London From An Adventure Cyclist’s Viewpoint

A suitcase and a bicycle were the extent of my luggage for my recent ‘move’ to London (what – no panniers?!).

The suitcase contained more camping gear than clothes. And the clothes were mainly of the breathable / waterproof / thermal / quick-drying variety. I’ve already bivvied inside Zone One. Such is the attempt of a dyed-in-the-wool outdoorsman to ‘settle’ in an urban environment!

Roadless northern Mongolia

Good reasons exist for setting up shop in London for a while. During the book and film process I’d probably do well to be around other folk doing similar stuff, and close to the people who’ll be the eventual readers and viewers. Friends and family will be nearby. People speak English. And the great city of London is surely a fun place to be.

The road beckons – when doesn’t it? – but while plans are being laid in the background, I get my outdoor kicks for the most part by cycling everywhere. I think I’ve taken public transport a total of twice in the three weeks since I arrived. First impressions of cycling in London are quite mixed; whether my ride is enjoyable or arduous seems to depend drastically on my chosen route and the time of day – commuting hours being the ones to avoid. Sometimes it rains; big deal. Distances, from my warped perspective, are always ridiculously short.

I ride my old expedition bike frame which I’ve converted to a front-brake-only single-speed, but an honourable mention must go to Boris bikes. They might not be particularly cool, but I love them. For a pound a day, you can pedal one of these sturdy machines all over Zone One and forget about locks and tools and lights and funky clothes – and the bike itself, once you’ve dropped it off. (As an added bonus, motorists assume you’re a complete nincompoop and generally give you a lot more space when passing – what more could you ask for?)

Needless to say, biking around London also has to be the cheapest way to get around, besides walking or running. Combined with cheap London hotels, Boris-biking and picnicking and doing free stuff might keep the visitor’s budget well below £20 a day. I wish I’d done a bit more of this when I was visiting the city in times gone by.

If I’m in need of a longer ride, I can jump on the train after breakfast, ride a 50-mile-or-so loop through the garden of England, and be back in time for tea. As the months go by, I suspect that this will become an important part of staying sane here. But what I’ve enjoyed most about riding in the city is a feeling that the place is being integrated into a whole. My eyes are wide open, and I’m fully immersed, not just passively gazing from a window or blasting through a subterranean maze. All those familiar-sounding Tube stations, previously self-contained islands, start drifting into a coherent pattern. The city’s bridges acquire names, and for the first time sit in the right order and point in the right direction; districts and wards line up in a way that more closely resembles reality; travelling times from one region to another are become easier to estimate, and the quiet routes easier to navigate.

It’s a lovely process of urban discovery that’ll last a good long while, I think – long enough to know a bit more than I used to about this grimy, incongruous city, before I head out on the road again.

Useful stuff I’ve come across for cycling in London:

  • London Cyclist – blogs and resources, especially good for newcomers
  • Cyclestreets.net – incredibly full-featured route planning in London and the UK
  • OpenCycleMap.org – cycle-oriented open-souce mapping (like Google Maps but better)
  • Barclays Cycle Hire – a.k.a. Boris bikes

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