Every inch of the National Cycle Network is supervised and maintained by one remarkable organization, Sustrans, a Bristol-based national charity dedicated to promoting sustainable modes of transportation. The group’s commitment to cycling is based on simple maxims: that, next to walking, the bicycle is the least polluting form of travel; that 10 bikes can be stored in the space of a single car; and that every short journey made by bike rather than automobile prevents the emission of several pounds of carbon dioxide.
The crown jewel of Sustrans, by far, is the formidable network, sprawling throughout England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Shetland Islands. Spokesperson Gill Harrison proudly boasts that 55 percent of the U.K.’s population now lives within a mile of some stretch of the network. The group publishes copiously detailed, weatherproof maps and guidebooks for every route segment. Also plotted are tours of lochs and glens, a historic Viking coastal trail in the southeast, routes that pass great antiquities such as Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge, a cross-country ride that follows the back roads used during the Middle Ages by marauding “Reivers” on the Scottish border, and dozens of others. The National Cycle Network remains one of the U.K.’s most distinctive ways to experience the island nation’s natural, and man-made, beauty.
Fitness, Fun and Self-Discovery
I’m back on U.S. soil, on a rural road east of San Diego. It’s a Sunday morning late in February. I’m onboard my road bike, temporarily separated from the rest of my group. Suddenly, a few miles from the Lower Otay Reservoir, I see a parachute open in the sky above me. Then a second and a third. The chutes are all brightly colored, festive enough to assure me that the arid bluffs alongside the deep gullies north of the Mexican border are not under some kind of paratrooper attack. As I dip down around the next bend, a little wind-sock airfield and skydiving school shows on my right, with the next plane of jumpers already revving up its engines. A little beyond this point our group takes on a climb into the intriguing Jamul Mountains; we will see far fewer signs of civilization until we reach our first night’s campsite.
This trek is part of a tour organized under the auspices of the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), roughly the U.S. equivalent of the U.K.’s Sustrans and proportionately larger in scope. With 44,500 members and an active role in maintaining a 38,000-mile network, ACA is America’s preeminent bicycle travel organization, advocating for route improvements and rider safety. It also specializes in providing trip-planning assistance for bicycle travelers and publishes a comprehensive system of weather-resistant touring maps that span the North American continent. The maps are annotated in detail and carefully updated online, making them an invaluable resource for any cyclist traveling beyond the limits of his or her regular Sunday afternoon ride.
Despite ACA’s size and broad scope of activities, its mission statement is engagingly direct: “Inspire people of all ages to travel by bicycle ... for fitness, fun and self-discovery.” Crucial to this goal are the association’s well-organized group cycle tours—to some, ACA’s most important function. The one I’ve undertaken is an event nicknamed the “Winter Warmer,” which offers decent biking weather when much of the country is locked in snow. Over the next seven days, the 20-plus cyclists in our group will explore the dramatic mountainous reaches of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest, with experienced guides, a couple of support vehicles, bike-repair help and fully catered meals. Most ACA tours involve camping overnight, but nearby hotel accommodations are often available. The physical difficulty of each expedition is spelled out for riders in advance, both online and in brochures. My desert ride rates an “intermediate +,” but others—such as a relatively flat summertime excursion over Idaho’s Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes or a historic ride from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh chosen to parallel the C&O Canal—are rated as manageable for beginning cyclists.