Once in a blue moon, and occasionally under the reaches of a white one, I get the urge to escape the magnetic pull of the armchair and go on a micro-adventure in promotion of the liberty of the individual. Such as it was that last Saturday I rode a 259 km (approx. 160 mile) lap around London on my Brompton bike on a route that took me on roads and tracks close to the path of London’s orbital motorway. I started pedalling about 6.30am and arrived back at the starting point at 5am the following morning. It was dangerous and hard work and I would recommend this ride to no-one. Having said that, I’m very glad I did it.
I had the idea to attempt this a while back, and my original thoughts were on doing this as my first long trip on a regular fixed-frame bike. However, as I’m still waiting for my custom bike frame to arrive from Condor (17 weeks and counting), and with autumn now underway (Winter drawers on as my mum would say), I decided to attempt it on my Brompton folding bike. It seemed like a fitting thing to do on a London bike.
In preparation, I Googled M25 on a bicycle and discovered that several people have done it before and had posted a route. The route starts out at the top in Potters Bar, and runs clockwise – which aligned nicely with the idea in my head. I used ridewithgps.com to re-plot the route so that I could then import it into the Garmin GPS unit on my bike. I picked points approximately 10km apart and then used ridewithgps to join the dots with what it thought was a good cycle route. Here is the map route of M25 by bicycle I made.
From this I also created a printed list of waypoints (postcodes, address and co-ordinates), so that if my satnav failed or the battery died we would be able to continue from point-to-point on my friend’s GPS unit. I printed two copies and put them in sandwich bags for protection against muck and rain.
I also got organised and made a packing list, which I thought might come in handy for future trips.
In the days preceding I ensured all my devices were charged, and I charged up some spare batteries. I fitted my Ergon GR2 grips which offer a couple of different hand positions – handy for long distances. I also pumped the Schwalbe Kojak tyres up to 105psi.
On the day
My alarm was set for 4.30am. I had packed most things the night before, so all I had to do was wake up, have some porridge and drive to Enfield to pick up my friend David at 5.30am. There is something rather nice about being up before everyone else, and listening to the shipping forecast and weather on Radio 4. The forecast was for a fine day – a risk of showers in the South West, but otherwise good.
I had used Google street view to find a suitable looking spot to start where I would be able to leave the car – this was the first and last waypoint on my list. As David was putting on his gloves he realised he had brought two right-hand gloves! By a stroke of luck I’d brought two pairs – one new pair from a previous ALDI sale, and an old pair in case I didn’t get on with the new ones. So that neatly solved that problem.
We set off at 6.19am and headed along some familiar Enfield roads. The bike felt good. This was actually the first time I’d used the Garmin satnav to provide me with directions. It was all going swimmingly well for an hour and then I missed a turning at a roundabout as the satnav said ‘take the second exit’ but it meant the third. Unfortunately it didn’t tell me that I’d gone wrong – it just went unresponsive. It took a few minutes to figure out the correct direction, but this was valuable time spent getting to know the satnav.
The first puncture of the day came after we had been cycling a few hours. David’s front tyre had taken a hit whilst we were cycling along country roads in Essex. These roads were really nice to cycle down – a very picturesque and enjoyable part of the ride. He patched the hole and added a bit of gaffer tape to the inside of the tyre and we moved on. This was the first time we had stopped for any length of time, and when we started again I could feel the muscles in my legs complaining gently that they weren’t used to this kind of workout.
The roads coming into Dartford were pretty grim, and the cycle route took us all around the houses, through Chafford Hundred railway station, into Lakeside shopping centre multi-storey car park, and then through a West Thurrock industrial estate. It was grim. We eventually reached the Essex Control Point – a hut on the North side of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. Cyclists get free transport over the Dartford Bridge – you just need to rock up and call for the guy in a Hi-Lux to come and pick you up. You are responsible for attaching the bike to the back of the car (in my case I folded it up and popped it in the back) – and they transport you over the river free of charge. They take something like 30 to 60 bikes over the river each day in this manner. We had about a 20 minute wait to be picked up.
From the other side of the river it didn’t take to long to work out how to join back up with the route, then after a bit more trundling we took our first proper break and sat outside a greasy spoon and had a sausage sandwich. As my drink bottles were now empty I popped into a newsagent to buy a bottle of energy drink and a litre of water. I’d brought two drinks bottles with me and having one filled with water and the other with energy drink proved a winning combo – I stopped a further 4 or 5 times during the course of the ride to do the same.
When we got going again I was noticing a problem with my left hand gear-shifter which operated the derailleur. It was becoming increasing stiff to operate, so much so that I almost had to use both hands to operate it. I already had a sticking plaster on my left index finger after a recent incident with a bread knife, and this wasn’t helping.
It wasn’t long after we’d cycled out of Dartford and into the rolling hills of South London that I got a puncture – front tyre, thankfully. I’d brought a spare tyre and some inner tubes, as well as a puncture repair kit, so I changed the tyre and inner tube for new ones. Whilst I did that, David patched the old tube. It had started raining moderately at this point and we’d take shelter in a tunnel. We waited a bit for the rain to stop before getting going again. A short while later our cycle route took us to a locked gate on private land – a ‘feature’ of the routing which was to happen a few more times. It was quite annoying as it took around 30 mins extra to then back track and re-route to find somewhere suitable to cycle. On another cycling trip I don’t think I would have minded so much, but for this trip I was always conscious that the route was already a long one.
When we reached Westerham, a coffee shop with outdoor seating beckoned. We had a sandwich and a gallon of coffee (a ‘medio’ – this coffee shop obviously shares cup sizes with the people selling drinks in cinemas). I took the opportunity to take my left hand gear shifter apart – chucked some oil in in and put it back together. This had the immediate benefit that it was now easy to move the shifter. Later on however, the derailleur would need adjustment. When I moved the shifter I’d have to wait a while for the chain to move over to the correct cog. I didn’t attempt correcting this on the day as I didn’t want to waste more time fiddling around. I thought better to put up with it than cause more delay and risk making things worse.
We were only 5 minutes out of Westerham when catastrophe struck. I was cycling about 30 yards ahead of David along the A25 when I heard a loud pop from behind. His rear wheel rim – a Mavic Open Pro – had suddenly fractured and split. It didn’t take long to figure out that this was irreparable – sadly he would have to go home. We used a phone to check for the nearest station and trains into London. Fortunately the incident occurred just 50 meters from a large hotel so he would be able to go in and order a cab to take him to the local station. He also made no deal of telling me that I shouldn’t wait around but should get a move on. He gave me his GPS unit, some lights and spare batteries, and I went on alone.
After some cycling along busy A roads I was pleased for the route to take me down some quieter roads. However, the route took me on to a very rocky trail path – I think this might have been the North Downs way. I ended up having to push my bike about half a mile near Caterham. Always conscius of the clock ticking, this isn’t what I wanted to be doing, but there was no easy way to know what the terrain was going to be like as I was riding. I should have done more route planning!
Not long after and I was back on more pleasant trails. Some of the routing was difficult to find but when I found myself cycling through someone’s farm it was national cycle path signs that reassured me I was going in the right direction.
It turned to dusk as I approached Reigate. In my head Reigate was a landmark – the halfway point. It wasn’t good to think about the fact that I’d set off before dawn and it was now dusk and I was only half way around, so I ignored the thought and just kept pedalling. I felt fine.
Not long out of Reigate I encountered a very steep slope not in my favour. Shortly after I got to the top I saw a sign pointing to Box Hill – a notoriously hilly part of South London favoured by masochistic cyclists. Once more I wish I’d paid more attention to route planning. Having said that, there were some lovely downhills for the next few miles.
I think it was around this point that I noticed a lot of rattling coming from my rear hub. I’d recently had a go at servicing it myself and it definitely sounded a lot more jangley than before – I put this down to switching from from grease to oil, but it is highly possible something had worked loose and needed tightening. Some gears sounded better than others, and freewheeling made the most noise. It was noisy but due to the remoteness of my situation I decided to put up with it.
My route took me on to the A3 for a few hundred meters. That was particularly unpleasant. Three lanes of traffic doing 80 miles an hour and not even a proper hard shoulder, and to make it worse it was now dark. This was the worst part of the ride.
I had my Brompton front light, Brompton rear light as well as lightskin seatpost rear light. These are all at the reasonably bright end of the scale for urban lights, but not really ideal for country roads at night. Around 50% or more of the roads I cycled down had no lighting whatsoever. The Brompton front light did admirably well, but a lot of the time I had to stare intently at the small patch of lit road in front of me. Potholes are a big deal for those with small wheels and it would be easy to miss something at night. This meant I had to go more slowly than I would have liked.
I wore a Ronhill running hi-vis vest on top of my Helly Hansen baselayer and short-sleeved cycling top. I was very conscious of the fact that the vest was brilliant for daytime use because of it’s colour, but I wasn’t happy that it had enough reflective panels. As a driver I know how much a difference these make at night to noticing cyclists. A lot of the roads I cycled along were quiet, fast roads. I could easily hear cars coming, but was pretty nervy that they wouldn’t be able to see me until the last second. I strapped a third red light to the back of the seatpost.
Around Langley / Iver I once again ran into issues using my satnav. The main problem was I sometimes needed to zoom out to get an understanding of the route, but then needed to zoom in again to know which exact turnings to take. Unfortunately the satnav was having a hard time doing this. I would press the zoom out button, wait 30 seconds for it to draw the roads, then wait longer for it to overlay my route. This wasn’t quick enough and for parts of the route that had a lot of turns, and progress was painfully slow.
My backup plan in case of physical / mental / mechanical breakdown would be to phone for a cab to take me to a Travelodge, or if really in trouble phone for a lift home. I’m very glad I didn’t have to do this, but knowing I had these options gave me comfort.
More issues with my route meant that it tried to take me through another closed cycle path, and then took me across a field. It felt quite odd to be in a remote field somewhere in the middle of the night on this mission to just keep on going. I still felt fine, but tiredness was inevitably creeping in. To get the full effect, switch all your room lights off so that it is completely dark and open the image on the right. I’m glad I didn’t come across anyone in places like these.
The rattling of my rear hub had got worse, and every so often a squeal would be emitted. This wasn’t good news. The rattling I could cope with, but the squeal told me something bad was happening. My options were limited. I was in the middle of nowhere on a Saturday night. My toolkit was also limited, so I just put the bike on it’s side under a lamppost, removed the Sturmey adjuster rod from the centre of the hub and poured in about 20ml of the lube. I put the rod back, adjusted it and got on my way. Unbelievably, this fixed both the rattling and the squeal, and the gear changes were good. This made me very happy.
After the fantastic Pinewood Studios and Black Park, but somewhere before Watford, my satnav and route planning were conspiring against me. The satnav was getting slower and slower to respond. Then the route took me to what looked like a farmers field, with a wooden gate and a style to get in and a sign saying no cycles. And there was no lighting whatsoever. The satnav had also switched itself off a couple of times. It was getting ridiculous but I managed to maintain a sense of humour about the situation and also resolved to do something about it. I made a decision to abandon the pre-planned GPS route and instead start using my list of waypoints. I switched the Garmin off and on (this took about 5 minutes) and typed in a waypoint postcode. It transpired that the route it picked was good (it didn’t try to take me across the stile) and the satnav became responsive. I think the issues before were purely due to the size of the route it was using.
Somewhere near Watford I had a second puncture. This time it was the rear tyre, which on the Brompton is a bit of a chore. Fortunately the puncture occurred when I was cycling through a built up area with street lights. I’ve been through the process a few times before, so I took a deep breath and got on with the task of changing it.
The rest of the cycling was fairly uneventful but never without interest. A nice chat with some lads at an all night garage and an opportunity for more energy drink and re-fuelling.. cycling around numerous late night revellers shouting ‘bicycle man’.. seeing a farmer putting out his farmer’s market signs in the very early hours.. listening to owls hoot and seeing one fly in front of me… and occasionally catching pairs of eyes reflecting off my front light from within the hedgerows.
When I got to the penultimate waypoint I suddenly had the feeling I was actually going to make it all the way round. In my head the 15km to go seemed like no distance at all. Those last 15km still took a while to clock off though. When I reached my car at around 5am it seemed like I’d been gone for days. I’d left some clean dry clothes, and more energy drink in the car – this was good planning. I gathered myself and headed home.