Every morning groups of cyclists gather to ride the park’s Outer Circle. As cycling gains momentum in the city, more circuits might flourish:
It’s half past seven on a mild October morning, just getting light, and I am waiting with my bike at one of the most tranquil spots in central London, under a canopy of trees on the Inner Circle. Hidden away inside Regent’s Park, the Inner Circle is a circular road where my cycling friends and I are to rendezvous before setting off for an hour’s training.
“Training” might be overstating it. Right now I am not in training for anything, nor to my knowledge are the others – Lewis, Charlie, and Graham. We are here to play.
I see Lewis approaching. Pretty soon we are quorate and the ride can begin. The four of us head to the Outer Circle – Regent’s Park’s perimeter road, measuring a little under three miles and for many years now an unofficial cycle training route. A wide thoroughfare where greenery abounds and vehicles and traffic lights are relatively scarce, it is a unique facility in central London, which amounts to a secret cycling idyll.
Not that it’s so secret any more. I started making bike trips to Regent’s Park more than 10 years ago. In those days, cycling of this kind was a relatively obscure subculture. Now it’s mainstream and in pre-work hours the Outer Circle is thronged with men and women on two wheels.
Pay a visit any time between 6.30am and 8.30am and you’ll see us – dozens and dozens of Lycra-clad figures on our not-inexpensive road bikes, riding mostly in groups, some as big as 20- or 30-strong. We aren’t going anywhere. We’re riding the circuit, getting our heart rates up, feeling the speed, revelling in the sensation, trying to improve, or just stay fit. The ride is an end in itself. It serves no outward purpose. It’s the very essence of play.
“Regent’s is an arena,” is how Graham sees it, “replicating in miniature the aspects of a much bigger ride.” It has fast stretches, corners, changing vistas, even a climb – the drag up the east side when travelling anti-clockwise, the direction the vast majority of cyclists choose because it is the safer, inside option.
The south east corner of the Outer Circle – the point closest to the Euston Road – is, for my group, where the lap begins. Then it’s up the east side drag – you can really hurt yourself on that stretch – before the road flattens and bends to the left and takes you past London Zoo, then dead straight and flat for about 500 metres through a long left-hander past the US ambassador’s residence, Winfield House, and descending to the Regent’s Park mosque. The final stretch passes the top of Baker Street, runs parallel with Marylebone Road and then it’s back to where you started.
How fast was that one, you wonder? You won’t know until you’ve checked your Strava tracking app at the end of the ride. What you do know, as Graham says, is that the park is beautiful and there is camaraderie in the group. As with the parkour phenomenon of urban running, in which the obstacles of the built environment are turned to advantage, so it is with cycling and Regent’s Park. The Outer Circle wasn’t laid out with cyclists in mind. We discovered it, we saw its potential, we shaped it for our purposes, turned it into our playground.
The game we invented has its rules. Strangers hook up all the time. My group will jump on to the back of other groups. Other cyclists will jump on to the back of us. Most of us reckon we know how to conduct ourselves riding in tight groups, which is much the most effective way to ride at speed. No random braking, maintain your line, overtake smoothly, do your turn at the front. Or if you don’t want to do a turn on the front – if the pace is just too high – then stay on the back.
The way that one can coexist with people one doesn’t know – in close proximity, in a state of mutual cooperation, mutual dependency – is what raises Regent’s to the level of social experiment. I will latch on to someone’s wheel and for a few minutes we are as one, this stranger and I, until one of us drops off, or a bigger group forms or, more prosaically, someone’s time is up and they have to go to work. Partings are generally unspoken but from time to time there’ll be a “thanks” or a “nice work”.
Another rule is don’t jump red lights. The red-light jumpers aren’t “one of us”. They’ll be the commuter cyclists. Even though nearly all of us are going on to work afterwards, we are not commuter cyclists. Not for the duration of our Regent’s Park session, anyway. We occupy a separate realm. On one of the very rare occasions when I witnessed “one of us” jumping a red light, the offender got a telling-off from a fellow cyclist. The dream is of a clear round in which the five sets of lights – three of them pelican crossings – are all green. It rarely happens.
Regent’s Park is a kind of cycling utopia. It’s not like cycling anywhere else in London. But could that utopia spread? The future of London travel can only involve more cycling and less driving – or at least less driving by human beings, which itself must make cycling safer and more attractive. Project forward 10, 20, 50 years and only one scenario seems possible – a London turned into a fully fledged cycling city.