I teach German and a bit of junior French at high school. My French was pretty rough so I decided to apply for, and was fortunate enough to get, a Ministry of Education 'language immersion scholarship' to the south of France. Not content with just sunning it and soaking up the language, food and local vintages for three months - I decided to take my bike along as company.
There is something irresistible about Italy and Italian culture. The language is sexy, the locals gregarious and eating well is a national sport. Neither Nikki nor I had been to the Dolomites, nor knew much about them beyond a few breathtaking pictures of pale spires and sheer faces.
The London Cycle Show had taunted Ground Effect for a few years. Flippant remarks about mountain biking Wales or even making a break for the French Alps added recreational weight to the promotional argument for exhibiting at the show.
The ancient Greeks named it after Callista (the most beautiful one), Phoenician sailors called it Kersica (covered by forests), but we call it Corsica. Nestled in the Mediterranean Sea between France and Italy, the island of Corsica is a rugged corner of old Europe.
Like most of Europe, Spain has long been influenced by the ebb and flow of humanity. In the ninth century the church had the good fortune to 'rediscover' the remains of Saint James near the town that became Santiago.
John O'Groats is a miserable place - relentlessly punished by cruel Arctic winds. It's literally miles from anywhere and it has taken us a full day to ride here through undulating, featureless agricultural land. Its claim to fame is being mainland Great Britain's northern-most point, although technically that honour belongs to a little bay a mile to the east.
The gang of four assembled in Les Houches, near Chamonix - my husband Steve, our flatmate Karina, her friend Kirsty and myself. We were in town to circumnavigate Mont Blanc on the "Sentier Pedestre" hiking trail.
Here's a simple question... where's the best mountain biking in Europe? During a stint in Germany I taxed a few friends with this question and consistently got the same reply. "Lake Garda". I rifled through some bike magazines and found shots of Lake Garda leaping from the pages. It looked pretty wild.
Xmas promises should never be taken too seriously, so I was somewhat surprised when my parents followed up on my bleary eyed suggestion of a cycle tour of the Netherlands. The idea was to embark on a pilgrimage to the haunts of Dad's youth - the more mature party members as tour guides and us youth as packhorses. Giddy-up!
Breakfast of fresh croissants and treacle-like coffee in a village café, temples of food on every corner and medieval architecture as far as the eye can see. If you've got a month to spare and a wad of cash looking for a way out of your wallet (or a healthy credit facility on the plastic), then this could be the go. Cycle touring in France is close to heaven on a bike.