Getting out and about on the road bike is one of the best ways to spend a couple of hours at the weekend. But why end it there? With cycling mini breaks now easier to do than ever before, it’s time to switch the local coffee run for some of the finest roads the UK and Europe have to offer. Our friends at RoadCyclingUK have selected some of the best cycling destinations that are easy enough to hit-up on a weekend, and still be back in the office first thing on Monday morning.
Haute Route Stelvio
Carved into the Italian Alps, the ‘Passo dello Stelvio’ is the highest paved pass in Italy and one of the highest in Europe. Rising to 2,758m and boasting 48 gloriously breath-taking switchbacks, it’s no wonder the Stelvio pass has become a bucket-list climb for many cyclists, and a chosen location for one of the Haute Route’s three-day events.
Add delicious local cuisine and Bormio’s natural spas into the mix, and you have everything you might possibly want from a mini-break destination. Is this the recipe for the ongoing success of the Haute Route three-day events? Almost certainly.
But don’t let the three-day label lull you into a false sense of security; taking in this towering mountain, not once, but twice, the Haute Route Stelvio is not to be sniffed at. Throw in the Mortirolo, the Umbrail Pass and the Gavia for good measure and suddenly, it is everything that you would expect from an Haute Route experience.
“I don’t think that you would ever leave one of our three-day events saying ‘ah that was a walk in the park,’” says Julie Royer, the Haute Route’s Event Development Manager, as we chat after the first stage. “It was only 84km today, but you look at the finish line and it could well have been 150km because the proposition was huge.” And she’s not wrong.
The highly-strung weather, typical of an Italian mountain range, gave way to a stormy setting during our first approach towards the Stelvio Pass from Bormio, and marked a rather cold and wet descent as we veered left towards the Umbrail Pass 3km from the summit. At the base of the mountain in Prato, a river offered some refreshment in the humidity but didn’t last long as we wound our way up the second climb of the day – another humbling ribbon of road much celebrated by the cycling media.
Riding a handful of the world’s most renowned climbs alongside the support of the official cars, the Mavic crew and the medical team – all of whom are well-rehearsed in supporting pro-level athletes through the Tour de France et al – the Haute Route Stelvio allows you to fully immerse yourself in the life of a professional cyclist.
The infamous Mortirolo takes centre stage on day two. With an average gradient that sits above 10% and never drops below double figures, this whip-cracker of a climb was most affectionately referred to as the ‘queen climb in Europe’ by Herrera Lucho in 1951. There are a couple of ways to approach the summit; the path taken by the Haute Route from Mazzo is that which famously bears a nod of recognition to Marco Pantani in a statue of his form, and has been enjoyed (or feared) by other pros during the Giro d’Italia. Another bucket-list climb ticked-off the list and an incredible view from the top as well.
Throughout the three-day format, the DNA of the Haute Route is clear: elevation; distance; breathtaking routes steeped in history. “The people who are looking for the challenge are right there where they need to be,” Royer explains. “What we are providing is the support to get them there. If they want to do it in three hours, we’ll be there. If they want to do it in seven, we’ll still be there.” The offer to join the sharp-end of the peloton is there: the Haute Route is both timed and ranked. But the three-day events allow for a certain level of curiosity to be sated among those cyclists who might be either intimidated or time restricted by the Haute Route’s original seven-day format.
Ultimately, the sense of challenge, excitement and, most of all, achievement remains. This shorter format can better facilitate those who aren’t looking for pure sharp and pointy – but instead want to soak up every moment of this life-changing experience. It’s ideal for those who don’t have the luxury of time to train, or simply because they just want to give it a go and see what happens.
Whatever your motivation, I can guarantee the Haute Route Stelvio will leave your heart singing – and quite possibly your legs, too. The Haute Route runs three-day trips everywhere from the Mavic Rockies to Alpe d’Huez; from Oman to Ventoux. For more information on the Haute Route Stelvio, go to hauteroute.org
For a UK-based adventure, swap your local loop of the Surrey Hills and make the pilgrimage to the Lake District. The Lakes are rightly recognised as a cyclist’s playground, with challenging ascents, stunning scenery and beautiful roads all available on tap.
Set off on any of the area’s rolling, stone wall-lined roads and you’ll soon find yourself in the heart of the countryside – a far cry from the City’s busy streets. Forests, fields and lakes will fly by in a blur, with the only breaks coming in the form of quaint little villages, which are perfect for a mid-morning coffee.
If you’re looking to test yourself, then you’ll be in the right place. The Lakes are home to a number of the UK’s toughest climbs, with Kirkstone Pass, Honister Pass, Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass being the best (and hardest) of the bunch. If you had to attempt just one, then the 1.4-mile Hardknott Pass includes near-vertigo inducing ramps of 33%. Your legs might not thank you, but just think about the kudos you’ll get on Strava.
When you think of cycling destinations, the area just north of the Brecon Beacons might not immediately spring to mind. Isn’t it all sheep-filled fields and rain?
Well, the county of Powys (pronounced pow-is) is actually home to some amazing undulating terrain and only around four hours from London. And, if you’re lucky, the weather might even behave itself too.
Make a base in the small town of Rhayader (home to the most pubs per capita in the UK, and therefore the perfect place for some post-ride refreshment), and venture out in a south-westerly direction to find yourself on the Devil’s Staircase. The 25% ascent is the first of three back-to-back climbs sure to get the lactic acid flowing, but the views out across the Irfon valley are beautiful enough to completely take your mind off of it, while the downhill parts are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
After a quick bite to eat in Tregaron, complete the loop back to the start, again riding through valleys, up switchbacks and down hair-raising descents – the sort of roads that a Top Gear location scout dreams of.
The Catalonian city of Girona is Europe’s most on-trend cycling destination, and it’s easy to see why. While Girona is home to more professional cyclists than you can shake a bike pump at, riders of all calibres are spoilt for choice when it comes to the terrain, while the medieval old town’s restaurant and nightlife scene is good enough to make it a must-visit destination in its own right. But you’re going for the cycling, of course.
Jump on a bike and ride east to reach the beautiful Costa Brava coast, or if you’re looking for a challenge, then head north towards the Pyrenees. At just under six miles in length, the Rocacorba on the Puigsou mountain is a key training climb for the cycling world’s local stars. Starting in the lakeside town of Banyoles, the road rises almost 2,500ft before it reaches the summit, where you are treated to panoramic views of the lush mountain ranges below.
With direct flights available to the city from London and ideal riding temperatures year round, what are you waiting for?
If you want to take on a famous Tour de France climb during a weekend away, then you’d be hard pushed to find one more iconic than Mont Ventoux. The 6,122ft summit in the south-west of France has been tackled 15 times in the world’s most epic cycling race since 1951, with Chris Froome the fastest up the mountain in 2013 – the year that he claimed the first of his Tour de France titles.
Getting to Ventoux is a little bit more effort than reaching some of the other locations on this list – the closest airports of Marseille, Montpellier or Grenoble are all a couple of hours away by car – but it is definitely worth the drive. Stay at the foot of the mountain in the small commune of Bédoin for access to great roads and the starting point of the best (and toughest) of Ventoux’s three climbs.
As you make your way up the mountainside, you’ll climb out of a pine forest and into a pockmarked, lunar-esque landscape. Keep on aiming for the iconic radar tower in the distance, but beware of the final round of energy-sapping switchbacks that are hidden from view.
Ah, the Cote d’Azur. Home to sun for 12 months of the year, a generous smattering of testing cols, and beaches that make a great spot for a (whisper it) rest day.
With the airport just a 15-minute taxi from its centre, the port city of Nice makes a perfect base from which to explore the region. It also has plenty of museums, galleries, restaurants and bars to keep you (or your significant other) occupied when not on the bike.
All that cultural stuff is just a sideshow for the main event though – the riding. Start with a coffee at Café du Cycliste’s shop-cum-cafe on the port before hugging the coastal road all the way to the glitz and glamour of Monaco. If you fancy testing the legs, carry on towards the Italian border until you reach the historic town of Menton – the starting point of the climb of Col de la Madone. At a touch over eight miles and with an average gradient of 7%, expect it to take close to an hour to reach the summit. That big effort is definitely worth it though, just for the views at the top – c’est parfait.
Northern Italy is renowned for its alpine climbs and warmer summer climes, but tackling some of the Giro d’Italia’s most brutal ascents isn’t necessarily everybody’s idea of a great weekend getaway.
Just south of the region’s biggest mountain peaks lies Verona, a historic city with an airport that has direct flights from the UK, making it a great base if you want a variety of different rides during your stay. If you’re looking to take it easy, a 20-mile ride west lies Lake Garda, where it is possible to follow the rolling lakeside road and take in the stunning views as you spin from one town to the next.
But if you do want to test yourself, Verona definitely has pedigree on that front, too – it hosted the 2004 road cycling World Championships and is home to one of the area’s biggest gran fondos (Italian sportives), Alé la Merckx. Otherwise, head north towards the village of Erbezzo and tackle some of the region’s long, winding ascents, stopping-off at the top for a quick espresso and epic views across the valley below.
Find out more about cycling mini breaks and discover an array of other destinations at roadcyclinguk.com