How to cycle your way to a sustainable staycation

When I first began cycling seriously, it was at university.

I was too cheap to share a cab and too impatient to walk the 15-minute slog back from town, so a £60 second-hand wreck was my favoured option.

Fast-forward a decade and a global pandemic, and everyone’s clocked onto this cycling malarkey. In fact, 1.5million Brits bought a bike over lockdown and now the UK is suffering a bike shortage!

With trains and buses still feeling icky, cycling has provided so many of us with endorphin-flooding, bug-free transport.

Lockdown cleared the streets for newbie city road bikers to navigate usually busy roads and now that we’re edging back to normality, they’re looking to up the ante.

We aren’t just sticking to the mean streets of zone 2 anymore – we’re getting out in the country. 

Slow, sustainable travel is something that’s been growing exponentially in recent years as society clocks just how screwed the climate is. The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at how we travel and relax even closer, with quarantines and face masks prompting many of us to stick our passports back in the sock drawer in favour of a good old staycation.

And what better way to enjoy the UK than on a bike?

It’s for that reason that I found myself cycling from Hackney to Cambridge, instead of lounging on a sunny beach in Portugal.

The British seaside isn’t necessarily the best place to visit in the first flushes of autumn but leafy Cambridge, with its punts, cobbles and beautiful architecture?

What could be more perfect?

My boyfriend and I are very much city cyclists. We both ride road bikes – his a fixie and mine a Tokyo number.

Having plotted the route north on Strava, we guessed that there’d be a couple of hills but nothing too challenging. After all, even the bloke in the bike shop told me that this part of the UK is renowned for being super flat. Reader: it is not. 

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t totally magical.

Cycling staycations are brilliant because they truly embody the philosophy of enjoying the journey as well as the destination. You prepare for the trip – that’s the achievement – and you’re rewarded by arriving at whatever town you decide to peddle to.

In our case, seeing the River Cam as we cycled into Cambridge after four and a half hours of country roads and hills was enough to almost reduce us to tears.

The journey

I live in Hackney, which is super useful because it means being on the right side of town – you just have to keep heading north.

We trundled down the River Lea towpath for a couple of hours and eventually came off somewhere around Broxbourne. From there, we navigated the busy streets of Hoddesdon and Stanstead Abbotts before finding ourselves in deepest, darkest countryside.

Road bikes and fixies may be perfect for canals and towns, but when it comes to off-roading it over churned country paths and flooded lanes, it can feel a little alarming.

Although we didn’t end up using it, that’s where a portable pump comes in handy – your tires take quite a beating. Anyway, you’ve just got to grin and bear it; stand up if you can’t feel your bum cheeks anymore.

Mercifully, each hill climb was accompanied by glorious views over valleys and fields, with plenty of places to safely pull in for a quick bite, a drink and al fresco pee (sorry, but it is what it is!).

You’ll go through a series of picturesque villages completely with lovely-looking pubs; no doubt, they’re worth stopping at if you have the time to make the most of your cycle.

In our case, we really wanted to get to Cambridge by lunchtime and even in the countryside, it’s probably socially unacceptable to ask for a pint of bitter at 11am on a Wednesday morning.

Countryside abruptly ended at Trumpington – a suburban area with heavenly, flat, well-filled roads.

And that’s also where you’ll see the Welcome to Cambridge sign, next to a pictureque A-road and three-lane roundabout. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so pleased to see a busy main road in my life.

You’ll find that the route from London to Cambridge isn’t amazingly signposted (unlike London to Brighton which has the cycle route signposted almost the entire way), so you either need to have a comprehensive list of towns to watch out for, or Google Maps.

I found that even in the most country bits of the journey, Google did its thing perfectly.

The destination

Oh, Cambridge. It’s the perfect cycle destination because it’s so lovely and worth visiting.

Cycling holidays are kind of retro and as you enter the city via Sheep’s Green – complete with grazing cows – you can almost kid yourself that you’re holidaying in another era.

After a long journey, all you really want to do is put your feet up and relax and boy, did we do that.

We checked into the truly fabulous University Arms Hotel which looks onto Parker’s Piece (a large green quad) – smack in the centre of town. Our suite had gorgeously relaxing views onto the grassy square and, crucially, had a massive rolltop bath – which was immediately filled and occupied for the best part of an hour.

I just about staggered from the bath to the bed, which was probably one of the comfiest I’ve ever had the fortune to lie on.

Continuing with the retro theme, the hotel is ageless; you’ve got the super-fast internet, great vegan options in the restaurant and Covid-friendly measures that very much belong in 2020.

This is juxtaposed with the old school glamour of a solidly posh, British hotel – a cozy bar, marble floors and monochrome photographs of Cambridge’s history.

There’s a garage in which you can safely park bikes, and if you decide to drive or train up instead, you can borrow one of the hotel’s turquoise bikes which are stored down there, too.

Everything worth doing and seeing in the city lies within 15 minutes of the hotel’s front door, from the colleges to the punting, the shopping to the museums.

There’s no need to add any extra miles onto your tired legs or undo your carbon negative footprint by getting a cab anywhere. Take it slowly and enjoy Cambridge for what it is – a pedestrian-friendly medieval jewel in middle England.

No parts of the city felt overly busy, although how true that’ll be when term begins is anyone’s guess.

The preparation

My boyfriend very much just turned up and cycled, having gone a maximum of 20 miles in a day before. Some might call that foolish, but he did have the benefit of having a more experienced cyclist leading the way (me), and the fact that he’s pretty bloody fit anyway.

If you’re not used to doing big bouts of cardio, it’s worth giving yourself a little time to get match-fit.

I went to a really stretchy yoga class the night before to open up the hip flexors and to loosen up tight hamstrings and quads. I’ve been running two or three times a week and cycling everywhere (albeit quite small journeys).

If you’re used to moving, time under pressure won’t be a massive issue but you want to make sure that you have a base level of fitness to get you through.

The real battle is a mental one so ensure that you’re riding with someone that you won’t be tempted to strangle by mile 30 is a bonus.

When times get tough, have a good playlist downloaded (on windy country roads, it’s not advisable to have headphones in so I played my music out loud when there was no one else around… it was barely audible but did the trick!).

This ride was 50 miles (81.83KM) and took us four hours, 35 minutes and six seconds, including a couple of breaks.

It’s not easy but it is totally doable – even if you don’t have the world’s best bike.

If you’re not sure how good your bike is, take it to your local shop for a quick look over. The experts there will be able to advise you on whether you need your wheels pumped, chain greased or saddle swapped.

Kit essentials

As with everything, fail to prepare and prepare to fail. This is a long old ride – you’ve got to make sure that you’re carrying everything you might need or want because there aren’t any shops for a good stretch. 

On a sunny mid-week morning, there were a few cyclists out and about who no doubt would have helped had we run into inner-tube trouble, but it’s definitely worth knowing how to do minor repairs yourself and carrying the necessary equipment to fix punctures.

We took:

  • A cycle pump
  • Puncture repair kit
  • A phone holder
  • Two apples each
  • Two flapjacks each
  • Some apple cake
  • Two litres of water each
  • Two changes of clothes (one fitness, one normal)
  • A waterproof jacket
  • Painkillers (not needed but you never know!)
  • Bike locks
  • Notes for the route in case 3/4G let us down

Sustainability

Cycling is one of the most eco-friendly modes of transport – we know that. But even a bike has a carbon footprint.

According to the European Cyclists’ Federation, cycling produces around a 10th of the CO2 emissions a car creates, even once you account for the food you eat to power the cycle.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t cut our footprint further. If you’re a vegan cyclist like me, you’ll have a super-low footprint; if you’re a meat-eater, why not give your belly a break and go for a plant-based weekend cycle somewhere?

A typical European diet needs up to 1500g of CO2 to produce 100 calories-worth of meat. Potatoes, on the other hand, need just 23g.

We fuelled our ride on overnight oats with peanut butter and oat milk, flapjacks and apples. Not only was that the perfect grub in terms of energy distribution but it was also easy to digest and sustainable.

Lockdown has made more of us adventurous and keen to explore our own backyards.

Hopefully, it’s the start of staycations and conscious travel for more of us.

Staying at the University Arms Hotel Cambridge

The hotel has 192 rooms and suites across four floors, with views over Parker’s Piece, Regent Street and an inner courtyard. It’s really geared towards luxury staycations, and the hotel provides tips for making the most out of a weekend in the city.

The on site restaurant does have vegan options (a quite remarkably creamy spaghetti was the perfect post-cycle supper!) although if you are plant-based, you may want to head into town for breakfast.

Bikes can be stored on-site, there’s a library from which you can read the morning papers or finish off a little work, bedrooms boast leather-padded desks and bathrooms are stocked with quintessentially British D R Harris products. If you have the energy, there’s also a 24-hour gym.

Coronavirus restrictions are taken seriously, with Wind in the Willow-themed signs reminding guests of social distancing and a fabulous-smelling hand sanitiser on offer at frequent junctures around the building (I know that sounds weird, but it really did smell good!).

Prices start from £176 per person, per night.

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