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 are a few of those places.
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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 12km shared leisure path around the perimeter 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 a bike 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. There are over 2,500km of trails to enjoy in England, and more in Scotland.
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.
The National Cycle Network (NCN) comprises 12,600 miles of routes that use quiet country lanes, back roads and dedicated cycleways, and is 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 sells printed maps of the routes.
National Cycle Network routes are good for beginnersSteve Behr
There are dozens of websites where cyclists share routes and that provide tools for you to plan your own. 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.
Some of the most commonly used sites are Google Maps and Strava. A cycle computer is a great way to navigate routes too and you can download maps from third party sites to devices as well.
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.
The Canal & River Trust website lets you check your route to find out whether it’s closed for maintenance work as well as providing information on sights that you might want to stop off and see on your route.
A towpath on the Kennet and Avon CanalPaul Douglas / Immediate Media
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.