Whether it's an annual cycling holiday or a one-off, once in a lifetime trip, there's nothing quite like tackling a proper, one of the world's great long-distance cycle routes.
Planning it out, packing, weighing, and then repacking your bags; Googling "cycle routes near me" and trying out your rig on a local cycle path; then unpacking, re-weighing, and repacking all again when you realise you've taken far more gear than you could ever possibly hope to manage - it's all part of the fun. And that's before you even set off on the adventure itself.
As for where to go, well, there are lots of factors that feed into that decision. Time, money, equipment, experience level and fitness are all obviously crucial. There's no point setting off to cycle across the Sahara if you've only got five days of annual leave, and a rusty old road bike from Halfords.
The ten routes we've listed below cover a range, from a short route across the UK, to a 600-plus mile trek through the Himalayan plateau. What connects them all, is that they all pass through scenery that is truly spectacular. So if you're planning on a cycling holiday to tackle one of these routes, whatever else you pack, make sure you take a camera. You won't regret it.
Nova Scotia's Cabot Trail, Canada
LENGTH: 185 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Take a hiking break on gorgeous coastal trails.
Heaven in a road trip. This 185-mile route snakes all around the edge of Cape Breton Island, the most easterly point of Nova Scotia, in Canada. It's named after John Cabot, the Italian explorer who was the first European to sail to continental North America since the Vikings centuries earlier. (If you're thinking that John Cabot doesn't sound particularly Italian, you're right - his real name was Giovanni Caboto, but he used the anglicised version to make things easier for his patron and sponsor, the English King Henry VII).
Cape Breton itself is a wonderful wild place, where whales frolic in the ocean, and bears and moose roam the woods. The undulating - but not unduly challenging - coastal road passes through pretty clapboard villages that all boast excellent pubs - and yes, in Nova Scotia they call them pubs, not bars.
Pack your camping kit in your panniers - once you're in the National Park, you can bed down at a series of lovely state-run campsites in the woods. The local river, the Margaree, hides secret deep pools that perfect for a post-cycle swim, or if you're looking to rest the legs, a day off in a kayak.
BOOK IT: FreeWheeling offer a six-day guided ride for £1,640 including food, accommodation and rider support.
Coast to Coast, UK
LENGTH: 140 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: A tough, rewarding climb up Hartside Pass in the North Pennines, often called England’s last wilderness.
If the very thought of a gruelling Lands’ End to John o’Groats down the length of Britain makes your thighs ache, try a shorter but no less epic bike tour across the width of England instead. The three-day, 140 mile Coast To Coast route (also called the Sea to Sea route) meanders through some of England’s wildest landscapes.
You'll pass through both the Lake District and Peak District National Parks, so you can expect some pretty serious climbs, but the views from the top of each mountain pass will more than make up for the leg-burn taken to get up there.
Start in Whitehaven to the west and ceremoniously dip your back wheel in the sea, then hit winding roads through the Lakes and Peak District and on to Tynemouth in the east, camping, bivvying or staying in B&Bs along the way. If you're fast, you should be able to complete this inside two days without too much effort, but some people take up to five - and why not, the scenery is more than spectacular enough to merit lingering over.
BOOK IT: Trail Bikes offer a two to five-day cycle from Whitehaven to Tynemouth from £240, including accommodation, luggage transfer and rider support.
Garden Route, South Africa
LENGTH: 124 OR 469 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Plan your cycle between June and and you might spot migrating humpback whales from your saddle, or go in March to join a leg of the Argus Cape Town cycle tour race.
An iconic road trip, South Africa’s much-loved Garden Route is even more rewarding when conquered on two wheels. It doesn’t wind through manicured gardens, if that’s what you’re thinking – the route is so named for the gorgeous indigenous forest surrounding it as well as the deep gorges, blue lagoons and secret coves it passes, a landscape that is constantly changing, even over just a few days of riding.
Ride from Mossel Bay in the west to Storms River in the east for a relaxed 124 mile potter, or start in Port Elizabeth and head to Cape Town for a challenging, seven-day ride over 469 miles. There are so many beautiful places to stop off that it can be hard to know where to start, but make sure you plan on spending at least one night in Knysna, where wetlands and rainforest meet the ocean. This is long distance cycling at its absolute best.
BOOK IT: Bike Adventures offer a two-week Garden Route cycle for £2,295 including all food, accommodation and rider support.
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Alps to Ocean Trail, New Zealand
LENGTH: 180 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Riding through the spectacular moorland of Mackenzie Basin, ringed by snow-capped mountains.
New Zealand’s cycling revolution is seeing scores of new routes opening up, and the wild landscape of the islands becoming better setup up for cyclists of all types. The Southern Alps have always been great for mountain biking, and Rotorua is, of course, a global hotspot for the sport. But increasingly the infrastructure has been put in place for long distance cycle touring too.
The longest and arguably best trail in the whole country is the enticingly-named Alps to Ocean, a jaw-droppingly beautiful cycle from the mountains that run down to spine of South Island to the Pacific. It passes Lake Pukaki, the majestic Mount Cook, and more locations from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than you could shake a bike pump at. The route itself is a mainly flat and smooth trail with some road segments, and thus suitable for beginners.
If you're looking for long-distance cycle routes with incredible mountain scenery that you don't have to work too hard to conquer, they don't come much better than this.
BOOK IT: Pure Trails New Zealand offer two six-day rides, one of easy and one of medium difficulty, from £1170 including rider support, food and accommodation.
Coast to Coast, Costa Rica
LENGTH: 290 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Pedalling miles of relaxed beachside roads and stopping for fresh, locally-grown coffee in the mountains.
There’s no landscape more lushly rewarding than Costa Rica, and if you can handle the heat, it’s best explored by bike. The Coast to Coast cycle path takes in rainforest, volcanoes and coastline on its way from San Jose, on the Pacific side to Tortuguero on the Caribbean. You'll cross over the 3,400 metre-high Cerro de la Muerte pass and meander through the coffee and banana plantations of the Orosi valley, making this simultaneously one of the best cycle paths on this list both in terms of diversity of landscape, and metres climbed.
If you're new to cycling, we're probably recommend starting elsewhere however. This is a tropical treat of a trail, but a tough ride if you take on the Cerro de la Muerte (literally, the ‘Summit of Death’), so it's one for cyclists with a decentlevel of fitness.
BOOK IT: Exodus offer a 15-day coast to coast ride from £3,599 including flights, food, accommodation and rider support (this misses out the taxing Cerro de la Muerte climb).
Arizona Trail, USA
LENGTH: 800 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Some of the sections of this already-challenging route call for technical mountain biking – an amazing wild ride if you’re fit enough. Arriving at the lip of the Grand Canyon on your own steam will fill you with pride.
Imagine 800 epic, car-free miles stretching across the state of Arizona, reaching from Mexico in the south west to Utah in the north. That’s the AZT, one of the greatest long-distance cycle trails anywhere in the world.
It links mountains, forests, the Sonoran Desert and the Grand Canyon, and is only passable in the friendlier temperatures of spring and autumn - in the summer it's simply too hot. The route is almost all singletrack, and calls for a decent mountain bike - and a decent level of mountain biking skill - to master it. Some of the sections get quite seriously technical, so this is one cycle route that's definitely not for beginners.
There are some campsites, but most of the time you’ll be wild camping out in the desert with just your bike for company. The incredibly clear night skies are wonderful for stargazing. One for the hardiest of bikers.
BOOK IT: If you’re an experienced bike packer you’re best off taking on the AZT solo, so you can set your own pace. Bikepacking has an excellent guide to riding and camping along the route.
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Lhasa to Kathmandu, Tibet and Nepal
LENGTH: 621 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Cycling into Everest base camp is a tough but unforgettable experience.
Cycling across the Tibetan Plateau from Lhasa to Kathmandu is an awe-inspiring experience. The 621 mile cycle route winds over five major passes above 5,000 metres as it follows the backbone of the Himalayas, so you'll definitely want to spend a few days getting acclimatised to the altitude before you set off.
The rewards however make all the the lung-busting climbs worth it a million times over. You'll pass monasteries and temples where prayer flags flap in the wind, ride through steep-sided valleys, and stare up at impossibly beautiful mountain vistas. You really are on top of the world, and when you've caught your breath, you'll feel like it too.
Riding to Everest Base Camp itself is a major cycling challenge - the road climbs almost fifty hairpin bends over the Pang La Pass, but up at 5,150 metres you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views of Everest itself, before a marathon downhill cycle to Nepal.
BOOK IT: Red Spokes offer a 19-day ride from £2,995, including accommodation and rider support.
Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietnam
LENGTH: 572 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Cycling past the bizarre karst formations and thick jungles of the Truong Son mountain range.
If you want to get under the surface of Vietnam, this newly constructed and mostly traffic-free highway down the spine of the country is the perfect way to do it. The original Ho Chi Minh Trail was, of course, the route that Viet Cong guerrillas used to smuggle arms and supplies into south Vietnam, on the Laos side of the border. But this route stays firmly in Vietnamese territory.
If you opt to ride it with Spice Roads, they'll lead you on takes you through farms, orchards and tribal villages as well as to the spectacular caves of Phong Nha and the ancient royal seat of Hue. This is also a sobering ride - you’ll ride through the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and pass Khe Sanh combat base, where relics of the Vietnam War are exhibited. These days the trail is peaceful, quiet and endlessly beautiful, following tracks through green forest and the misty mountains of Truong Son .
BOOK IT: Spice Roads offer an 11-day ride including accommodation, food and rider support for £1,628.
Camino de Santiago, Spain
LENGTH: 480 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Leaving the Castillan plains behind and climbing up to the famed cross on the Monte de la Cruz de Ferro.
A pilgrim’s route since the middle ages, the 480 mile-long Way of St James meanders along the whole top of Spain and through the green mountains of Galicia on the way to Santiago de Compostela. There are multiple possible routes for so-called bicigrinos to follow, but the well-signposted Camino Frances is the most famous - beginning in Roncesvalles and pitstopping in Pamplona, Burgos and Leon on the way to the west.
The mountains offer exhilarating downhill rides and the rolling green valleys of Galicia are a breezy joy on two wheels. Cyclists can camp or stay in traditional pilgrim’s hostels called albergues.
BOOK IT: Mac’s Adventure offer an eight-day cycle from Leon to Santiago from £625, including accommodation and rider support.
The Hebridean Way, Scotland
LENGTH: 185 MILES
RIDING HIGHS: Spot eagles, dolphins and wild ponies.
Is this the most dazzling cycling route in Britain? Take the high road – literally – by following this terrific trail along the length of the Outer Hebridean archipelago, from Vatersay in the south to Lewis in the north. No fewer than 10 glorious islands to cross mean there’s always more stunning scenery around the corner, plus an excuse to have a whisky on every one you tick off...
Following part of National Cycle Network’s route 780, this is an easy one to follow even if you’re navigationally-challenged. You’ll pass gorgeous white sand beaches, wild moorland, the Calanais Standing stones and Kisimul Castle. Just watch out for the weather and pack plenty of insect spray for the midges!
BOOK IT: Ticket to Ride Highlands can provide bike hire, panniers and transport, prices on request (from £120 for hybrid bike hire and £70 for transport per person per week).
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