Top tips to get on your bike and enjoy cycling in the city

Cyclists crossing Westminster Bridge in London with  Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament behind. People are walking on the pavement
Cyclists crossing Westminster Bridge in London (c) tirc83

Dr Madeleine Morris, Research Associate at the Grantham Institute, shares her advice on getting comfortable on two wheels.

As we emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, the government is encouraging people across the UK to embrace active travel. For those who live in towns and cities, cycling is a great way to stay connected to our friends, family and the activities we enjoy. Looking ahead, it could also be the best way to get to school or work.

As someone who only started cycling in London in their mid-twenties, I understand that it’s not always a case of just jumping on a bike and pedalling to work. However, hopefully I’ve already convinced you that traveling by bike has a multitude of benefits – and not just for you, but for those around you, and for the planet. So, here are some tips from my own experience that might help alleviate any worries you may have. 

Learn how to cycle on the road

Even if you have a driving licence and are comfortable on the road in a car, it is a different experience on a bike. There are specific rules to follow and different aspects to consider. Gaining confidence cycling on the road is important, as it will mean you ride more predictably; this makes it safer for both you and those you are sharing the roads with.

I had never cycled on a road before I moved to London and the thought of doing so was daunting. Before I attempted commuting on my own, I signed up for one-to-one training sessions through a scheme run by my local council. Many of these exist across London so check for one near you (most are free!). Over two sessions, my instructor went over best practice, including road positioning, signalling and negotiating junctions. They also helped me plan a route to work, and cycled there and back with me, which was hugely helpful.

Hopefully it will not be long before it is safe to resume these schemes, but in the meantime, there is lots of great information on best practice online. If you’re at Imperial or around South Kensington, there are some great resources on active travel, including on cycling safety, here.

Take some time to plan a route that suits you

Commuting, especially in London, is often about getting to and from work as quickly as possible, because the journey is usually unpleasant. Cycling allows you to design a route to your destination that you can actually enjoy. Decide what your top priority is. Getting to work in as little time as possible? Or avoiding main roads (and the pollution associated with them)? Does a scenic route sound appealing? Hopefully, as cities become more cycle-friendly, you’ll be able to hit more than one of your priorities in one route – direct and car-free, perhaps?

I will happily add on five or ten minutes to my commute if it means my route is enjoyable – for me that means green space and interesting sights (as well as avoiding hills!). My previous commute took me across Westminster Bridge, past Buckingham Palace and through three Royal Parks. I enjoyed my journey to and from work, as time spent in green space always lifts my mood.

There are lots of websites and apps that know the dedicated cycle routes and will help you plan one that suits you. My current favourite is CycleStreets (UK-wide, but also with localised versions). It gives three options of getting from A to B depending on whether I want the fastest, quietest, or most balanced route, and it can be used for navigating while you’re on the move.

Test the route before you commute

If, like me, you lack an internal sat-nav system, not knowing the directions can be a source of anxiety when on the road. I found it helpful to test out my chosen route on a weekend when I had no time restrictions. I’m also lucky enough to have a lovely Grantham Institute colleague who was willing to cycle to work with me so that I could learn the route (thank you, Simon!).

Picture of Simon and Madeleine in front of the Serpentine in Hyde Park
As a bonus, the route was quiet enough for us to have a good chat on the way in, and stop for a photo of Hyde Park looking ethereal under an early-morning haze.

Now that I’m more confident on the roads, I use a handle-bar mount for my phone and a navigation app for routes I’m not familiar with.  Alternatively, you could keep your phone in a pocket/bag and listen to directions through a single earphone.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a bike, or the gear to go with it

A high-spec road bike is not necessary for most commutes. I bought mine (a ‘hybrid’, i.e. with flat handlebars and narrow tyres) second hand for about £130 and it’s done me well for over five years. Servicing your bike doesn’t need to come at a prohibitive cost, either. Check for local ‘Dr Bike’ sessions for free on-the-spot bike checks and minor repairs. There are, however, a few safety-items that you shouldn’t skimp on – a good helmet is essential, as are bike lights and a bike lock.

If you do want a new bike, your employer may offer the Government-backed Cycle to Work scheme, which allows you to get a loan to cover the cost of a bike and any additional equipment (helmet, lights, locks, even clothing) as a tax-free benefit. This means that the overall cost will be lower and you’ll be able to spread repayments out over several months, so there is no prohibitively large upfront payment.

Wear what you’re comfortable in

If you’ve ever been to more cycle-friendly countries (like the Netherlands or Denmark), you might have noticed that most people tend to cycle everywhere in ‘normal’ clothes. In the UK there’s a strange assumption held by many that to ride a bike you must be a cycling enthusiast clad head to toe in the latest high-tech gear. But this isn’t at all true; as long as your clothes are comfortable and are relatively fitted (just enough that they won’t pose a hazard by catching in anything), they are fine to cycle in. Leave the full Lycra to the pros.

As we adapt to life after the COVID-19 health crisis, we must make sure we don’t exacerbate existing health problems – like those caused by air pollution and physical inactivity – or undo the progress we’ve made towards a net zero future by swapping public transport for private cars. Embracing active travel in our daily lives is a no-regrets option that helps us find a ‘new normal’ and simultaneously makes us – and the planet – healthier and happier.

To find out more about the benefits of walking and cycling, check out: Active travel: good for body, mind and the environment.

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