I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate the completion of my first triathlon than with a week-and-a-half vacation to Ireland and Scotland. Of course, I also couldn't think of a better way to fall off the fitness wagonhardthan with 10 days of riding in buses, sitting in pubs, and sampling (read: gorging myself on) the local food and drink specialties.
Thank goodness for bike rentals.
Yes, if it weren't for the rusted, clunky mountain bikes my boyfriend Anthony and I rented for an afternoon in Scotland, our vacation exercise would have consisted largely of raising glasses of Guinness to our lips and stretching in rest-stop parking lots during long bus rides. We walked a lot, sure, but not nearly as much as we ate. And after experiencing such a high following my triathlon the previous week, I was itching for some real physical activity.
Choosing a bike-friendly destination
This wasn't the first time I've rented a bike on vacation: When I spent a weekend in Italy two years ago with a friend, we spent one day cycling through Chianti country with a tour guide and about 10 other bikers, stopping for lunch and wine tasting at a vineyard.
And when Anthony and I visited the tiny island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, over winter break last year, we ended up renting bikes for the entire week instead of a car (thanks to procrastinationevery car rental place on the island was sold out!).
When I think back on those two trips, riding through the countryside or along sandy beach roads are among my favorite memories. With bikes, we were able to travel greater distances than on foot, and we saw sights we couldn't have seen with a car. Plus, we never had to worry about finding a parking space or paying for gas.
So when I started planning our summer trip to Ireland and Scotland, I knew I wanted to find a place we could really explore by bike. We chose to spend a few days in the major citiesDublin and Galway in Ireland, and Edinburgh in Scotlandbut I also searched my guidebooks for more rural areas with good bike routes.
Rainy weather for the first half of our trip thwarted our plans to bike (or do much of anything outside, unfortunately) in Ireland, but by the time we got to Scotland, the forecast had brightened. We took advantage of the first sunny day on the Isle of Arranknown as "Scotland in miniature" because, at just about 55 miles around the perimeter, it's possible to cover the whole coastal road by car or bike in a day or twoby going for a short hike and then checking out some bikes from the local rental shop.
Hill workouts burn major calories
After completing a 25-mile bike ride in New York City in just over an hour and a half during the triathlon, I thought the lazy, winding road along the island's coast would be a piece of cake. Boy, was I wrong: The hills in the Bronx are nothing compared to the mountainous terrain of Scotland's isles, and we quickly realized that the steep uphill climbs were going to slow us down considerably.
At one point we even had to get off our bikes and walk them up the longest, tallest hill when cutting back across the middle of the island. I was quite embarrassed and unhappy with myself (I just finished a triathlon, for Pete's sake!), until we got to the top and could see just how high we really were.
We ended up riding hard for four hours, with just a few water or walking breaksand we only covered about 36 miles. I'm not sure how much total distance we covered vertically, but the tallest point was about 770 feet above sea level, according to a map from the Arran Bike Club.
But here's what shocked me: According to Health.com's interactive calculator, four hours of light cycling burns almost 1,289 calories. Four hours of mountain biking? 1,824. No wonder we stuffed ourselves on Isle of Arran cheese and beer after returning the bikes! (No, we weren't technically off-road mountain biking, but I think the hills we climbed took about the same amount of exertion.)
Next Page: How to plan a bike vacation [ pagebreak ]
How to plan a bike vacation
Once again, the gorgeous countryside and the peacefulness of being out on the open road was a highlight of my trip. We laughed for hours about the hilariously noisy cows and sheep we encountered, and I will always remember the amazing ocean views and the feeling of exploring such uninhabited parts of the island.
I realized on the way home that I've started a bit of a tradition, and decided that I'm going to try to make every one of my vacations include at least an afternoon of bike riding.
Not every vacation is ideal for biking, of course, but most popular tourist destinations have some type of resources for bikers. Even big cities like New York offer bike rentals and bike tours (and quieter places to ride, like the city's riverfront promenades, Central Park, and the surrounding suburbs). Here are a few ways to get pedaling on your next trip.
- Research your options. Travelhacker's list of top 50 biking vacations is a great place to start if you don't have a destination in mind already.
- Search for routes. If you want to check out popular bike routes near your vacation destination, visit the city's tourism website or call local bike shops.
- Consider local vacations. For U.S. destinations, check out Bicycling.com's trip planner, where you can type in an address or a general location (I tried "Catskills" and "Myrtle Beach, SC") and get mapped-out suggestions that have either appeared in the magazine or were submitted by other readers.
- Look for guided or self-guided tours. A simple Internet search for "bike vacations" brings up countless companies (such as Bicycle Tuscany, the one-day tour company I used in Italy). For multi-day trips, the organizers will often send your luggage ahead by car each day to your new destination, so you're free to enjoy the ride without too much weighing you down.
- Pack and plan ahead. If you're renting, find out before you go whether your bike will include a lock, a water-bottle holder, and/or a basket or place to hold personal belongings. It might be worth taking along a small backpack with a hydration bladder to carry supplies, food, and water. (All responsible bike rental businesses should include a helmet.)
- Get creative. Beaches and family resort towns often rent tandem bikes for couples, large surreys for bigger groups, or beach cruiser bikes for use on the sand.
- Know your skill level. A leisurely bike ride can turn ugly quickly if you head out on a path that's too challenging for everyone. Ask ahead about the elevation and terrain, and make sure everyone in your group is comfortable tackling the route in the amount of time you've allotted.
- Take safety precautions. Have a plan for fixing flat tires, check the weather forecast and time of sunset ahead of time, make sure someone knows your approximate cycling route, and carry a cell phoneespecially if you're riding off-road or in areas without a lot of people around.
- Dress comfortably. This one seems obvious, but after setting out on what was supposed to be a leisurely ride around the island, I won't make that mistake again. Invest in a pair of padded bike shorts if you're riding long distances, or at the very least something that won't rub you the wrong way after a couple of hours in the saddle. And dress in layers if the weather is cool enough: You'll tend to overheat on uphill climbs and quickly get chilly when racing downhill against the wind.
- Don't forget your camera. You'll see things along a bike route that people in cars will often miss, or at least won't stop to enjoy.
Have you ever rented a bike on vacation? What cycle-friendly destinations do you suggest? I've got to start planning my next trip, after all!