Bike Route: A view from the canal towpath

I've lived in and around the Aire Valley for most of my life but was treated to a completely fresh view of it this week as I took the Aire Valley towpath (national cycling route 696) from Leeds to Bingley and then on to the Airedale Greenway (national cycling route 66) all the way to Skipton. If you or your family have been inspired by the Tour de France to get on your bike, this route will be perfect for you as it's pan flat, traffic free, and hugs the Leeds Liverpool Canal for its duration.


No sooner had I rolled out of Leeds Railway Station via the Granary Wharf exit and I was on the canal side and immediately on my way. The towpath is fully tarmacked here and you’ll pass other joggers and cyclists as you head out to the west of town. What struck me on this stretch was how quiet and peaceful it was down by the waterside, in welcome contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city around me.


The tarmac made way for slightly rougher surface after a few miles, and while you wouldn’t want to take your road bike on it, it’s perfectly suited for mountain, cross and commuter bikes and is in tip-top condition after its recent improvements. You’ll be flying by this point, only slowing to duck through tunnels and up the short ramps alongside the locks. Keep an eye out for Kirkstall Abbey which briefly appears on your right-hand side, it’s ruined tower is just about visible.


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As I continued on towards Apperley Bridge I couldn’t believe how rural the scenery was in what is one of the most heavily populated corridors in the county. When I wasn’t surrounded by trees I was in the midst of lush green fields with wildlife all around me. It was only when I made it to Shipley that I felt back in civilisation, but that only lasted a few minutes as I was soon out into the greenery once again after passing Salts Mill.


I wasn’t expecting any hilly sections on the route, but the 20% ramp which greeted me at the Five Rise Locks in Bingley had me out of the saddle and puffing a bit by the time I’d made it to the top. It was great to see that legendary feat of engineering up close as I did so though, and I paused briefly to watch it in action.


Up to Riddlesden it had all been plain sailing but the towpath did peter out as I continued towards Silsden. It made for pretty bumpy going so I was heartened to find on my return to the office plans are already in place to improve this stretch later in the summer as part of West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s CityConnect1 project.


I’d seen geese, ducks and swans paddling away by the time I’d made it to Silsden, but I hadn’t reckoned on a herd of cows joining them in the water. That’s what I found on my way to Kildwick though. I have to admit I was getting slightly wary of stopping and starting for dog walkers on my approach to Skipton. By the time I was on the train back to Leeds I was able to reflect on one of the most enjoyable rides I’ve taken all year.