Jon Winter takes a bumpy ride into tranquillity along the Oxford Canal
James Starley has had to settle for being Coventry's second most famous resident. If he'd been an exhibitionist like Lady Godiva and ridden his newly patented lightweight penny-farthing naked through the city's streets, well, things might have turned out differently. As it is, Lady Godiva's statue stands in the city centre, and poor Mr Starley is stuck out next to Coventry's unsightly Ringway.

It seems appropriate that two-wheel enthusiasts embarking on an 83-mile canal-side ride from Starley's home town to Oxford should acknowledge the "father of the British bicycle industry". So, before setting off, pay a brief visit to Coventry's Road Transport Museum, which houses a huge collection of bicycles, ranging from Mr Starley's early models through to today's hi-tech machinery.

The journey starts just a short spin from the museum at the newly refurbished canal basin. Its careful restoration paints an encouraging, but inaccurate, picture of what is to come farther along, where you'll have to tackle unforgiving stretches of rarely trodden, impossibly overgrown towpath that make for a bone-shaking ride.

Heading first north along the Coventry Canal, you are treated to a canal- side tour of the city's once great industrial past. Plastic bottles, empty beer cans and this year's hatchlings bob about on the reflections of great redbrick piles that wouldn't look out of place on a Lowry canvas. (A former Coventry student, Tony Wheeler, this week upset the locals by describing the city as a "dismal" in his new Lonely Planet travel guide to Britain.)

The industrial demeanour, however, soon fades: duck under the M6 and make a right turn at Hawkesbury junction to join the Oxford Canal and a scene from an inland waterways holiday brochure. On two wheels you'll breeze along this fast section, passing smiling families on gaily painted narrowboats enjoying life limited to 4mph.

Rugby's outer suburbs fade in and out without ado. The pace soon settles to a steady pedal through a long rural stretch where the canal's loose curves and unkempt, tangled margins make it seem more like a river. With just the watery wildlife and the odd narrowboat for company, you find yourself beginning to share the feeling of freedom that inspires so many to spend their holidays puttering along Britain's network of canals. Cyclists should make the most of this freedom while they can. Next month British Waterways plans to charge cyclists pounds 12.50 for an annual adult permit to use the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath, setting a precedent that will be applied to all British Waterways canals in the near future, including the Coventry to Oxford towpath.

Nature gradually gains the upper hand as the trail becomes an overgrown, gruelling slog for the last few miles into Braunston, where The Boatman's canalside terrace appears like a shimmering oasis. Built on the busy junction where the Grand Union Canal joins the Oxford Canal, it makes a perfect place to rehydrate and refuel in the company of other canal travellers.

Then on to Napton Flight and the first and only real incline on the ride, as the canal climbs 50 feet through a staircase of nine locks to its highest point (380 feet above sea level) before meandering wildly at this elevation for 12 miles across an area of Oxfordshire that a crow would fly only five to cover. Cyclists, however, soon gain the psychological edge as they pass Claydon Flight, from where it's downhill all the way to Oxford (though the canal drops just 180 feet in 40 miles.)

At Cropredy, the route tags alongside the River Cherwell, confirming the style of canal engineer James Brindley, whose hallmark became canals that follow the natural contours of the land. Brindley steers this course pretty much all the way into Oxford, leading you through some charming villages in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire's Cotswolds.

Approaching two-thirds of the distance, saddle-sore cyclists should take advantage when civilisation reappears in Banbury ("ugly" is Mr Wheeler's one-word description), before making the last big push.

With a bit of luck, and not too many punctures, daylight will be just fading as you make your final approach into Oxford. These last few miles of towpath are mercifully smooth and you can sense that you are nearing the city limits by an increasing population of new-age barge dwellers lining the canal banks. It looks an attractive lifestyle, made all the more appealing by an overwhelming desire to climb out of the saddle and rest your weary legs.

The entire 83 miles of towpath make an absorbing but fairly tough day's pedalling, perhaps more manageable if split up with an overnight stop at Banbury. Choice of wheels is also a consideration if you plan to cycle the whole route. The chunky tyres and general robustness of a mountain bike can prove useful through the hard-going terrain. If, however, you stick to the smooth, well-used sections through towns and villages, then any old bike will be adequate, although I wouldn't fancy my chances on one of Mr Starley's old clunkers.

A note on safety: Cycle helmets are advised as there are countless little brick bridges whose geometry is such that one lapse in concentration when ducking under them will leave you floating unconscious in the canal. Also, those wearing shorts must avoid encroaching nettles, although relief for stings can be found on the move by steering through the clumps of giant dock leaves that also line the towpath.

A Coventry to Oxford Canal map is available from Geo Projects (01734 393 567).

Further information from British Waterways on 01788 890 666

Chain of events

National Bike Week begins today and continues until 15 June. Cycle- related events are taking place all over Britain. Today in Birmingham, for example, the Push Bikes organisation will be offering advice and can help you test-ride a recumbent bicycle in Victoria Square, between 10am and 3.30pm; 0121-632 6753 for more information.

On Tuesday evening in London, a "Rebels and Radicals of the East End" tour promises to take cyclists around the former haunts of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky on a kind of socialism proficiency test. Turn up outside the Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, London E1, at 7pm on 10 June; 0171-265 9095 for information.

The latest route in the National Cycle Network has opened unexpectedly early. The Hull to Harwich route covers 163 miles of eastern England, passing through Lincoln, Kings Lynn, Norwich and Colchester. Maps are available from Sustrans, the charity that is creating the network; call 0117-929 0888.

"West of the Hills" is the toughest of three bike routes around the Malvern Hills just published by the district council. It covers some of the ground where Edward Elgar cycled for inspiration earlier this century. For a free map and guide to the routes, call Malvern Hills tourist information centre on 01684 892700.

Two of the six best-buy bikes in a Which? survey last month were made in Britain: the hybrid Saracen Hy-way (pounds 200) and the Raleigh M-Trax mountain bike (pounds 270). The other four were all made in Taiwan.

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