Nosing my bike through the picture postcard village of Burnsall, before easing over the age-old babbles of River Wharfe, it’s easy to see why the Tour de France has chosen Yorkshire for this year’s Grand Départ.
When the world’s most famous cycle race slips out of Leeds on 5 July, it will wind through the county’s magical moors and delightful dales over two days. In that time, riders will be forced to tackle some of the toughest early stage climbs the Tour has ever set, all while being cheered on by hoards of British cycling enthusiasts.
Today, there are decidedly fewer two-wheeled worshippers whooping me and five other keen amateurs along. We’re skirting the main roads which Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins will ride during Stage 2 of the Tour from York to Sheffield, taking in the scenery and imagining how this peaceful valley will be abuzz with supporters come high summer. Every farm field we pass has signs up advertising camping. The Wharfe Valley pubs and hotels are gearing up to welcome visitors.
For casual riders and Lycra–clad fanatics, few places on the Grand Départ are better for a day trip than Wharfedale. It’s arguably one of Yorkshire’s most picturesque valleys. And while the actual route slips by on the wider main drag of this spectacular spot, past the stunning ruins of Bolton Abbey, those who decide to take their bike down these narrower roads will find challenging climbs, speedy drops and views around every corner.
As I drop down through the gears and tackle a nagging slope, the water of the Wharfe glistens in the bottom of the valley below. The trees are beginning their cycle from barren brown to glowing green and blossom falls on the road at every turn. We are slowly wending our way to Bolton Abbey, the estate famous for the remnants of a wonderful 12th-century monastery, which competitors will cut through come July. As the ride gets tougher and the heat gets up, talk turns to another reason why this route around the Wharfe is a winner for cyclists: some legendary rest stops.
While the only refreshments the pros will be getting are energy gels and glucose drinks, those on a more leisurely tip are spoilt for choice when it comes to grabbing a mid-ride snack or an end–of–day pint. Having carefully ridden our bikes down a precipitous 12% gradient and back across the Wharfe, we pass the distinguished Devonshire Arms. This pub, hotel and restaurant has a much deserved reputation as one of Yorkshire’s best hostelries, with a renowned tasting menu and cosy rooms. But seeing as we’re still only halfway through the ride, we turn off the main drag and up to a small farm nestled in the hills.
At first, all seems unassuming. But as we hop from our bikes and pull off our helmets, we get a blast of 50s rock ’n’ roll which blares out across an outdoor seating area. This is Billy Bob’s Ice Cream Parlour, the main outpost of Yorkshire Dales Ice Cream. Indoors, it couldn’t be further away from the bucolic rural scene we pulled up to: the room is a faithfully recreated US diner, with booths, milkshakes and, of course, amazing ice cream. The only concession to where we really are is the Yorkshire Tea on sale.
Suitably refreshed, we saddle up and slip back towards Bolton Abbey. The sun is beginning to dip behind the tops and a chill is starting to descend on Wharfedale. The group splits up and I soon find myself riding this section alone. I feel just like Mark Cavendish, a sprinter by trade, struggling at the back on those pesky mountain stages. The going has become tough and after 24km (15 miles) of pedalling, I’m ready to put my feet up and have a few drinks before dinner.
Fortunately, I’m in luck. After a killer final 30 minutes, I ditch my bike at The Devonshire Fell in Burnsall (the sister hotel of The Devonshire Arms) and stroll along the banks of the River Wharfe. At Appletreewick, the next village, I find the warm embrace of The Craven Arms. This classic inn is buzzing with cyclists, all tucking into the huge selection of cask ales on offer. As a way to round off a day’s riding, I can’t think of anything better.
If it wasn’t already, this year’s Grand Départ will help make Yorkshire the cycling capital of the UK. Fortunately, as my breathless efforts through Wharfedale attest, you don’t need to be a super fit professional to tackle the best, least strenuous parts of the route. Then, once the riding for the day is done, you won’t find the area wanting for a way to replenish those calories and rest your bones after all that exercise.
Britain’s best bike rides
Cambridge to London
The third stage of this year’s Tour. Riders will leave Parker’s Place in Cambridge before sliding through picturesque rural Essex, on through Epping Forest, finishing at Buckingham Palace via the Olympic Park. A 158km (98 mile) monster, this is not for the feint–hearted.
Every year, on the Saturday closest to full moon in July, cyclists pile out of London and ride 193km (120 miles) to the Suffolk coast. A true institution, this one requires some serious training, but has the promise of a cooling dip in the North Sea at the end.
This race, on behalf of Marie Curie Cancer Care, has become a bit of a classic and attracts more than 5,000 riders when it takes place each year in May. The 158km (98 mile) route skirts around the town of Pitlochry, with beautiful views of the Highlands.
This stunning stretch of land, at the northern tip of Cardigan Bay, is perfect for bike trips, no matter your ability. Circular routes, starting and finishing in the village of Aberdaron give views back over Snowdonia and even across to the Wicklow Hills in Ireland.
Ballycastle to Giant’s Causeway
Cycle to the Giant’s Causeway through Antrim, Northern Ireland’s most rugged county. Follow the road from Ballycastle, along the marked coastal route, before looping back via Bushmills. At 56km (35 miles), this is the ideal challenge for intermediate cyclists.