Why get on my bike?
"Nothing compares to the simple pleasures of a bike ride," said John F. Kennedy, a man who had the pleasure of Marilyn Monroe. Cycling is a liberating experience; in urban areas you're never snarled up in traffic, whizzing past fuming motorists, parking is rarely a problem, and in the country you have the great sense of freedom.
It does you a lot of good too: an hour's cycling by a 70-80kg man averaging 10-15mph will use 600 calories an hour; regular cyclists are as fit as an average person 10 years younger; and cyclists reputedly breathe in less traffic pollution than car drivers. No wonder Iris Murdoch thought the bicycle "the most civilised conveyance known to man".
Can I start gently?
Thanks to Britain's canal and railway builders, you can. Abandoned railway lines are a major component of cycle routes and especially the 12,000-mile National Cycle Network (NCN) created by the Bristol-based engineering and sustainable-transport charity Sustrans (0845 113 00 65; www.sustrans.org.uk). Trains need modest gradients, so their alignments are perfect for novice cyclists. Three out of four people are within two miles of the National Cycle Network. Its paths are punctuated by themed sculptures acting as mileposts which now form the world's largest open-air linear sculpture park.
One of the oldest and most effective conversions is the Tissington Trail in Derbyshire, which runs for 13 miles through the lovely limestone country between Ashbourne and Parsley Hay, where it connects with the 17-mile High Peak Trail. The route of the world's first railway conveying passengers and freight by mechanical power, between Canterbury and Whitstable, is now the seven-mile Crab and Winkle Way. Another early conversion was the railway beside the Camel Estuary between Wadebridge and Padstow; the Camel Trail has become one of the most popular rides in Britain, boosted by visitors to Rick Stein's restaurant.
Some of the best traffic-free and flat routes are canal towpaths, and half the population of Britain lives within five miles of a canal. Cycling on some canals requires a free permit, which can be downloaded from www.waterscape.com, which lists canals where cycling is allowed. Canal cycling also provides a fresh perspective on cities.
They tend to be oases of calm and are lined with picturesque relics of a bygone age, from lock-keeper's cottages and warehouses to aqueducts and beautifully built bridges. In north and east London, for example, you can dodge the city traffic in a fascinating quadrant of the capital by cycling on a stretch of the Grand Union Canal between Islington and Limehouse. This four-mile ride cuts through parkland, industrial dereliction and some of the most desirable residential areas.
Away from the capital, many of the canal-side hostelries that slaked the thirst of bargees now cater for cyclists and walkers. Highlights include the nine sylvan miles beside the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal between Newport and Pontypool (NCN46), the 10-mile towpath of the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal which can lead on to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust centre at Slimbridge, and the Kennet & Avon between Reading and Newbury (NCN4).
The Clyde to Forth path (NCN75) from Gourock (west of Glasgow) to Edinburgh combines closed railway lines and towpaths beside the Water of Leith and the Union Canal to create an almost traffic-free 91-mile route slicing across central of Scotland.
I don't want to invest in a bike until I know if I like it
Hiring a bike will help to decide at least what type of riding you want to do. Unless you plan heavy-duty touring or off-roading, a hybrid is the best compromise.
Country Lanes (01590 622 627; www.countrylanes.co.uk) offers self-guided day or longer tours from Brockenhurst station in the New Forest or from Windermere station in the Lake District. You can choose between a mountain bike or hybrid from £14 a day. Three-night tours of the forest and Isle of Wight start at £235. Six options are available from Windermere, ranging from two nights at £150 to six nights at £475.
Bike-hire by the hour or day is becoming much more readily available, particularly at or near the ends of dedicated bike routes. On the Tissington Trail (www.derbyshire-peakdistrict. co.uk/cycling.htm), bikes can be hired at Ashbourne, Parsley Hay and Middleton Top; day hire costs £14.
Thanks to a company called Off the Rails (01729 824 419; www.offtherails.org.uk), you can take the train to Garsdale or Ribblehead on the Settle and Carlisle railway and pick up bikes, maps, helmets and locks, leaving them at the same stations or Settle; prices inclusive of rail fare from Settle start at £35. Bike hire is listed by county at www.cycleweb.co.uk.
Can I take a bike on a train?
Yes, but not as easily as some other western European countries, and the days of special weekend trains for cyclists are long past. However, most train operating companies (TOCs) are trying to improve matters and bikes are carried free. The problem is one of capacity, especially in cities during rush hour when bikes are excluded from many trains. It tends to be easier on rural and secondary lines and at weekends, though numbers are limited and it's advisableu o to check that there is no replacement bus service during engineering works. Booking is recommended and sometimes required for longer journeys. Taking the train to one station and returning from another can offer a huge range of possibilities for a day or weekend's cycle; for example, the Thames Path is served by over 50 stations. For information on the regulations of the different TOCs, call 08457 48 49 50 or visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
I want a goal
More than 230 National Trust properties (0844 800 1895; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) are within a mile of the National Cycle Network, and more than 50 offer incentives to those arriving by bike.
Even seemingly unpromising routes can be used to reach places of interest. The route up the Lee Valley in London (NCN1) links maritime Greenwich, Europe's largest inner-city farm at Mudchute, Walthamstow Marsh Nature Reserve and the Lee Valley Country Park. The Fallowfield Loop Line (NCN6) links three of Manchester's green spaces: Chorlton Water Park, Highfield Country Park and Debdale Park.
Where's best for a really long ride?
Improving your fitness level day by day is one of the pleasant surprises of a long bike trip. So plan a route that starts with gentler gradients, such as the 214-mile Lochs and Glens North Cycle Route (NCN7) from Glasgow to Inverness. Its highlight is the spectacular high-level section north of Balquhidder through Glen Ogle, crossing a majestic stone viaduct built in 1870.
The equivalent ride in Wales is the challenging 254-mile Lon Las Cymru (NCN8) between Cardiff or Chepstow and Holyhead. Highlights include the adapted railway lines south of Brecon and the descent from the eastern end of Torpantau Tunnel to Talybont, the high-level section between Rhayader and Llangurig, the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, the Mawddach Trail leading to the path across the wooden railway bridge to Barmouth with wonderful views over Snowdonia, and Coed-y-Brenin forest between Dolgellau and Trawsfynydd.
Though the Devon Coast-to-Coast (NCN27) between Plymouth and Ilfracombe skirts the western flank of Dartmoor, the use of former railway lines for so much of the way means that the gradients are easy. Because 71 miles of it are traffic-free, it's ideal for families with young children who love cycling through tunnels and across viaducts such as Meldon with its grandstand views over the moors. The exit from Plymouth through the wooded grounds of the National Trust property at Saltram is a delightful contrast.
One of the toughest long-distance routes is the Sea-to-Sea ("C2C") between Workington or Whitehaven and Tynemouth or Sunderland. Crossing the Lake District fells, the Pennines and the once-industrial moorland around Stanhope and Consett, it has lots of punishing climbs with stunning views as a reward.
Can I go on an organised holiday?
Travel companies cater for all kinds of holidays, from easy pootles along country lanes to marathon tours, guided or independent, and usually with bike hire. Maps and route descriptions are provided, and there is the reassurance of back-up should you buckle a wheel. Most companies will transport your luggage between accommodation.
One of the largest selection of tours in Britain as well as abroad is organised by Saddle Skedaddle (0191-265 1110; www.skedaddle.co.uk). Though the company caters for seasoned mountain bikers, it also offers guided Introductory Road Weekends in the Cotswolds based at Moreton-in-Marsh and using high-end road bikes. Besides riding through some of England's loveliest lanes, the weekend is designed to teach novices some of the tricks of the trade; £265, including lunches. Classic Road Weekends in the Cotswolds, Shropshire and North Wales start at £210.
A nine-day Tour d'Ecosse begins on 12 September in Glasgow and heads as far north as Inverness before heading south through the Great Glen to catch the ferry for Arran; £990 plus £135 bike hire. The ultimate challenge is Skedaddle's annual Land's End to John O'Groats ride, starting in Cornwall on 12 July; the 16-day ride costs £1,495 plus £150 bike hire.
Explore Britain (01740 650 900; www.xplorebritain.com) has devised a range of self-guided tours ranging from two nights in England for £102 to 10 nights in Scotland for £1,320. Four options in the Pennines are offered by CycleActive (01768 840400; www.cycleactive.co.uk) with two-night breaks from £110. Self-guided tours of Norfolk and Suffolk lasting up to a week are organised by UK Cycle Holidays (01379 644 818; www.ukcycleholidays.co.uk) starting in Diss or Fakenham; prices from £119. The unspoilt landscapes of the Welsh Marches are the domain of Ludlow-based Wheely Wonderful Cycling (01568 770 755; www.wheelywonderfulcycling.co.uk), though a six-night tour using part of the Lon Las Cymru is also offered. Prices from £155 for a local Shropshire two-night tour.
Pembrokeshire is covered by Greenways (01834 862 107; www.greenwaysholidays.com) in a five-night tour of the Celtic Train between Saundersfoot and Newport; £391 including luggage and station transfers.
Scottish Cycle Safaris (0131-556 5560; www.cyclescotland.co.uk) offers well-researched itineraries based on almost deserted roads of the Highlands and islands, with four-day tours from £275 and one-week tours from £395 including B&B accommodation and bike hire.
Based in Peebles, mb7 (08706 093 096; www.mb7.com) specialises in luggage-free tours of quiet roads through the beautiful border country, either based in the Tweed Valley for day rides or a week-long circuit of either 20 or 40 miles a day. Prices start at £95 for two nights in a bunkhouse or £105 in B&B accommodation.
Finally, the Cheshire Year of the Garden is being celebrated by Byways Breaks (0151-722 8050; www.byways-breaks.co.uk), offering a two- or three-night break based at Manor Farm near Cholmondeley.
A one-week alternative is to follow the Cheshire Cycleway and visit Ness Gardens, Mount Pleasant, Bluebell Cottage Gardens, Arley, Tatton, Hare Hill, Gawsworth and Cholmondeley Castle, staying in B&Bs, hotels and country pubs.
Where do I find out more?
Books and maps to help plan rides can be found at Stanfords (020-7836 1321; www.stanfords.co.uk). The national cyclists' organisation, the CTC (0870 873 0060; www.ctc.org.uk), and the London Cycling Campaign (020-7234 9310; www.lcc.org.uk) offer a wide range of advice. One of the best websites is www.bikeforall.net. Other websites are devoted to regional routes, such as www.bikeroutes.org.uk for south-east Scotland and north-east England.
During the national Bike Week (0845 612 0661; www.bikeweek.org.uk), which starts next Saturday, there are hundreds of events, from training and free bike safety checks to rides for families.
Raise money as well as beads of perspiration
There's a great sense of esprit de corps in charity fundraising events, and bike rides have been a feature of British life for decades. Many rides are in aid of medical charities, and entry packs are around £15. Routes are marshalled, and mechanics, pick-up vehicles and first-aid teams laid on, so all you have to worry about is being fit enough to pedal the distance. Rides are organised all over the UK, and many are devised to take in attractive countryside and pleasant routes.
A 68-mile circuit of the Yorkshire Dales from Skipton on 28 June will raise money for Demand (Design and Manufacture for Disability). Walpole Park in Ealing is the starting point for a 57-mile ride to Oxford on 6 July in aid of CLIC Sargent (Caring for Children with Cancer), finishing at Oxpens Meadow where music, refreshments and a beer tent are laid on. You can choose a 25-, 50- or 75-mile circular route from Colchester on 19 July in support of Marie Curie Cancer Care. Training is required for a 100-mile ride on 7 September to raise money for Christie Hospital; the route is a sweep through Cheshire, taking in the Delamere Forest.
Like marathons, places on the most popular rides are quickly filled; the 27,000 places on this year's London to Brighton Ride for the British Heart Foundation are full. For information and listings, contact Bike Events (0870 755 8519; www.bike-events.com) while www.bikeforall.net has useful advice on preparing for that 100-mile ride.
Eastward bound: a gentle start
Eastern England's unchallenging terrain is good country for gentle rides, and several routes through East Anglia have been devised. The principal artery is NCN1 from Harwich to Hull; this ambles through lanes to Norwich to pick up the Peddars Way traffic-free path towards the north coast at Wells-next-the-Sea. Few cities have created such good cycle facilities as Peterborough with its Green Wheel (www.pect.net/green_wheel.html) of radiating spokes to a 45-mile cycle ring path through villages and incorporating the Shanks Millennium Bridge.