So long Regent’s Park, circle of madness, of pain, of random chaingangs, of reliable winter cycling. You have been my outdoor indoor trainer for almost five months now, looping around, huffing and puffing lap after lap. Counterclockwise of course, for I have never ridden this popular 2.77 mile cycle route clockwise. That would be just madness!
Since October I’ve cycled at the Royal park every weekend but one. The park is in my cycling blood. It is one of north London’s classic rides. Regent’s Park, Swain’s Lane, Ally Pally. The loop sends us crazy yet we can’t live without it. True love.
My rides ranged from five to eighteen laps and yet I was never bored. Well maybe a bit towards the end of the fourth month! Yet cycling entertains my puny brain so much that riding the same old short loop still entertains me. So much variation. Where to begin? A hard all out lap. Three hard laps at threshold. Sprinting and intervals. Pulling for strangers or wheelsucking better riders than I. The moments just fly by.
A lap of Regent’s is pretty much pan flat (although regulars soon begin to refer to the two slight rises as hills!) which means you can knock out rides with a high average speed, depending on how lucky you are with the five sets of traffic lights. Wind aside, your lap times are a great yardstick for where you are in terms of fitness.
Cycling around the bend
Strava tells me I’ve ridden the Outer Circle at Regent’s Park exactly 500 times! All counterclockwise. That’s almost 1,400 miles, longer than riding Lands End to John O’ Groats. Closer in fact to the entire coastline of Florida or the equivalent of riding from London to Montenegro.
Quite a feat of mental endurance if nothing else. How does that make me feel? Torn. My cycling heart believes this to be a travesty when I could be out there enjoying the great British countryside. Are you mad, it screams? Deviate, explore for Christs sake, or at least ride the damn loop the other way!
“Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much, indeed.”
Virginia Woolf, QOM Regent’s Park Outer Circle
Yet my cycling brain dominates. Regent’s Park is my winter turbo. I can ride ice free roads which are relatively traffic free throughout the winter. There’s no country lane slime to clog up my gears. No potholes to puncture my tires (I’ve never punctured at Regent’s Park – Jinx!). Yes I’m mad, but no worse than cyclists turning gears on their turbo in the shed or their kitchen.
Truth is I’ll rarely visit the park in the summer but for one reason. Rising early to beat the sunrise, the traffic, the traffic lights and my Regent’s Park lap record.
A cycling club without the jersey
True, Regent’s Park has its own cycling club (more on them later), yet it’s the random cyclists I enjoy riding with, informal and brief alliances as we drag and follow one another for a lap or two, maybe more. Grimaces as you each smash it into the headwind past the zoo. The picking up of pace as you climb the gentle incline towards Gloucester Gate. Few words are exchanged, communication is little more than heavy breaths. Occasional thank yous every now and then, a comment about the headwind at the traffic lights, a knowing tut when somebody almost doors you getting out of their car.
Sure I could join a club but I’m a man who likes to cycle on my own terms. Regent’s Park allows for this with the benefit of a little group riding as and when required. You can fall off the back of a group and catch them next lap for nobody is left behind on a 2.77 mile lap.
Regent’s Park Rouleurs
Less of a cycling club, more of a chain gang. These boys ride more laps of Regent’s Park than Wiggle sells Team Sky jerseys each July. Seeing the RPR gang ride around the park at stupid o’clock in the morning is almost magical. Bright white bike lights cutting through the dark, a ghost peloton, a freight train of silent legs mashing out revolutions, smooth rubber licking the hardtop. Graceful.
Hamsters on wheels, they’re a quick bunch. ‘We ride at a brisk pace’, declares their British Cycling profile somewhat modestly. ‘You should be able to sustain 22 mph (36 kph) solo around the park for sustained periods’. Ouch. Whilst I can manage that pace when the park is quiet the thought of getting up at 5.45 to ride the park wearing bright yellow booties every week is another matter. For that is madness.
Fastest lap of Regent’s Park
The park is probably one of the most competitive segments in the UK. A mere 8,864 people have ridden the loop but between them have stacked up a mind boggling 476,892 laps. That’s an average of over 50 laps per rider. The aforementioned Regent’s Rouleurs dominate the leaderboard on Strava, with 15 of the top 20 fastest lap times. Impressive if achieved without drafting.
With five sets of traffic lights, record laps are best attempted early morning or late evening when the park is closed to traffic. Crunching out 2.77 miles at near max heart rate is quite the feat and seems to get harder every time I try it. Must be getting older.
My fastest lap of Regent’s Park? A 6.22 starting at Gloucester Gate, which is a 26 mph lap and puts me comfortably inside the top 10%. The leaders are nearer 30 mph! I vividly remember breaking the 7 minute barrier and achieving something akin to inner peace. If I ever break (sorry, when I) break 6 minutes I’ll be so happy spontaneous human combustion will be a distinct possibility.
I find a rare easterly wind to be the most beneficial, pushing you along the drag near the zoo or a southerly helping you climb the ‘hill’ towards Gloucester Gate. Most people begin their attempt at the bottom of the incline up to Gloucester Gate, giving you an easier finish on the flat. Not being most people, I give myself the hardest finish possible and have been close to death on this stretch on many an occasion.
What to look out for
- Giraffes! And maybe zebras too as the Outer Circle takes you through the middle of London Zoo. This really is a treat. Early mornings you can hear the squawks and roars of many a beast!
- Car doors. The entire loop can become a bit of a zoo on a Sunday afternoon with lots of parked cars opening doors. Go early or stay wide.
- Traffic lights. There’s five sets, three of which are pedestrian controlled. The set in the south of the park are the worst in terms of waiting time. Watch for cars at this set turning left and ignoring the cycle lane. Beware also of cars coming in the opposite direction turning right across your path.
- Police. The park is well policed, targeting speeding drivers and also red light jumping cyclists. Don’t do it no matter what your lap time.
- Other cyclists. Draft ’em, lead ’em and thank ’em. The standard of group riding in Regent’s Park is higher than average (at least early-ish mornings when I’m there).
- Pedestrians. They will step out in front of you. Remember, this is not a velodrome so be considerate and give pedestrians priority when required.
- Water fountains. Refill in the park and never go dry and don’t carry too much liquid for that record lap attempt!
- Frieze Art Festival takes place in Regent’s Park every October and there’s temporary traffic lights, lots of pedestrians and traffic. Avoid.
- Ride anti-clockwise to avoid the right hand turn across traffic
- The Inner Circle. A 0.6 mile (1 km) mini loop to really drive you insane. The road is rougher here. I tried it once but was dizzy after a couple of laps. Kudos then to the folk who rode it 166 times to complete a metric century!
- Don’t go crazy…