A great thing about cycling is that it can get you away from the urban hustle and bustle and into quiet, trafﬁc-free places where you can enjoy the countryside and ride in safety.
Main road trafﬁc has increased considerably in the past few decades, but the UK’s amazing network of country lanes and back routes has been largely unaffected. If you’re conﬁdent of your map-reading, it’s easy to just take off into the countryside and explore.
For the majority of us who only dimly remember school geography lessons, there are lots of guides online and in print that list safe places to ride. Here’s a few of them.
Parks and woods
Most large city parks have cycle paths or quiet roads suitable for riding. Perhaps the most famous example is Richmond Park in south-west London, which has a seven-mile perimeter road that’s extremely popular with cyclists.
For a less manicured riding environment, try your local Forestry Commission areas. These often have bike-friendly dirt roads and trails suitable for beginners, though you’ll need something with fatter tyres. Be aware that you’re riding in, in effect, a tree farm, so obey all signs telling you where to go – there are good safety reasons for them.
To make it easier for you to ﬁnd somewhere to go, the Forestry Commission has a website at www. forestry.gov.uk/cycling which tells you where your nearest forest tracks can be found.
Some Forestry Commission areas have set up special bike parks with trails built speciﬁcally for mountain biking. Many of the trails require intermediate to advanced riding skills, but most trail centres have beginner and family-friendly riding too.
The trail centre at Afan Forest Park in South Wales, for example, has spectacular tracks that weave up and down its steep hillside, but also has a charming and easy family trail along the Afan Valley.
National Cycle Network
The National Cycle Network (NCN) comprises 12,600 miles of routes that use quiet country lanes, back roads and dedicated cycleways in a terriﬁc resource for all sorts of recreational cyclists. Because NCN routes are selected to be low-trafﬁc, they’re particularly suitable for beginners.
The National Cycle Network is run by the charity Sustrans, whose website provides lots of information on the routes, including an online route ﬁnder, and which sells printed maps of the routes.
There are dozens of websites where cyclists share routes and that provide tools for you to plan your own, such as Bikely.com. All these sites have tools to search for rides in your area, and provide tools, usually based on Google Maps, to draw a route, giving you the distance and elevation changes you’re going to encounter.
Beginner riders should take a look at Cyclestreets.net. Tell it your start and ﬁnish points and this route planner gives you three ways of getting from A to B: a fast route that might use more major roads; a quiet route along back streets; and a balanced route that compromises speed against quietness. It’s still in beta and has some rough edges, but it’s very handy for ﬁnding quiet lanes that you might not have noticed while driving.
The ﬂat tracks alongside canals look perfect for cyclists, but because of these towpaths’ historical origin, cyclists don’t have an automatic right to ride along them. Happily, that doesn’t mean you can’t ride them. Many have been converted or designated as cycle tracks, and lots are included in Sustrans National Cycle Network routes. For other towpaths in England and Wales you need a free permit, which you can download from British Waterways' website.
However, you don’t need a permit for London towpaths. British Waterways abolished London permits in 2007, admitting that it was unable to police the permit system.
Stay legal: Bikes and the law
The law is pretty clear about where you have a right to ride a bike, and where you’re explicitly banned. Some people get a bit confused in the grey areas in between. You have a right to ride on any public road except a motorway, and also on off-road rights of way designated as bridleways or Byways Open To All Trafﬁc (BOATS). You’re explicitly banned from riding on a footway, which is deﬁned as the walking path by the side of a road.
Where it gets confusing is the off-road right of way called a footpath. Only walkers have a right to use footpaths; anyone else is trespassing. That’s not quite the same as riding on footpaths being banned, but it’s as good as in most people’s eyes, especially, for the most part, the eyes of the people who own the land the path crosses. Best to play safe and stay off.
Want more beginner tips? Then make sure you pick up On Your Bike! Your Complete Beginner’s Guide to Cycling.