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Devon’s biggest city needs more infrastructure but is compact enough that you can get anywhere by bike – and enjoy some great views en route...

Plymouth bills itself as ‘Britain’s ocean city’. It’s dominated by the sea in a way that few of our ports are, with a large natural harbour (Plymouth Sound) and a maritime heritage that stretches back centuries. It was the gateway to the New World. It was the place where Sir Francis Drake was allegedly playing bowls when the Spanish Armada was spied. And today it hosts the largest operational naval base in Western Europe.

Situated between the Rivers Plym and Tamar, hard up against the border with Cornwall, Plymouth is Devon’s biggest city and second only to Bristol in the South West. It’s been an important port throughout its history, transporting resources such as tin, copper, and lime. Plymouth was the departure point for the ill-fated Roanoke colonists in 1587 and for the successful Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. (That’s why Plymouth Argyle FC’s nickname is ‘The Pilgrims’.) Today it’s holidaymakers and freight that pass through Plymouth on ferries to France and Spain.

Plymouth’s ongoing role as a port meant that it was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War – hence the city’s not-always-pretty 60s’ and 70s’ architecture. It was and remains militarily important too, having been a Royal Navy dockyard since the 17th century. Nowadays HMNB Devonport services nuclear subs and generates around a tenth of Plymouth’s income.

As a city for cycling, Plymouth’s main advantages are its pleasant climate and the fact that it’s compact enough to pedal around. Plymouth City Council says that cycling levels have risen by 50% in the last six years but it’s not easy to see why that might be. The city’s Strategic Cycle Network exists mostly as a set of aspirations, not infrastructure.

The best type of bike for cycling in Plymouth

Plymouth is quite a hilly city – increasingly so as you go north and east away from the sea towards Dartmoor. The urban hills aren’t particularly high but the contour lines are close together in places so you’ll definitely want low gears. You might even want an e-bike.

Since it’s in the South West, Plymouth is warmer and wetter than most of the UK. Snow is rare. Rain is common and can be heavy as it sweeps in from the Atlantic. Mudguards, preferably with mudflaps, are essential for year-round commuting. On the plus side, Plymouth has more hours of sunlight than most of the UK too. You won’t be rained on that often – you just need to be ready for it.

The Kona Dew (£649 RRP) is hybrid for all-round use that comes with lower gears than most, thanks to the tiny 22-tooth inner ring on its double chainset. The Dew doesn’t come with mudguards or a pannier rack but can be fitted with both. Wide (47mm), slick 650B tyres will cope with potholes and cobbles on road, as well as off-road gravel tracks, towpaths, and the like.

If you’d prefer something more off-road oriented, then the Planet X Bootzipper (£899 RRP) will double up as mountain bike and a day-to-day commuter. It too will take racks and mudguards and also comes with a wallcrawling bottom gear thanks to a huge 11-50-tooth cassettte. If you’ll primarily use it around town, fit some large volume slicks such as Schwalbe’s Big Apple for weekday use and just put the knobbly tyres back on for off-road days out.

Plymouth’s transport network

Traffic-free cycle tracks are few and far between. There are some in the city centre to help you avoid the busy A374 and others in the north of the city to prevent you being hemmed in by the A38 dual carriageway. Otherwise, as the council’s map shows, the cycle network is essentially recommended backstreets.

Avoid any A-roads where you can because, especially in the summer, they carry traffic volumes that would be diverted onto motorways elsewhere. The M5, Plymouth’s nearest motorway, ends at Exeter, discharging traffic onto the A30 and the A38. The latter runs right through Plymouth’s northern suburbs.

By rail Plymouth is reasonably well connected. GWR runs the station and its direct trains will get you to London Paddington in little over three hours. The overnight sleeper service, the Night Riviera Sleeper, takes longer but may be more convenient for some trips. CrossCountry services also stop at Plymouth, going down to Penzance one way and as far as Aberdeen the other way.

GWR intercity trains carry either two (five-car trains) or four bikes (longer trains).  Reservations are compulsory. CrossCountry trains normally have two reservable spaces and one extra space for an unreserved bike. Folding bikes travel as luggage on either. Local services, such as the Tamar Valley Line, are also run by GWR and typically carry two conventional bikes.

Most of Plymouth’s bus services are run by two operators. Stagecoach South West will carry bagged folding bikes if there’s space and at the driver’s discretion. It’s a similar story with Plymouth Citybus: bagged folding bikes are fine, space allowing, while non-folding bikes are not carried “as a general rule”.

You can take your bike on the Cawsand Ferry, which runs from Plymouth to Kingsand on the Rame peninsula in Cornwall from Easter to October. A ticket for your bike costs £2.50.

Local rides in Plymouth

The best, largely traffic-free, local family ride is Drake’s Trail, a 21-mile route to Tavistock that you can pick up in Plymouth at the Barbican on the seafront. The Plymbridge Woods Family Cycle Trail, a 10-mile section near Plymouth on a disused railway, is part of Drake’s Trail. Both of them, meanwhile, form part of the Devon Coast to Coast Cycle Route, a 99-mile north-south route between Ilfracombe and Plymouth.

Road cyclists are spoiled for choice. Devon has more miles of road than Belgium, and away from those arterial A-roads many of them are lightly used. The 95-mile Dartmoor Way circumnavigates the high moor and is signed. NCN route 28 provides a nice run down to Salcombe on scenic lanes. To discover new routes, consider joining a local cycling club – there are plenty to choose from.

The nearest mountain biking venue to Plymouth is Cann Wood, which is so close you can cycle there along the start of Drake’s Way. There are short trails there for all skill levels. Tamar Trails is only 16 miles away – mostly by train if you take the Tamar Valley Line. For a big day out on ‘natural’ trails there’s also nearby Dartmoor. Invest in a guidebook to get the most out of the high moor and be sure to take sensible precautions on the day.

Keeping your bike secure in Plymouth

By post code area, Plymouth has the fourth lowest rate of bike thefts in England and Wales. Admittedly, that’s partly because so many rural areas of Devon are also included. In the city centre, bike theft levels are around the national average. While that’s not bad for a fair-sized city with pockets of deprivation, it pays not to be complacent.

Always lock your bike whenever you turn your back on it, ideally with a Sold Secure Gold rated lock. Lock the bike through the frame to a sturdy piece of street furniture or a dedicated cycle stand. If you have a high value bike or will be leaving it locked up for an extended period – for example, overnight – use two locks.

The vast majority of bike thefts take place not on the street but in ‘semi-private’ locations at home. That means on your property but not in the house – for example, a garage, shed or garden. Lock your bike to a wall or ground anchor if it will be in one of those locations. Alternatively, park it indoors.