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Cycling in Europe – A Few Cultural Differences

I've lived in England all of my life and cycling has been integral to a large portion of what I have done since being a young boy. In the UK we have many fabulous places to indulge in our desire to ride bikes either on or off road, with miles of country lanes and trails etched into the landscape. I've had some wonderful experiences cycling all over the UK; but there's always a yearning to head off and ride in mainland Europe or beyond. (picture - Vendee, France)

Cycling seems to be something that has a far greater presence in people's lives within mainland Europe than it does for us here in the UK. It's embedded into the culture of many countries. This is so readily visible by the number people of all different ages that I've seen when out riding during trips, ranging from families using bike tracks to ride together in a traffic free environment, to weathered veterans in the mountains.

The many cycling events across Europe have a strong appeal, and when the challenge is extreme, this is recognised and respected. The attraction of the events is not just to ride, it's also to watch and encourage. This was something also mentioned at a cyclo-cross photo exhibition and talk that I had the good fortune of attending recently. For example, in Belgium, cyclists will be household names, a little bit like the football stars of the UK. Cycling is also a sport enjoyed by the masses from a viewing perspective, not just a participation sport. Although cycling in the UK is definitely growing beyond a participation sport, we are still a little behind our continental friends!

Coppi / Bobet memorial, Casse Deserte on Col D'Izoard (French Alps)

As cycle racing has been present for such a long time, the sportive type events seem to be quite readily accepted as simply an extension of this in Europe. When either participating or watching these rides, I've never picked up on any bad feeling from the locals caused by the inconvenience of crowds or road closures. From a personal perspective, I've been cheered and encouraged whilst contending with damp slippy cobbled climbs in Belgium, and experienced the same when riding up Alpe d'Huez the day before the Tour de France peloton was due to head up that famous piece of road. The atmosphere on Alpe d'Huez had a real party feel about it. It's hard to imagine how intense it must feel for the pro-cyclists riding up the climb on race day. It's unfortunate that instances of the fans being a tad exuberant do crop up, from time to time.

Emma, Col D'Aubisque, French Pyrenees 

As riding the bike and being close to the sport is part of so many people lives in Europe, cycling has become part of the landscape architecture. The presence of cycling can be as subtle as photographs of local racers hung on the wall of a tiny bakery, to colourful ornate bikes or sculptures permanently positioned in the villages and mountains, such as on the summit of the Col d'Aubisque in the Pyrenees. For the cycling enthusiast visiting Europe, part of the thrill is to be able to actually ride the roads or visit the places that have been made iconic by the races and Grand Tours. So few sports create this opportunity for the fans (or "tifosi" as they are known in Italy). The challenge of the races exposes the athletes to intense rivalry, terribly hard days on the bike and even tragedy. All of this has led to glory, intrigue, and sadness being woven into cycling's fascinating history. 

When visiting the Southern Alps we rode the climb up to Pra Loup, infamously known as the mountain on which "Merckx cracked" during the 1975 Tour de France. In the Dolomites it's fabulous to ride descents which you may see in the Giro. The likes of Nibali and Sagan make it look so easy!

Tragedy in the sport is thankfully infrequent, but it's symbolised and honoured with memorials at the roadside. Towards the summit of Mont Ventoux you can see Tom Simpson's memorial, where many people stop to pay their respect; it's lined with empty bidons. The memorial to Carsartelli is in a quiet area of the Pyrenees, where a crash tragically ended his life. The descent where this happened is narrow, steep and twisty. When riding this road, it's easy to understand how even the best riders in the world can unfortunately get caught out, in the heat of the moment.

Marco Pantani Memorial on Passo Mortirolo (Italian Alps)

I find the life of a professional cyclist hard to imagine. The training and travelling must be exhausting. The star riders reap the financial rewards, but have to contend with the pressure and expectations. Another example of cycling tragedy would be the case of Marco Pantani, which still makes the cycling headlines, even today. There are numerous memorials within Italy that serve to honour him. If you ever take on the narrow and brutal Passo Mortirolo, maybe take a moment to admire the steel sculpture of Pantani that decorates the side of the road, part way up the climb.

Mountain biking is contributing to the presence of cycling and being part of the countryside landscape. This is something that is developing here in the UK and in mainland Europe. In the UK this may be less obvious, as our mountain bike trail centres are generally tucked subtly into the hills and woods, and the tracks weave through trees. Over the last ten years I've watched mountain biking become more prevalent in the ski resorts of the Alps, with riders using the lifts to reach the many trails. It's been great to see this development, and fun to see the heavily clad mountain bikers on burly bikes, tackling the challenging terrain. Riding my mountain bike in the Alps or one of the other mountainous areas is something I'd love to do in the future. 

I have so many fond memories of my time on the bike. Some real highlights of the bike trips that Emma and I have done in recent years range from enjoying the buzz created by Vincenzo Nibali and team Astana turning up at the summit of the Passo Fedaia whilst on a training ride, to seeing a young boy who could hardly reach the pedals of his bike, being cheered by his family as he reached the top of the Passo Giau. Then there is the fulfilment of achieving personal goals, such as riding the route of the Maratona with Emma last summer.

Team Astana on training ride in the Dolomites 2013

I would like to think that the words and pictures within this arictle, albeit brief, go some way to highlight a love of cycling and the fabulous experiences that it allows us to create and enjoy. I've got so many great memories from cycling here and abroad, it would be wrong to try and say that one is better than the other; but I think it can be said that mainland Europe does provide a different on-bike experience. So if the opportunity arises for you to cycle in mainland Europe, I really recommend you to give it a go, exploring the wide and varied cycling cultures around Europe, both on road or trail. Cycling is all about the freedom to explore - really explore, up close Maybe by doing more of this, we can begin to embed a brighter future for our own cycling culture, making it more part of our daily existence.  

If you do take a trip to Europe, maybe we'll share a climb sometime!

Emma and I also have our own cycling blog/website, so feel free to check it out.

Grant Williams & Emma Tang