General Advice for Cycling England
It's probably a general rule of life that things are never quite what you expect. My expectations about cycling are based on my experiences in the United States, and I discovered in two cycling trips in England that things there were often different and surprising. After my recent trip cycling mostly on the National Cycle Paths in England I made my own list of the points that I would make to someone planning a cycling trip there. This advice is intended for people outside the UK, as I'm sure that UK citizens would know much more about cycling in their country than I would. However, they wouldn't see the cycling through the eyes of a foreigner to their country. So as a foreigner to England, here's my own list of advice and surprises.
1. It will rain, so be prepared.
I suppose this is obvious to anyone with any experience of England. The image of Londoners with their umbrellas is a familiar one. I often notice that the travel agencies in London all have pictures of sunny tropical beaches in their windows, contrasting with the frequent gloom that hangs over that city. The weather forecast in England is often the single word "unsettled." Moreover, weather is a very local phenomenon. It may be raining in one part of town and sunny in another. As a cyclist you need not only good rain gear, but a good rain attitude.
There is some good news here. The rain is often gentle and transient, and the sun not far behind. The country is green and fertile. And the sky has character. You don't have the deep blue featureless sky of, say, Arizona, but instead an ever-changing pagaent of beautiful clouds that seems quintessentially English.
One piece of advice about equipment -- be sure that your valuables are wrapped in a plastic bag or waterproof container. I thought that my handlebar bag was waterproof. It wasn't. I ended up with an airline ticket that had melted and a passport that was limp and crumpled.
2. It will be cooler than you expect.
In the heat of summer in the United States you might go to England with skimpy cycling attire and tee-shirts for the evening. Check the temperatures, though, and you'll see that you will probably need a jacket. However, it can be hot also, so you need to be prepared for both.
3. You will make much slower time on the bike than you expect.
If you think like me, you probably believe that you can average at least 10 miles per hour on a bike. So you may believe that you can finish a 40 mile trip in about four hours. Not so in my experience. On day trips near my home in New Jersey I usually average somewhere between 11 and 13 miles per hour for the moving average speed (average speed when the bike is moving). However, in my recent trip on the National Cycle Paths in England we only averaged 8.0 mph for the moving average. Moreover, the average speed for the trip, including stops during the cycling day, was only 4.9 mph. So that same 40 mile trip actually took us a little over 8 hours -- a full day's ride.
Why so much slower? About half of the cycling on the paths we followed was off-road. We cycled on muddy paths through forests and alongside rivers. We walked our bikes through farmer's fields. We clumsily navigated gates that didn't want to let us through. In towns we were often requested to dismount and walk bikes across intersections. There was a lot of stopping and starting, which always eats into the moving average.
As for the overall average of 4.9 mph, including stops -- well, we made a lot of little stops. We did very little touring during the day, and we seldom stopped for a full lunch. But there were frequent stops to take pictures, to make adjustments to the bikes or equipment, and for traffic.
4. You will get lost.
Not only will you go slower than you expect, but even worse, some of that cycling will be in a wrong direction. Count on it. In our recent trip, we were prepared not only with the official Sustrans cycle maps but with GPSs preprogrammed with the tracks for those paths. We had studied the paths, and we think we're two reasonably intelligent adults. We still got lost several times.
The National Cycle Paths are generally well marked. The Sustrans maps are excellent. Still, there are ambiguities. Signs are sometimes missing. Sometimes they are obscured and easy to miss. On a number of occasions the path signs disagreed with the Sustrans maps. Sometimes we came to an intersection in the middle of nowhere with no signs at all. Sometimes the Sustrans indicated we should traverse a farm field, but there was no obvious path. And don't forget we had those GPS!
The Ordnance Survey Maps are wonderful. They have incredible detail and elevation contours. However, it's not always obvious where you are on the map. The worse problem, though, is that they are expensive and cover only a small area, perhaps 20 miles on a side. You may find that for a single day's trip you need four Ordnance Survey maps to cover the route -- that's about $40. And you spend all day folding and unfolding and arguing about them.
I really recommend the GPS. We took Garmin eTrex Legends and preprogrammed them with the cycle paths. On the street portions of the trip they were deadly accurate. We just followed the arrow on the GPS and never got lost. Unfortunately, on the off-road portions it's hard to preprogram the exact route, as there's no correspondence with existing computerized road maps.
5. Stay off the "A" roads.
It's hard to tell from maps which roads are bike-friendly and which aren't. Generally speaking, the roads designated with an "A" are major highways which should be avoided. Some of them have bike paths alongside the highway, but you can't count on it. Even if there is a cycle lane, you breathe fumes and the constant rush of traffic makes the experience less than enjoyable. There isn't much scenery to enjoy either.
Some of the "B" roads aren't good either. Take the "B" roads that have four digits as the most secondary roads. Many of these roads are devoid of traffic and make for delightful cycling experiences. There is, however, a tradeoff. These roads rarely go straight from town to town, so you cycle extra miles. Also, they are almost always more hilly than the main highways.
6. Motorists are courteous to cyclists, but don't count on it.
Most motorists give cyclists a lot of room and are considerate, but even on the most obscure back roads you encounter speeders that carelessly brush close by. Even England has its share of crazy and suicidal drivers. You're never really safe.
7. There will be more traffic in the towns than you expect.
I see a small town on the map and I imagine that I can cycle leisurely down the main street. Why am I surprised that time after time the approach to small towns is filled with dangerous roundabouts and challenging traffic? And at the next town I'm surprised yet again. On the maps they don't look so big, and the travel guide books describe them as delightful small towns. But in reality there are lots of cars and impatient drivers. It's just the way it is.
8. And finally -- stay left!
At all times think left. Usually it is easy to convert, but every now and then when crossing an intersection or restarting your instinct goes wrong.