That moment when you first learn to balance on a bike has to be similar to how a bird feels learning to fly. When you're four or five years old and the training wheels come off, fear has been replaced by possibility.
Many of us have done the college tour of hostels in Europe or perhaps a grown-up weekend getaway to Paris. But biking trips through lesser-explored regions of Europe are becoming more popular as travelers seek to not only immerse themselves in the culture, but also pursue personal goals of health and a feeling of accomplishment.
A European bike tour at its best is rolling hills and roads that hug lakes, mountains and fields. Castles and vineyards rise and fall in the distance as hill climbs give way to exhilarating, breezy rides down. The reward after 15, 30, maybe 45 miles a day of riding? A great dinner and a glass of local wine to soothe sore muscles, and trading stories with fellow riders.
As you read, the 2012 Tour de France is under way and leaders have emerged in the cutting-edge race. Armchair viewers wince at the tortuous mountain climbs and breathe sighs of relief at easy downhills. Riders are pedaling toward an always epic finish line on July 22 on Paris' Champs-Elysees.
Bradley Wiggins, left, celebrates on the finish line with teammate Michael Rogers of Australia after becoming the first Briton to win the Tour de France on Sunday, July 22, in Paris.
While it's possible to follow parts of the Tour de France route, the best routes for amateur riders have little traffic, great beauty and minimal hills. It's best to have at least some experience on a bike, but each of these companies can help you better gauge what level of ride is right for you. And don't worry -- there's always back-up support, complete with a van, in case you need it.
Check out these five tours for miles of beautiful amateur riding:
It seems travelers dream of Ireland more than other countries, perhaps because so many have roots there. The Ireland that we seek can be found on its Western Coast, and biking it gets you deep into the country. And of course, to pubs for a pint or two.
"The Irish are renowned storytellers, but nothing tells the story of Ireland better than cycling the breathtaking landscapes of the West Coast. From the soaring Cliffs of Moher to the atmospheric peat bogs of Connemara National Park, the wild heart of Ireland is one of the most rewarding cycling trips in all of Europe," said Lauren Hefferon, who founded Ciclismo Classico in 1989.
The tour takes you to Galway, the rocky land of the Burren, the live music capital of Doolin, the stunning Aran Islands and to unspoiled Connemara.
Priced from $4,295 for 8 days/7 nights.
On September 11, 2001, the New York offices of Robert Reimann's company, Sherpa Corp., were destroyed in the terrorist attacks against the United States. Reimann decided to explore the Middle East on a solo bike trip to Iran, and his inspiration for BikeSherpa was born.
"There's no better (or more fun) way of traveling than by bicycle," he said via e-mail.
The Dresden Germany Bike & Beer Tour takes riders along the car-free Elbe River bike path, the most popular bike path in Germany. The itinerary includes stops at quintessential "biergartens" and cafes, with other visits in historic but lesser-known cities like Dresden, Meissen and Pirna. Reimann maintains a close relationship with hotels and local guides, which helps him keep prices fair while offering great accommodations, he said. For beginners, there is the option of using an e-bike with a motor and rechargeable battery that helps you climb hills if you need it.
Priced from $1,598 for 6 days/5 nights.
Trek Travel was born from Trek Bicycles, which was founded in 1976 and is now one of the more popular bike retailers in the world. Trek Travel says that traveling by bike allows you to become part of a region rather than just moving through it, and it offers bike tours all over the world, including itineraries in Latin America, Europe, North America and Asia.
The Provence Explorer tour celebrates a slower pace of life, with a cooking class after shopping at a local market, and riding through sweeping French landscapes. For those wanting an extra challenge, there is the option to climb Mont Ventoux, a mountain made famous by being part of the Tour de France.
Priced from $2,795 for 6 days/5 nights.
For the amateur cyclist, the island of Mallorca in Spain is close to perfect -- easy rolling seaside roads, little traffic and a temperate, sunny climate year-round. Plus, many of the world's best cyclists have pedaled the island, where more than half of the roads are designated cycling routes.
DuVine Adventures' Mallorca trip takes riders on these roads, through orange groves, small villages and romantic countryside.
"The terrain on Mallorca is diverse, which makes it perfect for couples and families, as there is something for everyone," said owner Andy DuVine.
This tour involves stays in exceptional hotels, including La Residencia in the foothills of the Tramuntana mountains, where Richard Branson has been spotted, and Cap Rocat, a former military fortress that now overlooks the Bay of Palma.
Priced from $4,995 for 6 days/5 nights.
Touring the Danish Isles by bike is a natural fit for travelers, as cycling plays such a big role in Danish culture.
"The numbers tell it all: Out of 1.2 million residents, roughly 500,000 commuters choose to bike to work each day in Copenhagen! The infrastructure seems as if it were custom-made for cyclists. Some of the bike lanes are as wide as car lanes," said Ron van Dijk, director of European operations for Austin-Lehman Adventures.
This tour takes riders to palaces, castles, museums, beaches and gorgeous mountain vistas with stops in Copenhagen, Helsingor, Svendborg and Faaborg and multiple opportunities to interact with the famously friendly Danes.
Priced from $3,998 for 8 days/7 nights.