Cycling in London is dirty and dangerous, frequently cold and wet, and sooner or later, your bike will probably be stolen. And yet, those who turn their backs on the tyranny of tubes and taxis and take to two wheels will soon find themselves unable to contemplate travelling any other way. It is like being given the keys to the city: journey times are slashed, you are no longer at the mercy of traffic jams and train delays, and you begin to understand how this city of conjoined villages fits together.
When I began riding a bike in London, 20 years ago, cyclists were scarce. My office had parking for about 150 cars but just eight bikes. On rides in the surrounding countryside if we ever saw another cyclist we would share an enthusiastic wave. The last decade, though, has seen a participation boom, driven by British success in the Olympics and Tour de France, the creation of marked and mapped “Cycle Superhighways” and the introduction of bike sharing schemes — plus a more general aspiration to stay fit.
Cyclists are no longer a put-upon, vaguely subversive, minority. Once the general manager of a London five-star hotel threatened to have my bike cut off the railings outside his establishment. A few years later I rolled sheepishly up to the Dorchester to find that the top-hatted doorman not only didn’t bat an eyelid but proceeded to valet-park my rusty steed.
Rusty is good: bike theft remains a huge problem, with almost 22,000 annual robberies logged by the police and many more that go unreported. When my bike was stolen from the West End, I found it for sale the next day in Brick Lane market and managed to recover it, but a better strategy is simply to have a cheap bike (a “pub bike” in the cycling parlance) and an expensive lock.
Out in the countryside, you might still hear cyclists call “Oil up!”, which means a car is approaching from the rear (“Oil down” means from the front), but on London streets cyclists are so numerous the rules of etiquette today are the same as for commuters on the tube or bus: no speaking and ideally no eye contact. Reticence, however, is the last thing required when it comes to relations with motorised road users. Most accidents happen because the cyclist isn’t seen: so, at traffic lights, for example, you should always push to the front of the queue of cars and wait prominently in the middle of the lane, rather than politely loitering at the curb. A bell is becoming increasingly useful to alert pedestrians who step out into the street while gawping at their smartphones, an occurrence that becomes more frequent with every passing day.
Gears aren’t really necessary for commuting in London. There has been a big rise in the popularity of track-style “fixed gear” bikes (though my sole experience with them did not end well). It’s safer to opt for a single-speed with a freewheel, brakes and flat handlebars (ideally trimmed down with a hacksaw, making it easier to weave through gaps in the traffic).
In truth, though, you need two bikes: one for weekdays, one for weekends. When Saturday comes, you can wheel out your 20-speed carbon racing bike and head out into the hills and lanes of the Home Counties. For if a bike is the best way to explore the city, it is also the best way to escape it.
1. Swain’s Lane circuit (1.5 miles)
Good for: hill-climb training without leaving the city
Not so good for: bikes without gears
FYI: the name comes from the pig herders who used to drive their animals down from the heath to the market at Smithfield
Swain’s Lane abounds with history. It bisects Highgate cemetery — Karl Marx and George Eliot to the east, Lucian Freud and Bob Hoskins to the west — and ends only steps from the former home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and J.B. Priestley.
For cyclists, though, the big draw is that this is the city’s most notorious climb — one of the few places in central London where you can practise for your summer trip to the Alps.
It starts easily enough, bordered by pavement cafés where the genteel north London set loiter over their newspapers, then turns left and gradually starts to climb, the overgrown gravestones becoming visible on your right.
After you pass the cemetery entrance, the real test begins: the road narrows, the gradient kicks up to 20 per cent, while a high wall to the left and fence on the right plus tree branches overhead create the feeling of a tunnel (and ensure the road surface is often wet). Panting, legs burning, you eventually pop out on to tranquil Pond Square, where you turn left, freewheel down Highgate West Hill, then do it all again.
The altitude gain is only 70m — but ride it 16 times and you’ve done the equivalent of climbing Alpe d’Huez.
2. St Paul’s to the three parks (6 miles)
Good for: distilling the essence of the city into a couple of hours
Not so good for: escaping the crowds
FYI: the colony of pelicans in St James’s Park began as a gift from the Russian ambassador in 1664
“East to west, Embankment is best” was the old cabbies’ adage. They don’t say that so much any more — not since a big slice of the road alongside the Thames was turned into Cycle Superhighway 3 (CS3), the key route across the centre of the city.
Start at St Paul’s Cathedral and ride just south to pick up the Superhighway (avoid rush hour — it can be hectic here). Follow the river past Unilever’s headquarters, with the barristers’ chambers of Temple on one side and, across the river, the Oxo Tower and then the National Theatre.
Legal London quickly gives way to government: you pass the white neoclassical bulk of Somerset House, which for many years was the home of the Inland Revenue, then the ministry of defence, New Scotland Yard and finally, dead ahead, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Stay on CS3, past Parliament Square, glancing up at Westminster Abbey, then dart down Great George Street into St James’s Park — and sudden peace. From here on you are amid greenery rather than traffic, going from St James’s into Green Park (Buckingham Palace on the left), then literally riding beneath the triumphal Wellington Arch and on into Hyde Park.
You can meander around on the various bike paths in the park, skirting the Serpentine and ending up in front of the red-brick splendour of Kensington Palace, home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
A grand climax, perhaps, but I would recommend spinning on a few streets more to the Windsor Castle — not another royal home, but a classic backstreet pub on Campden Hill Road, with wood-panelled bar and walled courtyard garden.
3. Richmond Park (7 miles)
Good for: rus in urbe
Not so good for: anyone allergic to deer
FYI: King Henry’s Mound, on which Henry VIII stood on May 19 1536 to watch a rocket fired from the Tower of London (the signal that his wife Anne Boleyn had been executed), has one of the city’s most celebrated views. Framed by trees, it stretches all the way to the dome of St Paul’s, 10 miles away; local planning laws are supposed to prevent new buildings obstructing the view
In the south-west of the city, the 950 hectares of Richmond Park are surrounded by sprawling suburbs but feel distinctly wild. Perhaps it is the mix of grassland and ancient woods, more probably the fact that it is home to 600 free-roaming deer.
A short ride out from the centre, over the past decade it has become the city’s most popular spot for a few hours of training — even some of the sport’s stars, including Fabien Cancellara and David Millar, have been known to ride here.
Day or night, you will see cyclists lapping the perimeter road, a circuit of about seven miles with two climbs — though I would avoid Saturday mornings, when overenthusiastic local club members form huge pelotons and race around, full of Tour de France delusions, barking at anyone who gets in their way. (Quite why they never head out a little further to the real hills of Surrey escapes me).
But Richmond is great for the less serious cyclist and family groups too. The Tamsin Trail is an off-road cycle path that loops around the park, and there are various other car-free routes through the centre. You can even rent bikes if you don’t have one.
There are a couple of cafés in the park, fine for a quick caffeine fix, but at the end of your ride, better to leave the park at Richmond Gate and roll down Star and Garter Hill to the potting-shed tea rooms at Petersham Nurseries. Alternatively, leave from the Ham Gate for a restorative pint at the New Inn on Ham Common.
4. Regent’s Canal (9 miles)
Good for: a laid-back meander along the towpath, from a refined corner of west London to the vibrant streets of the east
Not so good for: speed — the towpath is shared with pedestrians, and winds around locks and bridges, so don’t expect to race
FYI: there is no towpath inside in 878m-long Islington Tunnel. Horse-drawn canal boats originally had to be “legged” — pushed through by crew lying on their backs and pushing on the tunnel walls with their feet. Today, a trail of waymarkers set in the pavement takes walkers and cyclists above ground from one end to the other
Built to link the Grand Junction canal with the Thames, the Regent’s Canal this year celebrates the 200th anniversary of its opening. Just under nine miles long, it originally carried freight between the factories of the Midlands and the docks at Limehouse, but is now almost entirely a place of leisure and relaxation.
Start at Little Venice, the canal’s western terminus, a leafy area often said to have been named by the poet Robert Browning, where the houseboats and waterside cafés are overlooked by grand Regency town houses. Heading east, you quickly reach Regent’s Park, a former hunting ground for Henry VIII, where the towpath passes through the middle of London Zoo. The canal then swings north towards Camden (ascend a few steps to reach The Engineer on Gloucester Avenue, a much-loved gastropub), before reaching the market stalls, bars and crowds of teenage tourists at Camden Lock.
The transformation of this part of London is underlined as you pass the former warehouses and industrial buildings of King’s Cross — now converted into upmarket apartments and boutiques. For the full story, drop in on the London Canal Museum, at Battlebridge Basin, set in a warehouse built to store ice imported from Norway.
The tables of the Towpath café line the waterside as you pass De Beauvoir Town, just before you reach Broadway Market — a hipster hang-out with great bars and restaurants, and a buzzing Saturday market. At Victoria Park, you can divert further east for a spin around the Olympic Park, or continue as the canal curves south to meet the Thames at the Limehouse Basin.
5. Chalkpit Lane and the North Downs (1 mile)
Good for: riders seeking a serious test
Not so good for: single-speed or “Boris bikes”
FYI: Botley Hill, at the summit of Chalkpit Lane, is the highest point in the North Downs and the site of a second world war RAF base
Jolly days on the riverbank are all very well, but as true devotees know, cycling is really about suffering. The best place to “unleash the fury” is on the series of steep lanes that climb the North Downs, close to the town of Oxted in Surrey, just 18 miles south of Trafalgar Square as the crow flies. Getting there on a bike takes about 90 minutes, or a train from London Bridge will have you there in 28 minutes and straight into the climbing.
There’s a choice of seven or eight lanes up to the ridge, which runs along from Tandridge Hill to Botley Hill, Hogtrough Hill and Brasted Hill. The most famous is Westerham Hill, where the first Catford CC Hill Climb race took place in 1887 (it continues today, albeit on a slightly different course, making it the world’s oldest bike race).
My pick, though, is Chalkpit Lane, which climbs 150 vertical metres and includes one monstrous hairpin bend that is harder than anything you’ll find on the Galibier, Tourmalet or Madeleine. The name comes from a quarry on the left of the hill as you start to climb in earnest, but most of the way you are surrounded by a forest of beech that offers few distractions.
In the peak of my cycling obsession — before kids — I would get up early, cycle down from London, climb Chalkpit Lane five times, and then race back to be at my desk at 10am. But far better to make an afternoon of it, stopping after your final ascent for a pint of home-brewed ale at the Botley Hill Farmhouse, a 16th-century inn sitting at the top of the ridge.
Graphics by Liz Faunce
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