THE ribbon of tarmac twisted cruelly upwards to the peak of Hartside Fell.

I had cycled it before many times and remember being grateful for a puncture on my last ascent. Not far ahead a group of lycra-clad road-crunchers were grinding their way up. I stopped, swapped my cycle helmet for a knotted hanky, adjusted my threadbare tennis shorts and took a cigar from one of my bulging saddlebags.

Within minutes I swept past them with a cheery wave, insouciantly puffing Hamlet smoke into the still, spring air. Whoosh! I was over the 2,000-foot summit in 17 minutes, not far off the record for a top-to-bottom ascent of one of Cumbria's most spectacular viewpoints. I was already half-way to a pint at the Cumberland Arms in Alston by the time my fellow cyclists had reached the peak. This is the way to do it, I thought, as I flicked my cigar butt into the damp heather.

By now, you may be imagining a gifted athlete bent on self-destruction. The truth is rather more prosaic. I had only a week to cycle more than 500 miles to complete three of Britain's favourite cycle routes: the C2C, Hadrian's Cycleway and the Reivers. They link the Irish Sea to the North Sea, via the northern Lake District and the Pennines. I was unfit, overweight, over 50 and quietly terrified. But the deadline for the 20th edition of my book, Coast To Coast Cycle Routes, was fast approaching and some new mapping needed doing, fast.

There was too little time to train. At 53 it takes time to get fit. So what to do? Then I remembered a nice chap I had met at a cycle show in Birmingham who sold electrically assisted bikes. I'd tried a few of these out before, in preparation for being overtaken by lifestyle and age, but none had been anywhere near suited to the demands of these routes. However, this one was, and with fully laden panniers, it was all but indistinguishable from a normal bike. And just as quiet.

Cycling from coast to coast is an easily quantifiable achievement, like Land's End to John O'Groats, but on a much more manageable scale, and doable over a long weekend. It's the perfect activity for a fit and active family, but the majority of weekend leisure cyclists comprise groups of men and women in search of pain and pleasure. There are now an estimated 30,000 people crossing the 140-mile C2C and up to 10 times that many doing stages of it every year. The figures are lower for the other two routes, but impressive nonetheless. Cyclists have helped breathe life back into small communities along the routes.

The C2C route begins in Whitehaven, a once booming rum, coal and slave port on the Cumbrian coast. There was no need for battery assistance on the traffic-free former railway section out of town but once in the hills, the temptation to engage the discrete battery of the borrowed Kalkhoff was irresistible. Gradients start just before Loweswater and Whinlatter Pass is the first real test. In the past I have always stopped to pay my respects at the small shrine to the fallen cyclist half-way up. This time I hardly saw it, as the silent motor helped power me up to the café at the top.

Before the morning was out I was through Keswick, via the Dog & Gun, and heading down to Ullswater along the new Wiggo's Way loop, named in honour of Sir Bradley Wiggins who cycled through on the 2012 Tour of Britain after his victory in the Tour de France. At Pooley Bridge I watched the old ferry, which looked like it might have starred in The African Queen, chug across the lake, before going on to my first port of call in the postcard-perfect village of Askham.

A log fire was flickering in the trust-me-not-to-have-a-quintuple honesty bar, housed in the library of Askham Hall. Originally a 14th century peel tower, the hall became a splendid country house in 1575 before being taken over by the 7th Earl of Londsdale in 1830. It is still owned by the Lowther family and provides an absurdly comfortable counterpoint to the rigours of the saddle. The chef, Richard Swale, has cooked in some of the world's top kitchens and trained with some of the greatest names in gastronomy. My calorie-depleted body fell on the cod cheek with ox tongue and wild garlic and asparagus before devouring local loin of lamb with sweetbreads.

The following morning I stopped for coffee at the Strickland Arms. This has become something of a museum to "Wiggo" since he and Team Sky came for dinner after the Cumbria stage of the 2012 tour. His yellow jersey from that year's Tour de France is on display and you can stay here in one of their log yurts. It's not Askham Hall, but it's a great stop-off, nonetheless.

From here you can either go via Penrith and Hartside, or via Appleby, Brough and Middleton-in-Teesdale. The latter is the new Wiggo route and there are some great watering holes. Either way, you end up in Stanhope, the small county Durham market town on the banks of the Wear, an ideal last night stop-off.

The climb out of Stanhope, up Crawleyside Bank, is possibly the most demanding ascent. Even the Kalkhoff struggled. But from the top it is pretty much downhill all the way to the ruined monastery at Tynemouth, where the C2C ends.

I returned to Whitehaven along the 173-mile long Reivers Route, heading inland through the national park to Kielder Reservoir and the Scottish village of Newcastleton, where I found the last available bed owing to a raucous global gathering of the Elliott clan (spelling optional). My final leg along Hadrian's Cycleway (did Hadrian have a bike?) goes from Ravenglass near Sellafield to Tynemouth, 174 miles of breathtaking but relatively easy cycling. Especially if you are "cheating".

The 20th edition of Mark Porter's Coast To Coast Cycle Routes is published by on May 28 by Baytree Press, £11.99. Updated each year, it provides a user's guide to the C2C, Hadrian's Cycleway and the Reivers, including tried-and-tested tips for the best places to eat, sleep and drink, as well as plenty of stuff on how to do the difficult bit: pedalling between them.

Kalkhoff electric bikes:

Five coast-to-coast stopovers

Powter Howe, Thornthwaite, nr Keswick CA12 5SQ: a serene 16th century period farmhouse set in two acres overlooking Bassenthwaite Lake. At £30 a night, it is an absolute bargain and a fairly quick hop to the pubs in Braithwaite. Karen Lockwood.

The Highland Drove Inn, Great Salkeld, Langwathby, nr Penrith CA11 9NA. Country pub with open fires, great cooking and a lively bar serving tip-top real ale. There's also a campsite if you want to do it on the cheap. Donald Newton:

Horsley Hall, Eastgate, Stanhope, DL13 2LJ: an ivy-clad country house where you can stay for £60 a night and enjoy the splendid Aga cooking of Liz Curry, the owner and trained master chef.

Forrester's Arms, 52-53 Market Place, Middleton-in-Teesdale, Co Durham DL12 0QH. Franck Marie is the French chef/owner who has brought with him the taste of Normandy. Great cooking, superb desserts and a knockout breakfast.

The Cumberland Arms, James Place St, Ouseburn, Newcastle upon Tyne NE16 1LD. Described by Oz Clarket in Lonely Planet as "one of the best pubs I have ever been in", The Cumberland has rooms and serious food.