The 2012 Tour de France kicks off tomorrow. And it's bound to inspire more than a few of you to jump on your bikes and get going. Why not do it in style, and head offonto one of the world's most scenic, interesting, adrenalin-pumping or just plain pretty bike routes.
We've picked five of the best (presented here in no particular order). So gear up and get going!
1. La Farola, Cuba
This spectacular bike route has been described as "landscape on steroids". Where else do you have beaches, cathedrals and mountains sitting alongside one another, in a place that appears untouched by the ravages of time?
The 9km stretch of highway from the crest of the Baracoa Mountains down to the south coast clings to cliffs laden with tropical vegetation. Guard rails protect you from gorges that seem to drop off into oblivion, sweeping from one giant limestone ledge to the next. Each turn provides a vista of wild open ocean.
This magnificent mountain highway is an irresistible challenge for cyclists. Traditionally, the first stage of the Vuelta Ciclista Cuba (Cuba’s answer to the Tour de France) is held here.
2. Karakoram Highway, China-Pakistan
The Karakoram Highway is an 800-mile road stretching from Islamabad, Pakistan to the western Chinese city of Kashgar. It's also the highest international road in the world, reaching an altitude of 4,700 metres at the Khunjerab Pass.
Starting in Kashgar you can ride up to 1,200km on mostly unpaved roads, but the views are as breathtaking as the riding. The snow-capped Karakoram Mountains are always within sight, towering over the Hunza Valley. And you'll also come across small villages and towns near the Cathedral Ridge, where glaciers reach the road.
The road is not as treacherous as it once was but it can still be pretty hair-raising especially during the monsoon season in summer. Sections of the road are paved but many parts are dirt, gravel, broken asphalt and huge potholes.
The last 15km are hairpin curves and then the road turns to more widespread open land with mountains and gorgeous lakes.
3. Ruta Austral, Chile
National Geographic says of Ruta Austral in Chile as, "Proud and arrogant, its wild natural beauty seduces with a bit of drunkenness and make us witness, in the silent night, of the incommensurable green greatness of the deep one and the frozen snow."
It boasts fast flowing rivers, incredible mountain vistas, glaciers, sleepy villages, fjords, shimmering lakes. In short, perfect cycling. Cyclists come from all over the world to experience it. For bicycle touring enthusiasts, riding Ruta Austral is like seeing the Taj Mahal. It’s a must do.
Mostly surfaced with graded but unpaved gravel, the route runs for more than 1,300km from Puerto Montt in central Chile, south through Caleta Yungay to Villa O’Higgins in northern Patagonia, with numerous ferryboat transfers along the way. You pass through wild and beautiful landscapes, including Queulat and Cerro Castillo national parks. Large stretches of native forest and enormous ferns surround Puyuhuapi Hot Springs, near Queulat.
Villages are conveniently spaced every 50km or so, meaning you won't need to stock up on supplies. Just pop in to the tiny general store and graba packet of pasta and a can of tomato sauce. There’s even fresh bread along the way.
4. La Route Verte, Canada
The newly completed Route Verte in Canada (Green Route) crosses the province of Quebec from east to west, running for more than 4,000km. It runs along carefully selected rights-of-way and rural roads. It is easy to follow and includes directions to interesting sites. The terrain and vistas vary from the infinite expanses along the shores of the St Lawrence River to the spectacular panoramas of the Laurentian Mountains.
Hailed as the No 1 bicycle route in the world by the National Geographic Society, you can choose from different routes and itineraries depending on your interests. Follow The Veloroute des Bleuets circuit, for instance, and you coast through the Lac Saint-Jean region on easy asphalt terrain.
The 256km cycling circuit provides a waterfront view and attractions like the cheddar museum, a caving adventure, historic villages, a zoo, and Pointe-Taillon national park, where you can end your day's ride by catching a stunning sunset on its fine, sandy beaches.
5. National Highway 1, Vietnam
This is the most popular cycling route in Vietnam, running the length of the narrow country from north to south. It is a long but immensely rewarding trip along the best parts of Vietnam's coastline.
You can probably complete the cycling in 12 days or less but iyou should try and give yourself three weeks to soak up the atmosphere of the delightful places along the way. The route has some reasonable hills, climaxing in the mighty Hai Van Pass (496m) – with a breathtaking descent as pine-clad mountains loom to the west and the South China Sea vanishes into the east.
National Highway 1 was divided by warfare and politics for many years. It became a strategic battleground for control of southern Vietnam, pitting US troops (with their south Vietnamese allies) against Viet Cong guerrillas, backed by the North Vietnamese Army.
The route has some taxing hills, including the memorable Hai Van Pass between Hue and Danang, a climatic barrier as much as a geographic one. Farther south, between Qui Nhon and ha Trang, there are several serious climbs and descents as the road hugs the coast and the hills that loom over it.
Take times to see the networks of lush rice fields blanketing the hidden valleys below; fish, snorkel or dive the turquoise waters of the coast; and soak up the atmosphere of delightful rural hamlets.
If you're ready to hit the road once Le Tour has finished, take a look at our destinations. There's bound to be one that inspires you.