Cycling in London gets a lot of bad press. It’s dangerous, it’s smog filled, it’s insanity. Yet I love it! Why? Well most of the scare stories are not true. The mass hysteria played out in the media is not representative of the road. Is cycling in London dangerous? No more so than crossing the road as a pedestrian.
Yet London is busy, there’s no arguing with that. I love cycling to escape, so how can I enjoy riding in a city heaving with a gazillion people? I enjoy cycling for this very reason. It provides escape even in the most crowded of environments.
Here’s five reasons why I love cycling in the capital.
1. Regent’s and Richmond Parks
Where to find quiet roads in London? Head to the green patches, specifically Regent’s Park and Richmond Park. Each an oasis, an escape from the heat of the city. I’ve already penned an open love letter to cycling in Regent’s Park, the Londoner’s outdoor indoor turbo trainer of choice. I will never tire of looping this park, or riding past the giraffes in London Zoo, or better still, the guarantee of riding with strangers in brief informal alliances. The only thing that could destroy this cycling mecca is speed bumps, which I’ve worryingly read are being considered.
So to Richmond Park. More beauty, more hills, more views and more of a challenge to complete the 6.7 mile loop. It’s a great place to ride early in the morning before the cars and gazillions of cyclists arrive. I say great. Richmond Park is the grim scene for my hour of power. Whenever I ride there I set out on the very painful Richmond Park 3 lap challenge.
Your mission is to cycle 3 laps of the park in under an hour, so averaging at least 20 mph for an hour. I remember the sense of achievement the first time I slipped under the hour. Since then I’ve come to dread the hour of pain, attempting for reasons unknown to me to shave seconds off my current PB. It’s the London amateur cyclist’s equivalent of the hour record aka the closest you can come to death without dying. Only add hills and wind. And in my case, a 15 mile ride just to get there!
2. Empty streets
Sunday. Six a.m. My alarm clock burst into life an hour earlier. Unlike me. A litre of coffee fails to jolt me. My stomach heaves with porridge. I am an early morning cyclist, up at dawn to beat the London traffic, to see the sunrise, to experience the streets like the film 28 days later. Sunday morning. Or is it night still? Streets empty, the occasional zombie staggers home after a big Saturday night out.
I love, love, riding through central London with the streets to myself. The neon of Piccadilly Circus lighting the dark morning, the pavement electric blue, brilliant white, resplendent red. Soho still reverberating from the chatter and hum of last night’s revelers, King’s Road quiet, awaiting the pitter patter of shoppers still tucked up in bed.
For the briefest of moments the city is mine.
3. The commute
Chaos theory does not explain the Londoner’s cycling commute. Hell is calmer and has fewer devils. The lunatics have escaped the asylum and hit London’s roads. Be they drivers, pedestrians and yes, other cyclists. It’s every man and woman for themselves in a race to save seconds, precious valuable seconds from their commute. And you know what? I love it!
Heart pumping and adrenaline flooding the senses, this is as alert as I’ll be all day. Riding fixed gear, legs, bike and mind at one. I am immortal yet also oh so very mortal, weaving, braking and swerving my way through the thronging city streets, years of history my backdrop.
The horizon is a feast of icons, my eyes spoiled for choice. I pass castles, historic bridges, museums, galleries, the river Thames, the Bank of England, the City, the Shard. In the distance Canary Wharf on my left, St Paul’s Cathedral and the BT Tower on my right.
Then to the quiet ways. My own personal quiet ways that many cyclists don’t know exist and that TfL is now finally adopting to encourage cyclists from the busy main arteries. Yet just one street over, parallel to hell, is a cycling paradise. Leafy avenues, no traffic lights, barely a car, clean (ish) air and time to contemplate the meaning of life. Or what I’m having for dinner when I get home.
There’s also something wonderful about riding the same route everyday. Boring? Nah, I own these streets! I know where the potholes are, I can take everything in my stride, eyes closed. Almost.
4. The great city escape
Surrey, Essex and Epping Forest, the Chilterns, Windsor, Hertfordshire, Brighton. These are the staple weekend retreats of the London cyclist, all easily within riding distance. The sea, hills, flatland and empty country lanes all orbit the city and tempt the London cyclist out of their dens with the promise off fresh air and adventures a new.
My closest escape of choice is Essex via a few hills in Epping, the rest of the ride pancake flat, ideal for a tempo ride powering through the lonesome lanes of High Laver, Little Laver, High Easter, Good Easter and the many, many Rodings.
Adventure means the Surrey Hills. I’ve cycled in much of the UK, be it the Isle of Skye, Dartmoor, Cornwall, the Lake District, the Peak District or Wales. Yet Surrey is an equal among these cycling meccas. Beautiful country lanes you could ride forever, challenging climbs your legs won’t let you ride forever.
Here’s two Surrey rides I highly recommend for hill climbers or anyone who enjoys a beautiful ride:
- The seven sisters of Surrey – each uglier than the last 54 miles | 5,300 ft
- The super Surrey double horseshoe 90 miles | 8,600 ft
5. The bumps
I like riding up hills. Lots of hills. Preferably steep. Not too long but long enough to get close to death. A deep breath before bang, off you shoot, full gas for as long as you can hold it, powering to the top until, oh no, slowing, flicking down the gears in a blind panic, cadence dropping, breath struggling, heart beating hard, gasping now, yes, done!
Lungs on fire, your first thought is not of puking, not of fainting, but of your time. Did you beat your PB? And then you can puke and faint all you wish.
As the leaves turn yellow-orange, my head turns red-purple for it is hill climb season. As a north London boy, my climbs of destruction are Swains Lane. Ally Pally. Muswell Hill. Highgate West, Highgate Hill, Archway, East Heath plus those a little further afield in Epping, namely Mott Street, Avey Lane, Dawes Hill and friends. I love and hate each and every one of you. You’ve brought me pleasure, pain and exhilaration.
- The lumps and bumps of north London – 46 miles | 4,900 ft
- Epic Epping (plus Regents Park!) – 60 miles | 2,800 ft
Riding up hills is very much like living and cycling in London. It’s a love-hate thing. Thank you London for being you and for letting me be me.
Image credits: 1) #BikeNYC (ironically!).