Someone, somewhere will start a good ‘beginners’ column for a major newspaper. In the meantime, this is what I learnt from starting to cycle in London last year. I hope it helps some people navigate what is an information hellhole because getting into cycling is like getting into watches. It’s an area that pretends to be quite male, technical and elite but doesn’t bloody have to be.
When I moved to London in 2007, I had been cycling in Amsterdam where I lived for 10 months. I didn’t commit to buying a bike until 2011 and I never rode it until last April. That’s how cycling feels in London. A good idea you just never really get around to doing anything about because it also feels like a bad idea. Some people cycle to commute. I don’t. I work from home and just started cycling for fun, on the weekends only, mostly on Saturdays when trains are running. Why trains? Because cycling in my immediate area means pushing my bike up hills which I refuse to learn to negotiate because I’m a middle-aged woman with bad knees. Cycling should be relaxing, safe and fun and I just started finding out how to do that which meant taking some trains and cycling back into town through protected and shared paths. No or little cars. Just nature for anything from 1.5-4h depending on how keen I am. It’s really a moving meditation and a way to get rid of a ton of stress. If I don’t go once a week, I can feel my hyper-vigilance get out of control. But that’s why I do it. You’ll have your own reasons.
There are broadly 3 types of sitting styles.
The ‘sit up and beg’ Dutch bike where you are very upright and can see all around you. It feels very safe and nice. That’s the style used by Boris Bikes. It’s also what my first London bike is like, only with the extra faff of a back pedal break. This is a terrible choice for a hilly area like mine which I learnt by pushing the bike up most of Crystal Palace while following a cycling architecture tour.
I ended up with what’s called a ‘hybrid bike’ (trekking position in the image above) from Marin. I have no idea why it’s called hybrid except it’s neither a racing/road bike nor a Dutch style bike and it’s very good on all sorts of terrain like parks, waterlogged canals and cobbled streets. It’s not a mountain bike because those have very fat tires and suspension to help you really deal with all sorts of things. Racing/road bikes have those dropped curved handles you’ll have seen all the Mamils on. They are very light and so much more aerodynamic but I don’t like the idea of being that fast or my head that close to the ground. So I’m happy with a hybrid.
(I know nothing about e-bikes but a friend who has MS swears by them because she can metaphorically and literally take her foot off the pedal on hills. All the Deliveroo drivers have them too.)
A good shop & accessories
Nobody tells you that when you buy a bike, you’re buying the beginning of a bike. My local bike shop provided my education. The lovely man who works there part time asked me questions and I said ‘I don’t know’ a lot. That is super precious. A connection to expertise makes you feel like you don’t have to have all the answers, someone is there to help.
So I learnt I had to buy the following additional items:
- a panier rack
- bungie cords (to strap my shopping on to the rack)
- a mud guard for the back wheel (so the back of me stays clean)
- a holder for my water bottle
- some paniers (to put stuff in if I didn’t want to use the cords)
- a removable back light and front light
- a lock
- a helmet
- gloves to protect from the windchill
- colourful tape to make my bike look a bit more jazzy / less likely to be nicked
Every time I’ve been stuck, I’ve gone back to the shop and they’ve always been kind and have fixed the problem, sometimes even for free. They’ve even kept in touch about local events at the Velodrome. Gold.
Dressing for it
Clothing-wise I realised cycling companies hate women’s bodies. Rapha is the worst. All the women it portrays are young, thin and on racing bikes. Wankers. Anyway, their stuff is ‘high performance’ and even if I hate them, I swear by their pullover jacket with a front pouch (even if I did need to add my own velcro because theirs sucked). I use the pouch to keep my phone, charger, debit card, lip gloss, tissues and keys. When it’s a bit warmer, I just wear a t-shirt and have a little cross body waterproof pouch from Muji I picked up in Japan. Machines for Freedom make nice things but they are US based and the import tax was a killer. For trousers I wear shorts or a pair of reflective running leggings from Sweaty Betty on their own or under my Zephyr trousers (no longer in production) in the colder months. I also bought a pair of refurbished Vivo Barefoot triathlon shoes for when it’s pouring/muddy, otherwise just my Walsh trainers.
Again, I don’t cycle to commute into work so I’m only looking to stay warm, dry and comfortable and focus on looking around, listening to music on my phone speaker and enjoying myself.
Cycling in London on a weekend is sort of just about avoiding cars and not worrying about looking at a phone to find out where you’re supposed to go. If you do have somewhere you need to be, the best way to do that is to go down some quieter routes. My friend Tom’s app City Cyclist is brilliant for that.
Otherwise, I take one or two trains and cycle along the National Cycle Network routes back into London. All these routes are maintained by Sustrans and the yellow lines are completely safe, meaning the only thing you have to negotiate is pedestrians, their lockdown dogs, joggers or other cyclists. No cars! It’s amazing. I’ve done all the major routes into London now from outside the M25 (see map below).
The other good thing about the NCN routes is they are super well sign-posted with a little red route number appearing at a high enough frequency I never need to take my phone out to help with navigation. Incredibly relaxing.
Not all these routes are created equally though and this is my assessment of them as I explored them over the last year and am a slow cyclist:
- Route 1 from Rye House into Stratford (3-4h) Fine if there’s noone around but it’s mostly along canals which you’d have to negotiate with pedestrians and as we all know, that’s not a lot of real estate. I did it on a super wet day, so was nice and quiet and safe. I wouldn’t try it in the middle of summer.
- Route 136/13 from Upminster into the Docklands (3-4h) The first bit in the Rainham marshlands is absolutely beautiful, then it’s along the A13 which is bleurgh/polluted. It’s safe as there’s only a short stretch where you’re actually on the road but pfff not super exciting.
- Route 1 from Dartford to London Bridge (3.5h) that first bit in the Dartford marshes shouldn’t be called a cycle way, it’s barely even pedestrian because it clearly doesn’t get used much but it’s beautiful/surreal estuary landscape and along some waste and flood management sites. As soon as you get more inland, the Thames path kicks in and its very smooth routes, especially when you hit Greenwich.
- Route 21 from Kent House to Greenwich (1-2h) or the Waterlink Way is so cute it hurts. Very nice, very green, very quiet. Ideal for beginners, it’s one of my favourites.
- Route 220 from Carshalton to Wanstead (2.5h) this is one of my regulars and really wonderful. A little like the Waterlink Way, it’s through parks and dedicated cycle lanes along rivers until you get to the end and it turns into, well, Wanstead. I personally then keep going along some of the London cycle highways to go have a coffee at Little Bread Pedlar but you can stop whenever you like. I cycle it almost every week.
- Route 4 from Weybridge into London Bridge (3.5-4h) is my favourite. It’s again almost only through parks, along the Thames, through Kingston town centre for a minute and then beautiful Richmond park and its deers, then along the Putney Wetland Centre and more. Once you’re in Putney though you can give up and go home on a train.
I don’t cycle quickly. I have no idea how quickly, just not quickly. I always stay safe, wear my bright white helmet, and try to behave visibly enough so that cars know what i’m about to do. I don’t cycle at night just because it’s too much for me. If I feel stressed, I get off the bike and walk. It doesn’t cost me anything to get off and I do it often.
I’ve been spat at, shouted at, reprimanded by a taxi driver only a handful of times and I suppose as a woman in the world, I’m used to taking shit. So the same rules apply on the saddle. I just come physically and psychologically prepared to have a marvellous time on a weekend and hope the universe is in tune with that. Sometimes it isn’t but that’s ok, I cycle on and I hope you will too. The rewards of learning about London’s beautiful green areas and rivers outweigh any aggravation you could experience.