Travel: Yorkshire - Bracing saddles

Yesterday, John Prescott opened the latest link in the National Cycle Network. Simon Calder spent a weekend on the trail
Click to follow
At the start of Britain's newest bike path, a sign points the way to Oberhausen, Middlesbrough's twin town, 982km away. Luckily, your destination is a lot closer: Hull.

The White Rose Cycle Route ends on the north shore of the Humber estuary, by which time it has joined forces with a human-scale Euro-superhighway that stretches, implausibly, from Southport in Lancashire to Istanbul. And in between, you swoop and swerve through fine countryside, tempered with swathes of mud and misery, for 123 miles.

Actually, it was more like 140 miles, since the signposting in parts of North Yorkshire is rather worse than in Istanbul (or Southport). Led further astray by some dismal map-reading, I zigged and zagged rather more than the designer of the trail intended. And because I was riding a silly bicycle it felt like 200 miles.

The Brompton is unbeatable for city riding and short trips into the country. But by halfway up the first one-in-six hill, I realised why cycling wags say the collective nouns for this make of folding bicycle is an embarrassment of Bromptons. Two feet and three gears make heavy work of Yorkshire.

To the credit of David Hall - the man who devised the new trail - he didn't laugh when I met him along the way, though he did express mild surprise that anyone would choose such a conveyance for the trip. The new route, like the other components of the growing Sustrans National Cycle Network, is a challenging combination of minor roads and dedicated cycleways. But, with the exception of a stretch beside the Ouse in Selby which looks as if it has been visited by a Nato air strike, it was mostly plain pedalling.

Middlesbrough has many claims to fame, besides the twinning arrangement with Oberhausen. The Transporter Bridge shows how Heath Robinson engineering can be incorporated into transport infrastructure: cars are carried over the River Tees by what is, in effect, a giant garden swing.

There is also the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, and a stylish line in street art. But for me, Middlesbrough will always mean the carpet of shattered glass that stretches uninvitingly south towards Hull. The White Rose trail begins not with the gentle whirring of tyre against Tarmac, but with an unsteady crystalline crunch.

One problem that the charity Sustrans faces is persuading communities that cyclists are a pretty harmless bunch - who, if they are left to pedal without fear of imminent depressurisation, will spend freely. "There's an awful lot of revenue to be had from cycle tourism," says David Hall, who is especially keen to attract Dutch and German cyclists to this part of north-east England: "Visiting motorists tend to be self-sufficient, but a cycle tourist has an average spend of pounds 30 a day." Given the apparent love of the sound of breaking glass by the sort of people who put the "rough" in Middlesbrough, most of that could end up being spent on puncture repair kits.

Suddenly, though, the crystal corrugations give way to country lanes. You unwind as the trail winds gently up into the foothills of the North York Moors. Ten miles an hour is the ideal pace to idle past neat cottages and sturdy churches, interspersed with the deep greens (and occasional deep mud) of Spyknave Hill and Indian Farm. Steer well clear of Goslingmire.

The biggest obstacle of the whole trip comes barely 20 miles out: the gruelling ascent from Swainby of Scarth Nick, which is followed by a joyful freewheel past Cod Beck reservoir - so joyful that I ended up speeding straight past the turn and down into Osmotherly, a lovely Yorkshire village turned into an unlovely car park.

Back up on Osmotherly Moor, the sky darkened to the point of fury and seemed intent on smothering the lunar landscape. Maybe Middlesbrough wasn't so bad after all. Thankfully, the route soon descends back into a picture- postcard-land, where ever more extravagant squadrons of daffodils bedeck each new village.

Those equipped with more sensible bicycles and better map-reading skills can slice straight across the moors on one of the optional loops; I was deterred by the route-profile on the Sustrans map, which helps you anticipate the gradients. In the case of the main White Rose route, the profile resembles a graph of the heartbeat of an athlete (across the Moors), slipping into a coma (around Easingwold) and finally expiring (the remaining 70 miles, except for a brief attempt at resuscitation at the bottom end of the Wolds). Although it is flat, the ride is never dull - especially if the sky is performing. Broad drifts of cumulus are punctured by shafts of sunlight, while menacing storm clouds muscle in from the west. The plain supports a succession of spires, from churches that have long since lost their parishioners, to the mirage-like York Minster.

The ride ends, amid more cartographic disarray, at a gaunt steel bridge in Hull, but the place to finish a story about the White Rose run is bang in the middle: the 24-mile stretch from the haughty formality of Beningbrough, drifting through the middle of York and ending up at a lazy arc of the Ouse in Selby. It is a model of happy cycling. To the north, beautifully engineered paths shared by cyclists, walkers and the odd horse; to the south, the bicycling bliss of an old railway line. Along the way, a series of sculptures enlivens the horizon. This is the elegantly designed, handsomely implemented thread of gold in a trail that elsewhere can be a bit ropy.

I commend this short ride along the long path, especially if your bicycle is as unsuitable as mine for a Tour de Yorks. David Hall won't mind: "We don't design these things for cyclists - they know how wonderful it is already. We make them for people who don't like cycling." Try it; even on a Brompton, you might enjoy it.

The map of the ride is available from Sustrans (0117-929 0888) for pounds 5.99. Simon Calder paid pounds 21.15 for bed and breakfast at the Langland Hotel, Park Vale Road, Middlesbrough