IT has sparked one of the biggest controversies in the New Forest for years.

Commercial cycling events attracting thousands of entrants have resulted in months of conflict, with locals accusing riders of damaging the environment by “racing” along country lanes and using village greens as toilets.

Now one of Britain's leading environmental groups has also unveiled plans to stage a major cycle ride in the Forest.

But this time the event is for charity - and organisers say it will have only a minimal impact on people living in the area.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) has revealed that this year's Big Green Bike Ride will involve an 85-mile ride from London to the New Forest, followed by a 35-mile tour of the area the next day.

Riders will be based at the Foxlease Girl Guide centre at Lyndhurst, where a zip wire and other activities will be provided.

But FoE says the event will be very different from the huge Wiggle rides that have sparked a series of rows between cyclists and residents.

Unlike the Wiggle series, people taking part in the Big Green Bike Ride will not be timed.

An FoE spokesman said experienced guides would brief cyclists on the concerns expressed by Forest residents over the past few months and pledged that racing would be “actively discouraged”.

He added: “The Big Green Bike Ride bears little resemblance to the mass participation events that are rightly causing concern in the New Forest.

“We are expecting 250 participants, making it very small-scale compared to the thousands of cyclists who take part in large bike rides.

“We have designed the event with the aim of making it the gold standard of New Forest bike rides by minimising the impact on local residents.”

Riders taking part in the event on May 17-18 will be raising funds for FoE.

Critics of the Wiggle events include one of Britain's oldest conservation groups, the New Forest Association (NFA), which has been watching over the area since 1867.

NFA chairman Peter Roberts said: “It will be interesting to compare a well-organised bike ride staged by a responsible environmental charity with the large-scale events we have seen recently.

“Providing numbers are not too large there is an opportunity here to show how the Forest can be appreciated by those who enjoy fresh air and exercise.

“We look forward to a non-disruptive and hopefully well-managed event.”