RENTING A BIKE: I rented my nearly new 15-speed mountain bike from the Giant shop at 4-18 Jiaodaokou East St. in Beijing's Dongcheng District for about $6 a day. The store required a deposit of almost $100, but allowed me to put it on a credit card.

You can also rent bikes at several hotels, including the Kempinski (Lufthansa Center, 50 Liangmaqiao Rd.) and the Beijing Hilton (1 Dong Fang Rd.). If your hotel can't arrange a rental, ask them to look through the yellow pages (which are, of course, in Chinese) and find you a nearby bike store. Rental rates run from about $1.80 per hour to $12 a day, depending on where you rent and how fancy a bike you get. Guarded bicycle parking lots, many of them covered, are almost everywhere and cost about 21/2 cents for two hours to about 5 cents for overnight.

WHERE TO BIKE: Tiananmen Square and the moat around the Forbidden City are pretty spectacular from a bicycle, though the heavy traffic surrounding these areas can force you to spend more time navigating than enjoying the sights -- and bicycles are not allowed within the square itself. A couple of suggestions:

* There are some nice hutongs (alleyways) just south of Tiananmen, and even nicer ones around the Drum and Bell Towers in the Shichahai District, about 11/2 miles north of Tiananmen. If you ride up the west side of the Forbidden City to get to the Bell Tower, there is a lovely set of linked lakes on your left. Cross over the lakes at an arched bridge about two-thirds of the way up to visit Prince Gong's palace.

* The Summer Palace northwest of central Beijing is amazing, with lakes, high-arched bridges, pavilions and lotus blossoms, but you can't take a bike onto its grounds. While the ride there is mostly along freeways and crowded city streets, there are some nice wooded areas en route. It is very much a real Beijing experience -- and you might get picked up by someone wanting to practice English.

WHEN TO GO: Beijing is at its best -- for biking or anything else -- in autumn, when the skies are clear and the air is cool and breezy. Spring is also nice but can be marred by dust storms blowing in from the Mongolian steppe. Winter is impossibly cold, and late summer, when I went, has only a few clear days scattered among the rain, heat and smog.

-- Joost Polak