Scared to start cycling in London? Inspired by the launch of the Cycle Hire scheme last year, Darryl from 853 decided to get on his bike. He describes the experience and offers some personal recommendations of the best bike rides in the city.
It all started last summer — the day the Boris bikes were launched. I thought I should have a go, although I hadn’t ridden for about 20 years. I harboured fears of getting on and falling off like an idiot. But after about 15 minutes of wobbling around Kensington Gardens, I’d picked it up again. It was as easy as riding a... well, you get it.
So, I spent the summer pottering around central London on two wheels, and talked about it on my blog. A neighbour of mine read it, and offered me a loan of one of his spares. I live on a hill in Charlton, and I doubted I would take to puffing up the road to get home. The first couple of attempts to climb the great slopes of SE7 were struggles. Then it got easier.
Within a few weeks, I was out and about exploring. A jaunt out to Eynsford in Kent on a crisp, clear day sold the idea of bike ownership to me. Now I’ve taken the plunge — I have a hybrid of my very own. It’s been an introduction to a different world — suddenly, I’m following cycling politics and getting grumpy about pointless cycle lanes.
But now the clocks have sprung forward, I’m looking forward to pedalling around in the evenings.
I could complain about the nutters on the roads (white van men, school run mums in 4x4s and minicab drivers, I mean you), but I shan’t. Nor shall I gripe about roads so potholed they are like assault courses (hello Lewisham Council). Nor whinge about crap cycle infrastructure (those badly-designed bike stands at my nearest Sainsburys.) And just what *is* the London Cycle Network? I’ll save all that for another day.
Instead, I thought I’d share some of the best places in London I’ve found to ride a bike. Some of this might be a bit south-east centric — but hopefully you can balance it out with some rides from your neck of the woods.
1. The Thames Path from Thamesmead to Deptford. Most of this is a joy. Apart from a couple of missing sections through Woolwich, it’s an uninterrupted run along the river for about 11 miles, the entire Thames-side frontage of the borough of Greenwich. There some bleak bits as you start out, but the pleasure is in both the peace and quiet of the riverside path, and in seeing the city approach as Docklands skyscrapers slowly get bigger until you’re facing them at the tip of the Greenwich peninsula. Carrying on into Greenwich itself is a bit fiddly for the uninitiated — you either need to go through building sides or along pot-holed roads by the Blackwall Tunnel, but it’s easy enough once you leave all that behind. Carry on from Greenwich into Deptford and stop off at the Dog and Bell for a pint to complete the ride.
2. The Waterlink Way from Deptford to Beckenham. This is getting towards how it should be. What Lewisham Council didn’t spend on potholes, it spent on creating a cycle path from the mouth of Deptford Creek and heading south (almost) alongside the river Ravensbourne. Most of it is through parkland, like lovely Ladywell Fields and the River Pool Linear Park, near where Boris Johnson famously took a tumble a couple of years ago. The Waterlink Way’s official route continues out beyond Beckenham towards Penge and South Norwood, where the signs peter out and it gets a bit dull. But for best results, head off towards beautiful Beckenham Place Park, get a drink in the cafe, and watch the golfers for a bit.
3. The Woolwich Ferry. There’s no cycling involved here, but if you’re on two wheels, you get to go on the boat first — and get right to the front. When the ramp comes down, you can pedal ahead like the first person at a border crossing. Watch for HGVs behind you, though...
4. Broadway Market and London Fields. Is Hackney the cycling capital of London? Take a trip to Broadway Market in the late afternoon and you’ll see hundreds of cyclists, riding through to London Fields or stopping for a drink. Try finding somewhere to chain your bike up at The Dove pub and you’ll find 20 people have beaten you to it. But why are there so many cyclists in Hackney? Is it the facilities or the people?
5. Discovering side roads. A confession here — I still haven’t really mastered cycling on busy main roads. Part of it’s a lack of confidence, but on the whole I just find mixing it with cars and lorries a chore. It’s not much fun being stuck behind a bus when you could be taking the back streets instead. So my mental map of London’s changing. Apps like Cyclestreets can help you pick quieter routes for your journeys where you can take it a little bit easier — and discover a few sights you wouldn’t normally see.
There’s plenty more that could be done for cyclists in London. I would have included the Greenway — a handy route from Beckton to the Olympic Park — if you didn’t have to negotiate gates each time you hit a main road and it wasn’t covered in broken glass.
For many, cycling will be about battling traffic and fighting your way to work. But it doesn’t have to be all like that. But for me, it’s been the small things I’ve enjoyed — popping out to do chores on the bike, and the childish thrill of riding at great speed past The Valley. And riding along the river never gets boring. So that’s me converted — what about you?
Darryl writes 853, a blog about south-east London, especially Greenwich.