Tour de London

Cities are shit for cycling. London more so. The roads are crap and everyone with an engine and wheels is trying to kill you.

People who think this are fools.

London is a brilliant place to ride a bike. And you don’t have to clad yourself in lycra like a wheezing member of ABBA to make the most of it. You don’t have to be an adrenaline junky, a courier or a smug git on a Brompton. In fact, you don’t even have to like cycling. Nope. In order to enjoy cycling in London all you have to do is relish the idea of travelling on your own terms, wallowing in green spaces and enjoying time to yourself in which to contemplate the world with a strong ale, decent herb and the finest views in all London town.

What could appeal more to the soul of a Deserter than rolling steadily through a city at your own pace, in whatever direction you choose? Yes, cycling is cheap, good for you and the planet, and avoids the hoi polloi. But, by thunder, most of all it’s fun.

Where the engine fears to tread
Where the engine fears to tread

Let’s start with this simple premise: Going for a bike ride is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Remember when you were kids and you said, ‘Let’s go and ride bikes’ because riding bikes gave you the freedom to explore? You can still do that as a grown up. If the journey’s decent, the destination barely matters and can be abandoned on a whim to continue two wheeled psychogeography, at least until Mum says, ‘Tea’s ready!’

But why cycle? Why not walk? Why not roller-skate? There’s something about the pace of cycling that’s perfect for idle thought. Walking is too slow. Vehicles in cities are a waste of time. The agoraphobic Tube hides below ground. The bicycle rolls with minimal effort past all the wondrous diversity London has to offer. And best of all, you can do it sitting down.

Purists would have you believe that your choice of bike says a lot about you. This is bollocks. My bike has a seat and some other stuff that makes it go. Yours should have these as well. Apart from that it doesn’t matter whether you’re mountain, road, folding, Boris or fixed wheel. Bikes are a means to an end and woe betide any person who sees them as anything more than that. The bike snob has no place on our patch.

My bike has a seat and some other stuff that makes it go. Yours should have these as well

Despite frequent accusations of red light jumping, pavement riding and general smugness, most people who ride bikes aren’t total cunts. Some are. Then again, some pedestrians are cunts and some drivers are cunts. It’s almost as if cunts will be cunts no matter how they get around.

If someone steps out in front of you or cuts you up, take a deep breath and resist the urge to turn the air blue. When confronted by aggression, smile politely and blow the offender a kiss. There’s too much anger in the world as it is. Plus, this approach confuses the hell out of van driving meatheads.

Now. The red lights thing. Yes, I can see that when faced with a traffic light changing from green to orange, inertia tempts you to freewheel through the red. But it’s always a surprise how many cyclists you can see jumping red lights on their way into work. Really? Is your job that good? Can you not wait to get behind your desk and spend eight hours being shat on by middle management? Is your job really worth getting squashed by a bin truck for? Stop at the lights and catch you breath, or better still, abandon roads altogether for more exotic trails.

Keen explorers of the urban jungle should seek out the two-wheeled animal tracks that weave secret passages where the engine fears to tread. These paths, often shared between pedestrians and cyclists, are linear oases in which to be diverted away from the concrete and tarmac, find a quiet bench under a tree and watch the world not go by, with an al-fresco beer in one hand and a joint in the other.

Here are five of the most interesting:

Thames Path East

A pile of rubbish

Far and away the longest and best traffic free bike route in South East London, the Thames Path opens up the skies of London and takes you on a journey through London’s riverside past. Through the docks and wharves of Rotherhithe to Deptford Creek and the Old Royal Naval College. Up the Greenwich peninsular, where deep-water ships offload cargo and make you think you’ve got lost and ended up in a 1970’s child safety film about the perils of industrial plant. Then down towards the Thames Barrier, past working aggregate wharves, juxtaposed beautifully against the gleaming phalluses of Canary Wharf.

For the thirsty, the Thames Path also makes for a decent traffic free two-wheeled pub-crawl. Start at The George on Borough High Street and finish when you can’t remember where you left your bike.

Surrey Canal Path

Another shorter, but equally fine, example is the Surrey Canal Path. This ambles from the edge of Burgess Park on the Old Kent Road to Peckham Library, taking the route of the old Surrey Canal.

This branch of the canal was opened in 1827 to move timber from South East London and beyond to the docks in Surrey Quays. Following shipping containterisation, the branch was abandoned and eventually filled in in the 1970s. Unlike the majority of the canal (which now forms part of the overground train network between London Bridge and West Croydon), you are free to trundle on your two wheels without Oyster, Lobster or Winkle past community gardens, allotments and grassy knolls which cry out for a pause for thought, Stella or spliff, as you choose. The meandering route takes you beneath two road bridges over the old canal, where contented, cider-drinking trolls abound and the smell of skunk lies heavy on the air.

Surrey Canal Path

River Pool Linear Park

The River Pool linear park saunters from Sydenham all the way to the edge of Catford, past ducks, allotments, gas holders and train lines. You never quite forget where you are, but you are likely to come away with a different perspective of it all (the extent to which generally depends on your choice of poison). Again, you’ll want to do this so that you start at the massive Sainsbury’s in Sydenham and wind up not far from the Blythe Hill Tavern.

Blackheath to Greenwich

I shouldn’t need to state the obvious but you really need to make sure you get this one the right way round or you’ll be faced with a God-awful slog uphill through the park. Blackheath has decent bike paths crossing it this way and that. Point your iron horse towards the park and let rip, minding out for kite fliers on the way and perhaps diverting to the Blackheath Tea Hut for one of their deliciously suspect animal burgers.

Ladywell Fields at dawn. (Only kidding, it’s dusk)

Greenwich Park itself has a number of bike lanes running through it but, to paraphrase Gandalf, do not stray from the path. Far more fearsome and aggressive than any overgrown spiders are the Royal Parks Police. Normal coppers barely give two hoots if you’re cycling on the wrong bit of tarmac but these wannabe dictators will be on your case quicker than Lance Armstrong on a chemist’s cupboard.

No cycling, No barbeques. No water fights. No ball games. No fun. Parks for the people? Yes, but only if you do what we say, when we say it, sonny.

Deptford to Catford

I’ll be honest. I don’t know this route. I found it on a map whilst trying to complete this list so I thought I’d ride it and report back on the results. It starts well enough by Deptford Bridge DLR and follows the Ravensbourne River through Brookmill Park along a peaceful, green, segregated cycle path. However, owing to some poor signage I got lost near Elverson Road and eventually found myself on a ‘shared surface’ near the terrible mess that is currently Lewisham roundabout.

I can only assume that ‘shared surface’ is an insurance euphemism for ‘You sort it out’ when trying to resolve cyclist-pedestrian altercations because I had no idea where the bikes were meant to go. The route ends up behind Lewisham shopping centre and eventually hurls you back into the traffic clusterfuck near the Fox and Firkin. Duck right past the old Ladywell baths and you come out into Ladywell Fields, another beautiful park with cycle paths through it.

Again, the signage is poor though, so I got lost again. Eventually I spotted another cyclist who looked like he knew where he was going so I followed him. Right back to his house.



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Image credits: Main image by Chris R, Rubbish on the beach by piblet, both used under this licence; Ladywell Fields by Adele Prince, used under this licence. Other photos by the author.