The ride of my life

It's National Bike Week and cycling is booming. So we asked devotees of two wheels to explain the attraction, and to reveal where they like to go
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The Independent Travel

Beatrix Campbell, Writer

Beatrix Campbell, Writer

In the context of the great debates about identity politics - are you gay or straight, nationalist or republican, British or English and so on - I would ask, "Do you ride a bike?". One of my first pleasurable memories was waking up aged five or six to find a red Raleigh Hercules bike awaiting me. I loved it so much that I even sat on it while my mother combed my hair. A bike meant freedom of movement, and that feeling has never gone. I love everything about the machine - the sensation of the tyres on the road, the mobility - and I love the fact that you have this intimate relationship with the elements, and the landscape. It also puts you in touch with your own body. I'm really an A to B cyclist, but one of the things I do for pleasure is circuits around Regent's Park in London. And I have invested in the bike of my dreams on which to do them - a touring bike I had hand-built about a year ago.

Jon Snow, Broadcaster

I don't cycle to be fit or to be environmentalist, but I couldn't live any other way. I do it because it keeps me rooted. It reminds you that you are an ordinary mortal. It sends you back to first principles. My whole day is built around meetings that can be achieved around bike rides. My contract actually offers me a free car from my home to my office and back, but I suppose I am addicted to cycling. My favourite ride is in the Dordogne - from Montignac to to Saint-Amand-de-Coly. It's no more than a six-mile run, with wonderful views across hills and valleys. At the bottom is a fantastic bar, and a beautiful Romanesque church. It is set into sheer rock, with the whole village gathered round the base. I would feel I had defiled the place if I arrived by car. The church has a nave with a roof that runs at a pitch of about 1 in 6, which is roughly the gradient down to the village. I have been known to get off my bike and push on the way home.

Bernard Jenkin, Shadow Secretary of State for the Regions

My wife and I drive to London on a Sunday evening, put the car in the garage, and then don't use it until we leave again at the end of the week. I cycle everywhere every day - to Westminster, to meetings in the West End and the City, to the Albert Hall, to the Royal Opera House. Cycling offers a huge financial advantage and it keeps me fit. A lot of my stuffier colleagues think it's beneath my status to be cycling round London, but then I'm not status-conscious, and when I was shadow Secretary of State for Transport I felt I had to set an example. I don't think any ride is more wonderful than coming down through Hyde Park, crossing Hyde Park Corner, down Constitution Hill, across the front of Buckingham Palace, down Birdcage Walk and on to the Palace of Westminster.

Tim Hilton, Writer

I live in north Suffolk and have to go to London sometimes. This is what I do. I cycle to Blythburgh, then down the road to Aldeburgh and on to Snape, then to the seaside castle of Orford before riding down to Bawdsey. Here is the sparkling river Deben. I think it sparkles so much because the estuary is enlivened by the sea winds. You shout across the river to the pub opposite, where a boy will appear, come over in his motorboat and ferry you across with your bike. You are now in north Felixstowe. There are a lot of shacks where you can stop for fish'n'chips, or you can press on via the well sign-posted Sustrans route towards Ipswich. You could take the train from Ipswich. I press on - underneath the dramatic Orwell Bridge and as far as Manningtree, which has a bicycle-friendly, half-hourly service to London Liverpool Street, and on the station platform a bar that is so good that it is in The Good Pub Guide. Two old ladies give you a pint, and they ask you what you would like them to cook you for dinner. It's about a 70-mile run, very atmospheric, and the gorsey, sandy landscape has the feel of the sea even though you can't actually see it. And I just like the idea of a ride that involves hailing someone from a pub to ferry you across a river. Why do I cycle? Freedom, and health. And I do like other cyclists.

Tim Hilton is a former art critic of 'The Independent on Sunday'. His cycling memoir, 'One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers', will be published by HarperCollins on 21 June, price £16.99

Philip Quast, Actor

I cycle everywhere. It keeps the child in me going. At times, employers have asked me not to, because they think it's dangerous. If you are told it is dangerous, you tend to get nervous, so I'm one of those cyclists who doesn't ride through red lights, and I always wear a helmet. It's partly being from Australia, where helmets are compulsory. Now I'd feel nakedwithout one. I also carry a whistle, and it's very loud. I live in Brockley in south London, and one of my favourite rides is when I take my boys along the Thames to Greenwich and on as far as the Thames Barrier, then through the foot tunnel, and over to Canary Wharf, which is wonderful on a Sunday morning. I love the river. There's something beautiful in the mess of it, and the way it reflects the elements. In this respect, London is better than Sydney, where a lot of the foreshore is privately owned and you can't ride round it. Melbourne, on the other hand, must be one of the best cities in the world for cycling.

Philip Quast, a former Olivier Award winner, will be appearing in the National Theatre's production of 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum', opening next month

Simon Calder, Travel Editor, 'The Independent'

Cyclists get a bad rep in Britain. Many motorists despise anyone on a bicycle on a number of levels. The mildest offence is that, in a nation with too many vehicles for too little road space, they get in the way. More serious infractions on the mood of drivers occur when cyclists appear to dwell in a parallel universe where the normal rules of the road do not apply. A worse crime still is the collective smugness that cyclists display when scything through traffic jams or taking advantage of the increasing number of bike-only lanes and intersections. Motorists, though, get their own back by almost always winning any car-bike contretemps; I have the scars to prove it. Which is why the National Cycle Network is a joy, providing often-segregated and mostly safe routes through and between towns and cities. The finest stretch for anyone with a bit of long-distance experience is from Pitlochry to Inverness, a stunningly beautiful 100-mile ride that is just possible on a long summer's day (but not when a northerly wind is blowing). Just don't get smug about it.

Sir Rocco Forte, Hotelier

I never cycled until I took up triathlon four years ago. Now it's the thing I love best. I've done two Etapes - the amateurs' stage of the Tour de France - and a couple of years ago I was 11th out of 98 in my age group (55-59) at the world triathlon championships in Mexico. Cycling around London is quite difficult, whereas in Surrey, where I live, you do get off the beaten track, and there are some wonderful, scenic roads. I also cycle in Tuscany in the summer - roads around Castagneto Carducci, south of Pisa, which are sensational. A complete wilderness. I was in the south of France for a golf tournament last weekend. I took my bike and in the afternoon went off and cycled in the hills west of Grasse. That was sensational too. I suppose I am addicted. I had a month off earlier this year. My body felt as if it needed a break. At the same time it was very strange not to be doing anything. I just need to exercise.

Jeff Banks, Fashion designer

My dad was a racer before the war. He bought me an Italian racing bike when I was 11, and I suppose I've never looked back. That was 50 years ago. I've done Land's End to John O'Groats, La Diagonale across France, the length of Italy, and there's not a major col in the Alps or Pyrenees that I haven't climbed. I suppose I do it for the sense of achievement you get when you complete rides like that. It's amazing. There are also times when you're out in the wind and rain and you wonder what on earth you're doing.

Jeff Banks will tackle Land's End to John O'Groats again next month to raise money for Sport Relief. If you want to support him, you can make your donation via a branch of Woolwich or Barclays Bank, specifying the account Mr JT Jeff Banks re Sport Relief, sort code 20-36-16, acc no 30551465

Deborah Moggach, Writer

I love cycling for lots of reasons. I like knowing when I'm going to get somewhere. I love being independent, and I love the connection with the street. You're intimate with what's happening around you. The downside is you can't really tart yourself up if you're travelling by bike. The margin between a carefree cyclist and a bag lady is quite narrow. I'm not sure I have a favourite ride. I'm generally just cycling round London. But I know what my worst experience has been, when three of us decided to cycle to Bruges to see an exhibition of Van Eyck paintings. Cycling to Victoria was fine, and then we got the train to Dover and a boat to Ostend. Bruges is only about 16 miles from there but instead of finding a quiet route along a canal, we found ourselves negotiating huge roundabouts and dual carriageways, with pantechnicons bearing down on us. Then when we got to Bruges the streets were all cobbled which is not great for cycling, and then it started pouring with rain. For the return journey we put the bikes on the train to Ostend, where the wind was blowing so hard that all the crossings had been cancelled. We hitched a lift to Calais with a coach-load of booze cruisers and caught the only ferry going. Everyone was being sick and the captain kept coming on the tannoy saying, "We're nearly there". At Dover we joined a train full of drunken Brits before finally making it back to Victoria. The Van Eycks were lovely though.

Deborah Moggach's latest novel, 'These Foolish Things', is published by Chatto, price £12.99

Tony Farrelly, Editor, 'Cycling Plus'

Cycling just gives me a sense of freedom. You're not tied to anything. You can go anywhere, any time and you know you'll get there. You're not even tied to the road. But what I especially love about it is that you experience where you are going much more than if you were in a car. I lived near Epping Forest when I started cycling, back in the early 1990s, and the first time I cycled through it I discovered what a wonderful smell it has. I was an impoverished journalist. We'd just had a baby, and I cycled to save money. I commuted from Wanstead to central London, and it's still a ride I love. Now I work in Bath and there are some wonderful rides along the Kennet and Avon canal and into the Cotswolds. But I think my favourite ride was when I did the Dunwich Dynamo - an all-night ride from London to the Suffolk coast. The changing landscape and architecture were wonderful to see.

Matt Rendell, Writer

A long, challenging ride through beautiful scenery in a small group is the sort of shared experience that yields lasting friendships. I've ridden in Europe, Australia and Latin America, but my favourite cycling destination is a country which lives its cycling tradition with incredible intensity: Colombia. My wife and I have just returned from our annual trip. Medellin is one of the great centres of Colombian cycling, where, every morning, large, friendly groups of men and women ride dozens of great routes. One of my favourites is a 50km ride south from the city, through the village of Caldas, and up the easy side of the Alto de Minas. By easy, I mean eight writhing kilometres between deep-green tropical vegetation to the thin-aired mountain chill of the Alto, at 2,445 metres. It's breathtaking in more ways than one. We leave at 5am, and we're back in time for breakfast.

Matt Rendell's 'A Significant Other - Riding the Centenary Tour de France with Lance Armstrong' will be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 1 July, price £9.99

Blake Morrison, Writer

I came to cycling very late. I didn't ride a bike until I was 30. I grew up in a small village with a busy road running through it and my parents thought it was too dangerous to let me have one. In a way they were vindicated. There were only four boys of my age, and one of them was knocked off his bike and suffered brain damage. I'm a timid cyclist. I'm happiest on single-track roads with no cars. I love the breeze in your face, and on a warm summer's day feeling cooled while doing it. And I like that thing where you take your hands off the handlebars and put your fingers through your hair, and your hair is all soft because of the vibrations in your hands. It's the same thing as when you use a lawnmower. When I run, I push myself hard. For me, cycling is much more restful. It's pure physical pleasure.