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Looking back at lockdown: Finding an escape on two wheels

Maria David
31 Jul 2020

With travel curtailed, experienced cyclists are rediscovering the joys of staying local while some people are discovering cycling altogether

In these times of coronavirus, bike rides as we know them have undergone changes. Club runs have been off-limits; for a period we could not ride with anyone else apart from someone from our household; for many, rides were limited in length in line with the Government guidance to exercise near our homes.

This has been a time to be creative about how we get in our biking fix.

During these extraordinary times, cycling has been invaluable for many people confined to their homes, no longer able to go to the gym, dealing with a sudden change of routine or no routine at all.

Furthermore, being able to get outdoors is beneficial for mental health. Surveys have shown that around three-quarters of people who take up cycling notice an improvement in their mental health.

Cycling has been one outdoor activity that many people have embraced, particularly given that it can take in interesting routes without you needing to travel far or be super fit. Being able to ride with others (albeit from the same household during the height of lockdown) also provides a social dimension, making the activity appealing.

I enjoyed a bit of gravel bike riding at this time as it was a way to get in training outdoors without travelling far or riding for long. Being in South London meant that my rides were mainly on that side of the river, going into the souther London boroughs, where the capital merges into the neighbouring counties of Surrey and Kent.

These local trails are not technical, and easily done on a gravel or cyclocross bike. As we were blessed with decent weather during the lockdown period, the trails were fast-flowing so the rides could be done quickly.

Below are detailed a couple of my favourite routes from a time when solo rides were the norm and whiling away a whole day just riding wasn't a safe or sensible option.

These rides are in my local area of South London but in most areas there are parks, small sections of woodland, common land or heaths with paths, where it is possible to do a decent, multi-surface circuit by bicycle. Grab an Ordnance Survey maps of your locality as these often reveal the best, otherwise hidden areas.

 

 

South London and Surrey borderlands

Shirley Hills and Selsdon Wood Nature Reserve

Situated three miles East and South of Croydon respectively, Shirley and Selsdon are residential areas with stretches of woodland and nature reserves. A network of bridleways connect these different beauty spots and lend themselves to short off-road spins.

From my base in Crystal Palace I reach the area via South Norwood Country Park, a park with a nature reserve and wetland centre, with numerous small trails. After crossing this area I reach Addiscombe, and pass through a small, though slightly technical woodland section at Pinewood.

As the woodland is set on a hillside and has a lot of tree roots to negotiate, I take care not to get it wrong and land up in someone’s back garden. This is an ideal area for honing one’s technical skills for cyclocross races.

Once I’m out of the woods (metaphorically rather than physically) I enter Addington Hills, commonly known as Shirley Hills. This area contains some woodland and open heathland with heather and gorse.

I stay mindful of the fact that cyclists can only ride on the roads around this green space, but not on the gravel paths.

Depending on the time I have, I usually like to stop and go to the viewpoint which affords some impressive views of Central London in the distance. On a clear day, the City of London and Docklands come clearly into view.

From Shirley Hills I cross the tramlines at Coombe Lane and take the drop to reach Croham Hurst, a short stretch of woodland that is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It has a principal bridleway composed of sand and pebble running downhill, until I am winched up to Selsdon’s best kept secret, Littleheath Woods.

Considering these are local residential trails, it's a bit of a rollercoaster!

Another tarmacked bridleway leads me to Selsdon Wood Nature Reserve, a National Trust green space and popular beauty spot known for its ancient woodland, flush with blackberries, fungi and nuts in the autumn.

At this point, depending on how fast you have ridden, or how much time is available it is possible to continue up through the Nature Reserve to reach the more challenging bridleways of Farleigh and Warlingham to eventually join the North Downs.

Instead, I make tracks by zooming down a bridleway to Addington, and use the bit of energy I have saved to tackle a steep gradient through Threehalfpenny Wood.

Finally at the top, I heave a big sigh as I breeze down a bridleway back to Shirley, from where the Crystal Palace transmitter comes into view, and I know that the route is in the home straight.

The ride is 28km, with around 275m of climbing. So it is enough to get a good workout, while still being doable in under two hours.

Places visited: South Norwood Country Park, Ashburton Playing field, Pinewood, Addington Hills, Croham Hurst, Little Heath Woods, Selsdon Wood Nature Reserve, Three Halfpenny wood, Millers Pond, Parkfields

 

South London and Kent borderlands

Keston Common and Fickleshole

This ride heads southeast, towards Bromley. From Crystal Palace the route passes through Beckenham Place Park, one of the largest council parks in South London.

The park dates back to the 1760s and was previously a golf course. However, a recent facelift has transformed this area into a leisure and culture facility with a network of gravel paths and woodland.

Given that the park undulates a lot, it lends itself to doing hill reps and skills practice, for those wanting to hone their cyclocross abilities. Indeed, Beckenham Place Park has been the venue for cyclocross races in the past.

From the park, the route goes through the genteel suburb of Beckenham, to reach Keston. Here I am faced with the first challenge of the ride, a steep climb through Hayes Common and West Wickham Common to arrive at Keston Green. Thankfully The Fox Inn provides a convenient spot to take a break if necessary.

Alternatively, continue through the nearby woods on a permissive bridleway through Keston Common to reach the ponds, where there is an ice cream van and a picnic site.

From there, a steep climb along a permissive bridleway takes me to the main road, where I have to keep my eyes peeled for the bridleway in a gap in the hedge across the road. Be mindful that the initial part of the bridleway is a steep descent with steps cut into the ground. They are fine if you are on a mountain bike – not so on a gravel bike!

The bottom section of the bridleway is fast, twisty singletrack which ends abruptly on Jackass Lane (I don’t pick the names of the roads around here!). Caution is needed as this road is very popular with local roadies who come flying down or even up the road on their club runs.

Crossing Jackass Lane takes me straight into Blackness Lane, and immediately the route is on a long bridleway that climbs steadily past farm fields to reach Fairchildes Farm and the White Bear Pub.

Part way along this bridleway there is a short but fast downhill along rutted, chalky terrain, which means I have to take it handy. Having no suspension means I get thrown around a little, though thankfully this section is only brief.

These bridleways intersect with various country lanes frequented by club road riders, and it’s nice to be in an area that feels largely dominated by the bicycle. Admittedly, it’s not the Surrey Hills or the Peak District but it is nevertheless a pleasure to have such scenic local loops within 30km of Central London.

Having The White Bear nearby makes for a convenient meeting point for all types of bike rider. After an optional drink, a bridleway next to the pub drops down very steeply only to climb on an equally testing gradient.

I have yet to do this descent and climb without being caught out in the wrong gear, so there is normally an embarrassing moment where I have to dismount from my bike and manually do the gear change.

After cresting the hill, which has slightly more grippy terrain than the descent, the route reaches Farleigh, where I pick up a very bumpy bridleway back to Forestdale and Addington. It goes through Frith Wood, behind another popular cyclocross venue, Frylands Wood.

I like to imagine myself being in the race and hope that I can replicate my acquired skills during the race. However, by the time race day comes round it is usually muddy and things go all Pete Tong for me!

The route home then takes me back to Gravel Hill and Addington Hills where my ride is the reverse of my other itinerary described above.

With 40km and 400m of climbing, this is a slightly longer and more testing ride than the previous route, though it can be shortened by returning home at Keston Ponds or Fairchildes Farm. To be honest, I find that once I am out, it is hard to cut short these rides though.

Places visited: Cator Park, Beckenham Place Park, Langley Park, Hayes Common, Keston Common, Fickleshole, Frith Wood, Addington Park, Addington Hills

Other options for short rides in and around South London

Wandle trail: West Croydon – Waddon – Beddington – Carshalton – Morden – Merton – Earlsfield – Wandsworth: a 20km-urban multiterrain cycle route through South London following the River Wandle, a tributary of the River Thames.

Banstead and Epsom Downs: Croydon – Banstead – Epsom Downs – Mogador Reigate Hill: The bridleways are undulating without anything extremely steep, though some paths can be narrow and overgrown in the summer. From here it is possible to continue along the North Downs Way either towards Dorking, or towards Caterham.

Waterlink Way and Lea Valley: Sydenham – Greenwich – Isle of Dogs – Olympic Park: A multi-terrain ride, with tarmacked traffic-free sections. It is flat, and mainly follows the River Pool, the River Ravensbourne, the Regents Canal and the Hertford Union Canal. The ride can be extended along the River Lee Navigation, to reach Epping Forest.

 

Rider’s ride

For my rides I mostly used the 2020 Canyon Grail WMN AL 7.0 gravel bike. This was a comfortable ride, helped by the women's-specific Selle Italia X3 Lady saddle and wide 40mm Schwalbe G-One tubeless tyres.

The bike arrived tubeless ready, and I was happy with that, knowing that most potential punctures along the way would repair themselves. It’s just good to have one less thing to worry about while on a ride.

At 9.4kg, the Grail is a manageable weight and moves along smoothly. In fact, I found it quite light to pick up, particularly during those moments where I had to carry the bike down some steps or when I had to wheel it up a steep trail.

The groupset is the gravel-specific Shimano GRX 810, which gives a range of 11-speed gears, so there’s a good range to cope with most of the undulating trails I encountered. The disc brakes gave me confidence on the tricky descents I took on.

Canyon boasts women's-specific geometry in its range of bikes, but with the Grail there is no difference between this and the equivalent size for men. The saddle is the only real difference.

That surprised me somewhat, but strangely enough I didn’t feel any less comfortable with this unisex geometry – be it in the handlebar width, the reach to the handlebars or the stack on the headset.

Canyon says that because of the dynamic, technical nature of gravel riding the unisex geometry does not negatively impact the handling of the bike for women in the way that it might do on a road bike.

From Canyon's research this set-up is an optimal fit for the range of requirements for female riders doing gravel riding. While the Grail has mounts for mudguards, it doesn’t have any for conventional bike racks.

That’s something that bothers me, as I like doing old-school cycle touring. For those into bikepacking I understand that Tailfin racks are compatible with the Canyon Grail.

Aside from that, it was a good ride, and I must say I do like the deep burgundy colour.