Let's face it, we all have friends and family who don't ride bikes. To tempt them to give cycling a try, what's needed is a special kind of ride. One that's pancake flat and traffic free, with amazing scenery and plenty to see and do along the way. This ride, on Wales's south coast around Llanelli, is the perfect instrument of seduction for the hesitant cyclist.
The Millennium Coastal Park extends on the northern shore of the Loughor estuary either side of the town of Llanelli all the way to Pembrey Burrows. Much of this coastline was once home to the steel and tin plate works that earned 19th century Llanelli the nickname of Tinopolis. The decline of these industries in the 1970s left a 2,000-acre expanse of polluted, post-industrial wasteland, and so its transformation into green coastal parkland is nothing short of astonishing. Though the area attracts more than a million visitors a year, it rarely feels overcrowded.
The icing on the cake is the wide, deliciously smooth, traffic-free cycle track that reminds us just how good a cycle path can be and, sadly, just how off-putting are Britain's countless miles of 'crap cycle lanes'. The huge numbers of people who use the cycle track, either as a route to and from work or simply to get out and about in the fresh air, should leave our politicians and transport planners in no doubt that when it comes to high-quality cycle infrastructure, if you build it, they will come.
This is a linear, out and back route that starts at Gowerton train station, though if arriving by car it's also possible to start at Llanelli Wetlands Centre, where there's plentiful free parking. The ride hugs the coast west all the way to Kidwelly, with its imposing Norman castle. The route can be ridden in either direction, or if you need to hire bikes then it will be necessary to start in the middle at Burry Port, where the bike hire shop is, and head one way before looping back to complete the circuit. The full distance there and back is 41 miles, too far for young children or anyone not used to spending a whole day in the saddle. For- tunately, the railway line between Gowerton and Llanelli offers a useful bail-out option. Alternatively, you can keep it simple by just deciding to turn back when the time is right.
From Gowerton, you'll quickly pick up National Cycle Route 4 heading west across the River Loughor and along the edge of the Llanelli Wetland Centre, a 450-acre mosaic of lakes, pools, streams and lagoons adjoining the salt marshes and seashore. There are fine sea views across the Loughor estuary to the hills of the Gower Peninsula and birdwatchers will want to look out for the huge variety of species - some quite rare - that gather here.
The route brushes the edge of Llanelli and passes the old dock, built for exporting coal and tin plate but now redeveloped as a waterside residential, business and leisure district. Eventually the sports fields and lawns give way to a wilder- feeling landscape leading to the spectacular earth sculpture 'Walking with the Sea Turning with the Sea', designed by the artist Richard Harris and built with 115,000 cubic metres of pulverised fuel ash from a nearby power station. Harris, a lifelong surfer, says the earthwork evokes "a wave travelling towards a waiting shore... a coming together of the relationship between land, sea and people".
Burry Port is a former industrial town with a horseshoe-shaped harbour and new yachting marina. The most celebrated visitor was Amelia Earhart, the record-breaking American aviatrix, who landed here in 1928 as the first woman to fly the Atlantic, though she didn't actually pilot the plane. "I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes," she said, "Maybe someday I'll try it alone." In 1932 she did, and the rest is history.
West of Burry Port lies Pembrey Burrows, a windblown landscape of Corsican pine and tufty sand dunes. It leads to the sands of Cefn Sidan beach, at eight miles one of Wales's longest. This is the scene of the annual Battle of the Beach, the UK's only beach bike race that sees mountain bikers, cyclo-crossers, gravel racers and fat bike fanatics cut it up on the vast expanse of sand. The route heads on along a combination of unsurfaced cycle paths and quiet lanes as far as Kidwelly.
Now some way from the sea, Kidwelly was once a key military stronghold for the Anglo- Norman kings of England during their battles with the Welsh princes. Hundreds of years later it was a coal port during Wales's industrial heyday. It's now turned its back on the sea and the dock was used as a municipal waste dump. The fine castle remains, perched high above the River Gwendraeth. From Kidwelly it's either a 20-minute train journey back to Gowerton (the train also stops at Llanelli and Burry Port), or you can simply turn around and ride back, with the prevailing westerly wind blowing you along like a dream.
For downloadable route info: thebikeshow.net/19SS
Lost Lanes Wales: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Wales and the English Borders by Jack Thurston (£14.99, Wild Things Publishing) is available from all good bookshops. For 30% off and free P+P visit wildthingspublishing.com and enter 'Travel' as your coupon code.