After setting out from his Wiltshire village in July 2010, Charlie Walker spent four-and-a-half years cycling across three continents. His route took him into the Arctic Circle, through the Himalayas and across the Sahara. Over 40,000 miles later – the equivalent of cycling twice around the world – Charlie recently arrived back in the UK. Rough Guides editor Greg Dickinson caught up with him to hear how he got on.

What inspired you to set out on your journey in the first place?

The reason I set out is probably different in my memory to what it actually was at the time, but the best I can come up with is that I wasn’t quite ready to plunge into a career. I was 22, I didn’t have a long term girlfriend, I didn’t have a job or a mortgage or kids or anything like that, so it seemed like a very easy time to just cut off and do it.

How did you prepare for such an epic trip?

Preparation for something like this is difficult. I didn’t prepare, really. I got my funds together and bought cheap kit and a third-hand bike called “Old Geoff”. I chose three points to reach on the trip – Nordkapp (Norway), Singapore and Cape Town – and didn’t work out how I was going to get between them. Nor did I prepare physically; I hadn’t sat on a bike for a couple of months before I started, so the first few weeks were something of a baptism of fire.

“Old Geoff” in Tibet, by Charlie Walker

You and “Old Geoff” spent a lot of time together. Did you have any scrapes during your travels?

I suppose the nearest I came to believing I was in real danger was when I got lost in a whiteout in Tibet. I was up there in the winter and that’s not advisable, especially if you’re ill equipped. I was cycling up into the mountains and it started to snow, and then it slowly became a blizzard. I lost the track and was pushing through knee-deep snow. Then, just when I was thinking about digging a hole and sleeping in the snow, I came across a small hut where a Tibetan family let me stay with them for the night. It was sort of miraculous. If I believed in fate, this would have been it.

Isn’t it quite tricky to get into Tibet as a solo traveller?

Yeah. I realized the only way I could do it would be to get into China first and then sneak in, because if you want to go officially then you need a driver and a guide. So one night, at about 3am, I managed to cut a hole in the fence at the military base that guards the entrance to Tibet. I got caught after three weeks, but it was interesting while it lasted.

Didn’t you also have a near-miss with an elephant in Botswana?

I did indeed. I was following the road in the north east of Botswana called the “Elephant Highway”. The elephants are perfectly used to vehicles, but a silent vehicle moving at speed with an animal-type shape is quite unnerving. They’re not used to bicycles. There was a large bull grazing on the roadside, so I just cycled past him, but as I went past he stepped up towards the roadside and flapped his ears out and started waving his trunk and trumpeting. In that instance he looked like a double-decker bus. Just huge. He started chasing me, so I had to keep pedalling as hard and fast as I could. He eventually slowed off, but there was about a hundred metres where I was too afraid to look back.

Mongolia, by Charlie Walker

What was the most memorable meal you had on the road?

In one supermarket in Sweden there was a pyramid display of cheap, tinned meat. The label was a white sticker with cartoony pictures of fish on it. They were disgustingly cheap – and that’s the key word. It was gelatinous and not very tasty. Then the next time I stocked up in a supermarket I saw the same can was surrounded by animal food… I had been eating cat food for three days.

Anything more… exotic?

I inadvertently ate pig’s penis in China. It didn’t taste that bad.

Which was the friendliest country that you visited?

Iran, hands down. There are such negative preconceptions about that country, but as a rule, the more suppressive or autocratic the regime, the nicer the people are in defiance of that. On a daily basis I was invited into people’s homes, and I couldn’t accept every offer because I never would have got anywhere. It’s just part of the culture; one of the pillars for Islam is hospitality for travellers because of the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca.

So did people join you during your round-the-world pilgrimage?

I met a German guy in Vietnam called Micky. We were in a bar, and late that night he said: “You know, I think I’ll sell my motorbike and buy a bicycle, and we will cycle to Beijing together”. And we did. In the DRC I bought a dugout canoe with a Scottish guy and we spent a few weeks going down a river. So yeah, some people joined the adventure.

Thai monk, by Charlie Walker

You took some stunning photos on the road. Is there one picture that stands out as a favourite?

There was one I took of a very old monk in Thailand. I was sleeping on the floor in his room at a Buddhist temple. He was 75 and had been a monk since he was five, and he’d started to lose his mind a little bit – he was wandering around and peeing in the corner of his room. In the morning he posed for a picture and the planets aligned. He’s got a very austere, wise expression. And by chance, in the background there’s a nice golden statue of the Buddha. That’s probably my favourite photo.

How has it been adjusting to normality now that you’re back?

Easier than I thought. During the last six months I was quite ready to come back. I got quite ill. In the Congo I had malaria and typhoid at the same time, and I was very weak for a while after that. So from then on I was really looking forward to getting home. By the time I was going through France I had a couple of weeks by myself to reflect on everything, and when I crossed over to Dover suddenly it just felt right and comfortable.

A lot of people dream of embarking on an adventure like this but never quite get around to it. What would you say to inspire someone to get out and just do it?

Anyone can do it. I’m not a sportsman. I’m not rich, I never stood out in sports teams at school. I’m not a cyclist, as such. The biggest thing is just to decide to do it and go. Set yourself a date and cancel your phone contract – then you’re really stuffed and you’ve got to go. And you don’t need to cycle around continents. Just walk out your door, hitchhike to Dover and see where it takes you. I think there’s so much to be said for just roaming for a while in a chaotic, quixotic fashion.

You can read about Charlie’s adventures on his award-winning blog. He is fundraising for two charities, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Future Hope.

One of the authors of France en Vélo: The Ultimate Cycle Journey from the Channel to the Med: St-Malo to Nice, Hannah Reynolds, shares why she believe France is best explored by bike and give you some tips on how to make the most of your own Tour de France.

Cycling in France can be the ultimate ice-breaker. During the early days of Le Tour de France riders would raid bars during the race with proud owners offering them liquid refreshment. Today’s tourist rider gets an equally warm response with cafés always happy to top up your water. A bike proves a great conversation starter too – people will always ask a cyclist where they’ve been or where they’re going.

Generally the French have a great respect for cyclists; you and your bike will be made to feel welcome most places you go, from the car driver who shouts “bon courage” out the window as you labour up a climb, to the hotelier who is happy to let you tuck your bike away in his wine cellar to be safe for the night.

Eating

France is unequalled in its flavours; there is an incredible diversity of terrain, soil type and climate which influences the wide variety of food you will find on your plate or the drink in your glass. As you ride through the landscape you will observe the colours of the hills and soil, the type of animals grazing, the nut trees lining the road and the scent of woody herbs by the roadside. Of an evening those flavours, smells and sights will be served to you on a plate.

From the hefty beef steaks found in the north, the foie gras and truffles of the Périgord and the abundance of fresh vegetables in Provence, your meals will be a reflection of the landscape you have ridden through. As you eat and drink your way through France you will learn as much about a region in the restaurants as you do on the road.

Food is an integral part of French culture; meal times are observed rigidly and lunchtime is sacred. The ceremony surrounding food even extends to the humble picnic. In most villages you will find a small picnic area or plan d’eau a quiet spot by a pond or lake, the perfect lunch spot for a cycle tourist, and passers-by will often offer a cheery “bon appétit” if they see you tucking into your sandwich.

You don’t need to carry vast amounts of food supplies, many villages have a boulangerie so you will never be far from a warm, fresh baguette, although you should be wary of Sunday closing hours – ensure you purchase a few extras on Saturday. In rural communities you may find a place de multi-services – a concentration of all essential village services including a dépôt de pain.

When eating out don’t be shy about ordering the menu du jour. It is often the cheapest option and, most importantly, it’s the freshest as it is prepared each day with whatever is on offer at the local market at the time. It will give you a good taste for regional specialties and what produce is in season. To complement your food try ordering wine by the pichet (250cl or 500cl jugs); it will be the basic vin de table (house wine) but is usually a good locally produced tipple and is the perfect size for when an afternoon of pedalling suggests a whole bottle would be unwise.

Accommodation

There is a wide range of accommodation available suitable for the touring cyclist, it is mainly dependent on your budget and whether you are light-weight touring with just a change of clothes and a toothbrush or fully self-sufficient.

The three main types are good quality hotels, chambre d’hôtes or campsites. Chambres d’hôtes are essentially Bed and Breakfasts, although some may also offer an evening meal on request. They are a great way to meet people, the rooms themselves are often interesting and character filled and the welcome is more intimate and personal than a large hotel. There is also a network of auberge de jeunesse (youth hostels), which offer a similar experience.

Consider the type of accommodation you book in respect to the riding you plan. After a full day in the saddle it will be good food and rest your body craves most. If your end point is somewhere you wish to explore thoroughly then plan a shorter day. No matter how fit you are a long ride, especially in the heat, isn’t conducive to doing much more in the evening than enjoying a satisfying meal and relaxing with a drink.

Timings

Despite being perfectly comfortable with breaking the rules when it suits, some things in France are done with clockwork regularity. One of the key things to know is lunch times. Outside the hours of noon-2pm you will struggle to get a meal and any request for the lunch menu will be greeted with, ‘not possible, not possible’ as the chef sharpens his knives in the kitchen. Yet, a starving cycle tourist can often be surprised by offers of help. By some miracle bread and cheese may materialise, if you look particularly pathetic. However, this is not a technique to be relied upon.

Top tips for cycle touring in France

  • Tourist Information offices – Office de Tourisme – are often a great source of free WiFi, even when they are shut you can often pick up the signal from outside.
  • Hotel breakfasts can be a rip off. Buy your fresh croissant or pain au chocolat from the local boulangerie and eat with an outdoors view of your choosing.
  • In some rural areas you’ll be able to find bike spares and mechanical help at catch-all farm machinery shops. Don’t be put off by the displays of lawn mowers; they will often sell inner-tubes as well.
  • Many villages have water fountains, particularly the further south you go.  If there is a sign saying “eau non potable” avoid it, but if there is no sign it is normally fresh and good to drink.
  • Learning a few bits of French cycling slang will help you blend in with the local roadies, “finir sur la jante” means you have ended the ride completely exhausted, in direct translation it means you have “finished on the rim”.

To get your copy of France en Vélo for a special introductory price of £13.59, saving 20% off the RRP, visit www.franceenvelo.cc and enter code SMNRG at the checkout, free postage and packaging to UK destinations. For  guided cycling trips in France contact www.skedaddle.co.uk. All photographs courtesy of Hannah Reynolds. 

In anticipation of this year’s Commonwealth Games, Meera Dattani finds out how to explore Glasgow on a bike.

There are no brakes. The gears are fixed. Your shoes are clipped into the pedals and don’t clip out with ease. You’re essentially attached to your bike. Then there’s the bigger question of how do you slow it down. If it wasn’t for the reassuring words on the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome website, that it “isn’t just for elite athletes”, I might have done a runner.

This taster session at Glasgow’s new velodrome proves to be something of a revelation. There’s no denying the impressive surroundings, that glossy circuit and sloping sides. But the truth is that getting around it, at a human rather than superhuman pace, is not as hard as it looks.

It’s nothing but exhilarating. The 250m track was designed by Ralph Schuermann (a world-renowned track designer) and cyclists can reach top speeds of about 75 kilometres per hour. Needless to say, my session had slightly lower expectations. It’s easy enough to brake without brakes, and when you’re constantly told “it’s easier if you go faster”, it’s a case of getting your head down and facing the fear. It proved fruitful – confidence grew and soon we novice track cyclists were riding above the top line of those once-intimidating sloping sides.

The velodrome is probably Glasgow’s highest-profile sports venue with the upcoming Commonwealth Games in July 2014, but mention Glasgow and cycling in the same breath, and the typical reaction is one of surprise. In the same way its image as a grey industrial metropolis is undeserving, especially when there’s so much spectacular architecture, it’s also far more cycle-friendly than expected.

Countryside cycling

The newest treat for Glasgow’s cyclists is the Cathkin Braes Mountain Bike Trails, which opened in May 2013, and are the venue for the Commonwealth Games’ mountain biking events. Overlooking Glasgow, just south of the centre, the trails are free to use before and after the games. On my visit to this 5.5km circuit plenty of bikers were testing their skills, jumping, racing and skidding along the tracks – pros can tackle the route in about 14 minutes. The trail has been designed by Phil Saxena, the man behind the Beijing Olympic course, and local schoolchildren have named some of the route’s features. Evidently the distinct dry Glaswegian sense of humour starts young – consider Brig O’Doom, Broken Biscuits, and Rest And Be Thankful.

It’s a mixed terrain course, with woodland, moorland and natural bedrock, and best of all, all levels can cycle it with experienced riders gaining a time advantage by their skill in tackling the trickier climbs and descents. The trail also links to local cycle routes – a dedicated cycle route from Glasgow’s centre to Cathkin Braes park is being developed.

Over in Pollok Park, in Glasgow’s Southside, the mountain bike trails are more approachable. A short green circuit is a welcome introduction to off-road cycling while the steeper Blue Circuit’s rooty trails lets you test a few skills. The Red Circuit simulates the type of trails you might find when mountain biking and for city-dwelling riders, it’s a handy place to practice some moves. For flatter, prettier cycling, however, there’s the park itself, where you can glide freely past the deer park, hay field, Pollok House and the Burrell Collection art gallery. The park’s western edge also forms part of the National Cycle Network.

Urban adventures

One of the best urban cycle routes is along the Kelvin Walkway, by the banks of the River Kelvin which meanders through Glasgow’s western neighbourhoods. Our route took us past the arboretum of the Botanic Gardens which in the summer hosts The Bard in the Botanics open-air theatre, north past Glasgow University Sports Grounds before a short 100-metre stint and into Dawsholm Park for views over the city. A detour onto the Forth and Clyde Canal and across Queen Margaret Bridge leads back to the Kelvin Walkway for a scenic route through Kelvingrove Park past Kelvingrove Museum and onto the Clyde Walkway. Here resides the Old Transport Museum and its new home, the Riverside Museum on the banks of the River Clyde which is also home to the futuristic Science Centre, IMAX cinema, BBC Scotland and new music venue Hydro. Time permitting, you can cycle all the way to Glasgow Green in the eastern limits and beyond.

You can, in fact, cycle all the way to Edinburgh on a flat, easy route along the canal. So to those who say cycling and Glasgow don’t fit, try telling that to the people who work at Siempre, Glasgow’s first cycling cafe in Partick, close to the southern end of Byers Road in the West End. They’re part of Glasgow’s growing cycling community and have created a space which does everything from fix and sell road bikes and cycle gear, serve locally sourced, organic food and organise no-wheel events such as wine tastings. They’re all about making cycling accessible – and as a novice biker, Glasgow has proved that even big cities can come up with the goods if you look for them.

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London is a cyclist’s nightmare, so they say. Bus drivers cackle as they deliberately squeeze commuters onto the pavement, pedestrians wander into busy roads with complete disregard for silent pedallers, and what about the smoggy, toxic city air? There’s no doubt that cycling in the heart of London can be a bit of a slog, but there’s still hope for those city dwellers with itchy calves. Away from the congested centre there is a whole host of scenic, low-traffic bike routes available; here are five of my favourite ways to escape the big smoke on two wheels, ranging from a laid-back day in south London to a 100-mile epic to the coast.

Watermills and wildlife on the Wandle Trail

The 20km (14 mile) Wandle Trail is an easy-going ride suitable for cyclists of all ages and abilities. Starting from King George’s Park in Wandsworth, the low-traffic route creates the rare illusion that you have escaped the bustle of the city, wiggling along the river Wandle through a number of city parks and nature reserves. Cyclists share the trail with walkers and joggers, inviting a slower pace to enjoy the varied birdlife (including herons, which have recently returned to the area) and the rusting old watermills that flank the route. Keep an eye out for the blue plaques that commemorate understated events that have taken place along the trail, for example “Tony Trude moored his houseboat, Land of Cockaign, and watched river life. The boat sank in 2001”.

A low-traffic ride from London to Cambridge

The London to Cambridge cycle route is an oft-overlooked way of reaching Britain’s academic motherland, but at just 60 miles – and with no climbs of any note – it’s a great option for anyone with a day and a pair of wheels at their disposal. Nick Martin’s blog maps the best traffic-free route, taking in a practically deserted stint through the farmland between Standon and Stanstead Abbotts. If it’s a sunny day there’s even the chance to get your feet wet in a couple of fords in the depths of rural Hertfordshire. For those who don’t fancy the cycle back, it’s a one-hour train ride from Cambridge into the city.

Ups and downs in Kent

This is the ride of choice for cyclists looking to push their legs to the limit, taking in three serious hills in the wooded Kent countryside just outside the M25. Heading out through Bromley and West Wickham, cyclists embark on this popular bike ride to face three mammoth climbs – Toys Hill, Ide Hill and Crockham Hill. With gradients pushing fifteen per cent, these hills have become the stuff of legend even among drivers, and should only be considered by the kind of cyclists who revel in the pain of a long, uphill ascent and the cathartic, eye-streaming downhill that follows.

From Victoria Park to Epping Forest

Teeming with well-groomed hipsters and dog-walking cockneys, Victoria Park is the ideal starting point for a day trip out to Epping Forest. Shortly after leaving the park the route follows the River Lea towpath for 16km (10 miles) from the Olympic Park to the reservoirs in Ponders End. The only on-road stint (and contour of any description) is the climb up Kings Head Hill just a mile away from the forest. At 6,000 acres, you could easily spend hours exploring London’s largest open space, with plenty of bumpy off-road tracks available for those with thicker tyres. For a pint with a view, the Butler’s Retreat offers sweeping panoramas from the edge of the forest; if you have one too many, trains run direct from nearby Chingford to London Liverpool Street.

The South Downs Way National Trail

This epic off-road route doesn’t begin from England’s current capital but rather its first, the ancient city of Winchester – a fifty minute train ride journey from Clapham Junction. Starting just east of the town, the South Downs Way National Trail runs for 100 miles to Eastbourne on the south coast, passing through some of southern England’s finest countryside. The route follows bridleways, open farmland and loose-gravel tracks, so is only feasibly tackled with a solid mountain bike. There are also plenty of steep climbs, so only the fittest of the fit will plan to tackle this in a day – more enjoyable is to take a long weekend and make the most of the quaint villages and classic English pubs that are dotted along the way. The overall elevation is around 3800m, so whatever you do be sure to pack the panniers light!

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Life on two wheels is a beautiful thing, and travel on two wheels can be epic. Here are a few of the world’s greatest cycle routes to consider for your next big trip.

The Death Road, Bolivia

Widely considered to be the most dangerous road in the world, the forty-mile route connecting La Paz and Coroico has become the stuff of legend among downhill cyclists and thrill-seeking backpackers. The North Yungas Road (popularly referred to as the “Death Road”) runs alongside crumbling 600-metre-drops and around hairpin bends, but the sweeping views of the Bolivian Amazon rainforest are well worth the mortal fear.

Lofoten Islands, Norway

Dangling from Norway’s northwestern coast is the delightful Lofoten Archipelago, which – thanks to the Gulf Stream – boasts an unusually warm climate for its location just within the Arctic Circle. Cyclists flock here in the summer when the days are long, allowing plenty of time to explore traditional fishing villages and to seek out puffins and seals. Those who brave the late autumn and winter months are rewarded with the rare opportunity to pedal beneath the northern lights.

Route des Grandes Alpes, France

The classic Route des Grandes Alpes tackles some of the most scenic mountain passes in Europe. Stretching for over four hundred miles from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean, the tour features a series of spectacular uphill tests along France’s highest roads, including a gruelling 30-mile climb at Col de l’Iseran. Needless to say this route is not for beginners, nor for those who suffer from acrophobia.

Tour de Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo

Inaugurated in 2013, the Tour de Congo is a 600-mile route winding through the country’s safer western regions. Beside the sixty pro cyclists who took part in the first tour, very few people have completed the route to date. However, with an ever-improving infrastructure and growing international attention on the project, the DRC’s stunning mountain terrain and dense stretches of untouched jungle are likely to lure in adventurous cyclists in years to come.

Dead Sea to Red Sea, Jordan

This is a cross-country cycle of biblical proportions. The route starts on Mount Nebo, with panoramic vistas across the Promised Land, before descending to the lowest point on Earth along the shores of the Dead Sea, 418m below sea level. En route to the Red Sea cyclists pass some of Jordan’s major historic sights, including Al Karak Castle and the ancient town of Petra.

The Great Ocean Road, Australia

The iconic coastal road connecting the southeastern Australian towns of Allansford and Torquay is the largest war memorial in the world, built by returned servicemen after World War I. Today the 150-mile route is a favourite among those looking for a manageable long weekend cycle, taking in breathtaking cliff edges and the majestic Twelve Apostles rock stacks. There are also plenty of on- and off-road detours available for those with a bit more time on their hands.

Highlands to the coast, Madagascar

This stunning, manageable route through the heart of Madagascar should be top of the list for pedalling wildlife enthusiasts. Starting in the capital city of Antananarivo and ending in the peaceful coastal town of Mahavelona, the mostly gravelled route passes through the Ranomafana National Park and Andringitra Massif, both of which offer great opportunities to spot rare tropical birds and the endemic lemur.

Pacific Coast, Canada & USA

Starting in Vancouver and ending near the Mexican border, this 2000-mile route hugs the Pacific coastal highway through the states of Washington, Oregon and California. Along the way cyclists ride over misty mountain passes, cross the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and cruise past big waves on California’s iconic surfing beaches. This ride is best enjoyed on a relaxed schedule in order to fully embrace the laidback west coast way of life.

The west coast of Tasmania, Australia

Tasmania’s east coast is friendly, temperate and lined with pristine beaches. The west coast is a different world. There are very few signs of civilization, brutal contours and an even more brutal climate. Starting in the sleepy capital of Hobart, this roundabout route to Launceston passes through ancient forests, alongside the Montezuma Waterfall (Tasmania’s highest) and beneath the jagged Cradle Mountain. Only recommended for fit, ambitious cyclists looking for a serious challenge.

Lake Titicaca to Machu Picchu, Peru

This challenging mountain bike route starts and ends at two of Peru’s most famous sights. Setting off from the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake at an altitude of 3812m, cyclists pass through colourful colonial towns on the way to the lost city of Machu Picchu. The route mostly keeps to remote dirt tracks through the Altiplano, with good odds of seeing Peru’s native llamas and alpacas along the way.

The Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

Ascending to an altitude of 4500m, the Pamir Highway offers some of the finest views of any bike ride on the planet. There are very few shops or towns in this remote part of central Asia, so cyclists must haul their supplies with them as they pedal past turquoise lakes and through muscular mountain valleys in Tajikistan’s High Pamirs. Prepare to be plied with countless cups of home-brewed tea from locals along the way.

Land’s End to John O’Groats, the UK

Now something of a national institution, this thousand-mile journey spanning the length of the UK is undertaken by thousands of cyclists, walkers and motorists every year. Starting in Cornwall – widely considered to be the most challenging leg of the cycle – the route passes over the Clifton Suspension Bridge, cuts through isolated Lake District villages and traverses the mammoth Scottish Highlands.

The Friendship Highway, Tibet and Nepal

High-altitude cycling doesn’t get much better than the 500-mile-long China–Nepal Highway, commonly known as the Friendship Highway or, perhaps more fittingly, the Roof of the World. The road cuts through the highest mountain range on the planet – the Himalayas – so it should come as no surprise that cyclists face some monumentally tough uphill climbs. The hard work is rewarded with some of the longest, most exhilarating downhills around, plus the opportunity to take a detour to Everest Base Camp.

The Way of St James, Spain

Running from the foothills of the Pyrenees to Spain’s Atlantic coast, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (or The Way of St James) has been walked by millions of devoted Christian pilgrims since the eleventh century. The 500-mile journey is now also popular among cyclists, whether in search of spiritual enlightenment or simply to visit the rolling vineyards and medieval villages that punctuate the route.

La Route Verte, Canada

More a network than an A to B journey, La Route Verte opened in 2007 to become the most extensive biking trail in the Americas, comprising over 3000 miles of excellently signposted paths. Cyclists have their pick from a number of excellent routes around Québec province, whether they take on the paved circuit around Lac Saint-Jean, dot through seldom-visited townships on the Véloroute des Cantons or follow the old abandoned railway along the easy going Le P’tit Train du Nord cycleway.

Across Patagonia, Argentina and Chile

The route from Bariloche to Ushuaia is adventure cycling at its finest, and a fine way to explore this remote part of the world. The Argentine sections of the 1,800-mile route promise long, desolate roads cutting through arid Patagonian Steppe, with queues of mountain peaks and glaciers dominating the horizon. The greener Chilean sections of the route are equally scenic but generally considered to be far tougher, with fierce Pacific weather fronts often bringing wind and rain.

The Atlas Traverse, Morocco

A stone’s throw from Marrakesh is the High Atlas mountain range, whose untamed, dusty terrain offers a fantasy setting for mountain biking enthusiasts. Highlights of this epic range include a passage through the dramatic Dades Valley, views of the snow-dusted summit of Mount Toubkal (North Africa’s highest peak at 4167 m) and a visit to the legendary town of Imilchil, a charming Berber settlement named after the two locally-revered lakes.

Route 1, Iceland

The 850-mile road, which lines the perimeter of Iceland, is a memorable – if at times eerie – experience, taking in the very best of the island’s ecological and geological wonders. This remote, well-paved route boasts moderate contours, allowing cyclists to focus on the vast lava fields, towering waterfalls, fjords, geysers, icebergs and coughing volcanoes that have collectively earned Iceland the moniker “The Land of Ice and Fire”.

Victoria Falls to Cape Town, southern Africa

Few people can claim to have cycled alongside elephants or to have free-wheeled down desert sand dunes; these are just a couple of the thrills on offer when cycling through southern Africa. Starting at Victoria Falls in Zambia, this route takes in the bright white Makgadikgadi Saltpans in Botswana and crosses the Tropic of Capricorn in the Namib Desert, before triumphantly reaching South Africa’s second city.

Santiago de Cuba to Havana, Cuba

There is no better way of exploring Cuba than on two wheels, whether you ship your bike from home or ask a local to build one from scratch. Cyclists embarking on this 550-mile adventure from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico will pass through forgotten villages, ride alongside spluttering 1950s cars and stay overnight at homely casa particulars. Be sure to cycle from west to east to avoid the colossal headwind.

It’s less than 100 days until the Tour de France begins, and the organisers of the opening stages are already gearing up for the Grand Départ with the announcement of 17 spectator hubs earlier this week. The race begins in Yorkshire, making it the first time the Tour has ever visited the north. Prepare yourself for some stunning scenery and beautiful landscapes as the route winds through the Dales, departing from Leeds, taking in Harrogate and Sheffield via Ripon and the Peak District, then finishing up in London during Stage Three, the route for which is yet to be confirmed. All of this means you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to picturesque spots from which you can watch the cycling, either in person or on huge screens provided at some of the hubs. See the map below for our favourite stops on the Tour de France in England:

Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database rights 2014

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Launched in 2012, the Avenue Verte is a low-traffic cycle route connecting London and Paris, making the most of southern England’s extensive National Cycle Network and France’s bucolic north. Greg Dickinson took to the saddle and put the route to the test.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” Words don’t get wiser than this. It may be quicker to book a seat on a budget airline than it is to fix a puncture, and you can pass through the Channel Tunnel in the time it takes to cycle from Big Ben to London Zoo, but Ernest Hemingway’s fleeting remark still holds true seventy years after he wrote it. There simply is no better way to explore a country than on two wheels, and with the creation of the Avenue Verte the path has been set for novices and seasoned cyclists alike. Falling somewhere between the two, my girlfriend and I were soon on the road, our panniers overflowing with fig rolls and crumpled waterproofs.

The route officially starts at the London Eye, although the bright blue cockerel erected on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square seemed a more suitable starting point for our four-day grand voyage. After slaloming around early-riser tourists at Buckingham Palace and dodging dog walkers on Clapham Common we had our first taster of the promised verte with the Wandle Trail: a ten-mile path snaking past old watermills along the River Wandle to Carshalton.

Our exodus from London continued over the North Downs. This ancient strip of chalk grassland could be mistaken for the Peak District, were it not for the occasional glimpse of the hazy metropolis in the distance. From here a steep downhill zoomed us over the M25 and into an uninspiring stint through Redhill, Horley and Crawley – which really ought to have been renamed “Suburbia Gris“. The fact that the official (and very good) Sustrans guide lists Gatwick Airport as a notable sight says it all.

Leaving behind what is probably the dullest stretch of the entire cycle we joined what is arguably the finest. Here the Avenue Verte heads 20 miles east when the coast is actually 30 miles due south; frustrating for anyone in a rush, but a welcomed detour for pootling pedallers. This delightful section ambles along the Forest Way, through timbered hilltop villages and down the Cuckoo Trail before arriving in Newhaven Port, the spiritual halfway point of the journey.

Shortly before docking at Dieppe we were directed to the deafeningly loud loading bay, where a bundle of bikes and helmets were now knotted in a corner. During the four-hour journey we had met some fellow cyclists, ranging from retired, Lycra-clad gents with fist-like calves, to a group of university students supping Stellas with their packed lunches. We disembarked as a peloton, smugly before any motorised vehicle, not forgetting to keep to the right as we rolled along Dieppe’s mast-lined seafront.

A few miles south of the harbour we arrived in Arques-la-Bataille, the starting point of the disused Dieppe–Paris railway that cuts a smooth, 28-mile line through Normandy’s understated rural countryside. In the right conditions this could easily be completed in a couple of hours, but a gentle headwind slowed us down, allowing us to take in the distant church spires and smoking farmhouse chimneys that flank the route – a chorus of chickens and barking sheepdogs cheering us on as we rode.

Just when it was almost starting to feel a bit too easy the traffic-free path ended at Forges-les-Eaux, where we embarked on a welcome up-and-down through the hedge-lined Bray region, stopping over in Monneville at a particularly charming guesthouse run by a retired puppeteer and an opera-singing carpenter.

Keen to visit the Palace of Versailles, we deviated from the official route for the final leg of the cycle and followed Donald Hirsch’s acclaimed online guide, which led us right up to the gates of the lavish château. Here we spent a couple of hours cycling around the grounds, weaving between afternoon strollers and royal statues, and received a stern talking to when we accidentally entered the “no cycling zone” leading up to the palace.

Having sweated up our final hill, just after Versailles, we enjoyed a coast through Parc de St Cloud and down to the top of Avenue Andre Chevrillon, where the endpoint finally came into sight. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower a couple of times in the past, but it had never lived up to the hype until I saw it rise up through Paris’s low-slung city skyline just a few miles in the distance.

Anyone embarking on the Avenue Verte cycle should be aware that the terrain is not the most challenging in the world, nor are the views the most jaw-dropping (or the routes always the best signposted). Yet this ambitious project will lead you to forgotten farming villages, into tangled Franglish conversations and to the kind of smoky, back-end drinking holes that you would never normally stumble upon. By cycling across the two hundred miles of green space that falls between two of the world’s great capital cities, you experience something that no budget airline or train operator will ever be able to offer.

Explore more of these two countries with the Rough Guide to Britain and the Rough Guide to France. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

If you like the idea of cycling, but would rather cut off both arms and legs than bike up a mountain, then perhaps The Netherlands is the perfect place for you – especially if you’re also scared of traffic. The most cycle-friendly country in the world, Holland has a fantastically well-integrated network of cycle paths that make it simple for even the rawest cycling greenhorns to get around by bike, and to enjoy its under-rated and sometimes swooningly beautiful vast skies, flat pastures and huge expanses of water. If you don’t want to go far, get hold of a Dutch-style bike, gearless and with back pedal brakes or bring your own and follow the country’s network of 26 well-signposted, long-distance or LF (landelijke fietroutes) paths, which connect up the whole country so you never have to go near a main road. The Netherlands is a small country and it’s easy to cover 50km or so a day, maybe more if you’re fit enough and have a decent bike – the sit-up-and-beg Dutch variety are only really suitable for short distances. The one thing holding you back may be the wind, which can whip across the Dutch dykes and polders. But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of your first Heineken of the evening after a long day’s cycle. Tot ziens!

The Dutch motoring organization, the ANWB, publishes a series of cycle maps that covers the whole country. Bike rental costs around €32 a week.

 

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One of South America‘s booming capitals and major cities, Buenos Aires is a seductive and cultured city with an eclectic mix of people and places. Vicky Baker has the lowdown on the newest things to do in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Biking mad

A few years ago, cycling the manic, traffic-packed streets of Buenos Aires seemed borderline insane. But now everyone’s at it. Over 100km of cycle tracks sprang up in two years, alongside a public bike scheme and interest-free public loans for bike-buying. Critical Mass events have swelled, funky artisan bike shops have opened, and some cafes are even offering discounts for those who turn up on two wheels (15% off at La Apasionada for breakfasts and meriendas, or afternoon tea).  And best of all, there are cycle-in outdoor cinema events in Parque Tres de Febrero; stay tuned to festivales.gob.ar for details.

Chic cocktail bars

Although many porteños (Buenos Aires residents) still remain happy with a simple fernet-coca (herbal liquor with Coke – an acquired taste and oddly addictive), times are changing, and inventive cocktail menus are springing up all over town. Most of the current hotspots are in the Palermo neighbourhood, including Rey de Copas, with its French/Moroccan décor and new roof terrace; Frank’s with its speakeasy vibe; call ahead for the password, and the brand new Verne Cocktail Club, inspired by old gentlemen’s clubs. Some are even popping up where you least expect it, even hidden at the back of a flower-and-record shop (Floraría Atlántico).

Keeping up with the Peruvians

While the rest of the world plays catch-up on Peruvian food and starts belatedly dishing out awards, Buenos Aires sits back smugly, knowing that it has this trend well and truly in the bag. Going out for ceviche here is like going out for a curry in London. The city has everything from the cheap, family-orientated joints in Abasto (home to many Peruvian immigrants) to its own branch of Astrid y Gaston (the original one in Lima was just voted best restaurant in Latin America). And it’s a scene that continues to move forward with new openings, such as Mullu, taking forward the city’s love of Peruvian-Japanese fusion food. See, that’s how far ahead of the game Buenos Aires is – they’re post-Peruvian already.

Alternative shopping

Soaring inflation and restrictions on imports have seen costs in the clothes and shoe market rocket. Those used to shopping in the EU or US will be shocked at the prices on the high street. The answer? Avoid the high street – that’s what many Argentines are doing. Try the pop-up ferias (markets) that are promoted on social networks (search for “feria Americana Buenos Aires”) or even on signs on trees. Alternatively, if you want to check out some local clothes designers, try buying straight from their studio. Some have decided keep their own costs down by not opening a shop and those savings are passed on to customers, although you sometimes need to book an appointment. Try Jungle Vi.ai.pi for bags, Bimba Vintage for second-hand finds, or Maison Abbey for female fashion.

Back to the 90s

As late as the 1990s, the now-buzzing Palermo area was a nightlife desert. Legend has it that the only bar everyone went to was a particularly seedy and hedonistic place. Oh, and it was staffed by dwarves, from bouncers to strippers. It turns out that was true and, not only that, now it’s back. Still going by the same name, Nave Jungla held a one-off party at Salón Irreal in August. Body paint, eccentric crowds, and some x-rated shows made the city’s infamous Club 69 drag parties look like an ambassadors’ afternoon tea. Will there be more? Apparently so. Will it move beyond a crowd of nostalgic 40-somethings and become more PC? That’s yet to be seen.

Explore more of Buenos Aires and Argentina with the Rough Guide to Argentina. Book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

With sublime sushi, soaring skyscrapers and vending machines that churn out everything from eggs to ice cream, Tokyo is the planet’s most mind-boggling metropolis.

Wandering its neon-lit streets can easily eat up your time, and put serious pressure on your wallet. But as this round up of the free things to do in Tokyo shows, a trip to the Japanese capital needn’t be stressful or expensive.

Peek at the latest gadgets

Rising high above the gleaming department stores of Ginza, the ritziest district in Tokyo, is the sleek Sony Building. Ignore its high-end shops and restaurants and head straight for the free showroom, where you can get a sneak peek of Sony’s latest gadgets, including robots, laptops and high-definition TVs. 

Visit Tsukiji Fish Market

Unless you’re especially squeamish (or vegetarian), consider an early morning trip to Tsukiji Fish Market, which buzzes with traders and tourists from as early as 4am. It’s the world’s biggest wholesale fish market, and where most of the city’s Japanese restaurants source their sashimi.

Wander by The Imperial Palace

A short walk from Tokyo Station is the Imperial Palace, home to the current emperor of Japan. Surrounded by moats, cherry trees and solid stone walls, the palace buildings are rarely open to the public, but it costs nothing to wander through the peaceful and meticulously kept East Garden, which bursts into colour during spring.

Explore Asakusa for free

Tourists often pay a rickshaw driver to take them through Asakusa, the old entertainment district surrounding Sens?-ji, one of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. Our advice is to stay on foot, following wafts of sweet, smoky incense down towards the shrine. Alternatively, look out for the free, panda-shaped buses that cut through the district en route to the 634-metre-high Skytree building.

Get a taste for modern Japanese art

Art lovers looking for free things to do in Tokyo will be pleased to hear there’s no cost to mooch around the first-floor gallery of the glass-and-steel Spiral Building, where young Japanese artists exhibit avant-garde collections. In the adjoining café, beer and wine are both cheaper than a cup of coffee.

Prepare for disaster

The Life Safety Learning Center, run by the Tokyo Fire Department, is a free “disaster museum” educating people on what to do when the ground starts shaking. Visitors can learn first aid skills, step inside an earthquake simulator and even try to escape from a smoke-filled building.

Visit the Sumo Museum

With artefacts covering several centuries of sumo’s 2000-year-old history, the free Sumo Museum is located at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, which hosts major tournaments.

Explore Tokyo on two wheels

On Sundays, the Palace Cycling Course lends out 250 bicycles – from mountain bikes to tandems – on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s free, and visitors have until 3pm to explore a designated route running around the outside of the Imperial Palace.

See Tokyo from above

For free, Lost in Translation-style nightscapes, head up to one of the two observation decks at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1, the tallest skyscraper in Shinjuku.

Take a free guided tour

Staffed by volunteers and designed to help promote intercultural understanding, Tokyo Free Guide gives visitors the chance to take a free tour of the city, guided by a resident. The only thing guests have to cover is the guide’s expenses.

Have you got any top tips for enjoying Tokyo for free – or even on the cheap? Let us know below.

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