Every road cyclist aficionado has dreamt of watching the Tour de France first hand...or at lease we have. To see the riders zip past, cheer and jeer them on the steep climbs, and also feast on local cuisine; all blended together this makes for one freaking amazing vacation. Or at least it can. The crowds at the world’s most prestigious cycling race can drive a person to madness, and finding lodging can be life or death. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some races out there that are just as competitive, but off the beaten path? Well, lucky for us cycling fans, there is no shortage of road races on the calendar. In this article we have compiled 15 races that are less crowded, intensely competitive and located in absolutely beautiful places. We’ve skipped the preeminent grand tours, as in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Españia, because you already know about the big ones. Each and every race on this list would be a great event to wrap into a vacation. Why not kill two birds with one stone? Take an outrageous vacation and catch a famous bike race along the way.
15. Tour de Suisse.
Dates: Early June
The Tour de Suisse is a multi stage race and a major precursor to the Tour de France. The race is always scheduled just before the Tour de France and is packed full of the top teams and riders as they gear up for the major event of the year. It’s a very exciting race to watch because of its proximity to The Tour, but it’s also exciting to watch because it takes place in Switzerland, on some of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world. All the races on this list are fantastic locations to bring along a road bike to ride, but the Tour de Suisse might just warrant the accompaniment of a mountain bike. The singletrack in Switzerland is phenomenal. It’s similar to the ski scene, where you can spend all day making your way from one mountain town to the next. Some of the descents from town to town measure in the tens of thousands of vertical feet…plus there’s cheese fondue waiting for you so you can après with the best of them.
Dates: Early April
Paris-Roubaix is a one-day road race starting just to the north of Paris and continuing nearly up to the Belgian border. It’s one of the classic series of “Monuments” races on the European road calendar and has been running annually since 1896. What makes Paris-Roubaix unique is the road, which features several prolonged stretches of rough cobblestone. Holding a road bike race on these roads is like racing Formula 1 cars on a backwoods dirt road. The cobblestones are so rough that the race is quite often decided by who can survive to the finish line. Flat tires and serious mechanical failures are so pervasive, that bike companies have designed bikes, wheels and components specifically for this demanding cobblestone course. For example, the Trek Domane Road Bikes - Call for Availability from Skiis & Biikeswas engineered from the ground up to deal with the rough cobbled roads of Paris-Roubaix. A few of the top riders have even written off this race because of the punishing and unpredictable cobblestones. But if you want to see some of the more adventurous professional riders struggle along some amazing French country roads, Paris-Roubaix will not disappoint. We can easily rate this as the roughest road in professional road racing.
Dates: Late April
First held in 1892, Liège-Bastogne-Liège began as a publicity stunt for the newspaper L’Expresse. Since L’Expresse was a French newspaper in Belgium, the race takes place in the southern—French speaking—half of Belgium and runs from Liège to Bastogne and back again. Another installment of the five European “Monuments” races, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the oldest on the calendar. The 253km race takes a fairly straightforward route to Bastogne, but crosses several intense climbs in the final third, making for one absolutely grueling day of racing. Although this might be rough on the racers, the round about course is great for spectators, who can easily watch the start and finish, which is somewhat of a rare occurrence when it comes to these long road races.
12. The Tour of California
If you’re looking for a prestigious road race closer to home, the Tour of California has you covered. In 2006 the Tour of California was upgraded to a 2.HC category race, the highest UCI classification, which is on the same level as the Tour de France. The race takes place over the course of a week and passes through some of California’s most iconic sights including: redwood forests, wine country, the Pacific Coast and the Sierra Nevada foothills. The list of sights to see along the way goes on and on, so if you’re looking to combine a bit of cycling with sightseeing, this is a great way to get more out of a trip to California. You won’t see too many Italian riders in the Tour of California, since it overlaps with the Giro d’Italia. This was a deliberate choice as the organizers of the race wanted to make the Tour of California into a classic precursor to the Tour de France. And if you like a little irony in your bike race, the Tour of California is rife with it. The title sponsor of the race is Amgen, the company that manufactures Erythropoietin—commonly know as EPO.
11. The Volta a Portugal.
The Volta a Portugal is a major national stage race that has declined in importance over the last few years because it’s scheduled immediately after the Tour de France, and before the Veulta a Españia. You might not see the top teams or riders in the peloton, but you also won’t have to battle the same inflated crowds. If you’re looking for a major road race but want a much more mellow experience in a rather rugged countryside, check out the Volta. Portugal has an amazing coastline and produces some very delicious and unique wines. This race is somewhat overlooked, much in the same way Portugal isn’t the most popular vacation destination, but that’s what makes it so attractive. Quite possibly the most underrated national tour, in a very affordable location.
10. The Tour of Utah.
The Tour of Utah is pretty wild. Although it’s a rather young race and doesn’t hold an overly prestigious UCI ranking, it claims to be America’s toughest stage race. The intense heat and lofty altitude make the race an intimidating test of endurance. You will see some top tier professional teams at the Tour of Utah because of its high level of difficulty—you’ll also see a few more amateur teams struggling to hang on. It makes for an amazing destination race because Utah has absolutely unbelievable geography. The race rolls right through some of Utah’s more iconic landmarks, and puts spectators in the middle of some of the best mountain biking in the world. If you want your vacation to include deserts, slick rock, and crazy geological formations in addition to a major road race, you know where to go.
9. The Tour of Estonia.
What do you know about Estonia? There’s a lot more to this Baltic nation than one might think. It’s the most wired nation in the world, and hosts a unique clash of Scandinavian and Russian culture. Estonia is a highly developed nation in an area of the world that isn’t seen as a major tourist destination. None of us at the shop have been to Estonia, but judging by the architecture, this three-day stage race in and around the capital city of Tallinn would be the perfect way to get acquainted with the country. It’s these places that are off the beaten path that make for the greatest and most surprising discoveries. The Tour of Estonia offers the perfect venue for exploring Estonia as most of the stages are held in urban areas and the finish line is also the start line. There’s no need to chase the peloton all over the countryside.
8. The Vuelta a Andalucía.
This regional multi-day stage race tours around the autonomous region of Andalusia, Spain. The race was founded in 2005 and is a stop on the UCI Europe Tour. Go for the race, stay for the absolutely shocking beauty of Andalusia. The region is in the South of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea, including the northern side of the Straight of Gibraltar. Andalusia has a very unique and diverse history. The region has been heavily affected by both local and foreign influences including: Ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Byzantines, and Muslims. What is now a somewhat poor economic zone is fabulously wealthy in Moorish architecture and quintessentially Spanish culture. It should come as no surprise that it can get very hot along the Costa del Sol, so be prepared to sweat in this beautiful place.
This six-stage race was first started in 1933 as a promotion for two French newspapers—you might notice a pattern here, there are lots of road races that began as newspaper promotions. Although the stages of Paris-Nice change every year, the course tends to stay out of serious mountain passes (due to snow) and sticks primarily to the lower Rhone valley. The entirety of the race takes place in some of the most stunning parts of France, which sounds somewhat ridiculous; they’re all pretty stunning. But really, Paris, the Rhone valley, the Mediterranean gem that is Nice, is there a race that you would rather follow for six days? Of all the races in this list, Paris-Nice is a top contender as an event that we want to follow in its entirety. Start off in what is arguably the most beautiful city in the world, ride through some of the best wine country on earth and finish the tour in the picturesque costal city of Nice. And what an end to a race—the finish line is traditionally held either in the city, on the Premenade des Anglais, or on the Col d’Eze, a dramatic mountain pass overlooking the Côte d’Azur.
6. The Volta a Catalunya
Dates: Late March
The Volta a Catalunya is the second most popular stage race in Spain, behind the Veulta a España. If you have a particular affinity for Spanish cycling, then you’ll be stoked on the Volta, as it attracts some of the top Iberian riders. We added this race to the list because of its location. Barcelona is the capitol of Catalunya, and is absolutely on our list of places to travel. There are so many things to do and see in the area besides the race itself, we doubt that anyone could ever find it boring. See a soccer—ahem, football—game, bask on the beach, visit an art museum, take a wild trip over to Ibiza, watch a few stages of the Volta a Catalunya. Sounds like a plan.
5. The Critérium du Dauphiné.
Dates: Late June
Along with the Tour de Suisse, the Critérium du Dauphiné is a major lead-up to the Tour de France. This eight-stage race is held in the iconic and mountainous region of Dauphiné, which is host to some of the most famous mountain climbs in all of cycling; including Mount Ventoux and the Col du Galibier. And because of this geography, it’s nearly always won by a climbing specialist. In fact, the Tour de France is nearly always won by a climbing specialist too. It comes as no surprise that all cyclists that have won the Tour de France five times, have also won the Critérium du Dauphiné. Because of its technical nature and proximity to the Tour de France, the Critérium du Dauphiné is a major bike race with every top team looking to impress. On the flip side however, it doesn’t draw the same insane masses of people that the biggest races do, which makes attending the race a bit less problematic. Less crowds, more hotel space and more mild traffic make this race similar to the mountain stages of The Tour, but much more accessible.
4. Le Tour de Langkawi
The Tour de Langkawi is held in the beautiful nation of Malaysia. This ten-stage race is classified as a 2.HC in the UCI Asia tour. Although the tour has had its share of scheduling and logistical issues, the race continues to be one of the most prestigious races outside of the European continent. Although it’s attended by many prestigious international teams, there is an additional category for best Asian rider, and best Asian team. Along with the Tour of Oman, this is one of the most unique races on our list. It would be pretty wild to see the peloton cruising through countryside comprised completely of palm trees. If you want to roll your cycling vacation in with some tropical delights, you have found your race.
This one-day race is one of the oldest bike races on the planet, making its debut in 1876. Milano-Torino starts off on the mellow rolling hills outside of Milan and makes its way into the mountains of Turin. This 199km race has four separate railroad crossings, and unlike traffic, the trains run regardless of bike races. So if a train holds up the peloton at any point on the ride, a breakaway has a great chance of making a run to the finish. The route itself is spectacular. Spectators can either explore the stylish city of Milan and see the race off, or settle in on one of the many mountain passes that lead into Turin. We would recommend the latter, as the beginning to the race is flat and fast, and the mountainous stretch is in the region of Piedmont, which has some world-class cuisine.
2. Tour of Flanders
Held: Early April
The Tour de Flanders circles the northern Flemmish half of Belgium, leaving Liège-Bastogne-Liège to race in the southern half of the country. The race used to be a simple course, taking a big loop around Flanders, but after WWII, only the roads within the inner city remained drivable. In an effort to keep the traditional route, the course was patched together over back roads and footpaths. Belgium has clearly recovered from WWII, but the eclectic nature of the course remains. Organizers realized that the one-day race would always come down to a massive sprint finish unless they kept the winding, uneven trails in the racecourse. The Tour de Flanders doesn’t have as much cobble stone as Paris-Roubaix, but all of the historic climbs are still raced on arduous cobbled streets.
1. Tour of Oman
The Tour of Oman is quite distinctive. This six-stage race is a 2.HC on the UCI rating scale, making it a top race in the UCI Asia tour. Thankfully, it’s held in February, because, as you can imagine, Oman can get pretty hot during the summer months. Since the race is held at a time of year that isn’t packed with prestigious races, it’s attended by some of the top cyclists and teams in the sport. Fabian Cancellara and Chris Froome have found themselves atop the podium in recent years amongst some stiff competition. This race might not be for everyone, as Oman in near some very volatile parts of the Middle East and from what we hear, it doesn’t draw the largest crowds. But the Tour of Oman is a very unique race, and if you’re adventurous enough to tough it out in the desert, we will want to see your photos when you return.
Perhaps you can tell that this list was compiled in no specific order. It’s next to impossible to rank these spectacular races against each other. If you have to make a choice on which race to see, consider the options. Would you prefer a one-day race, or do you want to follow a stage race? Does UCI ranking matter to you? Does the age of the race come into play? Only you can decide, but if you want our advice, go to the race that’s in your favorite place. All the races will be fierce, but it’s the location that can make a trip truly spectacular.