When other residents of my street in Brixton, south London, see me leaving the house with my Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike, I realise how sharply my idea of cycling differs from many other people’s. They assume I ride for leisure and inquire whether I’m off for a “nice ride”. Because I regard cycling as primarily a means of getting around, I explain that, no, I’m off to pick up groceries, collect my son from cricket training or ride to a work appointment.
Yet, despite that, I’ve developed an urge in recent years to cycle even further than practical purposes demand. I started by finding excuses to make necessary journeys in unnecessarily inconvenient ways: why go to the branch of that chain of fancy butchers around the corner when there’s one a 10-mile ride away? I have since slipped into riding my bike once or twice a week for what a less buttoned-up person might call fun.
London’s growing network of protected cycleways has been a revelation both for my practical, getting-about cycling and for leisure. The routes, mostly introduced in the past five years, run next to roads but are segregated from them by posts or kerbs. They are largely free of the deadly danger of impatient and negligent motorists. They also mostly don’t demand that one dodge wandering pedestrians, as canal towpaths and some other routes aimed at recreational riding do.
Coronavirus lockdowns have encouraged local councils and Transport for London to put in far more of these lanes to cater for increased demand to cycle. Some roads that were very unpleasant to use — such as Kew Road, in Richmond — have been transformed by the simple expedient of putting in a line of plastic posts to create a cyclist-only lane. It has been one of the few unequivocal joys of the past 18 months to see the number of families encouraged to ride together along these safe routes.
I still treat leisure riding as a species of work. I tend to fit in the maximum possible distance between finishing household chores, say, and getting home to cook Saturday-evening dinner. It is certainly a truth universally acknowledged that a man in his 50s riding long distances will be interested in the location of public lavatories. But I can’t pretend to much practical knowledge of the charming cafés or other roadside facilities that a list like this traditionally demands. They require a person to stop riding, which to me has always seemed to negate the point of a bike ride.
These four rides all take advantage, at least partially, of some of London’s new protected cycleways. Have as much fun as you allow yourself.
1. Central London to Greenwich Peninsula and back via the Emirates Skyline
Good for: A soaring view of the Thames from the Emirates Air Line cable car
Not so good for: Avoiding some not-so-nice industrial areas
FYI: It’s worth checking the Millwall FC fixtures calendar for home games before following this route. The section behind the team’s stadium is closed during matches to prevent the mingling of home and away fans
It was long de rigueur among cycling campaigners to deride Transport for London’s network of “Quietways” — roundabout cycling routes down back streets — because many of them weren’t actually that quiet. The rise of wayfinding apps in recent years has meant that cycling on a theoretically quiet, tree-lined back street in practice often resulted in a head-on confrontation with a speeding, impatient Uber driver.
But the route originally known as Quietway 1, from Waterloo to Greenwich, is genuinely useful, albeit it has now been rebranded Cycleway 10. This route joins it at Great Suffolk Street and follows back streets — mostly blocked to through traffic — towards a path running behind The Den, home of Millwall Football Club. In Deptford, the route passes the magnificent 18th-century St Paul’s Church. Shortly afterwards, it uses a pedestrian and cycle bridge to reach Greenwich town centre.
But they seldom detain me. I zigzag through the back streets of the Blackwall Peninsula towards the highlight of the route — the brief ride on the Emirates Air Line cable car over the Thames to a station near the ExCeL exhibition and conference centre. The small cabin quickly hoists passengers — and their bikes — up to 90m above the river, giving them an unrivalled sense of the sweeping bends of this part of the lower Thames.
Once back on terra firma, it’s a relatively straightforward ride over the Lower Lea Crossing, along Poplar High Street and along Cable Street’s mixture of 20th-century council housing and Georgian townhouses to the starting point.
2. Central London to East Ham via C3 and back via the Newham Greenway and C2
Good for: A compact circuit, starting from central London and taking in some key East End neighbourhoods
Not so good for: Decent-width cycle tracks — the two-way cycle track starting at Tower Hill is far too narrow for the volume of traffic now using it
FYI: Cable Street, now the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community, was heavily Jewish in the era before the second world war. Look out on the west wall of St George’s Town Hall for the mural celebrating the 1936 “Battle of Cable Street” between police and Jewish and leftwing activists seeking to stop a provocative parade by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists
A mixture of urban-regeneration projects, the 2012 Olympics and an abundance of waterways has left east London littered with cycle tracks, of which the C3 route from central London to Barking is one of the most useful. From Canning Town eastward, it runs next to the busy A13 (“Trunk Road to the Sea”, for those familiar with Billy Bragg’s parody of “Route 66”). Just before that, the bridge over Bow Creek offers a panorama of the area’s knot of creeks and railway lines.
At the evocatively named Beckton Alps, the route turns left and is almost immediately at the Newham Greenway, a flat, well-tarmacked path that feels as if it ought to be a disused rail line. It in fact runs along the top of the Northern Outfall Sewer, a key link in Joseph Bazalgette’s revolutionary 19th-century system for handling a growing London’s waste. The palatial Abbey Mills pumping station — topped with a turret reminiscent of an Orthodox church — is so striking it might even warrant a brief stop for a more considered look.
But I keep going. I turn left when the Greenway meets the C2 cycleway, taking a bracing reverse trip through 1,000 years of British history. At Stratford, there are views of the 2012 Olympic stadium. After much elegant Georgian architecture and the bustle of Banglatown, it arrives back at the 11th-century Tower of London.
3. Central London to Richmond Park via C8 and back via Kew Bridge
Good for: Taking in the classic London leisure-cycling experience of riding among the deer and parakeets of Richmond Park
Not so good for: Being entirely segregated from traffic
FYI: The route would be far neater if the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea had not ripped out in December, after a trial of only seven weeks, a fine segregated cycle track that linked Olympia, to the west of the borough, with Hyde Park
Nowhere else close to central London offers the same chance as Richmond Park to ride up and down demanding hills, surrounded by beautiful, undulating wooded countryside and watched by herds of curious deer.
This route integrates the park into a wider tour of London cycling. The C8 route down Millbank has been transformed by judicious use of posts to segregate the cycle track. The rest of the route towards the park, unfortunately, lacks protection. But the route through Putney at least runs on relatively quiet roads — look out on Gwendolen Avenue for number 26, where Edvard Beneš, president of Czechoslovakia, lived in exile during the second world war.
Once inside Richmond Park, either take the direct route from the Roehampton Gate (where there are very conveniently sited public lavatories) to Richmond Gate up Sawyer’s Hill, or go the long way round and enjoy the steeper climb up Broomfield Hill. Then enjoy sweeping out of the park past the panoramic views over the Thames from Richmond Hill.
The evidence of London’s recent cycling transformation starts with Kew Road, where newly installed posts protect much of the cycle lane. There is then a pleasant ride through Chiswick and Hammersmith using either the new C9 route or, in Hammersmith, temporary lanes marked by barriers. The now sadly unprotected section on Kensington High Street takes the route to Hyde Park and the C3 east-west cycle superhighway back through Green Park and St James’s Park to Westminster.
4. North-South Cycle Superhighway to Regent’s Park and back via Hyde Park, East-West Cycle Superhighway, Vauxhall Bridge and the Oval
Good for: Seeing plenty of central London sites while using mostly excellent segregated cycle tracks
Not so good for: Regent’s Park aside, zipping around at high speed
FYI: Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle is so reminiscent of a racing circuit that it is widely used as such. The many cyclists completing fast laps of the park are the most obvious feature. But the motorists driving far in excess of the 20mph speed limit are the bigger menace
It’s one of the joys of contemporary London cycling that it is now possible to ride from Elephant and Castle, south of the river, to Kentish Town, in the north, virtually unbothered by drivers. This route explores the possibilities that opens up. From Camden’s Royal College Street — part of the north-south route — it strikes out west for Regent’s Park. It remains one of central London’s great cycling thrills to speed round the corner by Winfield House — residence of the US ambassador to the UK — and zip down the hill past the London Central Mosque.
After a short ride past rows of mansion blocks, the route passes Marylebone Station, whose lavatories are now free to use. Then it reaches another area transformed for cycling in recent years. North Carriage Drive in Hyde Park, once clogged with motor vehicles, is now closed to cars and features a good, two-way cycle track. Follow that to the east-west cycle superhighway at Lancaster Gate and ride down, past Buckingham Palace, into St James’s Park. From there, it’s a short distance to the segregated C5 cycle route over Vauxhall Bridge. Follow that to the famous Oval cricket ground and, from there, it’s an easy ride — partially on segregated cycle tracks — to the southern end of the north-south superhighway.
Maps by Liz Faunce
What are your favourite new cycling routes around London? Tell us in the comments
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