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Make like Lance Armstrong with our new 'go direct' option

No, we’re not suggesting the use of performance-enhancing substances (apart from cake), but when you absolutely have to take that shortcut…

When you’re planning a route with, sometimes you just want to take the direct route between two points. Maybe there’s a path that (horror of horrors!) is missing from OpenStreetMap, our map data source; maybe is trying fervently to keep you off a busy road, and you’d rather grit your teeth and ride on; or maybe you just want to make like Lance and engage in a bit of accidental cyclocross.

It’s pretty easy. Just plot your via points as normal, then click the one where you want to go off piste, and choose ‘Go direct’:

And voila, routing en direct. As they say on all the best descents in France.

Other new features on our route-planner include PDF ‘cue sheets’ for turn-by-turn directions; coverage of Slovakia and Hungary; improved GPX and TCX export for your GPS unit or phone apps; and dozens of little tweaks to make the routing even better. Head over to the route-planner and try them out for yourself.


Scotland’s canals are run by a Government body with the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin name of Scottish Canals. All four of them are open for cycling.

Caledonian Canal

Fort William to Inverness. This waterway along the Great Glen joins several lochs, including Loch Ness, with several canal sections. The canal was built with a towpath but the lochs obviously weren’t! For cyclists, the best route is along NCN 78 (the Caledonian Way), which links the gravelly canal towpath with forestry tracks, a converted railway path, and minor roads. It’s not ideal for fast road bikes but fine on anything that can handle a bit of gravel.

Crinan Canal

Lochgilphead to Crinan. Famously pretty yacht canal that shortens the route to the Hebrides. Fully suitable for cyclists, and part of the long-distance Caledonian Way.

Forth & Clyde Canal and Union Canal

Glasgow–Falkirk and Falkirk–Edinburgh. A continuous towpath cycling route between Scotland’s two greatest cities. In Glasgow, there’s a spur from the main route at Maryhill towards the city centre. Otherwise, you can continue to Port Dundas along the canal, and from there to Dumbarton on a tarmac cycleway. The surface is generally good, often light gravel though occasionally a little muddy: the Union Canal is the more erratic of the two. Signposted throughout as NCN route 754.

East Midlands and East Anglia

Chesterfield Canal

West Stockwith, near Gainsborough, to Worksop and Chesterfield. Unimproved grassy footpath from the Trent to Worksop, except within Retford. Resurfaced as NCN 6 for a couple of miles west of Worksop, and then muddy but rideable on a suitable bike up to the old tunnel at Kiveton. On the other side of the collapsed tunnel, parts of the towpath have been upgraded in conjunction with nearby railway paths to form NCN 67, part of the Trans-Pennine Trail.

Erewash Canal

Long Eaton to Langley Mill, near Nottingham. Suburban canal in D.H. Lawrence contry. Good all-weather surface from Long Eaton to the edge of Ilkeston as part of NCN 67, which then heads west via the long-lost Nutbrook Canal. The Erewash continues from Ilkeston to Langley Mill with an unpaved but firm enough surface, popular with local cyclists.

Erewash Canal 11mi Open in route-planner »

Grand Union Canal Leicester Line

Watford Gap to Leicester. Very rural towpath, not suitable for cycling apart from the branch into Market Harborough, and within Leicester city centre.

Grantham Canal

Nottingham to Grantham. Derelict canal slowly being restored to navigation. Good quality compacted surface from the edge of Nottingham – though the line in Nottingham city centre is lost – past Cotgrave to Harby. It then becomes a grassy footpath until near Bottesford, where the surface improves as part of NCN 15 into Grantham.

Norfolk Broads

Rambling network of rivers and lakes (‘broads’). Generally no cyclable towpaths but there are plenty of enjoyable country lanes in the area. (Run by the Broads Authority.)

River Cam

Cambridge towards Ely. Very popular for cycling within Cambridge (downstream from Jesus Green) and out to Waterbeach. Not rideable north of there. The connection from Waterbeach to NCN 11 at Lode, and from there to Ely, is sadly still missing. (Run by the Conservators of the River Cam and Environment Agency.)

River Great Ouse

King’s Lynn to Ely and Bedford. No consistent cyclable path though sometimes minor roads run along its banks. Short cycleways for a short way south of King’s Lynn, again south of Ely, and in Bedford town centre. Good NCN routes on quiet roads and railway paths in the area. (Run by the Environment Agency.)

River Nene

Northampton to Peterborough and Wisbech. No cyclable path except within Peterborough and Northampton. (Run by the Environment Agency.)

River Soar

Leicester to Nottingham. Now resurfaced and improved from Leicester as far north as Syston/Cossington. Also cyclable on the canal section within Loughborough. Otherwise a rural river with no opportunity for cycling.

Leicester to Cossington 7mi Open in route-planner »

River Trent

Nottingham to Gainsborough and the Humber. Rideable from Trent Lock and Long Eaton to Nottingham along the ‘Big Track’ cycle path. Otherwise, generally no cyclable path but some minor roads run directly along the riverbanks in its lower, tidal reach.

River Welland

Market Deeping to Spalding and the Wash. No consistent towpath, but nearby field paths and minor roads along the banks are often cyclable, several as part of NCN 12. Could form part of a very enjoyable ride for those with sturdy bikes! (Run by the Environment Agency.)

River Witham

Lincoln to Boston. NCN 1 runs alongside on a converted railway trackbed, the ‘Water Rail Way’, and on quiet lanes. The Fossdyke Navigation, a Roman canal, continues west from Lincoln and is cyclable as far as Saxilby.

Water Rail Way 33mi Open in route-planner »


Aire & Calder Navigation

Goole to Wakefield and Leeds. Part canal, part river. East of Castleford it’s mostly unimproved grassy towpath and unsuitable for cycling. The navigation splits into two branches at Castleford. The branch towards Wakefield has an excellent, newly surfaced towpath from Altofts and Stanley Ferry to Wakefield. The branch to Leeds has a reasonably good compacted surface from Methley into Leeds.

Calder & Hebble Navigation

Wakefield to Sowerby Bridge. Again, part river, part canal. River sections not rideable. Canal sections east of Brighouse are unimproved but can be cycled if you don’t mind the bumps. Brighouse to Sowerby Bridge has been paved as the Calder Valley Greenway and is a superb route (NCN 66).

River Ouse

Ripon to York and the Humber. No cyclable towpath. The Transpennine Trail and other NCN routes run parallel.

Selby Canal

Selby to Castleford. Unimproved grassy towpath other than a short section in Selby itself which forms part of the Trans-Pennine Trail.

Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation

Keadby to Sheffield. No rideable towpath for most of its length. The (often bumpy) Trans-Pennine Trail runs parallel in several places. Cyclable with a firm earth surface between Rotherham and Sheffield.

North-West England and the Pennines

Ashton Canal

Manchester to Ashton. An invaluable route from the city centre out to Ashton. From Manchester out to Sportcity, the towpath was improved for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The rest of the towpath on to Ashton has been upgraded more recently.

Ashton Canal 6mi Open in route-planner »

Bridgewater Canal

Manchester to Runcorn. Towpath slowly being upgraded as the ‘Bridgewater Way’. Excellent quality in much of Manchester and other urban areas. Rural areas are mostly unimproved and cycling is officially prohibited, though this ban is widely flouted. (Run by the Manchester Ship Canal Company.)

Huddersfield Canals

West Yorkshire to Ashton/Manchester. The eastern half, from Huddersfield to Marsden, is being upgraded to cycle route standard. From there on to Ashton, it’s generally ok for cycling though not formally a cycle route. Note that the 3.5 mile Standedge Tunnel at the summit (Marsden to Diggle) has no towpath: bikes need to follow the A62 over the top instead.

Lancaster Canal

Preston to Carnforth area. The southern rural section is a grassy footpath, too bumpy and tiring for cycling. From Lancaster to Carnforth is a lovely ride, however – alternately paved, light gravel and compacted. The surface in Preston is good, too. NCN 6 on country lanes provides an alternative to the unimproved sections. The Canal & River Trust has an ambition to create a ‘Lancaster Canal Towpath Trail’ as a continuous cycle route from Preston to Kendal (the historic terminus of the canal).

Lancaster-Carnforth 10mi Open in route-planner »

Leeds & Liverpool Canal

Leeds to Wigan and Liverpool. Though popular as a 110-mile cycle challenge, the towpath is of mixed quality. From Leeds to Silsden (just short of Skipton), it’s recently been upgraded and is a very enjoyable 23-mile ride. There are also good surfaces from Foulridge to Barnoldswick (NCN 68); around Accrington and Blackburn (part of NCN route 6); and through Burnley (NCN 68). Most rural sections, though, are single-track and bumpy, such as either side of Skipton. Be prepared to use nearby roads as an alternative.

Macclesfield Canal

Marple to Stoke-on-Trent. Rural towpath, not generally suitable for cycling. NCN 55 runs parallel on old railway trackbeds.

Manchester Ship Canal

Manchester to Ellesmere Port. No accessible towpath. Trans-Pennine Trail runs parallel. (Run by the Manchester Ship Canal Company.)

Peak Forest Canal

Ashton to Whaley Bridge. Excellent, newly resurfaced towpath from Ashton to Hyde. From there on to Marple and New Mills it’s mostly unimproved and often very muddy. The good surface returns at New Mills for a picturesque ride on to Bugsworth Basin, the historic terminus of the canal, and a stopping point on the Pennine Cycleway (NCN 68).

Rochdale Canal

West Yorkshire to Manchester. Good quality towpath, mostly compacted, cobbled or paved. National Cycle Network route 66. Some very picturesque sections. An excellent route across the Pennines, with further surface upgrades taking place. Short unpaved sections between Rochdale and north Manchester.

Rochdale Canal 30mi Open in route-planner »

River Weaver

Winsford to Runcorn. Many sections of towpath upgraded recently as part of NCN 5 and other routes. Other rural sections, however, are just grassy footpath and not easily rideable: check map for full details.

St Helens (Sankey) Canal

Warrington to St Helens. This pioneering early canal is mostly not open to boats, but the towpath is mostly rideable with a firm surface. Sometimes known as the ‘Sankey Valley Greenway’, it’s an excellent way through this urban area for Land’s End—John O’Groats riders.

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