We’ve all got one. No, I’m not talking about the bike or the anecdote about the time you fell off your bike when using clipless pedals for the first time. I’m talking about the route we cycle more often not, a road well-travelled, a line on the map as familiar as an old pair of shoes or that cute girl / boy you see on the bus every Monday but never speak to even though you’re convinced they once winked at you.
Be it your same old training loop, your commute or the steady 100 mile route that tests you on any given Sunday. These are the routes inextricably mapped in our heads. You know them better than the first big scratch on your shiny new bike frame or the many snot stains streaking down the back of your winter gloves.
Compute the commute
The commute. Not even cycling can hide the fact that you’re cycling towards work and a prison that offers a limited day release. The route is as predictable as the water cooler small talk. You know every pothole, every dangerous junction, every Strava segment.
Riding the roads of your commute you see the future and can predict the exact spot where the white van man will pinch you close to the curb, the street where the taxi will u-turn with little warning and the corner where the pedestrian will step out in front of you without looking. Up ahead is the stretch of the street where you will put the hammer down and not far off are the traffic lights where you will rest and recover, your breath as heavy as your first bike.
“It’s a hard thing to leave any deeply routine life, even if you hate it.”
Lampposts and street signs mark the many finishing lines. Your internal clock and cadence are synchronized to the timing of every traffic light and you know exactly how many pedal strokes it will take you to get from a to b.
You know the streets better than the postman. You have mapped the topography of even the flattest of roads. You are your own meteorologist, no gust can surprise you no matter what the season. You flirt with other cycle routes into work but this is the one you’re married to, the one you love and hate in equal measure. The romance has long since died but not the allure. This is love.
Hills of hateSometimes it seems I spend more time on certain hills than I do with my friends. Hello Swain’s Lane and Mott Street. Both haunt me. My best climbing times up each are easier to recall than the birth dates of loved ones, so too the gear ratio to climb them.
When I close my eyes I see the climbing line of the gradient and I see the percentages that denote my pain rather than their steepness. I hate these little bumps for unlike mountain climbers scaling up the heights of Everest, a cyclist can never conquer a hill. Never. You can always go faster. You can always hurt more.
Training loopsLife can often be compared to an endless loop. The same sights, the same effort, the same result. Yet riding a one mile loop 100 times is never going to be as satisfying as seeing 100 different miles. As a metro-cyclist in London, or Cycleur if you will, I’m cursed and blessed with training loops such as Regent’s and Richmond Park.
The former is a 2.7 mile loop of a royal park, as close to a circle as a cyclist gets outside of their nearest velodrome. Four sets of traffic lights exist purely to deny and frustrate those chasing personal bests. Many non-Londoners will think it dull to repeat laps of this popular cycling route, yet it is one of the few rides in the world where you are guaranteed a sighting of a giraffe. Thank you London zoo.
I’ve completed more laps of Regent’s Park than I care to remember, each a gruelling battle against the clock for I am not here to enjoy the ride. A lap of the park exists not only to inflict pain but to drive me quite literally around the bend. This loop is my outdoor turbo trainer. I do not need simulated videos to make me suffer. Not when I have a clock strapped to my handlebars.
Richmond Park is a different proposition. Giraffes are replaced by the very deer famous for being chased by a curious dog named Fenton. More beauty than my inner London ring, it’s a 30 mile round trip from my bed to the park gates, a surreal yet wondrous 5am ride through Soho and Piccadilly Circus on a Sunday morning, dodging the late night revellers who will feel just as bad as I in a few hours time.
Longer at 6.7 miles, Richmond Park comes complete with two hills when tackled anti-clockwise. Sawyer’s Hill is a testing yet gentle drag, followed by the more severe, short and sharp lung buster that aptly goes by the name Dark Hill. Three laps in under an hour is the challenge for many, a feat that requires breaking the speeding limit hence my early morning starts.
There’s few more satisfying sights as a London cyclist than arriving at Richmond Park, the sun peeking over the horizon, the sky orange, the park gates closed to cars, a light mist hanging over the grass, deer everywhere. It’s a rare yet wonderful feeling of being absolutely and utterly alone in a city of eight million.
The leg stretcherSunday rides. This is a chance to break free of the city and head for foreign green lands and single lane carriageways home to more horses than cars. Your metronome establishes a rhythm early and within three miles you know how long this route will take you to complete, pretty much to the second.
Time is marked not by your GPS but by the church clocks of the villages you pass through. The resting places of roadkill and the spots where you have fallen victim to a puncture are all memorised. So too the mental waypoints marking every outdoor tap on the route, not to mention the discrete spots that form your private bathrooms. The angle at which you lean into every corner is a science known only to you.
Within each route are those special segments, a super smooth stretch of tarmac, a series of bends you simply slice through or that wonderful road where you always seem to benefit from a tailwind. The route may be familiar, yet the hillier, usually windier, second half always comes as a surprise, so too your struggle. Such is your hunger, the smell of Sunday roast dinners from roadside pubs makes you salivate and dream of a life that doesn’t involve pedalling.
It is always a shock to return to the hustle and bustle of the city. Your ride has been such an epic journey you stroke your chin and are surprised not to find a week’s worth of stubble. You are a returning desert islander, your ship long since sunk, your treasures plundered. Bedraggled, rest awaits.
The route may be the same but every ride is different, be it the weather or simply how much you drank down the pub the night before. Either way, the outcome is always the same. You return home ready for sleep, the clock yet to strike noon.