West to East through the heart of England's great capital. This has always been something I've had an urge to do but the scaremongering stories in the media and the reported deaths on the road of London every year has always made me feel very sceptical about the whole adventure (**SPOILER ALERT** I survived otherwise I am writing this through that evil doll sitting in your cupboard scratching away at your bedroom door at night, I'd get rid of it if I was you!).
Spurred on by Part 1 of this particular blog and the visit to the Lee Valley Velopark informed me of what else there is to offer in this sporting mecca. As part of the Olympic legacy, a road circuit infused with a BMX and off road track in the core of the track was designed to give the everyday Joe an opportunity to experience every area cycling has to offer. From previous visits to the Olympic Park, I was very aware this area is bike friendly, what I wasn't sure was how friendly London would be?!
Researching the route, it looked straight forward cutting through the heart of the capital then shooting out into the East end. I did have a few nagging questions in my head though; how safe is it to cycle through London? Would I get lost? (stupid question as I had my Garmin!) How bad is the traffic through the city? Would I make it? Would I make it back?! I stocked my jersey up with gels, filled up the bidons and was on my way. Confession time: I have never cycled past Hammersmith. Key word there is cycled, I'm not a recluse, I have done the whole tourist thing many times so don't think the issue would be that my prison tag would start beeping if I crossed Hammersmith bridge! I am a PE teacher by trade and it was the school holidays so traffic was quite minimal (lets get it off our chests shall we! If you can't do, teach! Heard that one! If you can't teach, teach PE! Heard it this morning mate! If you can't teach PE, quit?! This is a new one....I'll get back to you on that!).
Crossing Hammersmith bridge, issue numero uno (Beep, beep, beep....got ya, that was the Garmin pausing, not the ankle bracelet!) I am not a fan of roundabouts, I do avoid them on my journeys especially mini roundabouts. I have had many cases of not being seen at a mini roundabout even though I'll have my lights going, I've signaled and often still signalling and in most cases wearing colours which will give Jason and his coat a run for his money! So when approaching the Coca-Cola roundabout with its 50 lanes and one way system, I knew of a short cut. Garmin 'Gail' started to throw a wobbly (I put it down to a particular time of the month, charging time!) as I deviated from the pre-planned course. Being born not far from the ground and following in my fathers footsteps, I am a Fulham fan at heart. I have seen them promoted 3 times, reach an FA Cup semi-final and an Europa League final before finally retreating back down to where we probably deserved to be ('get back to the cycling numnutt, not bothered about Al Fayed's former play thing!'). I knew the back roads round the stadium and knew I could cut in to the more affluent area of Chelsea rather than dicing with death through the more busier Kensington High Street (no Harrods shopping this time round then!).
I was off course now but I knew I was heading in the right direction, West to East that's the only route I need to adhere to. Cycling up kings Road felt like being an extra in Made in Chelsea (I'm forced to watch it by the other half, honest!). You can take my word for it but I am a law abiding cyclist. I won't jump red lights, I won't dive under lorries and buses and I expect every driver to be the worst on the road. With this mentality, I truly believe it keeps me safe as I can make myself to be because only then I can expect the worst and be prepared for it. Cyclists who do choose to swerve around especially moving traffic enrages me. Even if you consider yourself a pro or you have the attitude that it won't happen to me and its a risk I'm willing to take, you don't realise that other road users see this and won't bother taking care on the next cyclist they see which could be a relative or your best friend. That next cyclist is someone's son/daughter, brother/sister, husband/wife, father/mother. It has a Ying-Yang affect on the drivers road attitude and you are the root cause because of your ignorance (minority I know but it's the minority which people remember). The point I am making on this journey I wasn't prepared to take unnecessary risks to get to my destination. So lorries and buses I gave a wide berth and made sure I knew where I was going to prevent any hesitancy on the road. My little detour did also take me past a few famous landmarks I hadn't planned on visiting but I couldn't miss the opportunity for a few snaps.
The centre of London was heaving with tourists and the daily workers of London. Cycling around parliament square I found traffic not the problem but the risk pedestrians were willing to take to tackle crossings. Most of the pedestrian crossings around the tourist spots are always over crowded and you could tell there is tension between the walkers and the slowly moving traffic trying to snake its way through London. Once past Westminster Bridge, the traffic had eased and it was literally a straight shot down the Thames. 'Gail' (the Garmin lady!) had taken me through Shoreditch and the back of Hackney where I accidentally found the Look Mum No Hands cafe, a famous little joint supplying the East London cycling community their daily commuting coffee. I would of stopped and sampled their delights but like Frodo in LOTR, I was on a mission (not to return a ring but to ride around one!).
Cutting through some industrial areas, the Olympic Stadium kept popping her head out in between the buildings. Issue numero dos; I was lost! 'Gail' was beeping at me because I found myself at the entrance of the ultra busy and non-cycling A12. After a few swipes on the system, my only option was to back track and I remember seeing a cycle way cutting up to the stadium and although it looked a bit barren, I could see the outline of the stadium in the background. Thankfully it spat me out on the south side of the park. Weirdly I had also stumbled across a film crew shooting someone a stunt man jumping from one of the bridges into the Waterworks River below. One of the security guards was reluctant to tell me what programme they were filming for, I managed to get out of him it was an East End based show, any guesses?!
I finally arrived at the home of Olympic glory, the Lee Valley Velopark. I paid my £5 to use the road circuit (didn't mind the price considering the local Hillindgon Race Circuit is free to use). As I made my way out on to the circuit, the few riders who I would be sharing my planned hour with were cycling in a anti-clockwise direction which meant there would be a b**** of a headwind on the back straight. As I was at the venue Bradley Wiggins was planning to smash the hour record, it would be only fitting if I did the same although I knew I had to save some energy to make it back especially as the headwind would be my extremely annoying buddy on the journey home. The track is approximately a mile long with a few dips which disrupts the tempo but with some winding corners which do test your handling skills if you're pushing it. I settled in and it was a very fitting image to have the velodrome observing your every pedal stroke, you get the feeling you are in the presence of something historic. If you have not visited the road circuit before, there is an option of an additional corner at the south side of the circuit so I alternated lap by lap by visiting this section. Coming off the back straight, the wind hits you and saps all your rhythm, even dropping down to the bars off the hood didn't really make much difference as I was working out where the other riders are on the circuit. I assumed these guys were local or avid users so it was a good test to see what gap I can keep or close through my hour. Coming up to the hour, a group of young riders no older than 10 was beginning their lesson with one of the instructors so pride and ego took hold over me on my remaining laps. I made sure I looked pro with my head down, legs spinning every time I sped past. They didn't know the legs were screaming but as Jens said, 'shut up legs!'.
Hour done! 21 laps of the circuit which roughly worked out 21 miles give or take. I treated myself to a cuppa and a banana upstairs in the velodrome cafe and watched a local track team take their turn on the legendary surface of this amazing arena. As I made my way to collect my bike from reception, it had dawned on me that despite having 'Gail' as my guide, I was slightly confused as to how to get out of the park. I thought I'd risk it and try to make my own way back through London and just follow the signs. Now in West London, we are not accustomed to the cycle super highways but I found myself on one, CS2. Only problem that when I was making my way through Mile End, this highway was still being built. Cue the roadworks and stationary traffic. When I finally reached the end of the of the construction, I hadn't a clue where I was but looking like Zeus and his Mount Olympus, the awe-inspiring skyscrapers of Canary Wharf beckoned me to venture through them. I must admit, I loved this part. There is something in being in this part of London where the money makes it way through makes you feel overwhelmed but impressed by its little microcosm which is the financial district.
It was at this point though I started to realise why cyclists get a bad name in London and why motorists are not their biggest fan. The headwind now was full on, no more cruising pace and my gels had been used up on the hour attempt. But like I reiterated earlier, I stop at traffic lights and respect the rules of the road because I respect my life. Following the Thames all the way to Putney, it was a bit of a drag and very stop-start as the amount of traffic lights you respectfully greet won't allow you to get a consistent rhythm going. It was at these moments I noticed the weaving city cyclists (some without helmets which is another bug bear, legal or not, I'd rather know my skull has an extra layer if the worst would ever happen!). They would take the risk of just getting through the traffic and onward to their final destination which if they weren't careful enough could easily be a reconstruction of the eerie 2000 horror film where death has designs for everyone. Today, death can keep its scrap book of doodles, I'm going home and going with everything in tacked.
A total of 66 miles I had covered through my city adventure. The city wasn't as bad as I thought it was. On a traffic friendly day, you could see so much of London by bike. I did though understand where the tensions lie between drivers and cyclists and it's the minority in both parties. I truly believe by changing one action of your own, you can change the action of another. Wouldn't that create a better world hey?! Beep, beep, beep...sod off 'Gail', you're home! Oh, the ankle bracelet?! Police car outside my house? Yeah I better go.....
'A bicycle ride around the world begins with a single pedal stroke.'