The Complete Guide to Cycling in Rioja


This is the first of three parts in our Complete Guide to Cycling Rioja series. Follow the links below for Part 2 and Part 3.




The Rioja region in northern Spain has long been known for excellent wines, particularly its aged reds. In the last few years, similarly to many other of Europe's great wine regions, such as Tuscany or Provence, Rioja has also been transforming itself into a boutique tourist destination.

And like similar regions in France and Italy, there is a focus not only on wine tastings, but also on highlighting the diverse history of the region and the opportunities for active tourism. One of the great things about Rioja is that it offers fantastic options for travellers, but is still relatively quiet and does not suffer at all from the effects of over-tourism.

Rioja Beautiful Scenery

In particular, there has been a great effort to improve the facilities and infrastructure for cycle tourists. The success of which has converted Rioja into one of the best cycling destinations in Spain. Below is our guide to cycling around Rioja, with tips for riders of all levels, on how to get the most of a bike trip to the region. The guide is based around our experience in organising long duration cycling tours in the region.

We highlight some of the main things to see on and off the bike in Rioja, and provide some sample routes in case you would rather go by yourself than join one of our tours! On this page you will find general practical information for cycling in Rioja. And check out links for much more detailed information about cycling around the historical monuments and also visiting the best wineries and vineyards by bike.



The Rioja Region


Rioja is situated in the north of the Spain, around 100km (60 miles) south of the Atlantic Ocean. From the point of view of this guide, we are focusing specifically on the Rioja wine region, which is not actually the same as the Rioja province, although it does overlap.

The Rioja wine region itself consists of the land around 16km (10 miles) either side of the Ebro River, stretching from the town of Haro to beyond Logroño - the regional capital. The wine region is therefore situated in parts of the Basque Country and Navarre, as well as the Rioja province.

On the map above we have highlighted some of the wineries and historic sites that we mention in this guide.



Cycling in Rioja

Rioja is suitable for road biking, gravel biking and mountain biking. In our opinion though, a hybrid bike is the best option, as it allows you to ride mostly on well paved roads at a decent speed, while also giving the possibility to explore some of the well conditioned gravel trails through vineyards or alongside the Ebro River.

For us, the real beauty of the cycling here is not just visiting the wineries, historic monumnets and excellent gastronomy (all of which we cover in more detail below!), but the scenery and tranquility. In Rioja there is a huge number of quiet country lanes, riverside paths and traffic free routes through vineyards that means you can enjoy the riding without having to worry about cars. The vast majority of these are also fully paved, or are half-sealed and kept in extremely good condition so that they require no special technical skills to ride!

Rioja Church and Mountains

The vineyards are interspersed with villages every handful of kilometres, so you always have somewhere of interest close by, and the landscapes are surprisingly varied for a region so dominated by vineyards. To the north the sharp mountains of the Basque Country provide a dramatic backdrop (and also shield Rioja from the worst of the Atlantic weather). To the south, the Sierra de la Demanda mountains are even higher and mark the border between the fertile lands of Rioja and the arid meseta of central Spain.

Despite being surrounded by mountains, the Rioja region itself is not mountainous. Depending on what kind of cycling you prefer, you can choose routes which are either gently rolling, or more hilly. It is difficult to do completely flat rides around Rioja (unless you rarely stray more than a few metres from the Ebro River), but the gentle hills and climbs up to castles are well worth the effort for the views they provide and the variety of scenery.



When to Visit Rioja

Cycling Rioja in Winter

We run our guided tours to Rioja in June and September, as we feel these are the best months for cycling. Although, it is certainly possible to ride here throughout the year. It can get very hot in July and August, with temperatures often above 35°C (90°F), but the mornings do tend to be quite a bit cooler in the height of summer.

From November to early April it can still be slightly chilly, although even in the coldest months temperatures are usual above 10°C (50°F) during the day. May, June, September and October have the ideal conditions for cycling: warm in the day, but without the intense heat of mid-summer.

It does not rain very often in the region, and there is no specific rainy season. The rain does tends to be very localized, for example, it tends to rain more in Haro than Logroño. However, the vast majority of days are dry and sunny, during all months of the year.

Aside from the weather, the other main thing to consider is the scenery. When we tend to visit the region in June and especially September, the vineyards look magnificant. The vines are bushy and bright green, often bearing plump grapes (harvest season is in September), providing a beautiful back drop as you look over the valleys. In winter there are obviously no leaves and the fields tend to look a little more sparse, so if you want to see Rioja in all its glory we would recommend visiting from May to November.



Gastronomy

Like much of northern Spain, Rioja is home to a fantastic gastronomic tradition. It might not quite have the reputation yet of a San Sebastian or Galicia, but there are still many wonderful restaurants around. There is also a great variety of excellent options; from tasty pintxos costing little more than €1, to Michelin Star restaurants with 20 course tasting menus.

Rioja Hector Oribe Tasting Menu

The most famous restaurant in the region is probably the Marques de Riscal in Eltziego. It has a Michelin Star and offers a very fancy and suitably expensive tasting menu. In a similar vain is Echaurren restaurant in the town of Ezcaray, situated in the far south of the Rioja province. These can usually be taken either at lunch or dinner.

Our personal favourite restaurant in Rioja is called Hector Oribe and is located in the small village of Paganos. We always visit here on our tours and enjoy their stunning seven course tasting menu. The restaurant doesn't have a Michelin Star (yet!) but offers amazing quality and is a great stop for cyclists on their way to Laguardia or Eltziego.

Daily menus (Menu del Día) are commonly offered by restaurants in Rioja, as in much of Spain, and consists of a three course menu with a drink included. They are generally fantastic value, costing between €10 and €25 depending on the quality of the establishment, but even the cheaper ones can be excellent.

Rioja Tastin Menu Dessert

You can find good daily menus almost anywhere, but a few of our favourites are Arrope (Haro), La Huerta Vieja (Laguardia) and Casa Paco (Rodezno). The classic local dishes include Patatas a la Riojana (Riojan potato stew); Bacalao a la Riojana (Riojan style cod) as well as a wide range of steaks, fish (sea bass, hake) and lamb.

In the evening, the most traditional and best option is to go for tapas or pintxos. In Rioja, Logroño is the undoubted star in this regard. Two street in the capital in paricular - Calle Laurel and Calle de San Juan - are famous throughout Spain for their density of tapas bars. Most places specialize in a single tapas or pintxo, and the tradition is to hop from bar to bar, sampling each one with a glass of the local wine (or beer if you prefer - many locals do!!). We won't suggest any names here, rather let you explore and discover your own favourites!



Where to Stay?

Eguren Ugarte Winery Hotel

There is a huge range of high quality hotels and also some cool budget places to stay throughout the Rioja region. It is slightly beyond the scope of this guide to delve too deeply into the accommodation options. However, on our cycling guide to
  • discovering the history of Rioja you can find a few of our very favourite hotels in the region - all of which are housed in magnificent historic buildings.

    Also on our guide to visiting the wineries by bike you can find details of a couple of stunning hotels set in the actual wineries themselves.



    What is not so good about cycling in Rioja?

    As you can probably see, we are huge fans of Rioja as a cycling destination, for what it offers both on and off the bike. But, in the interests of objectivity, we also feel compelled to highlight what we consider to be the downsides of the region! After all, nowhere is perfect.

    Location

    Rioja is slightly awkward to get to. Logroño does have an airport, but it is very small and in October 2019 finally cancelled its only regular flight to Madrid. The nearest large airport is in Bilbao, which is by far the best option as it is only an hour from Bilbao by train, bus or car to Haro, and ninety minutes to Logroño.

    If you can not arrive to Bilbao then Santander and Bayonne-Biarritz airports are the next closest, but they don't have the best transport connections to Rioja. Madrid is probably the next best choice after Bilbao. Trains run very regularly between Madrid and Logroño and take between three and four hours. There are also fairly regular trains and buses to Logroño from Barcelona and Zaragoza.

    Navigating

    Finding Quiet Roads on Cycle Tours

    We mentioned above that Rioja has many excellent quiet lanes and trails for cycling. This is entirely true and you can easily do fairly long rides around the region and only be passed by a handful of cars all day.

    However, there are also some busier roads which cross the region and, in places it takes some care to avoid ending up on these. Bikes are explicitly banned on the main motorways (A-12, AP-68 and A-13), but theoretically can use near all other roads. We advise against cycling on any of the 'N' roads (e.g. N-120), there are places where it is safe to do so, but also places where it is very unpleasant. Similarly, avoid the LR-111 and LR-136. Logroño is best entered from the north (Puente de Hierro) or the west (via Fuenmayor) where you can join the cycle route which runs alongside the Ebro River through the city.

    In addition to these, there are certain times of the year (harvest and deliveries) when smaller roads can become relatively busy. This is generally not too much of an issue though, at least unless you are truly traffic-phobic like we are at Cycle Fiesta!

    Language

    Although it has improved in recent years, English is still not all that commonly spoken in Rioja. Of course, in most hotels and the bigger wineries, most staff will speak English, but in smaller restaurants and wineries most people will only speak Spanish. In many ways we like this about the region, as it highlights how authentic Rioja is, and how tourism, although welcomed, is not dominating everyday life. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that not everyone will understand you, although most will do their best to communicate with a smile on their face!

    Bicycles

    Finally, there is something of a shortage of bike hire options in Rioja at the moment, although the situation is improving. Companies are springing up every now and again, many of them offering bike hire along the Camino de Santiago (although of course you can go elsewhere on them!). On our cycling holidays to the region we use our own bikes, so we don't feel too confident recommending any of the bike hire companies, as we have not used them ourselves and can not vouch for their quality. But a google search will provide the latest options.



    What Routes can I do in Rioja?

    Rioja Vineyards and Castle

    There are many great rides you can do around Rioja to suit different levels. For a more in depth look, check out our Cycling around the Wineries of Rioja and Discovering the History of Rioja guides. Both of these highlight some of the main attractions in the region and provide a multi-day cycling route linking that visits some of our favourite places.

    If you rather we showed you the sights in person, and would be interested in joining us either on a Guided or Self-Guided cycling holiday, please check out the links and get in touch. We would be delighted to hear from you!