Cycling vacations in the UK

“There is something uniquely charming about cycling in the English countryside,” muses Harvey Downard from our vacation partner Cycling for Softies.

“At certain times and places you get a real connection with history, riding past ancient churches in peaceful villages, along roads that look like they’re thousands of years old” says Harvey while talking about their vacations in Sussex and the Cotswolds. “I grew up in Sussex; other members of the team grew up in the Cotswolds. Our youths were spent cycling on these roads – we know the areas so well.”

One of many reasons why the UK is renowned for cycling vacations is that there is such a wide variety of options. If you’re in the mood for challenge, there are long-distance epics featuring big climbs and speedy descents. If you want a more laid-back center-based trip, perhaps for your family, then places like Devon have flat traffic-free terrain in abundance. And for those who like the thought of languid pedalling through the English countryside followed by a little luxury in their accommodation, the Cotswolds and Sussex South Downs will prove tempting.

“We like to think of our trips as guilt-free decadence,” says Harvey. “You burn some calories in the day and then you have free rein to enjoy food and wine in the evenings. For us, it’s not just about the bike. You’re on vacation first and foremost.”

On responsible cycling vacations, you’re not simply zipping through with the occasional slurp of energy drink. You’re taking your time, pausing to delve into the local food and drink, have a chat with the person at the pub table next to you, and really connect with the places you’re passing. And in many cases, these are routes that have been carefully arranged by people like Harvey with their own long-standing connections to the area, so you can set off with complete confidence.

What do UK cycling vacations involve?

Small group tours vs tailor made tours

If you love the social side of things – perhaps you’re traveling alone or new to cycling vacations – then a small group tour is a good fit for you. And if you’re confident to head out on your own, or like the idea of adding a rest day and a few excursions here and there, then a tailor made trip could be the better option. Either way, you would find it hard to get lost. Small group tours are led by experienced guides, while tailor made trips come with comprehensive route notes, easy-to-understand maps, and often a GPS device too that will hint at nearby points of interest.

Point-to-point vs center-based

On a center-based cycling vacation you will stay in one or two places throughout, with daily rides spoking out into the surrounding area. These can be quite leisurely affairs, and if you’d prefer to have a day out of the saddle then you can do so. Point-to-point vacations are typically long-distance and more challenging, such as the North Coast 500 in Scotland or riding coast to coast on the Irish Sea to North Sea route. As part of a small group, you can expect to notch up a good distance every day. A support van will usually shadow the group, carrying luggage between accommodations. If the weather is appalling or you fancy a rest for a while, you can jump in.

Can I bring my own bike?

In most cases a good quality bike will be waiting for you on arrival, simply because that’s the easiest way to do things. But there’s nothing to say you can’t bring your own, and some companies can also help you get it transported if you’re coming a long way. Bike mechanics will be on hand to help you make any necessary adjustments – you might want to bring your own helmet and gloves, though.

How fit do I need to be?

The amount of exertion you need to put in depends on the type of vacation you choose. Daily distances and gradients, as well as terrain and traffic levels, will vary greatly from a gently paced jaunt around the South Downs to a small group traveling from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. In the main, though, all our cycling vacations aim to keep you on car-free or routes that see minimal traffic.

“We use the quietest roads we can in Sussex and the Cotswolds,” says Harvey. “The most low-traffic routes that are still practical. In Sussex, for example, you’re on country lanes for 80 percent of the time and cycle paths for 10 percent.”

On a long-distance trip, you will usually be accompanied by a support van, so if you do fancy a rest, you can easily grab a lift. If you want cycling to be the focus of your vacation, but not the entirety, then consider a tailor made or center-based trip, so that you can have a rest day whenever you want.
Electric bikes (e-bikes) are becoming popular with cyclists who want a little extra oomph at their disposal – it’s like someone giving you a bit of a push. The batteries are easily removed and can be charged overnight at your accommodation.

“We include e-bikes as standard, as these trips in the Cotswolds and Sussex are a little longer and harder than our regular trips,” says Harvey. “You have a little computer on the handlebars that you use to set how much assistance you want. It feels like a normal bike but just ever so slightly heavier, and the battery gives you a slight boost when you’re pedalling. Otherwise, it’s just like riding a normal bike. The battery lifespan depends on the terrain, but 80-90km in Sussex is the norm so you needn’t worry about running out of charge.”

Where will I be staying?

One of the best aspects of UK cycling trips is that you can stay in out-of-the-way places, often locally owned, that don’t have the capacity to host large groups. You’ll get a real sense of the area that you wouldn’t get from a high-end hotel that could be anywhere in the world.

So it might be Highland inns in the Cairngorms, historic guest houses, a farm that has won awards for sustainable tourism in Devon, spa hotels in the Cotswolds or Sussex that include a few treatments during your stay.

“On our Hebrides cycle and sail vacations we use the Flying Dutchman, a traditional schooner with 10 double cabins that’s very comfortable and spacious,” says Gordon Steer, manager at our partner World Expeditions. “Think of it like a ‘boat-el’. You have the luxury of not having to pack and repack constantly even though you’re sailing to different places constantly.”

Accommodation will usually be on a B&B or half-board basis, and our partners will work with properties that offer locally sourced food and drink whenever they can.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about UK or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Where to go on a cycling vacation in the UK

“My favourite ride in Sussex is a round-trip we do early in the vacation, during which you can do some wine tasting and have lunch at an award-winning pub,” says Harvey Downard. “Then it’s a lovely ride back along the South Downs.”

The South Downs National Park is Responsible Travel’s backyard, we agree that this is one of England’s best regions for cycling. And when we say this is a cycling vacation, the emphasis is definitely on the vacation. You can sail along peaceful country lanes, coastal paths and riversides, between vineyards, castles and tea rooms, and stay at a succession of relaxing spa hotels.

There are cycling tours of the Cotswolds ranging from four to eight days, so you can really get the most from one of the most attractive parts of England. The already forgiving hills here can be made even easier with the addition of an e-bike. That will allow you to roam the Cotswolds’ open hills, wooded valleys and charming villages – including Bibury with its weavers’ cottages, Bourton-on-the-Water and Lower Slaughter – with no danger of running out of puff.

Clotted cream teas, locally produced cider poured in thatch-roofed pubs, quiet trails along old railway tracks – Devon is great for cycling vacations, especially for families exploring the riverside Tarka Trail and sand dunes in the North Devon Biosphere Reserve.

The Isle of Wight is similarly easygoing, for the most part, offering a mix of town and country (and no need to fly, with regular ferries from Portsmouth). With half the island designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, you can expect some lovely viewpoints along the way.
There are plenty of long-distance cycling vacations in the UK. Land’s End to John o’ Groats, the Great Glen Way, the Irish Sea to the North Sea and the North Coast 500 are classic point-to-point routes that can all be completed in a week or so.

“The Great Glen route is really about completing a classic, historical journey point to point from Fort William to Inverness, the two most well-known towns in the Highlands, through some wonderful countryside,” says Gordon Steer. “There are many highlights, but the lock system is a pretty special feat of engineering that I always find really interesting to see.”

Cycling is the ideal way to admire Scotland’s national parks: the Cairngorms, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Smooth, quiet roads take you around lochs, castles and plenty of pubs and cafés where you can pause for a breather. There will be some long days of up to 75km and big climbs of up to 3,000m elevation gain. But with a guide illuminating Scotland’s wildlife, geology, culture and history as you go, it will never feel like hard work.

Off Scotland’s west coast, you can tour the wildlife-rich Inner Hebrides by boat and bike. “Our trip here combines adventure and cruising, which I think is a great way to vacation,” says Gordon Steer. “The idea of bike and boat is a really unique experience anyway. Add to that a spectacular part of Scotland and the fun of getting around under your own steam. and what’s not to love?

“You’ll be cycling 20-40km each day, fully guided. There will also be time to do a bit of exploring on your own in each port, if you like. I’ve done similar trips in Holland, Croatia and Greece, and I love the idea of getting onboard and not having to worry about anything because all the time-consuming logistics are done for you.”

Other options for cycling vacations in the UK include a week of guided mountain biking in North Wales, a scenic trip around Cornwall that requires decent fitness as the wind can be strong on the coast, and an epic two-week road cycling adventure that encompasses the entire nation: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and also a hop across the border into Ireland.

Best time to go cycling in the UK

As you’re going to be outdoors for much of the time, spring and autumn are the best time for UK cycling vacations. You can be reasonably assured that you’ll get decent weather for at least some of the week between March and October, and in the peak summer months of July and August, classic routes through popular cycling destinations such as the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District can get extremely busy. But this is the UK, of course, where weather predictions are the basis for so many conversations. Pack hoping for sun and assuming it will rain, and you should be alright. And if it does start to tip down unexpectedly, either jump into the support van if you have one or make for the nearest pub, which is rarely far away in the UK.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: © Sam Knight] [Intro: Phil and Pam Gradwell (to be)] [Small group tours vs tailor made tours: Tejvan Pettinger] [How fit do I need to be?: Tejvan Pettinger] [Where to go on a cycling vacation in the UK: Paul Stevenson] [Best time to go on a cycling vacation in the UK: cattan2011]