Rebels with a Cause: I rode 232-miles with my much fitter brother, and we're still friends

It was never going to be smiles all the way round, but car free miles and brotherly love won out

riding past fields on rebellion way
(Image credit: Andy Jones for Future)

The oncoming car slowed to a crawl just ahead and pulled slightly to the side, despite there being ample room for us both to pass each other. Where I come from in the Home Counties, this would count as suspicious behaviour. What dastardly trick did they have planned? But as I rode past, the driver both smiled and waved. I did the same in return, probably with an idiotic grin of delight and surprise. This wasn't the first time it had happened, either. These courteous drivers combined with the open, rural scenery and a real scarcity of traffic on the back roads meant this felt far more like deep France than anywhere in England.

But this was Norfolk. No French spoken here. We – me and my brother (and indeed colleague) Steve – were visiting the county to ride the Rebellion Way, a 232-mile loop curated by Cycling UK and launched last year.

The ride mixes quiet back roads, forest tracks, cycle paths and bridleways in a vaguely circular route that starts, officially, in Norwich and circumnavigates much of the county.

Brothers riding side by side on narrow path

(Image credit: Andy Jones for Future)

You might be wondering where the 'Rebellion Way' title came from, and no, for Star Wars fans I'm afraid this isn't some sort of Jedi pilgrimage. However, even Luke Skywalker couldn't fail to be awed by the rebellious types the county has thrown up over the years. Queen Boadicea for example, who led a rebellion against the Romans, slaughtering 70,000 of the occupiers and their supporters; or the lesser known Robert Kett, who sided with the commoners after landowners began partitioning off their land, leading an ultimately ill-fated rebellion in Norwich that nevertheless gave the defending royal army a run for its money.

While the Rebellion Way officially starts in Norwich, being a circular loop you can of course start wherever suits best. We began our ride in the town of Thetford – the furthest south-westerly point of the loop, which worked out well for travelling to and from the area for us, and also for accommodation along the route.

The plan was to drive up on day one and ride 55 miles in the afternoon. Day two would be 100 miles, followed by 80 miles on day three. For me, not having ridden back-to-back big days for around 10 years (I know, I know) it was definitely going to be a challenge. Steve on the other hand, had done some pretty major bikepacking events in the recent past, not to mention many more miles than me in general, which as I'm sure you'll agree, just isn't cricket.

brothers ride side by side on wide gravel path

(Image credit: Andy Jones for Future)

We didn't immediately find out how cycle-friendly Norfolk's drivers can be, at least in part because much of day one was spent on the car-free tracks of Thetford Forest. Flanked by dark swathes of pine, we jinked our way towards King's Lynn in a series of right angles, generous sandy or gravelling doubletrack taking us slowly northwards. We passed the neolithic flint mines of Grime's Graves, an English Heritage site and the first of many sites of historical significance on the route. 

Also featuring, for example, was a memorial to the Desert Rats, the 7th Armoured Division who became famous for their successes in North Africa and were based for a time in the forest. A Cromwell tank on a plinth guards the entrance to one of the forest roads, with a small museum by the side of the trail a little further up. Further on, having left the forest and set about back lanes and field edges, we found Castle Acre, which boasts not only a Norman castle but also a well preserved Norman priory and bailey gate. 

We also passed through Swaffham, a pleasant town notable for an inauspicious visit by another of the county's sons, Alan Partridge. Fans may remember him judging the vegetable competition at the town's Country Fayre before leaving in a huff because no one is listening to him compere. It's not the last Partridge stop-off along the way; in fact the ride feels like a bit of pilgrimage to the Steve Coogan character. A Partrimilgrimage, if you will.

What to ride

Ribble gravel bike ridden for rebellion way

(Image credit: Andy Jones for Future)

I rode a Ribble CGR with SRAM Apex 1X gearing and 700 x 45 WTB Riddler tires. The tires were definitely overkill considering the terrain and the dry weather - 40mm would have been speedier on the lanes that make up much of the ride. Other than that, it was ideal. We used Zefal bikepacking bags supplied by Chicken CycleKit, including the Aventure F10 bar bag, the Adventure R11 and R17 seat bags, and the Adventure C2 frame bag. I can happily report that despite being subjected to some major deluges on the final day, no rain got into any of these.

Day one saved the best till last for us, with the evening light gilding fields and long, straight empty lanes. At King's Lynn, a network of near-perfect cycle paths delivered us to our destination – the Globe Hotel on the town's attractive market square.

With photo stops and off-road aplenty, we'd taken six-and-a-half hours over our 57-mile day and I was already feeling it. Physically, things were only going to get tougher.

The sun shone the following morning as we threaded our way out King's Lynn with a hearty breakfast inside us. A brisk easterly wind coming in off the coast was forecast for the day, and with much of our planned 100 miles heading straight into it, we knew it was to be a challenging day ahead.

The route took us first north, past the royal retreat that is the Sandringham estate, before switching onto a coastal cycle path up to the seaside town of Hunstanton, where coffee was imbibed and cake was gratefully snaffled on a seaview cafe terrace.

With 20 miles in the legs – on top of those the previous day – a definite weariness became very apparent as we climbed away from the seafront. At which point I should probably address the 'Norfolk is flat' fallacy.

Rebellion way brothers riding side by side

(Image credit: Andy Jones for Future)

Now, there's little doubt that it's one of the flattest counties, but anyone going there hoping to find a billiard table to glass-crank it around for three days (ahem, guilty your honour…) can think again. The Rebellion Way features 2,470 metres of vertical ascent over its 232 miles – not the toughest ride but hardly pan-flat. There are, though, no major climbs on the route and what rises there are are generally pretty shallow, so unless you're carrying a lot of luggage, don't fret too much about whether your bottom gear is low enough.

As well as being largely into the wind, our middle day, which took us west to east across the top of the county, was the hilliest part of the route. It had a lot of Normandy about it in places too, with long, straight (and deserted) rolling roads stretching into the distance.

The route visits two seaside resorts along the north coast – Wells-next-the-Sea being the first. Its seafront architecture is evocative of its history as a busy port, but colourful, cosy streets welcome holiday makers. Cycle-tourists in the throes of hunger knock will feel equally at home (and I can vouch for this) thanks to places such as the Wells Deli, a cosy eatery stuffed to the rafters with homemade sandwiches, sausage rolls and cake that we made full use of.

We tackled the inevitable rise out of town considerably heavier on fuel but lighter of wallet, heading inland again for a mazy, 40-mile meander to the next seafront town, Sheringham.

Anyone going there hoping to find a billiard table to glass-crank it around for three days (ahem, guilty your honour…) can think again

By this time the gap between mine and Steve's fitness had been well and truly exposed, and he had taken to riding ahead. I would find him waiting patiently at the top of various rises, or in onward towns such as Holt, and eventually Sheringham, as I slowly hoved into view.

I was doing my best to enjoy life on the road – the riding, the scenery and the joy in being able to substitute a day at the desk for a day in the saddle. But it was that saddle that was conspiring to thwart that enjoyment, as well as various other joints and muscles (ironically the legs were OK). I'd got to the point where I was counting down my progress in chunks of either five miles or 20 minutes in turn and, in all honesty, I just wanted the day to end.

Reaching the 80-mile mark at Sheringham, a pretty and upmarket seaside escape, we raided the Coop and stared out to sea for a while, pleased to note that the day's remaining miles were due south and with any luck, sans headwind.

They did take us over what was the most challenging hill of the whole three days though, steep and off-road. Over-geared and under-legged, I reached the top on foot, and very slowly at that.

Over-geared and under-legged, I reached the top on foot, and very slowly at that.

Finally reaching our stop-off for the night at Aylsham via a network of near-deserted lanes, I'd done 99.2 miles. Somehow a second wind kicked in as I did what any sane cyclist would – two laps of the block to complete the century.

Anyone who has been on a training camp or a cycle tour is likely familiar with the epiphany whereby, after a few unpleasant days your legs and butt suddenly make peace with the whole idea, and riding becomes considerably easier.

Sadly for me, day three of our trip was not that day. As we rode along the Bure Valley Railway path away from Aylsham (a path that would be considered near perfect under most circumstances), every part of me was complaining. Every stone was transmitted through the saddle; every barely perceptible rise reduced my speed to a weary crawl. Almost immediately I was back to counting down the minutes and the miles. If it wasn't for the fact that CW's sub-editors would batter me with a rolled up style guide, I might even insert a crying emoji [:'-( we can do that online - Ed] at this point. You'll just have to imagine it.

The weather was kind to us at least, though that changed after we'd eaten lunch sat on the concourse of Norwich rail station, which we reached after around 30 miles. As we rode out of the city, the heavens opened. And just when it looked like it was clearing up, they opened again, this time adding hail into the mix.

Despite the fickle weather I could appreciate Norfolk's different characters. Much of day one had been thickly forested, while day two was rolling and often coastal. Day three was (I'm very happy to report) much flatter, with tiny, almost car-free lanes threading through fields and villages.

The wind that had plagued us on day two was now almost friendly, helping us on our way south and west. The same couldn't be said for the rain, which despite clearing up for a time, had been biblical for some time as I squelched into Diss, where Steve had been ensconced in Cafe Delices for almost an hour.

Having joined Steve for one final hit of caffeine and sugar, all that remained was to tackle the final 20-odd miles to Thetford. Incredibly, with rain having abated and the wind at our backs, they rolled by like a fast, car-free and gold-lit dream.

Rebellion Way: the logistics

Brothers side by side check cycling computer

(Image credit: Andy Jones for Future)

How to get there

Norfolk is unblemished by motorways, but that does mean you'll need to tackle A-roads (and not necessarily dual carriageways) to get there. Our route from London was straightforward – the M11 followed by the A11 to Thetford (which continues to Norwich).

The county is well served by railways, with Thetford, King's Lynn and of course Norwich all potential alighting points to start the ride.

Where to stay

Norfolk is popular with tourists, especially along the coast, so accommodation is best booked in advance (unless of course you're bikepacking). However, with the route passing through at least 11 towns, there are plenty of B&Bs, hotels and AirBnBs around. We stayed at The Globe Hotel in King's Lynn, who cheerfully stashed our bikes in the conference room, and the Blind Pig AirBnB in Aylsham, a lovely flat that was far too well appointed for two grubby cyclists, but which wasn't really set up for cycle storage.

Bike shops

Those 11 towns mentioned above mean you should never be too far from retail rescue. There are shops in King's Lynn, Wells, Sheringham, Aylsham, plus a Halfords in Thetford. There are also a number of mobile cycle mechanics around, should you get stranded.

This feature first appeared in Cycling Weekly print magazine. You can get all the news, tech, fitness and features delivered straight to your door - subscribe here.

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After cutting his teeth on local and national newspapers, James began at Cycling Weekly as a sub-editor in 2000 when the current office was literally all fields. 

Eventually becoming chief sub-editor, in 2016 he switched to the job of full-time writer, and covers news, racing and features.

A lifelong cyclist and cycling fan, James's racing days (and most of his fitness) are now behind him. But he still rides regularly, both on the road and on the gravelly stuff.