Better by bike: a information to the highest cycle rides in Britain | Travel

Round the highest: Scotland’s north coast wilderness, by Nell Nelson

Just as I used to be about to launch myself from the consolation of a minibus on to a motorbike and into a number of the most distant nation within the UK, I used to be reminded to “hold on to the door, or the wind will rip it off”.

I’m on a taster journey of Wilderness Scotland’s new North Coast 500 seven-day biking journey, a 516-mile round scenic highway route spherical the highest coast of Scotland that begins and finishes in Inverness. On my first biking day, winds are blustering round 30-40mph, however my biking information and driver Mark Cox, with 30 years of biking, sea kayaking and mountaineering guiding expertise, has no qualms. Mark the “wind whisperer” can alter the route to ensure cyclists usually are not using into robust headwinds, he explains, which is why this journey is about half the official route. They have cherry-picked sections, avoiding busy roads and including in a relaxation day to discover.

Live streaming: crossing a bridge close to Durness. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 as an initiative to assist the native financial system and such is the advertising potential of this route, it’s co-sponsored by Aston Martin. The switchback single monitor highway from Achiltibuie to Drumbeg in Assynt is a superb equaliser: nobody can go quicker than 25mph, so there may be pleasant synergy between automobile, camper van and bike owner, as all of us need to give approach to the opposite to cease and benefit from the white seashores, hovering peregrine falcons, cormorants, sea eagles and dive-bombing gannets.

While eyeing up the 20-plus vary of freshly baked pies on the Lochinver Larder (sure please to recent poached salmon in a creamy seafood sauce with dill and potato), I meet 4 lean Lycra-clad cyclists from the military on a “fun” biking and tenting coaching journey. They made me realise how Wilderness Scotland makes the NC500 very achievable: they ebook all of the meals and lodging, because of the overwhelming recognition of the route and relative shortage of eating places and resorts. They additionally present bikes, that are valeted each night time by the guides, and picnic refreshments en route, similar to cafetière espresso (specifically blended by the Inverness Coffee Roasting Company).

Mark Cox and Nell Nelson, sitting at a table in a cafe, smiling and laughing

‘It’s the craic which makes the week’: Mark Cox, information and ‘wind whisperer’, with Nell Nelson. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

On my final day, as we head east alongside the highest of Scotland, I get my first glimpse of Orkney, then cycle previous previous flagstone-cutting mills – a reminder of a 200-year-old worldwide business exporting Caithness flagstones. Suddenly my ideas of kitchen-floor upgrades are supplanted by the sight of the brilliant pink, inexperienced and blue homes of John O’Groats, which lies on the UK’s most northeastern tip. When I arrive on the iconic white signpost, there may be a casual queue of cyclists lining up for images. I really feel an unimaginable sense of journey and achievement at having cycled by such dramatic and diversified panorama and in addition a unhappiness that the journey is over. Mark feedback: “It’s the camaraderie and the craic of the group which makes the week. It’s handshakes at the beginning and hugs at the end.”

So when is the perfect time to go? Pretty a lot anytime, due to the wind: the feared west coast midges, whose biting clouds can spoil a day, gained’t come out if there’s a whiff of a breeze above 6mph – one factor you may depend on.

The North Coast 500 biking journey begins in 2019. The six-night tour consists of mattress and breakfast lodging, lunch, some night meals, a information and help rider. Bikes can be found for rent. From £1,695 (

Breaking the wall: Hadrian’s Cycleway, by Helen Pidd

Long Stone and a view of the Vindolanda Roman fort.

Border traces: Long Stone and a view of the Vindolanda Roman fort. Photograph: Nigel Eve/Getty Images

There is one thing tremendously satisfying about pedalling from one aspect of an island to the opposite, so it’s no marvel the English coast-to-coast is high of so many biking bucket lists. The downside with the “official” C2C route – and in addition its promoting level – is that it’s thigh-tremblingly hilly. Happily, there may be an alternate for these who need to traverse the north in a difficult however fairly much less masochistic method: Hadrian’s Cycleway.

Named after the Roman wall man, the 174-mile Sustrans route begins in Ravenglass in southwest Cumbria. Pleasingly signposted with a centurion’s helmet and the quantity 72, it hugs the coast to the Solway Firth and heads east to South Shields, very loosely following the route of Hadrian’s brickwork.

Since I’m allergic to panniers, I went with CycleEnergetic, who organise self-guided journeys with baggage transfers and lodging. They bin the primary 23 miles and begin at Whitehaven on the grounds ) Hadrian in all probability went nowhere close to Ravenglass, b) Whitehaven is simpler to get to, and c) 151 miles with 7,171ft climbing is kind of sufficient, thanks very a lot. Like most right-thinking individuals, they go west-to-east as a result of there’s extra probability of a tail wind. Their model ends in Tynemouth as a result of what higher approach to toast the achievement than fish and chips in a correct seaside resort?

Helen Pidd cycling through countryside near Hadrian's Wall

Ride by historical past: Helen Pidd close to Hexham. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

The journey takes three days, excellent for the two-wheeled dilettante. Day one is flat – it was a very good few hours earlier than I’d burned off the deservedly award-winning breakfast from Brookfield Guest House in Penrith, from the place we had been bussed to the beginning. I borrowed considered one of CycleEnergetic’s bikes, a Trek hybrid with mountain bike suspension and knobbly tyres: a little bit of a tank for getting up hills, regardless of low gearing, however excellent for the numerous miles of gravel and muddy cycle paths the route encompasses.

Until this journey, I’d by no means been north of Maryport. Now I might work for the Solway Estuary vacationer board. The pink sandstone seashores! The double-fronted Georgian homes! The view of the Galloway hills over to Scotland!

Night two was in Carlisle, memorable just for the dreamy slow-cooked beef shin I had at Foxborough, a pleasant restaurant. By that time I’d nonetheless not seen any of Hadrian’s wall, regardless of 61 miles in my legs. He’d flip in his mausoleum if he knew that the beginning of his legendary fortification, in beautiful Bowness-on-Solway, is now marked with a canine poo bag dispenser larger than the signal.

It took one other 20-odd miles earlier than I noticed any of Hadrian’s handiwork, close to Birdoswald Roman Fort, on day two, the hilliest third of the journey. I paid £eight.30 to go to the fort: an costly crash course in Roman historical past. Carry on as a substitute to Vindolanda, an archaeological treasure trove which was a key navy submit constructed on the northern frontier of Britain a number of a long time earlier than Hadrian obtained into wall-building.

Roman ruins usually are not normally my factor however I liked the snazzy sandals the archaeologists have dug up, and the splendidly banal letters written on picket tablets, particularly a Roman girl begging her pal to come to her birthday celebration. Pro tip: in the event you’re planning some sightseeing, don’t put on slippy biking sneakers you may’t stroll in. I’ll be billing the Romans for some new cleats.

I started day three refreshed after an evening within the lovely Carraw Guesthouse, which is constructed proper on the wall, a number of miles off-route however nicely definitely worth the detour. It was a protracted day within the saddle with some weaving out and in of business estates – however general an journey of Roman proportions.

The three-day, three-night tour prices £325 together with lodging and baggage switch. Bike rent is £90 or £135 for an electrical bike (

Training wheels: woodland trails in Hampshire, by Chris Hall

Chris Hall and his two young daughters with bikes on a woodland trail

‘Our little oasis’: Chris Hall along with his daughters, aged 10 and 4, in Blackwood Forest. Photograph: Courtesy of Chris Hall

The lengthy, rocky driveway to lovely Blackwood Forest in Hampshire was the proper preparation for some wholesome rest throughout our biking holiday, forcing us to decelerate. When we had been lastly within the 270-hectare wooden and at our cabin, we might really feel this was going to be our little oasis, the nonetheless immensity of its dense beech tree cover muting the close by M3 to a distant murmur.

Forest Holidays is a back-to-nature set-up with cabins sparsely dotted among the many woods and there are three strolling and bike trails (the longest is 6km) throughout the grounds. “Did somebody say ‘hot tub’?” grew to become our four-year-old’s catchphrase throughout our keep – her cheeky try to get us again from the biking and into the bathtub on the patio each time potential. We additionally had a log burner and a gasoline barbecue, too.

We had been slightly cautious about how a lot biking our 10-year-old daughter would be capable of handle on condition that she principally simply pootles round a neighborhood park and hasn’t been on the highway but, however other than a number of barely steep sections the place she obtained off and pushed, she was tremendous. None of us is strictly king or queen of the mountains so we had been very pleased certainly with the gently undulating trails and the top-notch mountain bikes we employed. I strapped our four-year-old daughter into slightly single trailer connected to my bike and he or she fortunately bumped alongside admiring the surroundings – although she sometimes insisted on getting out and operating alongside us whereas we cycled. (I didn’t assume we had been going that slowly – you would say she’s fairly energetic.)

A hand holding a stick with a marshmallow over a small fire in the forest

Forest treats: after the journey, get pleasure from toasted marshmallows and recognizing slow-worms. Photograph: Forest Holidays

The tracks are very secure and also you solely come throughout a number of vehicles (and different cyclists for that matter) on the gravel roads within the forest they usually’re going so slowly that it’s not a fear. There are loads of different close by trails outdoors of the forest in the event you’re extra adventurous or your kids are used to the roads.

Stopping to see some horses in a close-by paddock, all was calm and quiet till our elder daughter breathlessly knowledgeable us of a snake she’d seen slither again into the undergrowth. Hmm, maybe it was a slow-worm? “No, Dad, it was a snake!” It was in all probability not the perfect time for me to remind them of The Gruffalo (“A snake saw the mouse, and the mouse looked good”) and I might see our youngest getting agitated so we swiftly took off once more.

Alison, our sensible and sprightly Forest Ranger, took us out early that night on a brief tour and engaged us all within the historical past of the forest and its natural world – explaining why yew bushes are sometimes found in churchyards, the distinction between the meadow and forest vegetation, the several types of deer, the purple emperor butterflies she’s seen right here – and confirmed that, sure, it was virtually definitely a slow-worm my daughter had seen.

On Sunday, after making the brief drive to Winchester for lunch and a wander across the lovely cathedral grounds, we headed home for an additional cycle across the forest and again to our sizzling tub for one final well-earned soak.

A 3-night break in a Golden Oak three-bed cabin at Blackwood Forest prices £695. Bike rent from £18 (

More rides to get pleasure from

Whizz round a velodrome, bounce down a mountain path or observe a sedate path by the ocean…

Two cyclists on the track at Lee Valley VeloPark

Speed tester: time your self on an indoor monitor. Photograph: Tom Titherington

1. The velodrome expertise It’s unlikely you’ll break a biking velocity report in your commute, however you would possibly at a velodrome. The indoor monitor on the Lee Valley VeloPark, dubbed the Pringle as a result of its curving roof resembles a crisp, is the place Sir Chris Hoy and Dame Sarah Storey gained London Olympic golds. It’s additionally the quickest within the world. All skills are catered for, together with youngsters; hour-long taster classes value £45. You can even expertise perilous velocity at Manchester’s National Cycling Centre, the busiest velodrome within the world. Taster classes value £10.50 (;

2. The car-free expertise What higher place to cycle than one of many few locations within the world that’s joyfully car-free? Get a ferry from Guernsey to Sark, the least spoilt of the Channel Islands. Locals (all 600 of them) get round on foot, by bike or on horse-drawn carts. Bike rent is accessible all yr, and trails will take you just about the entire means across the island, by plush forests, to broad sandy seashores. However, biking the cliff-top paths is forbidden, a neighborhood advises – it’s strolling solely – and biking after darkish is finest averted as there isn’t any avenue lighting. The upside is that Sark is a “dark sky island”, so it’s perfect for star gazing – you may cycle by day and benefit from the spectacular sight of the Milky Way by night time (Bikes will be employed from or

Mountain biker riding through woodland at the Coed-y-Brenin Cycle Centre in Mid Wales

Mountain bike mecca: Coed-y-Brenin Cycle Centre in Mid Wales. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

three. The downhill expertise If it’s adrenaline and nature you’re after, head to Coed y Brenin (“the forest of the king”), a mountain bike mecca in Snowdonia National Park. You can select from eight trails – one, for novices, takes within the magnificent waterfalls on the Gain and Mawddach rivers and is predicated on open forest roads. The centre’s most difficult path is suitably titled the Beast of Brenin, bodily and emotionally difficult however with spectacular views of Snowdonia (

A view of Dunnottar castle, the path through grassland leading to it and the sea beyond

East Anglia to Inverness: Dunnottar Castle, close to Aberdeen, on the British EuroVelo route. Photograph: David Gold/Sustrans

four. The trans-UK expertise If you fancy the long-haul problem fairly than a one-day affair, attempt EuroVelo – a community of 15 long-distance biking routes that criss-cross Europe. The locations sound romantic and bold – Ireland to Russia (EuroVelo2) or the North Sea Route (EuroVelo12) that begins in Bergen, Norway, passes by Denmark, Holland and Germany, and ends within the Orkney Islands – full the journey and also you’ll have clocked up 5,900km. For a gentler possibility you would persist with the British one, taking you from east Anglia as much as Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness, earlier than you have to navigate the North Sea ferry system. “Sample wee drams in Scotland,” the EuroVelo web site advises. You’ll have to pattern much more than that (

Two riders with children on a tag-along and in a child seat on the camel trail cycleway and footpath

Bikes for all: the Camel Trail in Cornwall. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

5. The family-friendly expertise The Camel Trail is standard with households for good cause – you may cycle for 17 miles a method beneath the duvet of a cover of bushes for a part of it following an previous railway line alongside the north Cornwall estuary, then alongside the River Camel and the sandy shores of the Camel Estuary. The flat terrain makes it excellent for younger kids and there’s a spread of bikes out there: “tagalongs” for kids who’ve simply began biking, trailers for toddlers and tandems for adults and youths, from £28. The reward? Reaching the picturesque harbour city of Padstow with its cobbled streets, cosy pubs and cafés: selfmade Cornish ice cream for the youngsters, Rick Stein’s fish and chips and a pint of Tribute from the St Austell Brewery for deserving grown-ups (

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