Freedom's got two wheels and a saddle

Cycling holidays are lightening up. Rupert Isaacson and bike follow where the luggage leads

THE BICYCLE has to be the best way of getting into the countryside. You don't need any special skill - unlike, say, horse-riding or canoeing. You can cover a lot of distance - far more so than walking - and you are above hedgerow height. Moreover, it is completely up to you how demanding you want your trip to be. You don't even have to own a bike, or bother with planning a route - these days, there are plenty of companies who will take care of all that, even to the extent of booking B&Bs and carting your luggage ahead of you.

One such company, which happens to be within easy reach of London, is Compass Holidays, which organises cycling packages in the Cotswolds, with plenty of feasible day-trips (or longer trips up to seven days) from London or Bristol, with pick-up from a local station if you don't want to drive.

The routes wind through medieval stone villages, uplands, deep wooded valleys, along dry-stone walls and hedges and ditches, and across wide ploughed lands; in other words, through picture-postcard England. Just the job after a few weeks of looking at concrete and cars. The country roads of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire are surprisingly quiet, and many of the pubs serve real ale. You stay in good period hotels, eat hearty meals with good wine, and have your luggage sent on ahead of you each day. Choose between guided or solo trips.

Moving to other parts of the country, why not have a look at the trips offered by Wheely Wonderful Cycling in the wheely wonderful English/Welsh Borders? Its self-guided cycle touring holidays pass through Shropshire and Herefordshire, or over the hills into Powys; the routes are planned to about 20 miles maximum, and take between two and four hours to ride - though you can go further if you want to. Accommodation is in quite luxurious farmhouse inns and the odd manor house.

Choose between a two or three-day or week-long trip. The choice of routes is wide: there is a Black-and-White Villages Tour along the lanes, a Forest Tracks Tour which gets you a little more tired and dirty, a Real Ale Trail, which would get you fatter if you weren't cycling between pints (at least, that is the idea), and a Border Castles Tour. The Quietest Tour Under the Sun follows the almost deserted back roads of the Clun Hills.

The area has a whole bunch of festivals through the late summer and autumn, including the famous Hay Book Fair, Ludlow Jazz Festival, various local arts festivals and other local events such as coracle regattas and harness racing. If you want to take in some of these, the company will do its best to book your route and accommodation accordingly.

Finally, if you want to get even further away from it all, try the Pembrokeshire coast. This beautiful outdoor playground - rugged hills, jewel-like sheltered valleys, cliffs and beaches - is all now preserved as a national park. Landsker Countryside Holidays organises tours in the Pembrokeshire area. Its eight-day Coast and Countryside Tour follows a circular route which covers areas both north and south, taking in quiet country lanes with high green banks, and then passing through rolling green countryside and on to the spectacular coast before finishing at Preseli Hills. The latter afford uninterrupted views of countryside and the coastline and are rich in Stone and Iron Age remains. En route, there are three great Norman castles for cyclists to visit: Pembroke, Manorbier and Carew. Exploring even further afield is an option, with cycling tours to the remote Angle Peninsula beaches and to the beautiful island nature reserves of Skomer, Skokholm and Ramsey.

FACT FILE

on your bike

Compass Holidays (tel: 01242 250642)

Many tours are offered, including a three-day/two-night tour from Burford, pounds 81; a three-day/two-night Banks of the Severn Break, pounds 92; and a seven- day/six-night Classic Cotswolds Tour, pounds 235. Prices include B&B, luggage transfers, routes and maps (cycle hire is extra).

Wheely Wonderful Cycling (tel/fax: 01568 770755)

A variety of tours are available, for example: the three-day Black and White Villages Tour (two nights B&B), pounds 129; and the Quietest Cycle Tour Under the Sun (Clun Hills), pounds 106 for two nights including B&B. Sixty per cent discounts for children of 14 and under (under-twos, 40 per cent of child's price). Prices include accommodation, transport of luggage, bikes, equipment, routes, maps and a back-up service.

Landsker Countryside Holidays (tel: 01834 860965)

A seven-day Coast and Countryside Tour costs pounds 260 per person with half board, based on two sharing. Full emergency back-up within 30-mile radius of base. Cycle hire is pounds 12 per day (pounds 60 per week), luggage transfer is optional (pounds 77 per booking). A three-day tour of south Pembrokeshire is pounds 95 per person and includes two night's B&B, packed lunches, cycle hire and luggage transfer.

For the free Cycling Wales brochure, contact the Welsh Tourist Board (tel: 01222 475226).

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