by Mark Harris
While America is in the middle of National Bike Month, the UK has to get by with a Bike Week, this year running from June 15 to 23. But don’t worry if your itchy feet can’t wait until then – a recent UK government survey found that the British cycle twice as often as Americans, and the nation’s trails and byways are always welcoming to those on two wheels.
Online maps and trip planners, including those produced by the Sustrans National Cycle Network, make exploration easy. Most towns have cycle shops where you can rent bicycles for anything from a few hours to a month at a time.
Cambridge beats Oxford – at cycling
Luckily, Britain’s cycling hotspots are also some of its must-see destinations for visitors. The most cycle-mad city in Britain is Cambridge, where a staggering 47 percent of the population jumps on a bike at least once a week – compared to about 5 percent in the US.
This historic university city’s mostly flat roads are ideal for sightseeing from the saddle, whether for close-up views of the colleges or a quiet ride by the River Cam. That many cyclists means more bike rental shops than you would think possible for a medium-sized town, including one right at the train station.
In June, the Cambridge News Big Bike Ride has something for everyone: a 100-mile route touring far-flung villages, a less strenuous 100-km option, and a 100-furlong (about 12.5 mile) course in and around the city itself.
Cambridge rival Oxford is another refuge for cyclists, with 28 percent of people riding weekly. As well as having a vibrant Bike Week program, Oxford is the destination for a fantastic 60-mile charity ride from London in July.
York takes third place on the cycling podium, thanks to the 25 percent of its population who prefer to travel on two wheels. The glorious gothic York Minster cathedral, Roman ruins and medieval walls are highlights of any ride through this ancient city in northeastern England.
Renting a bike is pretty straightforward anywhere around Britain, even in the busy but increasingly cycle-friendly capital. London’s citywide program rents “Boris bikes” (named after the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson) by the minute – pay just £2 ($3.25) for 24-hour access, then all rides of less than 30 minutes are free.
If you do just one organized ride this summer, try the charming Thames Bridges Bike Ride, a charity ride that crosses the Thames 16 times on its way from the famous Tower Bridge out to Walton Bridge in Surrey.
The art of cycling
For the British, cycling isn’t just a means of getting around and getting fit. This quirky nation has evolved a cycling culture all of its own. At Kielder Water reservoir in Northumberland, an Art & Architecture Geo Trail puts you on a treasure hunt for heritage and sculpture using just your smartphone and a bike. Cycle Stories 2013 — a multimedia art project traveling the country and merging music, art, dance and, yes, bicycling — promises to be even more surreal.
Truly adventurous cyclists can turn up at any of the World Naked Bike Rides this summer. A dozen UK cities are hosting these “as bare as you dare” community celebrations of cycling and the human body. Their party atmosphere is welcoming, especially if you forgot to pack your Lycra, but definitely don’t neglect sunscreen…