North London Dirt 2021
The roads less travelled in an urban metropolis
By Philip Diprose
Between two deserted warehouses, along a dirt track down the side of a cemetery, following singletrack on an overgrown riverside, over broken concrete and gravel through urban wasteland. Then down steps and through a motorway underpass to farmland. Escaping the city on two wheels, the quietest way possible. This is North London Dirt.
We’ve been running this grassroots event for four years now. Getting a community of like-minded riders together to explore and escape the city on a bike (while raising money for an amazing local community centre). Finding dirt, greenery and quiet spaces in the most unlikely of places. Just because you’re city locked, doesn’t mean you can’t find a way off the tarmac and head off-road.
The initial route for the first North London Dirt now seems like an experiment. An attempt to see if we could link seemingly disparate places we’d chosen on a map. To see if they could be joined with paths, quiet roads and trails that flowed together – a game of two-wheeled follow-my-leader.
Once the event had taken place it felt like a success, asking more questions and presenting more opportunities. Living in London our terrain is limited. We will never be able to compete with the stunning views of the South Downs or Lake District. Or, hell… even have the network of linkable paths that the New Forest can boast. But, what London does have is a lot of riders who want to try something new, something challenging, and are even happier if they don’t have to travel a long distance to get to the start. So instead of trying to compete with the wild countryside outside of the M25, we worked with what we had. When you’re given lemons…
Avoiding the traditional route out along the roads (which felt overused, busy and sometimes dangerous) there was a chance to do something different. Not that we ever felt we were doing anything particularly new, of course, other riders were doing the same thing every weekend. But, to the best of our knowledge, we were one of the few route designers who embraced this idea for an event.
From where we live in Stoke Newington, heading out of the city involves passing through a number of different environments. On your bike, you move from urban to suburban, from suburban to rural. Sometimes these changes are fast and can come at the turn of a corner, at other times it’s a gradual thinning of the buildings, a slower release from the grip of the metropolis. What we came to discover from the first route is that there were some fascinating ways to transition from one environment to the other. They could be seldom used bike lanes, overgrown paths that run alongside industrial estates or small green spaces. Neglected by most people, they are often overrun with brambles, nettles and other weeds. Like the runts of the litter, these paths are tough, rarely pretty and a little unloved. In other words, perfect for North London Dirt.
However, coming up with these routes isn’t entirely an altruistic exercise. As much as we enjoy sharing these routes with other riders and hearing what they think at the end of an event, we are the riders who enjoy them the most. We want to enjoy the days recceing these routes too, they’re routes for riders like us. And luckily, there are plenty of ‘us’. Do we giggle as we burst out of a tiny trail and into an urban sprawl that doesn’t know or care where we have come from? Do we grin as we whip away from a road and into an underpass that leads into a narrow path? If it’s not good enough for us then it’s not worth passing on to our community.
One word that kept cropping up when describing our routes to people was “Hinterland.” Before using it too many times I checked that I was using it in the correct context. Online dictionaries describe it like this:
“A part of the country that is far away from the big city areas”
“An area lying beyond what is visible or known.”
We kind of admire the second idea. The thought is that there are places beyond what is normally seen when riding or expected when people are given a route to ride.
The aim is to use these hinterlands to give riders the feeling that they are riding a hidden route that slices out of the city before hitting the countryside and then moves back as the route returns. Squeezing as much off-road out of as many seldom used bike routes as is possible. Convoluted? Yes. Detailed? Definitely.
Riders returning to the event now know to expect the unexpected on the routes. I’m sure the line between wilfully obscure and curious is a thin one but I’d like to think that curiosity leads riders to places that may be close to their backyards but that may not have been explored.
Over the years we’ve all been guilty of sticking to what we knew, riding trails the way we usually do and keeping to paths we knew were reliable. Designing the North London Dirt routes has opened us up to exploring new places, even if they’re only the slightest deviation from our usual patch. Sometimes this means finding some terrible places to ride! We still have nightmares about dragging our bikes across ploughed fields of mud, the thick clods of earth stopping the wheels rotating, fellow riders ripping rear derailleurs off their precious bikes, or trails that however dry they became they would never make a fun place to ride.
But there is also the flip side to the coin. The search had also shown us some incredible places that were far closer than we thought. Trails that make us feel like urban foxes, able to slip silently by buildings without anyone noticing as we pass. Passing those quiet cemeteries, empty factories and along the edges of our own weed-choked rivers. The feeling of being that fox resonates as we ride these routes, a wily chameleon-like creature who makes the most of what they are given… and is barely noticed as it goes about its journey.
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