Why cycling in London will ‘change your life’
‘It changed my life,’ my friend Bradley tells me, without a hint of exaggeration. The 30-year-old electrician from Cape Town rekindled his fading affection for London when he ditched the over-crowded tube, traded in his oyster card for a one-speed, and started showing up to work on a construction site in Canary Wharf energised from his morning ride along the Regent’s Canal.
‘Cycling has given me a sense of autonomy, and I feel great, both physically and mentally.’ I might have shrugged off Bradley’s enthusiasm as short-lived euphoria had I not made the same bold claim a year earlier, when I ponied up £300 for a bike and transformed my relationship to London and my overall sense of wellbeing and focus.
I wouldn’t call myself a cycling activist – more like a cycling evangelist. For me, preaching the virtues of commuting by bike is about the joy of seeing how a simple change can have a positive impact across a person’s life, beyond the obvious fitness benefits.
What Bradley and I experienced isn’t a fluke. According to NHS psychiatrist and avid cyclist Khaldoon Ahmed, navigating London’s complex urban landscape by bike can have a measurable impact on the brain – and your ability to focus throughout the day. ‘Passive modes of transport like getting on the Tube encourage being on autopilot, whereas on a bike you can be alert and sharp,’ explains Khaldoon. ‘Because you are aerobically active, the brain is getting more blood flow, enhancing visual perception, attention and response time. This effect lasts into your day: research shows improved memory and information processing after just 30 minutes of aerobic activity.’
Cycling also has the power to transform London from a transportation quagmire into a landscape of discovery.
A cyclist develops intimate knowledge of the city’s layout and finds clever routes for avoiding traffic. ‘You really get to see and experience London when you commute by bike,’ says Karianne Lancee, a dedicated all-weather cycle commuter originally from Amsterdam. ‘You discover quaint coffee shops, local markets, hidden green spaces… the city becomes more interesting.’
And it’s in your financial interests, too. Relying on a bike for commuting can save a Zone 2 commuter more than £1,000 per year and, while some might think there is a sacrifice in time, this is not the case. The average commute in London is around seven miles, a distance a cyclist can cover in 35 to 50 minutes.
THE ROUTE AHEAD
London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has committed to upholding Boris Johnson’s pledge to transform London into a world-class cycling capital. A variety of new routes are already open to cyclists, with maps available on the Tfl website. Yet, London still lags far behind cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam in providing safe cycle lanes. ‘We need to increase the pace of change and make cycling to work the obvious, affordable and safe choice for thousands more Londoners,’ Sadiq said when he took office. This is especially important given the safety concerns that keep many from getting on a bike.
Such concerns are especially prevalent among women, with a visible impact on cycling demographics in the capital: it’s estimated that only a quarter of cycle journeys are made by women, as opposed to 55% in Amsterdam, where infrastructure is state-of-the-art. As London Assembly member and cycle campaigner Caroline Russell asserts, ‘Inclusive streets should work for people of all ages, genders and abilities.’ To address safety concerns, some councils offer one-to-one cycle skills sessions to build confidence and show cyclists safe, quiet commuting routes.
But campaigners such as Caroline Russell and London Cycle Campaign feel there is scope to do more. ‘The capital’s cycling budget is set to fall from £166million in 2016/17 to £68million in 2020/21. That means there won’t be enough money to pay for the planned Superhighways or the fledging Quietways,’ she says. For London’s cycle transformation to continue, persistence is key. While the work carries on behind the scenes, construction crews continue to break new ground and expand possibilities otherwise unimaginable five years ago.
On an immaculate summer day a few months back, while waiting at a traffic light along the new East-West Cycle Superhighway, a woman pulled up next to me and said, ‘This cycle path is a game changer,’ before pedalling off into the sunshine. It was one of many times over the past year of cycling that I’ve caught myself thinking, ‘God, I love this town’.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS OF LONDON
Three of our favourite London rides (so far…)
Telegraph Hill is one of those London gems you feel blessed to discover. I especially love to come here on brisk autumn mornings, stopping at the community-run Hill Station Café and taking in the scenery of changing leaves.
Start in Burgess Park, follow the Surrey Canal bike path to Rye Lane. Pass Peckham Rye and Nunhead Cemetery (via Borland Road). Access Telegraph Hill Park via the Aspinall Road footbridge. Return via New Cross Road.
A long cruise, with adrenaline-pumping climbs and descents on winding forest roads. Passing stone churches, thick woods, fields and orchards, it’s easy to forget you’re on the edge of London. Fuel up at Dada Café in Epping or have a post-ride pint at The Plough on Sewardstone Road.
From Aldgate, head to Stratford via Cycle Superhighway 2. Follow Leytonstone Road and Hollybush Hill through to High Road, which will lead you to Epping.
I recently gave a guest from the US a midnight tour of London – the lit dome of St Paul’s, Tower Bridge and the growing skyline casting a surreal glow – finishing at Wok on Fire on Old Compton Street for noodles.
Follow the Superhighway along Victoria Embankment from Tower Bridge. At Big Ben, head towards The Mall, Trafalgar Square and up Regent’s Street to Piccadilly Circus and Soho. To return, follow Charing Cross Road to Northumberland Ave and back to the Superhighway.
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5 TIPS FOR ALL-WEATHER CYCLING
1. Rain forecast? A light impermeable jacket rolled in your bag for summer and a heavier one for winter will keep you dry on your bike.
2. Study the green cycle-friendly streets marked on Google Maps. Avoiding traffic in the rain means you are less likely to be sprayed when cars pass.
3. Embrace Scandi-chic fashion: functional, stylish clothing that pairs tight but stretchable trousers with loose, breathable tops, tied together with practical shoes. Perfect for cycling without getting sweaty in summer or cold in winter.
4. Don’t be afraid of cycling in winter: the cold air is energising and the daily exposure to natural light can help lift your mood in the darkest months.
5. If you’d rather cycle in weather-appropriate exercise clothing, get your bike fitted with panniers, which provide storage for work clothing, laptops, towels for showering, and any other essentials.