Posted by: Ian | June 18, 2011

The lows and highs of cycling in London

Last year I did around 2,500 miles of cycling in London and so far this year I’ve done over 1,000. It’s fantastic. Here’s a list of ten things that I love about it but first five things that I don’t.

The Lows

1. Buses

Bendy buses are too long and out of control. I thought Boris Johnson promised to do something about them but he hasn’t. Meanwhile, some kind of collective frenzy has got into the drivers of normal buses. I see them shooting red lights and swinging around dangerously all the time.

2. Addison Lee taxis

Functionally, the Addison Lee sticker on a car can be taken as a warning of roadway psychosis.

3. Pedestrians with iPods

I like that in the UK, as opposed to the US, people are allowed to cross roads at their own discretion. The downside is that some people’s discretion isn’t up to scratch, especially when wearing earbuds. But after you’ve had a few people appear from behind slowly moving cars, step off pavements backwards into your path and walk right in front of you as you approach in clear view you get used to it.

4. Junk on the road

As well as the smashed glass and flint shards that you might expect, the streets of London are littered with all sorts of bizarre ironmongery. Bolts, screws and nails are commonplace but much larger and more exotic items of metalwork are encountered with remarkable frequency. Over winter I ran my Tempo on Conti 4Season tyres and had few punctures. A couple of weeks ago, though, the sidewall on the front tyre got slashed by road junk and I upgraded it to a Conti Gatorskin Hardshell, which not only has even better protection but rolls more quickly too. It would be nicer to run faster tyres like Conti GP4000S’s but they get trashed.

5. Police and thieves

Bike theft is a fact of life in London. Fortunately, I’m usually able to lock up in secure premises but it’s a drag to have to carry a D-lock around and strip off all easily removable parts (lights, wedgie bag, pump, Garmin, bidon) whenever this isn’t possible. I know that there are police out there working hard to track down the thieving vermin – there’s another article about them in the current issue of Cycling Weekly. I also know that many ordinary coppers are as likeable and liberal as anyone else. However, the police I actually encounter on the roads of London are more like Alexei Sayle’s Comic Strip character. Whenever they’re not engaged in some aspect of a War on Terror they seem completely out of place.

The most irritating was a retirement-age policeman on a horse who flagged me down on Cheapside a couple of months ago. I stopped more out of sympathy for him than anything else – it would have been embarrassingly easy to ride away. For my politeness I had to listen to 10 minutes of drivel because, fearing for my own personal safety, I’d given a bus (see above) an illegally wide berth. I did, though, learn that the police are only allowed to hold you up for 20 minutes, which is useful to know.

The most useless were the police who attended my accident earlier this year and were apparently unable to find any cause to detain a van driver who, from parking on double yellow lines, reversed suddenly into me, smashing up my handlebars and wrist.

Now, putting aside the lows…

The Highs

1. The Sights

Everywhere you ride in London you pass wonderful buildings and monuments. These range from the major sights – I cycle past Buckingham Palace, for example, most days – to quirky little statues and gargoyles. Unlike Paris, London has no thematic uniformity and serendipity is gated only by your level of attentiveness. The architecture is fabulously inconsistent and there are fantastic buildings in every style all around. The churches alone are inexhaustible in their charms. Even the buildings in the financial areas are richly varied. In residential areas there is similarly always something to love, whether it’s in the tony suburbs of Golders Green or the quiet mews around Marylebone. On a bike you can see it all and you can never be bored.

2. Escaping The Tube

The Tube is a marvel and a convenience but if you travel around London a lot it’s hard to love. For much of the day a lot of the network is heavily overcrowded. It’s subject to delays, if only because of “unders” – people who suicide in front of the trains, which I once observed at close hand. More subtly, while its purpose to get you from A to B, its phenomenological effect is to disconnect places. You can descend into Bakerloo Line at Charing Cross and surface from the Central Line at Holland Park with no sense of their relative locations and what lies between them. On a bike you see it all and London gains connectedness in your mental map as you cycle around it.

3. Crazy street geometry

As you make your way around London by bike you develop an alternative version of The Knowledge. Few cyclists will be happy to follow the roads used most heavily by cars (and taxis, vans and buses) very often: they’re loud, dangerous and slow. The network of bike lanes is of some use but has been very half-heartedly rolled out. In fairness, London is too ancient and haphazard to suit the introduction of a bike network. For any angle that you name you can find two streets that meet at it. It’s a planner’s nightmare but a dream for the rest of us. Between any two points there is an unlimited variety of routes and this gives the cyclist endless opportunity to try new ways to navigate around and avoid the globs of traffic on the busiest roads. In a city with a grid system, by contrast, there are only a few ways that you can rationally traverse the x avenues and the y streets that lie between the end coordinates of your journey. It’s apt that the iconic body of water in the middle of Manhattan is ploddingly called “Central Park Lake”: who wouldn’t prefer “The Serpentine”?

4. Secret places

Exploring the byzantine routes around the city takes you, because you wish it to, to quiet places such as alleyways and cut-throughs that provide a crucial link between one street and another, and canal paths where no car can ever travel. No other mode of transport would lead you to discover, for example, the subterranean approach to Paddington Station. You can also, on a bike, encounter small courtyards, gardens and graveyards that serve as punctuation in the grammar of the city, whereas most tourists are only directed to its words.

5. Other cyclists

London’s cyclists ride every kind of bike and comprise many kinds of person. The introduction of Boris bikes hasn’t swept in as a monoculture but simply added to the variety of what’s there. Moreover, if you want to ask another cyclist about his or her bike, or just have a little chat, you can. I often do and I’m antisocial. It’s very friendly.

6. Not taking a cab

Occasionally I have to take a taxi around London. I feel sorry for the cabbies: there are always roadworks (presumably improving the street quality for cyclists) and traffic jams and it takes an age to get anywhere. Then I pay and I feel sorry for me. Cycling is a quicker and less frustrating way of getting around town, even on journeys of 10 miles or so, and the marginal cost of a ride is about zero.

7. London’s bike shops

I like my LBS. I get great service, the labour rates are very reasonable and the guys there always have time for a chat. On the other hand, when I’m actually interested in bikes or bike gear the shops in London are beyond all comparison. At one end of the spectrum is Evans. With branches everywhere and staff who range randomly from true cognoscenti to people who know nothing whatsoever about cycling, this is Tesco for bikes. Stock levels of core products are reliable and they carry a great range of cycles. Prices are good too if you sign up to one the of organisations (such as the London Cycling Campaign) whose cards get you 10% off everything. At the other end of the spectrum from Evans are shops like Mosquito in Islington, which is more Fortnum and Mason than Tesco. It’s lovely to visit. I might buy something there maybe once a year. Between the two there are any number of hipster fixie haunts and regular bike shops.

My own go-to bike shop in London is Condor on Grays Inn Road. The service is all over the place – not because any of the staff are incompetent but because they get so busy. Pricing is usually okay but never great. The stuff, though – Condor bikes, Rapha clothes, books and bike parts – is, at its best, excellent.

8. The topography

London is flat. It’s fun flying around town and perfect for a fixie. You can find hills if you look hard – Swaines Lane by Highgate Cemetery is a favourite – but nothing serious. It’s the ideal complement to Somerset.

9. The Parks

On the majority of weekday mornings I cycle through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. The cold, dark Winter mornings are atmospheric and as enjoyable in their own way as the sunny Summer ones. Most Thursday mornings we do our Park Loops round Regent’s Park, which are my most intense regular exercise sessions. It’s 10 miles of constant high-zone effort. This week, riding the Tempo, I set a new PB. The road has been resurfaced, making it smoother and faster. Once in a while I see a TT bike fizz past. I love the sound that the wheels make and the bikes fly by so quickly. (The current issue of Cycling Plus claims that at a constant power of 250W, which is my average around Park Loops, deep rim wheels give you 8 kph. This would take well over 5 mins off my PB. I don’t believe it.)

I believe that Victoria Park is bike-friendly too – I’ll have to check it out one day.

10. The cafes

In the last couple of years a number of bike-friendly cafes have opened up. Rapha ran a good one last Summer round the corner from the Condor shop. Look Mum No Hands is perhaps the most successful. Much as I like these, it’s small independent non-cyclo, more traditional cafes that I prefer. There are a few favourites here and there  – as well as some great small bistro/restaurants – that offer seating on the street. You can grab a coffee or something to eat as you cycle across town without the need to lock and strip your bike. It makes cycling in London complete.



  1. Fun read, thanks.

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