Bike Citizens Guide to London
London is iconic, without doubt. Its role over the last two thousand years has made it one of the world’s most culturally divers cities. Cycling through the capital of United Kingdom is fun as well as charming and challenging– and worth every mile for both tourists and citizens.
London is the iconic capital of the United Kingdom, and its role in global trade and politics over the last two thousand years has made it one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities. It contains four world heritage sites, more museums than any other city in Europe, massive parks, palaces & pubs.
However it is the cycling culture that really sets London apart from other British cities. Ever since the 2012 Olympics when british cycling took home 8 gold medals, cycling has become a british passion second only to Football, and London is its home.
Aperitiv – (Cycling in) London in general
At 1500Km2 and 9.2 million people, London is a big busy place, but the city’s old streets and canals mean that getting from A to B by bike is charming, and it’s getting better every year as London invests more in its cycle paths. A great advantage of London that has helped the rapidly growing urban cycle scene is that it is mostly flat. With only 11m average elevation and only a handful of hills going slightly over 100m, it makes for some pretty easy street cruising.
East and west
London is essentially a collection of small towns and villages that were swallowed up by the ever expanding centre. This gives it its charming twisting streets, it’s wide range of architectural styles, and also a diverse range of cycling adoption. Although you’ll find cycleways and cyclists in all parts of London, there is a greater concentration in the East of London. This is mainly due to the fact the the east is not as well connected with public transport infrastructure as the West so you have many more cycle commuters.
City of bridges!
The city is split in two by the majestic Thames river which has no less than 33 bridges crossing it which offer great views of the city’s iconic skyline. Landmarks and places of interest are dotted around on both sides of the river so you’ll undoubtedly be crossing the bridges a few times on your bike. I’d recommend making sure to cross the one-and-only historic Tower Bridge (the famous old one you always see in films), not to be confused with London bridge which despite its name is actually quite plain.
City of rain?
No quick intro to London would be complete without some words about the weather. In short, it’s alright. London’s weather has a bad reputation, but the last 5 years have been pretty good with summer temperatures regularly hitting the T-shirt worthy 25 degrees thanks to global warming. Yes it does rain every now and again, but not as much as most people fear, so don’t fret and enjoy the ride!
So I’ve convinced you that visiting London is a good idea and now you’re here, great! How do you get around I hear you ask? Well, London was initially a little slow in building infrastructure for cyclists, but in the last 10 years has made great progress with its beautiful blue “Cycle Superhighways”.
The Cycle Superhighways link up all of the major areas of London with around 70Km (as of Spring 2019) of bright blue cycle specific paths going north to south and east to west. They’re not signposted very well, but as they’re big blue strips on the ground, they’re not exactly easy to miss either, and with new superhighway routes popping up every couple of years you’re bound to come across one without even looking for it.
One of the big reasons cycling in London is a pleasure is that it is made up of 40% public green spaces, including 3,000+ parks and totaling 35,000 acres! To put that into perspective that is an area 1.4x the size of Paris! It gets a bit personal when talking about parks with Londoners as everyone believes that their local park is the best. So I’m going to try and be as objective as possible here.
For a cyclist on holiday, the top four parks that are absolute must-rides are, in order of awesomeness:
Some of the parks will have areas where cycling is not allowed and you should try to respect this!
You may notice that some of the more iconic parks such as Hyde Park and Greenwich Park are missing from my list, and although they are worth a visit, they’re not too much fun on a bike as the sheer number of tourists usually means that they’re best enjoyed on foot.
Didn’t bring your own bike but still want to ride? No problem!
London has its “Santander” bikes (Santander is in quotes as they’re the current sponsor, but that’s likely to change over time) which is TfL’s (Transport for London) home grown bike sharing scheme that uses docking stations around the city. With 11500 bikes strategically placed around the city it is often a more reliable solution than the startups’ offerings, and at £2 for 24 hour access to unlimited 30 minute rides it’s not much more expensive. Be aware though that rides longer than 30 minutes cost an extra £2 per each additional 30 minutes, so it can get expensive if you forget to dock the bike once you’ve finished your ride.
London has also seen its fair share of boom and bust bike sharing startups, and every year there is a new one with some interesting new ways to tempt people into cycling around the city. You’ll usually be able to find a shared bike within a couple of minutes of looking. Prices vary regularly as these fledgling companies incessantly tweak their business models, but on the whole it’s pretty cheap, and much cheaper than the public transport.
- Bikes like a tank: As with all bike sharing schemes, the bikes offered by the startups and TfL are veritable tanks on two wheels: Heavy, and slow. But just like a tank, they very rarely go wrong and are quite fun when you do manage to get some speed up!
- Speed vagons: Speaking of speed, if you want something with a bit less weight for a longer faster ride around London I’d recommend checking out “On Your Bike ” and “Livelo ” for some carbon goodness.
- Folding bikes: As of 2018 you can now rent one of the most british of bikes, the beloved Brompton, from their automated „Brompton Boxes“ docking stationsthat are located around London.
Routes + Travel: Community Cycling in London
Pickwick Bicycle Club
London is home to many cycle clubs, including the world’s oldest and most prestigious (and controversial) Pickwick bicycle club. Sadly they tend to be exclusive and race focussed, having strict membership requirements and asking riders to wear club uniforms. Although very british in that sense, it’s not exactly welcoming for someone travelling through.
British Cycling: Let’s ride!
Thankfully there is British Cycling. It is the UK’s national governing body for all things cycling and takes its mission of promoting cycling very seriously. To that end they’ve created letsride.co.uk, a way for normal cyclists to meet up and go on social rides without any requirements other than having a bike. It is inclusive, easy to navigate, and free! You’ll find rides of all distances and levels posted by professionals as well as local cycling heroes. It is one of the best ways to explore the city by bike as the locals are always happy to introduce newcomers to the sights and culture of the city.
Most local bike shops also host rides fairly regularly and tend to be very inclusive, so check to see if there is one near where you’ll be staying. I’ve listed my three favorite shops in the workshops section below, and if you’re staying near one of them I’d strongly recommend you check to see if they have a ride you can join.
So you have a destination, you know how to get there, you’ve found some people to ride with, and you have a bike. Awesome! But before you head off on your adventure please take note of the following as cycle safety is important, and you really don’t want to ruin a good holiday with some carelessness.
- Be visible: As a rule of thumb, you need to make yourself as visible as a city light advertisment. Obviously, you don’t have the size of them to grab people’s attention, so you make up for it with lights and reflective materials. Get proper lights, not the small backup lights, it is in your interest to make sure you get ones that actually illuminate. Especially in a big city like London where EVERYTHING is illuminated at night, you need to outshine it all!
- Be safe: Lastly, London is a big city, and like all big cities there are bike thieves. Make sure you have a lock with you and don’t be tempted to leave your bike on the street unsupervised while you quickly hop into a shop for some snacks, even for just one minute.
Cycling Culture: Shops, Cafés and Workshops
Should anything happen to your bike during your time in London you’re in good company, with roughly 800,000 cyclists in London there are plenty of service points. My top three must visit cyclist cafes are “Look Mum No Hands” near Old Street, “Machine” on Tower Bridge Road, and “London Velo” near Greenwich. All three cafes have great cycling communities around them and offer up some fantastic coffee and treats, best of all you can get your bike serviced in any of them!
Look Mum No Hands in Old Street, known as simply “Look mum” or LMNH to the peeps in the London cycle scene, is one of the core establishments of the cycle scene here in London.
As the name suggests it’s all about enjoying cycling for what it does best – giving us the freedom to be kids again. It has a chilled atmosphere, good food, craft ales, nice coffee, all sorts of weird & exotic bike bits plastered to the walls and ceiling, and most importantly, a reputable workshop that will sort out any mechanical problem you have.
The combination of all this has made LMNH a location where cyclists from all over london gather to chat after a ride, watch races on their projector, or go to one of their many evening events.
Machine: Heading south of the river and a little to the east there is Machine on Tower Bridge Road which combines great coffee, pastries and knowledgeable mechanics. It’s a small family run business with a cosy happy-go-lucky vibe where you can get your dose of caffeine while they fix your bike. Unile the famous and often packed LMNH that has absolutely everything a cyclist could possibly need, Machine is more chilled and concentrates on doing the essentials very very well.
London Velo: A little further east and heading into Greenwich we have London Velo . Like LMNH and Machine it is everything a cyclist needs in one location.
Coffee, mechanic, food, so if you’re in the area and need for assistance or refueling this is your destination. London velo has its own cycle club (with tastefully designed matching kit!) and is a bit more race focussed than Machine.
As such you’ll often see it bustling with cyclists and you can’t always find a place to sit, though their bagels are worth it!
Public Transport + Taxi: Bring your bike!
This is when you come to truly appreciate the value of those small wheeled folding bikes, they can be taken anywhere just like a piece of luggage. Any Taxi or public transport service will happily let you on with no questions asked. If, however, you have a full sized bike, things get a bit more interesting. But never fear, there is help out there!
- London Underground, Bus, DLR: Taking full sized bikes on London’s Underground is, in general, not allowed. Same goes for the bus services and the DLR (Doscklands Light Railway). There are a few exceptions but it is recommended not to rely on them as they change the rules frequently and it can be more trouble than it is worth.
- The London Overground however, is bike friendly on weekdays outside of rush hours (7am-10am, and 4pm to 7pm) and all day on the weekends. You can check the latest public transport bike rules for London on the TfL site.
- Taxi: Addison Lee are an independent taxi company who tend to be a bit more upmarket than the average dial-a-ride companies out there. They were the first to have bicycle friendly taxis and have become a backup option for many cyclists when they find themselves stuck with a bike.
- Cargobike-Taxi: If it is dry and you want to travel in style with your bike, you can take it with you on one of London’s newest cargo bike Taxi services called Pedal me . It’s comparable in price to the Addison Lee service, but you’ll be riding front and centre in an XL Bullitt Cargo e-bike alongside your bike. This is by far my favorite way to get home after a little too much fun the city.
Food for hungry urban cyclists
It’s the end of the day, you’ve had a good ride and seen the beauty of London against a stunning backdrop of Sapphire blue skies and golden sunshine, and now you’re hungry! This is one of London’s strongest points and an absolute joy after a day in the saddle exploring. With such a diverse population and more than a fair bit of money flowing through the city there is an abundance to varied cuisines to suit every palate and budget.
Mercato Metropolitano in Borough is one of my all-time favorite spots to refuel after a ride…or just about anytime I’m south of the river and hungry! It isn’t a single establishment, but a collective of small independent eateries and bars all under one warehouse roof with large communal tables where everyone can mingle like some sort of modern medieval banquet. The food is exceptionally good for the money and you will be spoilt for choice. Also, for any Sci-Fi fans out there, they have a small independent cinema that is spaceship themed and shows all the classic space flics! There is plenty of space to park your bike outside, so just bring a lock with you when you head over.
Broadway Market in the east is a little known treasure to most tourists and boasts a wide range of flavours every Saturday. Unlike the more well known Borough market, Broadway market is not easy to get to by public transport but very easy to cycle to as it’s on a main cycling route. The lack of public transport links filters out the tourists and leaves you with a busy (but not too busy) market full of genuine local delicacies and artisanal pop-up shops who aren’t trying to push their questionable London memorabilia on you.
Shoredich: If you fancy something slightly more refined, then head over to the Shoreditch area where there are plenty of proper sit-in restaurants offering unique flavours. Most will have some form of on-street cycle parking nearby as Shoreditch has many cyclists. I would recommend Smoking Goat and Dishoom for something a bit special. Shoreditch is also home to the famous Brick lane where you can find a taste of the old empire in its multitude of authentic Indian restaurants.
Last but not least, drinks! London has a lot of restaurants, eateries and cafes, but it has even more pubs! There are so many that are worth a mention that I honestly found it hard to narrow it down to just three. All have ample room outside for locking up your bike and great craft beers!
Howling Hops in Hackney Wick is britain’s first ever dedicated tank bar where your can drink the freshest beers direct from the source. In the old victorian warehouse they brew a wide range of beers from juicy Pale Ales to Stouts, and serve them on Long tables where everyone can mingle. They also have a kitchen on site that serves up roast meats, grilled cheese sandwiches and a vegan jackfruit burger good enough to tempt anyone. It is very close to the Olympic park and its famous velodrome, so easy to justify a visit for any cycling enthusiast!
The Experiment on Bohemia Place is an experimental (as the name implies!) tap room from local breweries Pressure Drop and Verdant. Here you can try some of their latest trials in brewing in their relaxed railway arch with plenty of space for parking bikes outside. If the term Hazy IPA means anything to you, then this is where you need to be! The Experiment doesn’t have an onsite chef to help you load up on carbs for the ride home, but they do allow you to bring your own food and have takeaways delivered there.
Lastly there is Vermuteria in Coal Drops yard. It’s a combination of historic cycling memorabilia, French and Italian cafe charm, and top-tier cocktails & cuisine. Unlike the other two who have a more grounded rough and ready feel, this place is where you go for something a little more refined for coffee, wine, amaros, fernet, cocktails and Vermouth. Well worth a visit if you want to try something other than beer!
Ok, so I lied, I can’t just leave it at three recommendations. If you want to taste more truly unique local brews I would highly recommend making a trip to the Bermondsey Beer Mile. That’s right, a whole 1.6Km of beer! It’s a collection of 17 small batch craft breweries housed in and around a one mile stretch of railway arches serving up their latest creations in beer and cider. There are also quite a few great places to eat in the area so that you don’t let the “juice” overpower you, and best of all it is cycle friendly! Read all about it here.
Ok, I’m done. Cheers, and happy travels!