*First Published with Union Times*
What to Do, What to Know, Where to Go…
After recently packing my bags and saying goodbye to my New York crew, I hopped onto a plane to London and began to plant some roots here. My bags were MASSIVE. After all, I was carrying my entire life in them… the only part of my life I left behind was my beloved bike… it was just too damned big to fit in my Samsonite!
I used to bike every day to work in the West Village along the gorgeous Hudson River Greenway, taking in the morning sunshine and the fresh breeze skimming off the water. It was a great way to keep fit and add something special to what could have been a very tedious daily routine. And I’ve missed it ever since…
Let’s face it, whether you’re walking, driving, or cycling, London roads can be a bit intimidating… the often baffling layout, the left-sidedness of it all, the red two-story monstrosities the English call “buses” speeding around you… It’s scary!
Trust me, I was scared too. But I did the research, I got “out there,” and you know what? It was downright enchanting! London has many programs in place to make cycling much easier and much safer even for tenderfoot Londoners such as myself.
If you love cycling and want to try your toes at it in London, listen up! This article is for you!
Here are some easy tips for London cycling:
Always do an inspection of your bike before you go! You have enough to pay attention to on the road. The last thing you want is to get a flat tire (or “tyre” as they say) when you’re miles from any bike repair shop or discover that your breaks don’t work while you’re speeding down a hill towards that “cute” canal.
Which reminds me, helmets are not required by law, but if you have a helmet you should probably wear it! London traffic can be chaotic even at the best of times. Be aware of what’s going on around you. Whether you’re on the road or riding along a canal, there are always little surprises along the way. Tourists with suitcases trailing behind them, distracted “mums” with strollers, happy pups on leashes (or “leads”), and much, much more love to pop out at the most inopportune moments. If you are not ready for them, chances are you will find out what it’s like to land face first on cobblestone, and when you do, you will wish you were wearing a helmet.
Also, in case you didn’t know, pedestrians have right of way. So as annoying as it might be to slow your roll for leisurely amblers, just remember that you are out for a relaxing ride. Injuring someone and/or having angry insults hurled your way kind of ruins the mood for everyone. Take a leaf out of the Brits’ book and be polite. It will make you feel downright regal and avoid any stressful situations.
Remember, a lot of pedestrians are out strolling to unwind and clear their minds. So chances are, they are NOT paying attention to you. Use your bell to alert people of your presence so they are more likely to take notice and give you more space to pass. The same goes for going around blind corners. Slow down and ring that bell! Anyone on the other side of that curve will be grateful and you’ll thank yourself when you don’t collide with that hulking Manchester United fan trying to walk his pit-bull.
And if you don’t have a bell, call out. Simple phrases like, “On your right!” work just as well when you’re about to pass someone. By the way, it doesn’t hurt to say, “thank you,” when you have to maneuver around someone or if someone moves out of your way. The pedestrians love a considerate biker, and, besides, you are that naturally charming anyways, am I right?
Little tip: If you can, schedule your ride during a time that you know there will be less people out relaxing. For example, weekends and bank holidays are always more crowded, so try to cycle during the workday or when there is slightly colder weather, and you’ll be sure to have more of the road to yourself.
If you’re not familiar with London roads and construction, let me enlighten you… they often are not user-friendly. This is not lovely litigious New York where the paths are smooth and wide and every low-hanging bridge is clearly marked. I can guarantee you, you will come across a few awkward overheads and ridiculously narrow paths (which, yes, you are expected to share with other walkers and cyclists). If you’re about to go underneath a bridge and you have even the slightest inkling that it might be too low or too narrow, I’m telling you now, you are 100% right. Get off your bike and walk it. Trust me. You will be glad you did.
Pay attention when cycling around London. If the cobblestones don’t get you, the traffic might get you instead. Be aware of what is going on around you, especially if you’re not used to driving on the left side of the road. LOOK at other cars and cyclists sharing the road. It helps them to spot you on the road AND it increases your awareness of what’s going on around you. After all, people forget to signal all the time. Don’t assume that cab on your right is going straight through the section when the light turns green. It might just be turning left… into YOU!
Remember to signal your own turns by cautiously holding your arm out in the direction you are about to turn. I say “cautiously” because if you’re sharing the road with vehicles, you need to make sure that lorry doesn’t take your arm off as it whips past.
Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds. If you are aware of what’s going on around you and refrain from doing anything you’re not comfortable with, you should be in for an absolutely lovely ride.
Some advice I suggest heartily is to plan your ride ahead of time. London has become increasingly cycle-friendly over recent years (yes, I’m talking about Boris with his bikes) and has subsequently channeled a lot of money into making it easier for people to explore the city on two wheels. Politics aside, there is an incredible array of helpful websites to help you make the most of your ride.
Sustrans.org.uk is a great resource for understanding the trails available to bikers and even has a filter setting that finds the best path for you according to your needs. You can choose from “largely traffic-free,” “forested,” “art trails,” and more!
Study your route before you go! Although London has put a lot of thought into the cycling program, they still have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to labeling all of the paths. This can become a little annoying if you’re stopping to reference Google maps every three minutes to make sure you’re still going the right way. So familiarize yourself with your route so you can forget the phone and just enjoy the ride!
You can print a map of your trail and take it with you. Or, if you feel like going wherever the wind takes you, you can order free cycle route maps from the Transport for London website.
You can also learn more about where to rent (or “hire”) a bike from on these websites, but one very easy to use program is the Santander Bike-sharing System. All you need is a credit card and you can hire a bike from any of the stations, which are located all over the city. (New Yorkers, think Citi Bike). The bicycles are £2 every half hour (the first half hour is free if you return it within the thirty minutes) and can be used for up to 24 hours before you have to return them. So you’ll have plenty of time to dock your bike and check out that artisanal food market you just happened to pass.
Little advice: bring water, a mini-tyre pump (if you can), at least one bike lock, and DO SOME RESEARCH ON BATHROOMS ALONG YOUR ROUTE! My last ride was almost a disaster until I remembered that the canal I was cycling along (Regent’s, if you’re curious) runs right past Victoria Park. As soon as I saw the telltale Chinese Pagoda, I turned into the park and stopped off at the bathrooms by The Pavilion Cafe (which has delicious menu by the way) for a little wee break.
More than anything, just remember that you’re out for a relaxing ride. Do a little research ahead of time so you can focus on the scenery, and take it easy! The pace is what you set it at… so take your time and really look at what’s around you. After all, there is something to see on every street.
Exploring the city by bike is truly incredible. So get out there! Get on your bike! And discover London!