Ride on: The ultimate guide to London’s best cycle routes
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2020 has changed many things for most of us — big picture stuff like most airlines being grounded and the economic impact of a global pandemic, as well as smaller things like working from home and choosing staycations rather than travelling abroad. And for many, finding a new hobby.
For me, that has meant embracing cycling more than ever before — either as an alternative to public transport to get to work, parks or friends, or to help with keeping fit whilst gyms have been closed. It’s also been the first time I’ve owned a bike since I was 16.
CS and Q routes are your friends — planning your route
Transport for London has done a lot over the years to make the capital more cyclist-friendly — and there’s more to come in the government’s post-COVID effort to get the nation to explore alternatives to crowded trains, tubes and buses. The website is very helpful with all sorts of information on everything there is to know about cycling in London.
As part of this work, there is a number of Cycle Superhighways and Quietways which are indicated as CS and Q both on maps and signs and are often painted on the ground, too. These will be replaced by Cycleways covering both categories in the future.
Cycle Superhighways are essentially intended as “main roads” for cyclists and are often either on major roads or nearby. They are typically intended to be a quick way for cyclists to get from north to south or from the east into the City of London. Blue signs and road markings indicate these and often they have separated lanes to provide extra safety.
Quietways are what it says on the tin — quieter alternatives (and my preferred way to get around). They sometimes involve less busy side streets and designated bike paths (including through parks).
It’s therefore worth having a look online or on dedicated apps to find a good route — I followed Google Maps (despite indicating that I was cycling) on my first outing to Greenwich which took me through a rather nasty busy main road through New Cross — definitely one to be avoided. But on the way back, using Citymapper, I found a Q route that is now my go-to morning outing as it involves very few traffic lights and generally, either very quiet roads or dedicated bike paths.
Picking a destination and route
Exploring new parts of London is fun — and sometimes doing so without a destination and routing in mind can be liberating. Nonetheless, as per the above point, not all roads are equal especially when it comes to bike safety and comfort so it pays to have a look on a map or apps and either formally draft a route or have an idea of which way to go to get to one’s destination the most enjoyable way.
Where to go and how to get there partially depends on your starting point — but why not have a think about the places you’ve always wanted to visit but just haven’t had the chance to do so. I recently cycled to the Thames Barrier for the first time and found some easy and nice cycle routes along the Thames Path to get there.
Here are a few of my other favourites.
A favourite route of mine is cycling to Greenwich Park in south-east London both for the Q routes and for the stunning views from the observatory over not just Canary Wharf and the O2 Arena but also the City and St Paul’s. Plus, the final steep part in the park is a great work out. There are also plenty of options to go further east to the O2 or the Thames Barrier from there, south towards Dulwich or use the pedestrian tunnel to end up on the north side of the river.
This one is a favourite for cyclists looking to get some miles in without too much stop-and-go in a central London location. Both the inside and outside loop allow easy cycling and in between loops, the park itself is a nice stop for a break.
This waterway revealed a beautiful side of London that I hadn’t discovered or appreciated until the bike gave me the mobility to explore parts of London not normally easily accessible by public transport. Whilst going along the canal, which is lined with longboats, why not stop or cycle through Victoria Park, which is worth a visit. Once in that part of London, the Olympic Park and Hackney Marshes are other “should see” destinations.
Going west, there is also no shortage of nice cycle routes and destinations.
This is one of the most famous parks in London. It is the largest Royal Park and stretches over 2,500 acres. Access for both cars and bikes during the COVID crisis has been restricted so it’s worth checking out the latest information of whether you can access the park before setting off.
Chiswick and Kew
Both of these areas have pleasant parks and green spaces as well as quiet cycle routes both south and north of the Thames. If you are coming from north or central London, it’s worth aiming for Hammersmith Bridge. There’s a Thames Path on the north side there (and further along in Chiswick) offering plenty of pubs for liquid refreshments or a well-earned lunch. On the south/west side, there’s a gravel path along the river through trees and bushes. Though these paths are shared with pedestrians (and some may prefer the paved side rather than the gravel side on the south), there’s still something lovely about cycling along the Thames — whether that’s in the populated west in Chiswick or the more rural feeling east past the Thames Barrier.
When planning your journey, remember that while some parts of London are largely flat it can get hilly and a casual, easy, exploratory ride through new neighbourhoods might turn into an unintended sweaty workout.
Obvious signs are anywhere that involves “hill” in the name, funnily enough — Herne Hill, Streatham Hill, etc. Additionally, some maps and some of the below apps will help with working out and tracking (during and after the event) the elevation changes.
Hills can be a great thing — when you get to the top there are some stunning views across London — but it’s best to know what sort of route you are letting yourself in for before setting off.
All the gear
I went from not owning a bike to being almost “all in” within a week. A helmet is a must obviously though when my neighbour told me I’d need gloves, I was most sceptical. I now don’t know what life was like before lycra and bike gloves.
Having said that, you don’t need to worry too much about the right gear for a day out exploring some of the sights as long as you’re wearing something comfortable. It is worth thinking about locks, clothing for rain, lights (if you intend to be out beyond dusk) as well as water and probably a chocolate/nutrition bar for an energy boost before tackling that final hill.
Insurance is something I also didn’t think I’d need but given the investment I made in the bike (and the fact that more serious things could happen not just to myself but also others beyond the bike being stolen), I did opt for this for peace of mind
Is a bike ride even a bike ride if you haven’t tracked it?
Even if you aren’t after the stats of how long, far and what elevation you’ve conquered, there are some cool apps around that help with planning routes, giving you ideas and inspiration, getting you home on quieter roads — and yes, tracking to know what you’ve achieved on your bike trip.
The Google Maps app has the option of selecting a bike (and then “your bike” rather than Lime) on its maps when planning a journey. It’s also good at adapting your route should you decide to take a different turn.
For those wanting to track rides and unlock some other cool features (such as personal bests, performance against others on the same route and achievements), Strava gives a mix of tracking, planning and exploring with a social media option (following and giving kudos) thrown in.
Users can link it to a range of devices including Apple Watch and health data on iPhones to get a full picture of workouts and rides including calories burned and other health-related stats. Around two months into my “bike journey”, it’s my go-to app for keeping track of my rides and you are likely to find your running and cycling Facebook friends and contacts on Strava.
Komoot is similar in many ways. It is probably stronger on the exploring and planning side rather than tracking.
Other apps worth checking out include Citymapper, CycleStreets and Map My Ride. The Transport for London cycle hire app is also not bad for finding routes though it’s primarily aimed at Santander Cycle users.
I love having a bike for a range of reasons — the exercise and fresh air, as well as the extended mobility without needing to use public transport.
Though I somehow went “all in” relatively quickly, even hiring a Santander bike for a few hours can be a great way to explore London. And if you are serious about starting on your bike journey, don’t worry about gear and add-ons early on.
It’s probably wise though to do some planning around routes and destinations to avoid mega busy and bicycle-unfriendly main roads and enjoy what might be a new hobby for you too.
Featured photo by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy
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