As the memory of the Christmas pud fades and the credit card bill starts to shrink to manageable proportions once again, it’s the time of year when riders’ minds start turning to some fun riding.
Two comments recently struck me. Someone commented that they can’t enjoy riding in the UK any more and cited the heavy police presence on the fun roads, and someone else said there were no good biking roads in the UK. The second question was asking about “alpine style” roads in the UK.
I suppose the first point comes down to whether or not your buzz is speed. It’s something I’ve said before but if you’ve got a bike capable of 150mph (and most sports 600s these days will get there or thereabouts) then it’s tempting to want to exploit the performance of the bike. I’m not going to get on a high horse and say “too crowded, menace to society” or any of that kind of stuff, but realistically the Nurburgring is about the only place you can get your jollies without looking over your shoulder.
I agree that 60 or 70 on a sweeping A road is pretty boring, so if you can forego speed and ignore the temptation to twist the throttle, why not instead enjoy the technical challenge of a road that thoroughly tests bike and rider at reasonably legal speeds? For instance, the A470 / A44 over the mountains from Rhayader to Aberystwyth is usually regarded as a biking favourite. But in truth, it’s only really much of a challenge at speeds that are usually well over the limit. Do most of it at 60 and suddenly those bends are fairly gentle.
However, just a few miles away to the south runs one of the most challenging roads in the UK – the Tregaron mountain road from Llanwrtyd Wells over the Devil’s Staircase. It’s mostly single track, goes over a number of bridges that are so low they can turn into fords and the Devil’s Staircase itself is a series of 1:4 hairpins. If you think a 100mph sweeper is challenging, then try those! The other bonus of the lower speed is that you have time to look around and enjoy the scenery!
I’ve done that road many times on a bike and only rarely do I see another rider – get out of the rut and give it a go. It only takes a look at a decent scale map to dig out some excellent technical challenges up and down the country. Take a look at some of the B roads running over Exmoor or to the east of Dartmoor for example.
Alpine-style roads are a bit more difficult to find in the UK, although not surprisingly if there are mountains on the map, you’ve a better chance of finding them. The Western Highlands offer some excellent roads, and there are some more in Wales.
Cumbria has some good technical roads too. Whinlatter Pass is one of my favourites. Buttertubs in N Yorks is great fun. Zig Zag hill in Dorset is a great hairpin road, and there are some others tucked away in the same area that are a good ride. Even Kent has some good hills round Wye and up onto the Crundale Downs. It’s just a matter of looking at a map.
However, there is more choice over the water. As it happens, if you are in daytrip range of France, you can find a good solid day’s riding on hilly roads within 30 miles of Calais – I use ’em for bike training
A bit further off, the Ardennes and Taunus regions between Luxembourg/France/Belgium and Germany offer some good riding on relatively quiet roads. Certainly within reach of an extended weekend.
There’s some excellent riding in the Monts de Cantal in the volcanic country of the Auvergne and down into the Ardeche. The Gorge de l’Ardeche is one of my all-time favourite roads. You could just about do that in a long weekend too.
The Vosges and Schwarzwald look good on the map, but in fact are a bit of a disappointment. It’s often thundery in the summer (in my experience anyway), and the trees restrict the views.
Further east, I’ve just scratched at the Harz mountains to the south-east of Hannover. It’s a fair distance to get there, but the riding I did was good and the roads were reasonably empty at easter.
If you want the big mountains, I’d take the Pyrenees over the Alps, every time. Switzerland and Austria are busy countries and tho the traffic levels are not as high as here except on the lower passes, there is a fair amount of lorry and coach traffic on them because most Alpine passes from those two countries run North / South into Italy and so carry cross-border traffic. Having said that, there are some crackers like the Stelvio/Stilferjoch between Italy and Austria, the Timmelsjoch and the Grossglockner. The weather can be miserable on the north side too, even in mid-summer. Italy and Swiss Ticino south of the Alps is sunnier and much warmer.
The French end of the Alps if you stay away from the Swiss border region and the Trois Valleys is a lot quieter and there are some great roads in that region or crossing into Italy. Col de Bonette, Col d’Iseran and Col Agnel. Also Col de Tende.. that was the one Fastbikes used to crash on every year.
The Pyrenees are warmer (can be too hot low down in July/August), much drier 3 seasons of the years and if you avoid the Pasa de la Casa (or turn back at the top and avoid the dreadful traffic jam that is Andorra) you can ride absolute classic passes like the Aspen, Peyresourde and Tourmelet for days on end with hardly a car in sight, much less a truck or a coach. It’s a couple of days each way if you’re not going to blast the autoroute, but the Pyrenees are worth it.
Two final suggestions.
If you want the boat to take the strain, you can sit on a ferry and enjoy a beer or three whilst you are carried across the Bay of Biscay direct from the UK to northern Spain. Whilst some people prefer to ride down the length of France, my idea of fun is not 24 hours on an autoroute. The ferry takes just over a day either way and surprisingly the time goes quite quickly with a decent buffet meal and a good night’s kip in the small but comfortable cabin. Once you debark into Spain, the mountains of Cantabria are deserted, a biking paradise, and the Picos de Europa are absolutely stunning. And I’m told a few miles further south once you’ve cross the plains behind the mountains, the riding gets even better.
If you really do have riding time in hand, and have the funds, consider Corsica. I’ve only been there once, years ago and it has got busier. But the road around the north-west coast of the island will keep you busy for hours, and there is a mountainous interior to explore. In the four or five days I was there, I barely scratched the surface of what the island had to offer.