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Originally published July 21, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Page modified July 24, 2012 at 4:09 PM

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Touring far-flung cities by bike

Scout out a route that's relatively car-free in the morning or late evening, and even Bangkok or Beijing qualify as bike-friendly.

Seattle Times travel writer

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I did the Co van Kessel Bangkok bike tour and it was so much fun. Gave me a new... MORE
Bicycle Tours are great to explore in any city around the world. In Malaysia they... MORE

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The afternoon I spent bouncing through Prague on a bicycle seat without springs didn't make for cushy cycling, but it was a memorable ride that combined sightseeing with the thrill of careening through a foreign city behind a fearless, 20-something guide.

Scout out a route that's relatively car-free in the morning or late evening, and even Bangkok or Beijing qualify as bike-friendly.

No need to sign up for an expensive tour or pack spandex or fancy gear. Renting a bike and exploring on your own is always an option, but my favorite way to get to know a big, foreign city is to spend a few hours on an organized small-group ride.

Get the lay of the land. Learn a little history. Make new friends. I think of these excursions as walking tours on wheels.

A few favorites:

Bangkok: People travel by river boat and SkyTrain to avoid the constant traffic congestion, but off nearly every main street are alleys too narrow for anything but pedestrians and pushcarts. Dutch mountain-biker Co van Kessel leads groups first through Chinatown, then across the Chao Phraya River to Thonburi, perfect for cycling along canals connected by raised concrete paths shaded by banana and coconut trees.

Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours: Five-hour morning and afternoon rides, 1350 Thai baht ($42.50). See www.covankessel.com.

Paris: Perhaps it was the woman I saw wearing a surgical mask as she whizzed by on her bicycle, dodging rush-hour traffic, but I had doubts about a nighttime bike tour of Paris. The first test came as our group crossed the busy rue Henri IV. Surprisingly, the cars stopped and waited for us. Before we knew it, we were gliding along back streets, past little restaurants and cafes, not a car in sight.

If you can take just one bike ride in Paris, do it at night or at dawn when Paris is waking up. Either way, you'll see the city in a new light.

Paris a Velo c'est Sympa offers a three-hour "Paris at Dawn" ride, 34 euros ($42). See www.parisvelosympa.com. Fat Tire Bike Tours (www.fattirebiketours.com) has a four-hour night ride for 28 euros ($35.50).

Florence: It was morning rush hour as a dozen of us waited for our guide to round the corner in his van and whisk us away for a day of biking in the Tuscan countryside.

We cycled along a steep two-lane road hemmed in by stone walls. Cars and motor bikes whizzed by, but it was all worthwhile when we spotted our lunch stop, the Casa del Prosciutto restaurant. Bottles of Chianti arrived along with platters of grilled bread spread with chopped tomatoes.

The afternoon sun was low in the sky when we climbed back on our bikes. Our backpacks filled with wine and olive oil, we relaxed. The ride was literally downhill from here.

I Bike Florence (www.ibikeflorence.com) offers 15-mile tours in the Tuscan countryside for 80 euros ($100), including transportation and lunch.

Beijing: There were some tough hills and a few nice downhill runs, but the paved road we followed on a ride to the Great Wall with CycleChina wasn't the quiet country lane I expected. This was China, after all. Construction was booming. Cement trucks ruled the roads.

The reward was a remote section of the wall called Huanghua Cheng or "Little Flower." We put the bikes in a van, then climbed about a mile uphill on a path of crumbling rock. When we reached the top, it was just our group of 10 and our Chinese guide who decided to entertain us by playing his favorite song, "Country Road," on his MP3 player.

CycleChina (www.cyclechina.com) offers Great Wall tours (cycling time is 2-3 hours) for 420-680 yuan ($66-$107) per person, depending on the group size. Lunch and transport included.

Have a question or comment on travel? Contact Carol Pucci: cpucci@ seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @carolpucci.

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About Travel Wise

Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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