Heading off-road in the capital
Looking to venture off-road in 2021 but not sure there is good gravel near you? Even in the biggest city in the UK, there is plenty of gnarly riding to be had
To me, London is the greatest city on earth, from the royal parks to the pearly queens, the boutique coffee shops of Fulham to the greasy spoons of Bow. It’s the city that gave us mod culture and punk rock; garage and grime; Bowie and Adele; Chas and Dave; David Beckham and Bradley Wiggins.
I am biased, though. My dad got into Genes Reunited a few years back and traced our family tree all the way to the 1600s. He found that in that time none of our ancestors had been born outside the south London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth, let alone the capital.
In fact, when I was born in Gravesend in 1994, I was the first in the lineage of Robinsons to enter this world outside of London in over 300 years.
So it’s unlikely that you’ll find me saying a bad word about this intoxicating city, even when it comes to riding a bike. Sure, it’s not the cycling utopia that is Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but it’s constantly improving.
And it’s not just hacking down the cycle superhighway for the commute or circling Richmond or Regent’s Park where the good riding is to be found either. It turns out London has some pretty incredible gravel riding too.
The new normal
It’s July and we are slowly finding our way out of the most insane five months any of us have likely experienced in our lives. The coronavirus pandemic shackled us into a lockdown, the freedoms and independence we once took for granted pulled from beneath our feet.
As I wait outside Charing Cross station to meet Tom, my companion for this 85km spin around south London’s labyrinth of ‘hidden’ gravel, it’s still very obvious things are far from back to ‘normal’ – faces are behind masks, there’s the clear smell of sanitiser and for a Wednesday morning in the heart of the city, it is eerily quiet.
Tom is a born and bred Brummie who originally relocated to London for a life in finance but gave it all up to open a cycling-friendly cafe, the Four Boroughs, in Crystal Palace.
‘If it wasn’t for the Government’s furlough scheme I’m not sure we’d have made it,’ he says as we pedal past Downing Street. For Tom, this has been one of the most testing periods in his life, and as with so many of us it was cycling that provided the necessary escape, both mentally and physically.
I have purposely plotted this ride through the Ethelred Estate, the block where my mum was raised in Kennington, not just because this is a quiet cut-through from central London to the roads south but because it would allow me a brief moment with my aunt Anne, even if it was just seeing her on her balcony in the block of flats where she lives.
From her vantage point you can see the famous Lambeth Walk. These estates, much like those in the surrounding areas of Elephant & Castle, Brixton and Peckham, were based upon the architectural concept of Unité d’habitation, modernist housing developed in the 1920s by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, aka Le Corbusier.
He believed these prefab concrete jungles – built by stacking two-storey maisonettes on top of one another and connecting them via suspended walkways – represented the ideal way to fit more people into the same square footage.
From the Lambeth Walk we sneak out of Kennington, past the Oval cricket ground and down Brixton Road into Brixton itself. Rolling by the mural of local boy David Bowie, we skirt past Electric Avenue of Eddie Grant fame, its vibrant market shaped by decades of Caribbean influence.
We then sweep by the Gresham Road, which once hosted a namesake pub that would be frequented by whichever music acts were playing the Academy opposite (as well as my dad and late grandad) throughout most evenings in the 1980s.
Heading past Brockwell Park where, rumour has it, Adele spent her youth writing most of her debut album 19 on warm summer evenings, we make sure to dive in for a quick lap of its weathered BMX track, just for a laugh, before shooting out into the quaint area of Herne Hill and the posh Dulwich avenues beyond.
It is after Dulwich and at 17km in that we hit our first section of gravel, an amuse-bouche that cuts through Crystal Palace – on one side its mighty transmission tower, on the other its Grade II-listed 166-year-old dinosaur sculptures.
Short and smooth, the driveway-esque gravel leads us further south and through South Norwood’s Country Park, over a precariously placed tram line and into the infectiously fun terrain I had promised Tom at the beginning of the day.
The speed with which London’s scenery can change still never ceases to amaze me. We are barely 10 miles from the Houses of Parliament and yet we seem worlds away. Unité d’habitation no more, it’s all 1950s semi-detached housing broken up with tree-lined high streets and the odd ancient wood.
The amount of green land in Greater London is truly vast and, with it remaining largely untouched, there are plenty of gravel cut-throughs ripe for exploration and to help us escape further south into Surrey and Kent.
Reaching the end of a fairly nondescript residential road called Oak Avenue we hop onto a curb and dip immediately through a small opening in a wall of trees guarding the end of the street.
Entering Threehalfpenny Wood, the path remains narrow but compact. We twist and turn, inverting our elbows to avoid the lingering stinging nettles on either side and ducking to avoid bumping our heads on low branches.
The path widens as we head further into the woods, allowing us to push on and pick up more speed, especially when the gradient starts to drop as we loop back down towards the road.
A brief crossing of Kent Gate Road – named because at one point it was the primary road that took you from south London into Kent – and we’re back at it, this time churning our gears up across New Addington and into Firth Wood Climb.
I say we, although Tom at this point has disappeared up the path to set the third fastest ever time up the climb on Strava while I roll through a minute and a half later.
It’s fine though, because what goes up must come down and, after avoiding the flying golf balls being pinged across Farleigh golf course and skimming past a pack of llamas that are as alarmed to see us as we are them, the byway below us falls away.
Our tyres scatter loose rocks in all directions, like corn popping in a pan, as we fly along the trail at ever-increasing speed.
The descent into Woldingham Golf Club is frighteningly fast and the sheer drop to my left is enough for the heart to skip a beat or two. But it is also arrow-straight, so I decide to trust my bike-handling skills and let go of the brakes, allowing myself to plummet towards the bottom with the kind of sense of fun you used to feel as a child.
Ups and downs
The chalky ridge that forms the North Downs spans from Farnham in Surrey all the way to where land meets sea at Vera Lynn’s white cliffs in Dover. The name Downs is derived from the Old English ‘dun’, which means hill, and anybody who has ridden around these parts will be able to vouch for just how lumpy the terrain is.
They’ll also be able to vouch for the fact that exposed patches of chalk are treacherous to ride on if it’s even the slightest bit damp.
Luckily today the trails are bone dry and we can skip along without a second’s thought for any potential loss of grip, but in the wet I can imagine some of these polished white surfaces would be as slick as ice, making it a far more technical affair.
Tarmacked roads that soar (albeit briefly) into double-digit gradients are frequent in these parts, and rest assured – the more direct gravel paths that weave up and down the North Downs Way rise just as sharply.
As we negotiate our way across the crest of the Downs, we become accustomed to regularly having to wrench our bikes into their lowest gears before switching gears both physically and mentally at the top to tackle the precarious descents that follow.
There are other challenges too. The reasonably steep climb through the ironically named Happy Valley is made that touch more challenging thanks to its lopsided, off-camber path, while the descent from the Kenley Aerodrome is made that bit more technical by having to negotiate a group of school kids out on mountain bikes.
I can’t help but sense they were watching our every move, hoping for one of us to make a mistake and crash. I’m almost expecting to hear boos when we afford them no such spectacle. We continue across a flat stretch of road and through the cow fields that guard Woldingham Catholic School for Girls. Our legs have now dispatched 20km of constantly changing parcours.
I should have known better. All self-respecting fish and chip shops shut throughout the afternoon so I’m cursing as we pull up at Salisbury’s Fish Bar in Whyteleafe at 2.30pm to find its doors closed. With less than 20km left to ride, the chippy being shut is not too much of a nightmare but it would have been the perfect treat after our battle with the North Downs Way.
Instead, we settle for some cheese and ham paninis and a can of Coke from the Whyteleafe Cafe. We also treat ourselves to a raspberry sour beer from the neighbouring Radius Arms micropub. Not the ideal riding fuel but who can resist?
From Whyteleafe we have a maze of off-road routes to choose from to reach our finishing destination of the Four Boroughs cafe in Crystal Palace. The particular path we opt for is heavily covered in foliage and, thankfully, pretty flat.
In fact the trees have grown in such a way as to create a stunning natural archway that makes you feel as if you’re riding down a natural wedding aisle created for a particularly outdoorsy couple.
The archway is doubly appreciated for the shade it affords us from the beating sun. The going is smooth and dog-walkers mercifully non-existent as we cut through Baker Boy Lane and Selsdon Wood back into the bustling suburbs of London.
The last section of gravel before home comes in the form of a relaxing descent through Shirley Heath. By this time in the afternoon the temperature is lower, and we weave through the final alleyways of South Norwood and to the bottom of Crystal Palace’s brutally steep residential roads, their sharpness given away by the smell of clutch eminating from the rat run traffic.
After one final push, we crest onto the high street and right up to the front door of Tom’s Four Boroughs cafe for a celebratory beer to mark the day’s riding.
Usually at this point on a Cyclist ride, I bid adieu to my day’s riding partner and switch my mind to the logistical tapestry of getting myself and the photographer back home. But with this ride having taken place right on my doorstep, a five-minute pedal to the local station and 20-minute train journey later, I’m turning the key in the door and popping on the kettle. Bliss.
Chart our route through South London’s secret gravel
To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/or4/london. From Charing Cross, head south over Westminster Bridge and down the A23 until you reach Brixton. Turn left through Brockwell Park and cut through Dulwich to Crystal Palace, where you’ll meet the Anerley Road. Turn right into South Norwood Country Park, negotiating the many off-road paths until you reach Woldingham Golf Club and then join the North Downs Way.
Head west on the North Downs Way before turning off at Reigate Hill Golf Club, travelling north via Kenley Aerodrome and Selsdon Woods. Cut through Shirley Heath to reach South Norwood and eventually Belvedere Road that leads you back to the finish in Crystal Palace.
The rider’s ride
Bamboo Bicycle Club Gravel Build, £445 (frame only), £3,190 as tested, bamboobicycleclub.org
Yep, that’s right: I rode 85km around the rutted tracks and bridleways of south London on a bike made from bamboo. And as it turned out, this was the perfect weapon for it.
Being constructed of unidirectional vascular bundles, the stiffness of natural bamboo is on par with that of man-made carbon fibre so it is equally ideal for making bike frames as the ubiquitous black stuff.
Whether it was sprinting or climbing steep ascents, the frame felt stiff enough to deliver a lively ride feel. Furthermore, bamboo’s fleshy lignin inner offers the frame a natural dampening too, meaning there’s no need for comfort solutions such as front suspension or flexy seatposts.
This build, by London-based Bamboo Bicycle Club, is specced to be pushed to the limit. The Shimano GRX 1x setup never missed a shift, and ultra-wide 46cm Thompson Dirt Drop handlebars were a welcome addition for extra control up front.
The 47mm WTB Byway tubeless tyres on Reynolds ATR 650b rims offered the perfect combination of cushioning and grip, and still rolled along appreciably well on tarmac.
Despite the structural similarities bamboo is heavier than carbon so the overall build is not the lightest. However, the aplomb with which this custom-made frame tackles gravel is sufficient that I could forgive its slightly sluggish feel on asphalt climbs. Oh and if you’re wondering, Grus means ‘gravel’ in Swedish.
Our guide to London’s culinary gems en route
There’s no better start to a day (or ride) than a full English from a greasy spoon. And with today starting at Charing Cross station, the Breadline Cafe on the adjacent Duncannon Street is just the place. The perfect fry-up should only be washed down with a cup of tea. No barista coffees.
For lunch, a detour to Arments on Walworth Road for an authentic taste of proper London pie and mash is a great option. Make sure you have cash as no self-respecting pie and mash shop takes cards, plus get there early as the pies are fresh daily, and when they’re gone they’re gone.
Don’t listen to what they say up north, the best fish and chips are found south of the Thames. Fact. Ken’s Fish Bar on Half Moon Lane in Herne Hill happens to be Guardian food critic Jay Rayner’s favourite chippy and it’s one of the best you’ll find.