Our first time

When my brother and I first got our bikes, the very first place we thought to go was Richmond Park. We got all dressed up in our new gear and rode across town from our homes in Camberwell and Streatham. Entering the park was like creeping through the gates of some exclusive country club. Would we fit in? Deemed worthy by the elite? Be exposed as imposters?

"Hey you there, the arms of your glasses are tucked under your helmet straps. And that guy's wearing underpants beneath his cycling shorts. Hang on a minute – you're not cyclists!"

I think we went round twice that first time – we may well have been lapped. Chatting away, marvelling at the lack of traffic, savouring a coffee on a well-earned mid-ride break. Sawyer's Hill felt like an alpine ascent. We were close to getting off and walking up Dark Hill. But by the end we were hooked. Cycling was definitely for us. We'd evaded detection and infiltrated the cult. We were proper cyclists.

About the size of it

For those not from London or Surrey, it's hard to appreciate just how much of a destination Richmond Park is. And understandably so. Venice Beach has its weightlifters, New York its rollerbladers, Barcelona its skateboarders. Richmond Park has cyclists. A shit ton of them. Over 20,000 on the weekend of Ride London – the UK's biggest sportive.

The park is massive too, covering an area of 2,500 acres. That's nearly four square miles. Hackney Marshes boasts 82 football pitches, Richmond Park could easily asborb 1,500 velodromes. It's the largest of London's seven Royal Parks (yes, Richmond has been in London, not Surrey, since 1965). And it dwarfs New York's Central Park, made famous by the cycling game, Zwift.

Richmond Park compared to other parks at the same scale

‌It's also surprisingly un-park-like. No planted beds, manicured lawns, or fancy topiary. It's about as close to countryside as you can get in a city. The freshest air in the smoke. Stunning views across London. Huge oak trees, bracken, boggy bits, a whopping great lake and two types of wild deer – roe/red and fallow. You could get lost in Richmond Park. In fact many hapless teenagers do while striving for their Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award.

A very brief history of the park

In 1625, Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace on the banks of the Thames to escape the bubonic plague. A latter day Mar-a-Lago. In 1637 he seized the surrounding common land via a series of compulsory purchase orders, and in a move marginally less popular than HS2, turned it into his new private hunting park. Not to be confused with the Old Deer Park, which is on the other side of Richmond.

Fast-forward nearly four centuries and Richmond Palace has long since disappeared, but thankfully the park remains. Public access was granted in 1872 and now, in a deeply ironic twist of fortune, it's the commoners of London fleeing Richmond every weekend to escape a deadly virus.

In 2012, the Olympics came to London, with the cyclists coursing through Richmond Park on their way to and from Box Hill in Surrey. The park even provided a moment of drama, with Fabian Cancellara – Spartacus to his admirers – taking a tumble on the roundabout near Richmond Gate on the return. An iconic Swiss machine losing valuable time, imagine.

Olympic Cyclists in Richmond Park © Hugh Venables under Creative Commons

How to get there

Err... by bike?

We're being facetious. You can take your bike on the train to Richmond, Putney or Kingston and ride from there. If you've absolutely no option but to drive your bike(s) to the park, there's paid parking just inside each of the main gates, but it gets hella busy at weekends. Please try not to get too impatient with all the b***dy cyclists on the roads.

Map of Richmond Park

Cycling map of Richmond Park
A cycling map of Richmond Park (without the car parks)

As you can see above, there's six main gates, four corners, five roundabouts and one road going all the way around, which is open to cars, as well as bikes. Coming off the perimeter road are some less-used minor roads that criss-cross the park. Then there's the Tamsin Trail, a signposted dirt track around the very edge of the park, suitable for gravel, adventure or mountain bikes.

Cycling anywhere else is strictly forbidden. Nobody does it either. You can be issued a £60 fine for straying from the designated routes. More importantly, you'll look like an arrogant arse.

The number one spot for a coffee (appreciate that's not everyone's cup of tea) is Colicci's café near Roehampton Gate. It's a common rendezvous point and handy for number twos too. Be prepared to queue. Lock your bike or get someone to watch it. Bike theft is surprisingly common. The next best option is the kiosk in the centre of the park near Pen Ponds (the lake) – you can't miss it if you take any of the 'interior' roads.

Things to see and do

Right, we're assuming the obvious here: you're going to be riding a bike. Either your own, or one of the ones available for hire (about £12 for up to 4 hours) from Park Cycle, near Roehampton Gate. You're also going to want to minimise the stops. That said, if you're in the drops, staring at your stem, or concentrating on clinging to the back wheel in front, you're going to miss out big time.

Richmond Park Cycling Bingo Card
Keep the kids entertained with a game of Richmond Park Bingo © Broleur.

The park often features in the videos of prolific cycling YouTubers like Francis Cade and ex-pro, Lawrence Carpenter. Old school celebs living locally include Sir David Attenborough, Fearne Cotton, Tom Hardy, Lawrence Dallaglio (partial to a pedal) and Yanto Barker, owner and founder of Le Col. The more dashing of the two Broleur brothers can also frequently be spotted doing ponderous laps and pretzels (can every ride be a recovery ride?).

When to go

You can ride in Richmond Park any time of the year, provided you've got the guts or the gear. It's truly a park for all seasons. If it's been close to zero degrees overnight, watch out for ice. And if it's been raining heavily, take care on the descents of Broomfield and Dark Hill, as the rain can wash debris across the road.

Otherwise, it's all about avoiding the traffic – vehicular, pedestrian and occasionally four-legged. If you can steer clear of weekends, do. When the park is busy, you're going to find yourself sat behind a car, stuck behind a group of cyclists, waiting for a car, which is trying to get around some cyclists, who are waiting for some deer to cross the road...  you get the idea.

The gates open to cars just before 7am or 7.30am, depending on the season. If you can get to the park before that and wheel your bike through the pedestrian gates, you're laughing. Or rather, you're gasping for breath. The pace set by the chain gangs at that time is no laughing matter. For me, it's unquestionably the best time of the day. The air feels fresher and seeing the deer silhouetted through a rising ground mist is a sight worth pulling over and sacrificing a good lap time for.

Deer at dawn. Photo by Daniel Buckle on Unsplash

If you're not a morning person, try and get there just as the gates are closing to traffic – you can see when exactly that is on the chart below. A dusk ride, with the sky turning burnt orange over Twickenham Stadium, Heathrow and Windsor to the west, is almost as special as a dawn sortie.

If the roads and car parks are busy, it follows that the paths of the Tamsin Trail are going to be packed with people. Three-wheeled buggies, elderly strollers and dogs running to and fro. Go easy.

Richmond Park opening and closing times

Twice a year, the park is closed at night for approximately six weeks while deer are culled. This year’s culls begin on Monday 1 February and Monday 1 November. The pedestrian gates are locked from 8pm to 7.30am the following morning, making it impossible to cycle in the park.

Richmond Park cycling routes

The Tour de Richmond Park

The Daddy. The famous loop is 10.9km long – around 7 miles if you're imperially-inclined. If you're in decent shape it's gently undulating. If you've been on the Hobnobs, it's "surprisingly hilly". It's a doable distance for a family outing (of the forced march variety), but has enough ramps to break your rhythm if you're out for a training ride.

But which way to go? Clockwise or anti-clockwise? That my friends, is the question. If you go clockwise, you have arguably the toughest climb in the park to contend with, the almost-alpine Broomfield Hill. But, you get to savour the long, straight descent of Sawyer's Hill. Go anti-clockwise and you endure the long slog in the opposite direction and have the punchy climb up Dark Hill. However you get to descend Broomfield and enjoy a sprint finish to the cafe at Roehampton Gate.

What does the data say? Well, as of January 2021, 75,634 people have ridden the Tour de Richmond Park Strava segment (anti-clockwise from Roehampton Gate) a total of 3,923,505 times, making it one of the most popular segments on Strava. To become the Local Legend you'll need to top Carl Membery's 323 efforts in the last 90 days. Comparatively few people ride clockwise around the Park (Strava segment here), with 370,480 attempts by 38,485 people. If Carl were to switch sides, it might get interesting.

Rarely has someone been more deserving of the title "Local Legend"

While we're talking mind-blowing feats of endurance, back in 2016 Chris Hall rode around the park for 24 hours straight, covering 520km and climbing 4168 metres. Only he knows why.

Chris Hall's 24 hour ride around Richmond Park
Incontrovertible evidence that Richmond is slowly sinking into the sea

How long does it take to lap Richmond Park?

Go at your own pace. It's not a race. The first few times for beginners, aim for under 30 minutes. ‌‌Going under 25 minutes is the next milestone. These days, I consider about 20 minutes a good time. Anything under that is really good going. And quite possibly illegal, given the park has a speed limit of 20mph / 32kph. Contrary to popular belief (mainly among cyclists), this limit applies to all road users.

The current KOM is held by the aforementioned Yanto Barker: 13 minutes and 23 seconds. Just the 48.5 kph average then. He was apparently riding a bike brand called DeLorean – never heard of them. Veronika Rauch of Onyx holds the QOM in an equally unimaginable 14 minutes and 36 seconds.

Long before Strava became the arbiter of cycling achievements, David Millar rode TT-style around the park in an unofficial time of 13 minutes and 35 seconds. You can watch the BBC report on it here.

How to get a PR around Richmond Park

You may be better off asking Yanto. Our top training tips include pedalling faster and getting in the drops, which might not be enough to take you under the 14 minute mark.

If you're looking for some more practical assistance, data wonk Gavin Francis has studied the weather conditions when the majority of historic KOMs and PRs were set. You can read his in-depth statistical analysis on his Science4Performance blog. Or, you can content yourself with my sloppy synopsis.

Best try in July or August when the air pressure is generally at its lowest. Aerodynamic drag is reduced by as much as 5% in the summer months, saving you about a second a minute. If you're managing a 20-minute lap through winter, you might expect to go 19:40 in the right conditions in the summer.

A "wind rose" showing the prevailing wind speed and direction in London

Wind direction is the other major factor – tricky to calculate for a circuit. Gavin's analytic models indicate a strong easterly wind to blow you up the exposed Sawyer's Hill is ideal. The problem is: that very rarely happens. The prevailing wind direction in London is a south-westerly and easterlies are even rarer in July and August.‌‌ If you really want the weather behind you, subscribe to MyWindsock and take up prayer.

The Richmond Park Pretzel  

Almost as famous, not quite as popular, marginally less busy, but infinitely more interestingly-shaped than the traditional loop, is the Richmond Park Pretzel. Check out the link for all the deets, including links to the Pretzel segments from each of the main gates. Of course, anywhere there's a Pretzel, there now has to be an Über Pretzel (riding all of the five Pretzels in one go).

The almost famous Richmond Park Pretzel

The Tamsin Trail

With the recent boom in gravel riding, the Tamsin Trail remains surprisingly bike-free. Long may it remain so. I almost didn't include it here as riding the trail feels like you've stumbled upon the best kept cycling secret in London.

It really is idyllic. Dappled light, crunchy gravel, birdsong, the lot. Near the gates it tends to be busier, but there are long stretches where you can sometimes be the only person in sight. Bloomfield and Dark Hill (opposite sides of the same hill) present a good challenge and if you ride clockwise you also get to do the short, sharp climb from Ham Gate.

Similar to the roads of the park, if you're looking to race around setting records, don't come during peak hours (daytime). Pedestrians have priority and there's a speed limit of 10mph. Tanking it around would be like dive bombing a kiddies paddling pool. Fitting a bell to my adventure bike has been a revelation. If you're after some proper off road adventuring head south along the Thames Path towards the downs.

Cycling clubs of Richmond Park

If you try it and you like it, you might consider joining one of the cycling clubs that uses the park as its base. The most suitable entry-level clubs are the Richmond Park Rouleurs and Richmond Park Velo, locked in a fierce battle to be the friendliest and most welcoming. It's kind of like the People's Front of Judea and the Judea People's Front. BellaVelo also welcome all-comers – as long as they're female.

Badges of cycling clubs riding in Richmond Park
Cycling clubs you'll see riding in Richmond Park

London Dynamo and Kingston Wheelers have riders of all levels, but they're definitely more premier league than plucky championship material. Both organise regular meetups for laps of the park and longer group rides into Surrey, as do Twickenham CC (who arguably have the best badge).

Then there's the invite-only racing team, Onyx. So elite they don't even have a website we can link to. They go that fast, I swear they actually ride in a different time/space dimension. Without fail, they notch the quickest times around the park every day, but I've never actually seen them.

After park entertainment

Congratulations. And nice having you by the way. Now how's about a drink? Long ride home? No problem – just a shandy then, or an ice-cold coke. Need a seat? How does a bench sound? One with a view once described as "the most enchanting in Europe".

View from Richmond Hill
The view from Richmond Hill is simply stunning

Make your way to the Roebuck pub on Richmond Hill. You're allowed to take drinks on to the Terrace opposite. It's the perfect way to wrap up a Richmond Park ride. Cheers!