This past spring, I spent a month bike touring around Europe, hitting four countries: Spain, France, Switzerland, and Italy. The tour was self-supported, with a mix of camping and Warmshowers for accommodations.
After research and recommendations, the route I decided on began in Barcelona, along EuroVelo (EV) 8, the Mediterranean Route. It followed the coast north to Montpelier, France, where the route then switched from EV8 to EV17, ViaRhona. From there, I followed the route north to Lyon, then northeast to Geneva, Switzerland. After a few rest days and exploration, including a hike in beautiful Chamonix, France, I headed south for Italy. The Italian portion included EV5, Francigena from Milan to Parma, followed by more riding in the Emilia Romagna region. The EuroVelo website was a great starting place to help me choose a few broad areas that I wanted to explore. However, the most useful resources were fellow cyclists I connected with mostly through Facebook groups: Women’s Bikepacking & Bike Touring, Bicycle Touring for Beginners, and Bicycle Travelers.
This was an absolutely fabulous tour, with a mix of landscapes, terrains, cultures, and climates. However, as with any tour, there was a huge learning curve. Some days were phenomenal, with perfect weather, easy-to-follow directions, delicious food, and kind hosts. Other days were less than ideal, faced with sketchy strangers, non-bikeable roads, unappetizing foods, and headwinds. The good experiences far outnumbered the bad, but a deeper understanding of this route would have made traveling a bit easier. Thus, I’ve created a guide of the best and worst of my experiences in hopes of increasing other riders’ positive experiences and decreasing unpleasant ones.
No matter what country I was in, I faced a wide variety of road types. Paved, gravel, cobblestone, dirt — these were just a few of the possibilities. One minute, I was on a main highway and the next, a dirt and rocky road where I prayed my tires would make it through without puncture.
Generally, I found that France had the highest percentage of bikeable roads. Most importantly, much of France was designated bike trail or bike lanes. Unlike other EuroVelo routes, I found the majority of ViaRhona to be a designated bike path. While the Mediterranean route portions in France were not designated to bikes only, there tended to be bike lanes on roads with clear signage for drivers to keep watch for cyclists. Additionally, the roads were well maintained, with smooth surfaces and few instances of cracks or holes.
Italy's roads were challenging. Beginning in and around the cities, they are often made of cobblestone, which may look charming but are not very functional for bikes. The large tracks of the trams were also problematic; I took a fall on one when my tire hit it at the wrong angle. Outside the cities, the roads were crowded with bumps, cracks, and holes. While I was able to see some beautiful towns and cities in Italy, I wouldn’t recommend this route for a tour due to the poor road conditions.
Along the ViaRhona in France, I had the least amount of route-finding issues. Whether along the trails or on roads in cities, there were numerous clear signs indicating the route. The Mediterranean route in Spain was not as simple. I was often faced with several road choices without a single sign. This slowed me down, as I was constantly referring to my phone for directions.
Google Maps was the least helpful in keeping me on or near the EuroVelo routes. Komoot and cycle.travel tended to be the most helpful. While cycle.travel isn’t very user friendly, it was the easiest way to determine where I was in relation to the EV routes.
Pinpointing the best weather can be difficult. The month of May mostly proved to be lovely in all regions I ventured. The first half of May was slightly cooler, making midday riding much more enjoyable. Toward the end of the month, it was more important to plan the day’s ride around the heat, starting earlier in the morning and resting in the afternoon.
Arles, France, had the worst weather, lasting a few days until reaching Lyon. The winds in this region are known as the “Winds of Mistral” and are known to blow strong and cold from north to south along the Rhone River. In this section of the route, the ViaRhona (EV 17) followed the river almost directly north, making the ride very difficult. The weather app Windy proved to be somewhat helpful, as it was quite accurate in predicting the time, speed, and direction of the wind. However, the gusts were still largely inescapable. For this reason, many people prefer to complete this route from north to south.
For me, Italy easily wins this category. Specifically, Emilia Romagna is known to be one of the finest regions in Italy for its delicious cuisine. It is the birthplace of well-known fan favorites, including Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, prosciutto di Parma, pasta bolognese, and tortellini. It is also famous for the production of balsamic vinegar, which I was able to see firsthand during my stay outside Modena. Other honorable mentions include pinchos from Barcelona, which are similar to tapas but always served atop a slice of bread. I also never met a crêpe, croissant, or pain au chocolat I didn't like in France — and trust me, I met many.
The food in Lyon, France, was unique, and I am typically an adventurous eater. However, I had difficulty embracing the local fare, like quenelle, a mixture of puréed fish and egg formed into a football-like shape and baked. My lovely hosts made this for me, which I graciously ate despite the odd texture and taste. Other popular items, pâté en croûte and saucisson en brioche, are pâté and sausage, respectively, stuffed inside of a bread, typically brioche. I am generally not a fan of pâté to begin with. I do, however, enjoy sausage, but I found this kind to resemble more of a hot dog. A few other staple foods in Lyon included gateau de foies de volaille (chicken liver), tête de veau (calf brains), groins d’âne salad (donkey snout), and various meat gelatins.
As a young female riding alone, my family and friends were concerned for my safety. I, for one, never had any hesitation. The EV routes are well populated and bike friendly. However, it is always smart to be prepared and to have a plan for how to deal with difficult situations.
In France, I was on a low-traffic but somewhat large road surrounded mostly by farmland. A truck with three men pulled over and dropped off a young female dressed in high heels and a dress. It was about 10:00 AM, and they pulled over to me. One man began speaking to me in French. I kept riding but quickly said I didn’t understand French (I really don’t, so I can’t recount exactly what was said). He attempted to exchange a few more words with me, but this time, I didn’t respond. The car continued to drive at my speed while the man tried one final time to speak with me. I gave him a look of displeasure, and he proceeded to blow me a kiss. Finally, they drove off. I had no strategy or protection if the situation had escalated but luckily it didn’t. Though rare, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations are top of mind, particularly for women, people of color, and the LGBTQI+ community.
I also had many positive experiences with strangers, one, in particular, leaving a deep impression on me. I had strayed far off route and was taken to what Google thought was a backroad but was actually a rest stop next to the highway. I tried to problem solve on my own but realized the mistake would have cost me at least 30 miles of rerouting. I attempted to seek help from numerous people but was having no luck. Eventually, a family on holiday traveling in a camper van approached me. They went above and beyond to comfort me, give me food, and lift my spirits.
The three children, all under the age of 10, took part in helping me too, which really showed what a caring family they were. They decided the best solution was to drive me back to the proper route, 45 minutes out of their way. They helped disassemble my bike and fit it in the back of the loaded RV. On the drive, I got to know the family; I practiced English with the kids and we took many selfies together. Someone recently said to me, “It's not the places you go, it's the people you meet.” This day, I truly felt that.
While the locations I've touched on in this article are specific, the topics can be applied to anywhere in the world. Look into the road conditions you will be experiencing so you know what types of tubes/tires will be best suitable, as well as the general safety and comfort of your riding. Find out how well the trails are signed. Check for weather patterns ahead of time.
Research the area’s foods to see what they are known for and make sure you give them a try. And remember that, at the end of the day, you are responsible for your own safety. While there are wonderful people in the world who might bail you out of an uncomfortable situation, always try to ensure that you’ll be able to problem solve without assistance. Going into a solo tour with that mindset will help you feel more self-sufficient, confident, and prepared for anything that comes your way.