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A Ride in the Park

Cycling Illustration CartoonGuest post by Jamie Fewery

Since I took up cycling seriously four years ago I have combined commuting with leisure. The grind with the glory. The former has always been subject to the petty annoyances of urban life. Traffic, discourteous road users and the like. It’s to be expected and is a compromise. Cycling is a nicer way to get to work than the tube. But occasionally you’ll get a flat or caught in a surprise shower not mentioned by the Met Office app that morning.

However it is the latter is where I, as with most, found the love for cycling. Found the freedom and joy that is intrinsic to it and that influences the many pages written in thrall to it. 

But in London things are slightly different. Whereas those who live outside of a city are, in general, able to climb on and get out into some sort of countryside, London requires a make-do attitude. Instead of clipping into pedals and going for hours without having to stick out an ankle to free oneself, London cyclists are in and out, waiting for the odd mile of uninterrupted pedaling, or praying that the green light at the bottom of the hill stays green.

So what is leisure cycling in London then? Being in love with a difficult mistress? One you know can be brilliant but circumstance makes her frustrating and cruel.

Or is it simply a compromise?

London gives you all the art, food and culture you can take but if you want to ride a bike for a long time you’ll either have go elsewhere or wait for the roads to close for a sportive.

The particular ride I have in mind writing this is around Regent’s Park. A three-mile ring dominated every Saturday and Sunday morning by cyclists from every discipline and ability group. From amateur time trialists and monied Rapha drenched flyers, to new hobbyists and absolute beginners. Everyone circling either clockwise or anti, doing their best to get past the zoo car park without being clattered by a car door. Despite their differences (probably imperceptible to the eye that doesn’t care for the contrasts between an S-Works and an Allez) they all have two things in common: the love of the bike and the desire, in a city so abundant with everything else it has lost almost all of it, to have some free space in which to ride.

My personal route starts in North West London. Beginning on West End Lane, where buses even outnumber people, then down Abbey Road and across the famed zebra crossing that is always surrounded by tourists playing chicken with road users, eventually entering the park from the West. Depending on mood, weather and fitness I will do 15 to 20 miles of the loop, registering the same sights and scenes each time round, maybe changing direction to mix things up. On most rides I will intersperse the cycling with a break at the tennis cafe, staying to watch the North London dads in love with their coach trying to show off with back-hand lobs and smashes. Finally after a couple more laps I’ll exit towards Camden, riding through the terribly surfaced Hell of the North (London) that is Kentish Town and on towards Highgate, where comes the main challenge.

Swains Lane.

An 800 metre climb up London’s steepest hill, ending in Highgate Village before a gentle descent down into Hampstead. It’s short, sharp and slow. Painful on city cyclist legs that are not used to proper climbing, except for the once every month or so opportunity to get the train out into the Chilterns, or down to Kent or Surrey.

The Regent’s Park and Swains Lane ride is fun and a good way to keep your legs spinning in a place with a cycling culture almost entirely dedicated to getting from A to B, rather than meandering through the alphabet. But more often than not riding it makes me yearn for those things that make cycling the sport it is. The views, the fresh air, the being alone on a long stretch of road surrounded by green trees, dead brown leaves, snow or corn fields, depending on season. The long stint in the saddle and the ability to ride for hours on end, turning the pedals over and over. The feeling at one with a bike.

For me Regent’s Park is cycling methodone. It keeps the addiction satiated until the opportunity comes to get out further, to not repeat the same three miles infinitely until tiredness or boredom takes over. It is good, but not quite great. But often it is the best that London has to offer.

You can follow Jamie on Twitter here.

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