A reader writes:
My question is (having done two longer bike trips on really nice bike trails in Europe, the Danube and Loire) – is this kind of easy, road-free, relatively level trip available OUTSIDE of Europe? I’m not so interested in the US, I know there’s a couple (the canal trails, etc). But in other parts of the world.
Thanks for the question! As usual, there’s a short, simple answer, followed by a long and rambling discussion. Bear with me!
The short version is that if you’re looking for packaged trails for cycle touring – that is, branded, signposted, popular, well-documented, traffic-free cycle routes covering long distances – you’ll struggle to find more than a handful outside of Europe and North America.
One of the easiest ways to visualise this geographic bias is to look at a website called Waymarked Trails. As the name suggests, this is a world map derived from OpenStreetMap – probably the most important crowdsourced map in existence – that visualises cycle routes that have been physically waymarked (or signposted).
According to OpenStreetMap, here’s what the (partial, Eurasia-centric) map of the global cycle route network looks like at the time of writing:
You can see the rest of the world via the Waymarked Trails interactive cycle route map.
Does this map surprise you?
Honestly, having spent a few years of my life exploring the world on a bicycle, I should have expected it to look something like this.
But I was still shocked to have it demonstrated so clearly how much of the planet has zero large-scale cycling infrastructure. And, all the while, the number of private cars and paved roads worldwide continues to grow at a dizzying rate – the very thing that has people like you and me searching ever harder for traffic-free cycle touring routes.
But we can also use the same map to identify long-distance cycle routes beyond Europe and the USA.
Even without zooming in, we can see nationwide route networks in South Korea and Taiwan, and less extensive but still substantial routes in Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, and even tiny Singapore. These developed East Asian economies now have sufficient demand for recreational infrastructure, and they’ve wasted no time in catching up with the West.
Relevant anecdote: Last year a friend of mine and his family of four rode several sections of the riverside cycle touring route network in South Korea (now much more extensive than when it was launched as the Four Rivers Bike Trail), and came back raving about how well organised and convenient it all was.
Wandering down through Australasia, there’s plenty of cycle touring to be done on official routes in New South Wales (some of which I rode last year, though it wasn’t all traffic-free) and Victoria (a fellow reader recommends the Murray to Mountains and East Gippsland rail trails), as well as Tasmania (the Tasmanian Trail) and both main islands of New Zealand, though these latter routes are unlikely to be very flat!
(It’s worth mentioning that at smallest scale, ie: zoom level, the Waymarked Trails map will only display international- and national-scale routes. Regional and local routes would be too dense and crowd the map, so zooming in will often reveal a more extensive network of cycle routes at the local level.)
This kind of digging around has reminded me that many newer long-distance, traffic-free, recreational cycle routes make use of the embankments and cuttings left by dismantled railway lines. Also known as greenways, voies vertes (French), or vías verdes (Spanish), rail trails can mainly be found in developed countries where large-scale railway dismantlement has taken place to make way for roads, cars, and other systemic consumers of fossil fuels. There’s a long (but probably incomplete) list of rail trails on Wikipedia.
I’m not suggesting that you interpret lines on a map or Wikipedia listings as guarantees that these are cycle touring routes you’d definitely want to ride.
While the Donau Radweg/Danube Cycleway is spectacularly well implemented (along most of its length), anyone who’s followed a few National Cycle Routes in the UK will know that official designations do not necessarily correspond to high-quality riding experiences. The longest traffic-free cycle route in the UK is just 33 miles (54km) long.
Similarly, while riding the New South Wales Coast Cycleway was a lot of fun, it has a fair way to go before reaching the extremely high standards set by the much more mature European river routes you mentioned, with plenty of road riding and several segments on which I felt genuinely unsafe.
What I am suggesting is that you use the ideas above as starting points for further research.
And whatever routes do pique your interest, you’re sure to find trip reports from riders who’ve done them before, probably on CrazyGuyOnABike.com or an independent blog.
Incidentally, seasoned riders might have noticed that a number of very well-established long-distance cycle routes seem to be missing from the above maps.
Among the more glaring omissions are the routes published by the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), a long-running and highly regarded US-based organisation. My understanding for this is that not all of these routes are waymarked or otherwise institutionalised along their full lengths, hence don’t meet OpenStreetMap’s guidelines for inclusion as physical infrastructure.
Does this mean they wouldn’t provide the kind of cycle touring experience you’re asking for more of? Of course not – people have been riding and refining these routes for decades and continue to do so today.
The point is that – in addition to “official” routes – you’ll also find a universe of community-created routes.
These may offer just as pleasant an off-highway cycle touring or bikepacking experience as official routes do (in some cases more so).
The aforementioned ACA routes are one example of this, dating back to a time before the widespread dissemination of digital maps and route resources to the portable GPS navigators in everyone’s pockets.
At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find community-developed cycling routes springing up in entirely digital form, with not a scrap of paper, signpost, or coordinating body behind them. As much as I find it hard to resist poking fun at the faddish, gear-obsessed nature of the “bikepacking scene”, one thing it does have is a genuinely dedicated subculture of route prospectors who work tirelessly to envision, design and trail-test new, long-distance, off-highway cycling routes around the globe, covering the full spectrum of riding styles and levels of challenge. The Bikepacking.com route collection is a good place to start.
Going beyond routes created by human riders, we are currently witnessing the rapid rise of algorithmic route generation.
This is when a user of an app or platform like cycle.travel specifies a few simple criteria and an optimised route is dynamically generated, using available map data to match the rider’s preferences.
Indeed, I’m sure there are tech advocates in the mobility field who’ll argue that this will result in physical navigational infrastructure for long-distance recreational routes becoming obsolete and irrelevant, much like road signs in the sat-nav era. (I disagree, but that’s a topic for another post.)
The riding experience on routes that have been generated, rather than designed, is still a bit hit and miss, but is likely to improve in correlation with the quality of the mapping data and the algorithms themselves. I’m a Patreon supporter of Richard, the creator of cycle.travel, and it’s pretty interesting reading his behind-the-scenes notes on how platforms like this are developed (although I am admittedly a total nerd about such things).
Let’s also remember that the map of institutionalised bike routes isn’t static.
Some of today’s most popular routes began informally, developed over time, and eventually became officialised through the combined efforts of local supporters, forward-thinking government officials, and of course whatever funding bodies stumped up the cash.
This process continues today. I was recently in south-east Turkey and came across a newly signposted network of biking routes spanning the Teke Peninsula (website in Turkish only) which have yet to be added to the map. And the previous year I was at a trail development conference in Skiathos, many of whose delegates were from organisations in the process of building long-distance bicycle trails in regions until now devoid of such infrastructure.
That’s right: there are global conferences for people designing and building exactly the kind of trails you want to ride. Who knew?
In short, I suspect you’ve asked something of a time-sensitive question!
Give it a generation and I confidently predict that – under the combined pressure of increasingly inhospitable roads, growing demand for sustainable transport choices, evolving approaches to public health policy, and spread of adventure tourism to developing destinations – the ways in which cycle tourers identify and follow routes that meet their criteria will look very different to today.
And please forgive the rambling speculation – but then perhaps that’s what sets this blog apart from the oceans of search-engine-optimised spam we seem to spend our lives wading through these days.
I hope at least the first half of my answer will come in useful!