uk, www.freewheelholidays.co.uk, www.scotcycle.co.uk
www.cyclescotland.co.uk, www.hookedoncycling.co.uk,www.trailbrakes.co.uk, www.zenithholidays.co.uk
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you take a cycling holiday.