Saddle up and join the chain gang

Flashback: a slope in the local municipal park. My father's mother, me, a small bicycle. I can't remember if I fell off a few times first, but I do have a vague picture of the bike and myself in harmony, crossing the grass, loose from my grandmother's support.

That was it. I had become a cyclist.

In my teens I was given a hand-built Claud Butler, collected from ashop off Briggate, in Leeds. The lime green bike was transported home by train. A well-meaning friend swapped the frame with his, a Mercian, and it is that bike that became part of my life until I learned to drive.

I see from the internet that this famous Derby maker has enthusiastic owners in the US, men and women who cherish its old timers, products from the 1960s like mine, and share pictures and anecdotes. You just know they will never sell them.

Bikes are, I think, more affordable now than they have every been. Production in China and Taiwan has brought prices down, learning from and using Western design technology, and allowing us to buy a reasonably light, strong, safe pedalling machine for less than 200. Or you can choose from dozens of craftsmen who will build to your measurements.

Anyone who has the energy and limb articulation to throw a leg over a bicycle will know that it allows us to travel further for a given muscular output than walking or running, and definitely more so than swimming.

It is also more dangerous than any of those. I have a friend who was blown off his bike descending Mont Ventoux; another who couldn't avoid a car that pulled out; myself who just fell off a stationary bike; someone else who... etc. All of us incurred serious shoulder injuries. Never mind: it could have been worse.

Cycling was popular throughout the 20th century, taking boys and girls to school, men and women to work, to courting, poaching, fishing, holidaying, youth hostelling, bridging the miles between point A and point B. These days it is just too tempting to get in a car, should one be available. It saves lots of time and is more practical for carrying shopping, particularly The Big Supermarket Shop, which most households deem a necessity.

Supermarket excesses in packaging and food miles travelled produce from the other side of the world, or even a quarter-way round it, are at

odds with the ethics of sustainable transport, of which the bicycle is the example that most of us can employ and enjoy. There is an ever-growing network of safe biking trails, set up by the charity Sustrans.

You don't need to be riding the pinnacle of cutting edge technology.

Most of us can manage a bike weighing, say, 30lb, and do not need dozens of gears. Until 1937, the gear selecting derailleur was banned in the Tour de France. The entrants had to go over those massive hills, setting off before dawn so as to cover the day's mileage, with a pick of just two gears. The back wheel had a sprocket on either side, one with more teeth to give a lower gear. This was used for ascending the mountains.

At the top the rider would jump off, take the wheel off and put it in the other way round, getting a cog with fewer teeth and thus a higher top speed down the hill and along the flat. In these early days they even had to do their own repairs during the race.

For the privations and injustices of a race cyclist read Graham Fife's Tour De France (Mainstream, 10.99). He also imparts the motivation for himself as a touring cyclist as he tackles the big climbs, gritting teeth, hanging on, arriving dripping wet and chilled to the marrow at some French auberge or caf where his clothes are dried, he has a shower and is soon relaxing with a drink and then another, and then a reviving French supper for not much money at all.

I was led willingly back to cycling 15 years ago by the craze for "mountain biking". With its fat tyres for riding comfort, a succession of low gears for easy pedalling, and straight handlebars for an upright posture and good vision, the mountain bike lured us in our thousands and tens of thousands.

It allowed us to quit the noise and danger of the road and take to the tracks and drovers' roads, places of quiet and wonder, whether you are chasing nature, geology or whatever. Yes, you can walk there, too, but it is slower and doesn't give you the all round exercise of a bike. It is also noisier: many times on the near-silent bike, I have surprised a hawk or other bird at close quarters.

Cycling tones the arms, legs, stomach, chest and back. It is said to be good for the heart and lungs. It keeps joints supple. Mental faculties are tested by the coordination of movements, notably so when you are "mountain biking", though most likely this will be on a rutted track and not a hairy-backed real nasty mountain.

It is on these vicious climbs and descents that many get their biggest thrills. Going up can be very hard and you don't dismount if at all possible, and certainly not in public and definitely not if your bike cost more than a good horse. "Wrong choice of tyres" is a suggested explanation if you are observed pushing. Or you can pretend to have a pernicious mechanical fault. Excuses. Wrong body is the truth.

Going down the other side releases the strain on the uphill muscles in the legs and torso and brings its own challenges.

My friend who came off descending Ventoux, Provence's highest peak, at over 1,900 metres, succumbed to the gusts of the Mistral because he was too tired from the horrid ascent, some 22km of grind.

He spent the night in hospital but got a smart new bike out of the spill.

As well as insurance for an expensive bike, we are advised to wear a helmet and always use some eye protection. Being struck in the eye at speed by a fly or, worse, a wasp is hazardous. Now, the matter of cycle clips...

JUST THE TICKET TO RIDE THIS CHRISTMAS...

York to Selby

Ideal for: Families

Length: 15 miles

Type: Disused railway path

National Cycle Network Route 65

Families can cycle the solar system on the former railway line from York to Selby. The Sun – situated off the A64 at Bishopthorpe – is a huge 2.4 metres in diameter and

Pluto is a tiny 5.9 millimetre sphere more than six miles away in Riccall. Solar quizzes and fun sheets for children are being developed at www.solar.york.ac.uk

The York to Selby route

was the second path Sustrans built back in 1987 and it has since been joined by nearly 12,000 miles of National Cycle Network.

York itself is one of Britain's best cycling cities – its flat terrain and tightly packed array of attractions makes it easy for everyone to get about.

Spen Valley Greenway

Ideal for: Novices

Length: Seven miles

Type: Disused railway path

National Cycle Network Route 66

The Kirklees Greenway route landed the first prize for mobility in the 2007 European Greenway Awards, beating

stiff competition from France and Italy into second and third place. At its heart is the Spen Valley Greenway between the towns of Cleckheaton, Dewsbury and Heckmondwike, towards Bradford – and its numerous access points makes

it ideal for novice cyclists to pedal a mile or two and build up their confidence.

The route cuts through

densely populated urban areas with long distance moorland views, and passes a wildlife reserve and rolling golf course.

Spen Valley is also home to a collection of artworks, such as 11 steel Swaledale sheep made from scrap metal with forged horns.

And riders can rotate through a circle of 40 giant steel hoops among the trees in old Liversedge railway yard.

Trans Pennine

Trail South:

Penistone to Rother Valley Country Park

Ideal for: Intermediates

Length: 28 miles

Type: Various

National Cycle Network Route 6 / 67

The Trans Pennine Trail is the first long distance multi-user trail in the UK, stretching 215 miles across the breadth of northern England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea – a great challenge for more experienced cyclists.

It also runs north to south between York and Chesterfield so those with less energy or time can experience a different part of the trail.

Travelling south, cyclists can head to Meadowhall via Wharncliffe Woods, the historic Wentworth estate or Sheffield's Forest Loop through Westwood Country Park and Greno Wood.

All routes eventually lead to Rother Valley Country Park complete with lakes, wildlife and water sports.

For maps and books of the National Cycle Network, please visit www.sustrans.org.uk or call the Sustrans Information Line on 0845 113 0065.