Elements of Being a Cyclist in the City
Since the London 2012 Olympics, London has remained a cycling mecca. Whether you’re a road cyclist, a fixie rider or a standard commuter, the hordes of riders powering through the city every morning continues to rise. Different parties have varied theories on why London's cycling community has grown, but the consensus is that it's not some passing fad. In a city that offers almost anything a cyclist may want – from hills to flats to cobbles to coffee shops aplenty – with a population north of 8 million, London appears as though it may some day rival some of the great bike-centric centers of the world (see: Copenhagen).
For that growing community, the workshop space at Oakley In Residence: London is a place for like-minded individuals to meet and share in their mutual interest of putting tires to pavement (or dirt, mud or anything else). Depending on skill level or discipline of choice, different parts of the city will appeal to different riders. The following three elements of cycling in London are an excerpt from Velo London – a special-edition magazine made for the workshop. There's quite a bit more to the greater London cycling scene. To continue the conversation, pop by the workshop for a coffee and a tune-up.
Out of the Saddle: London's Climbs
London is an apparently bumpy city, and yet not. To the tourist, destination summits such as Notting Hill, Primrose Hill and Constitution Hill are experienced as anything but mountainous: after all, they’d hardly be appealing to tourists if they were. Savvy riders know better than to look at tourist guides, and they seek out lesser-known rises in the topography upon which to test their mettle and find the divine rhythm – in short, to put the hammer down.
Each yeah Highgate hosts the Urban Hill Climb in which aspiring Virenques and Pantanis put themselves to the sword over 800 metres of 18 percent gradient up Swain’s Lane, some collapsing after the finish line like Stephen Roche. And there are plenty of other short sharp shocks on London’s otherwise placid plains: the College Road/Fountain Drive combination near Dulwich College, Shooters Hill in distant Welling, the hills at Box and Leith in the Surrey edgelands across the M25, or the rise from central London up to Hampstead Heath. One rider even mapped out the 19 Cols of the South London Alps on Strava. Who says you actually need to be on the Galibier or the Aspin – or the Muur de Geraardsbergen for that matter – when you can be there in your head? You just happen to be toiling up Swain’s Lane instead.
London can be a challenging place to ride when it’s ridden regularly – intra-species conflict between cyclists, pedestrians, taxis and lorry drivers on its narrow thoroughfares rarely makes for harmony – but the right kind of glory through suffering is there for the taking when you know how to find it.
Look up, change down, grit your teeth, and put your back into it.
In the Drops: London's Circuits
Just as New Romantic followed Mod in the history of style subcultures, so it does on the road. The loop circumscribing Regent’s Park north of Fitzrovia is known as being the training ground for a group of born-again riders who came to notoriety in the pop boom of the Eighties – Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, broadcaster Robert Elms and style writer Simon Mills among them. Cognoscenti also know that it was where Britain’s most mod cyclist – perhaps even Britain’s mod-est Mod – Bradley Wiggins also used to put in the miles when he was growing up in nearby Kilburn.
That loop is one of many venerated circuits in the capital: the raceways at Hillingdon and Crystal Palace, the retro-mythic velodrome at Herne Hill and its new, futuro-Olympic counterpart in the Lea Valley. Then there’s the 10.8km loop with the testing Sawyer’s Hill ascent in Richmond Park where, not so long ago, David Millar casually showed up and set an unofficial new lap record of 13m 55s. Richmond Park is a kind of Sunday service for worshippers at the temple of cycling.
Since London is rather dense and clogged, circuits, loops and criteriums make sense, and whether you’re a spectator or a would-be participant, the Jupiter Nocturne (running on Saturday, June 6) circulating Smithfield’s meat market pits rider against rider in a range of races: elite road, penny farthing, retro crit and the folding bike tournament which includes an exciting Le Mans-style start, with riders rushing to their steeds. For Tour fans with time on their hands, take a leisurely ride on the prologue loop around Hyde Park, Constitution Hill and back to Whitehall, which Fabian Cancellara won in such sensational style in the 2007 Tour.
In more ways than one, cycling is a permanent revolution in London.
On the Hoods: London's Cobbles
As the legendary Belgian DS Kenny Van Vlaminck once observed: “There are two types of cobbles: the big cobbles and the small cobbles. And the grippy cobbles and the slippy cobbles.” We might add a fifth type to Van Vlaminck’s somewhat wonky taxonomy: London cobbles, which are both big and small, and grippy and slippy, and increasingly popular.
Since the capital caught a dose of the bike bug, a certain Flandrian fetishism has crept into the collective psyche that goes beyond an affection for Trappist beer, woollen jerseys and occluded machismo: for one, the annual London Classic ride (thelondonclassic.org) invites riders on a 36.6 mile loop through the city’s bumpiest streets from Crystal Palace into the West End, far out east into Wapping, and back home again, encompassing a total of 22 sections of filling-dislodging pavé.
Classics riders are said to be the hardest of the hard, and while London can’t offer unending Alpine ascents or wide open roads for riders to toughen up on, it can offer the surfaces that made men of Merckx, Godefroot and Van Petegem. Cobbled streets are plentiful in London, and often quieter and less traveled than the prettified tarmac stretches of its key arteries.
Nevertheless, wisdom gleaned the hard way on the parcours of Paris-Roubaix and De Ronde still applies: fix an extra layer of bar tape, push a bigger gear to compensate for the undulations, fit wider tires and deflate them to around 87psi, and loosen your grip.