Cycling in the UK: Choosing a Long Distance Route

A cycle trip can be a joy or misery depending on the route that you take. That doesn’t mean you need to spend long hours trawling blogs, or reading books to find a great ride. For those of us yet to convert to GPS, finding a good map can make all the difference.

The UK has a great network of cycle friendly roads and dedicated bike routes – it’s just a matter of finding them. SusTrans, the charity behind the National Cycle Network, has many detailed maps of bike routes, but if you are planning a cross country ride, that would soon become expensive.

A great alternative that we have come across for planning a long distance ride is the AA Close Up Britain Road Atlas. It boasts an ultra large scale of 1.5 miles to 1 inch, making it Britain’s largest scale road atlas. Most importantly for the cyclist though, it shows all the SusTrans National Cycle Network by a series of green dots. This has allowed us to link up bike routes and quiet back roads to navigate peacefully through what might seem like a congested country. Other handy features are icons for campsites and pubs, and detailed town plans for the major cities.

The one drawback for the cyclist is that it can be difficult to decipher just how steep the roads are – and the UK has some of the steepest we have cycled anywhere in the world. A handy addition would be to have road gradients marked by their steepness – three arrows for the steepest, down to one arrow for the milder climbs. Instead they have only one marker for all gradients and then use it inconsistently.

As a general rule, expect ‘white roads’ to be largely free of traffic but very narrow (often just wide enough for one car). This is fantastic for photography. The narrow roads really frame a bicycle well and make you feel more a part of the landscape. An abundance of hedgerows also provide some welcome relief from wind. They also tend to link up some charming ‘middle of nowhere towns’ with cozy old pubs. The drawback is the white roads are almost always the steepest way of getting from A to B.

‘Yellow B roads’ are often a gentler but slightly busier alternative to ‘white roads’. We often choose these roads if we want to get somewhere a bit faster.

‘Red A roads’ usually have a steady flow of traffic and can be a little precarious. We generally avoid them, but if you are in a bind you can always ask for local advice on whether they are safe for cycling or not.

‘Green A roads’ should be avoided altogether unless you have inside information of a footpath or wide shoulder.

Being so detailed, the road atlas is quite heavy – the A4 edition clocks in at 752 pages. To cut down on weight I would recommend using a knife to cut out the unnecessary pages (ripping creates a big mess), but leave enough pages to give you flexibility in case you change routes along the way.

Happy riding…

8 thoughts on “Cycling in the UK: Choosing a Long Distance Route

  1. The Road Not Taken
    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth.

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same.

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.
    _Robert Frost

    I always look for the back roads, because that is where beauty and adventure lay.


  2. Very useful post and beautiful shots, plus a refresher of a wonderful poem. Great reading for a quiet Saturday morning…. makes me dream of a bike tour around the UK πŸ™‚

  3. We have a series of Atlases similar to that for each of the US states, put out by DeLorme. Only problem is the cost and the size πŸ˜€ According to the website they “only” take up 30″ of shelf space. I do have several of them for the states I frequent, one nice thing about them is they do show terrain and elevations. DeLorme also makes a GPS that shows similar maps in a electronic format. But it is hard to beat paper maps for planning and route notes. I still have maps with notes from some of my long tours of 30 years ago.


    • Only 30″ of shelf space… love it. Those Atlases could be very useful if you are planning on riding in one particular part of the USA. Thanks for letting us know.

  4. Hi!
    I saw you two on the road into Pulbrorough this morning (I was the guy who chatted with through the open window of my car). I remember my fiancee (now wife) and I reading your story of touring around Europe a few years ago but I couldn’t quite believe it was the same two people I was seeing (although the dog + bike combo should have given it away really). What a nice surprise to have met you unexpectedly on my way to the office this morning after reading and being so inspired by your story all that time ago!

    Keep it up!

    • Hi Andrew. What a coincidence! I wonder where you read about us the first time around? Maybe a cycling magazine?
      Yes, we were just on our way to our children’s picture book publisher who are based just outside of Pulborough. We are right at the end of your loop around the UK, so it is back to Canada very shortly. The UK is great for cycling, especially when the sun is shining πŸ˜‰ Thanks for saying hi…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s