Rob Saunders was born and raised in London. A road rider living in the heart of the city who worked for the best part of a decade to bring the Olympic Games to town. Here he writes about his love for a city that bleeds with diversity, history and creativity.
The city’s shape is always shifting. London to me is the centre of an ever-changing universe. I was born here, in Islington, and am still amazed by the place four decades later. It’s a lattice of communities and neighbourhoods all of which are formed by religion, war, immigration, exports, imports, crime, and culture. The whole world is here.
It’s the same with architecture and infrastructure. The combination of new and old buildings side-by-side in such a relatively compact city combined with the wider thoroughfares and narrow winding streets give it that unique pattern, and rhythm. Today the landscape is constantly shifting as more buildings are erected and others pulled down and rebuilt. New inhabitants move in and others move on to other parts of the city, moving through the helix of time and space at an intensity and rate of progression that’s fascinating to watch.
The north/south divide of the city is marked by the snaking River Thames and connected by historic, ornate and more modern bridges that give some of the best views in the centre of the city. Over time I’ve witnessed the enclaves further out get polished and rebranded as ‘villages’, but for me the cornerstones of iconic London and its famous landmarks stay resolute. Peter Ackroyd, in his comprehensive history of the city – ‘London’ – describes the parks of London as the lungs of the city, its streets and byways like veins. And it’s perhaps these parts of the body of London that, as a road rider, I enjoy the most.
Riding and living near Regents Park, a ‘Royal Park’ frequented by road riders, is a privilege. My apartment gives me a sweeping view over the West End with the hum and holler of street bustle. The park, blueprinted by architect John Nash, has a circular design, made up of a 1km (inner) and 4.3km (outer) road loops. Having clocked countless miles round here; each straight, corner, camber and ripple in the road is etched in my mind and legs, and I naturally follow the same line on every lap (give or take who I’m riding with).
To me it’s like a theme park. The American Ambassador’s house with its armed police guards, the huge golden dome of the Mosque, and giraffes swaying around in the grounds of Regent’s Zoo. It has its own unique motion, and the park itself is magical with rose gardens, boulevards, cafes and waterways. If you live here it’s easy to forget how amazing London is for parks and green spaces. In recent years the volume of traffic, in particular cyclists, has increased, all jockeying for a slot on the road and locked into the virtual race in their minds. Groups, clubs and teams have all adopted the outer circle as their playground, utilising every inch of road to train, simulate racing or just simply roll and talk.
Speed is the badge of honour in the park right now, which is represented by every tribe wanting a foot in the game – tricked up track bikes, vintage racers, hybrid dredges, the carbon brigade, and ‘Boris bike’ folk all vying for that slice of tarmac. Whether it’s the peacefulness of laps at dawn to running the gauntlet in amongst these tribes at rush hour, the park always offers a nice distraction.
The cutting edge of tailoring is right here where I live. The city is unmatched when it comes to having a suit made, with a huge number of tailors and designers plying their trade. Savile Row is the bespoke tailoring mecca, with its vaults of patterns and fabrics established over more than 200 years. But it’s not just here you’ll find artisan cutters. London boasts ‘men of the cloth’ all over the city.
The suit is the ultimate prize in style. Just look at Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck, JFK. Today London continues to preserve this artform and I personally admire the sporting heritage of Norton & Sons, Tom Baker the purveyor of the ‘London Cut’ and Nick (Spencer) Hart for his modern aesthetic and contemporary flair. Tommy Nutter is perhaps the man responsible for reinventing the craft in the 1960s, but classic lines will always stay on trend. Walking along the narrow paving of Jermyn Street, where you can find yourself both brogues and bowler hats, you’ll find traditional emporiums with a wide-ranging clientele that reflects the desire for heritage and quality.
I love the community vibe of Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury. It’s a street full of independent traders who uphold the ‘artisan’ approach to retailing their wares and services despite the ever increasing invasion of the corporate chains on our high streets. From small coffee outlets, the delicious Basque and Andalusia dishes of Cigala, to the cool independents like Folk and Darkroom. It’s a place I feel at home in and continues to keep the London spirit alive.
Early morning and late at night is best for riding. The lure of traffic free roads and the quietness of the city is worth the alarm call and associated sleep deprivation later in the day. Heading north up the eerily quiet outer circle, the only movement is wildlife, a fox lurking on the pavement or chirping birds overhead. Primrose Hill beckons and is the first of a sequence of ramps that lift me up and out of the city. You rise up to the top of Hampstead Heath, a short downhill burst and I’m heading north through the suburbs, delivery drivers passing me the other way, neighborhoods stirring as the sunlight emerges. The destination varies – whether travelling north and east to Hertfordshire and Essex tundra or south and west to the hills of Kent and Surrey, the network of roads, lanes and pathways provide a peaceful gateway at this time of day.
London has endless landmarks and iconic sites, but it’s the less prominent and often hidden places that seem to stimulate my imagination. Uncovering small roads, back paths and footpaths is the best aspect of riding through this great metropolis. One example is a road I’ve found up through the grounds of Kenwood House in Hampstead: the road sweeps left, you find a gravel footpath, rise up and look right and on a clear day you’re met with a spectacular sight of London below. I would perhaps never see this without the bike. It’s made me closer to London somehow, giving me the opportunity to explore and escape the regular bustle whilst remaining rooted to the city.