Words by Rowley Clifford, Images by Joshua Greet, Art Direction by Nathan Dytor
“Mounted police are an imposing sight; no matter how many times you see them, the wild power of the horse along with its often well-armed rider is striking to say the least.”
It’s Good Friday, and we’re meeting at a cafe outside the Home of Millwall FC to enjoy a day’s riding around a handful of central London football stadiums. Some unexpected April sunshine and the usual lull in traffic around the Bank Holiday will hopefully have drawn most people out of the city to leave us to enjoy the empty streets. We’ll be riding from stadium to stadium to soak up the atmosphere before, during and after the Easter weekend matches.
It’s about half ten, but already tins of strong lager are in the clutches of home team fans, now sidling up towards the stadium, past the bank of cafes, burger vans and workshops which skirt the pavement adjacent to the ground.
The horses keep arriving and as a contingent of away fans from Brentford Town arrives the men at the table next to ours mutter their disapproval under their breath. Amongst the chatter, fried egg sandwiches dribble out grease and red sauce on to paper plates. Next to them another local is meticulously disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling a torque wrench, which any cyclist will agree is endlessly satisfying to watch.
Bacon butties and cups of tea dispatched, we talk through the ride we have planned. We will ride from here at The Den in South-East London, across town to the Loftus Road Stadium in West London to catch Queens Park Rangers vs. Blackburn Rovers. After that we’ll cut back east through central London to finish at Leyton Orient. Guiding us is the new ELEMNT ROAM which, if all goes to plan, should deliver us to the Leyton Orient Stadium just in time for a beer and to catch the team buses departing. We wonder if the ROAM can reroute to avoid police horses in a pinch, if need be…
The home side Millwall are fighting relegation, having languished at the bottom of the Championship for some time now. They need a good result today and the punters know it, hundreds of whom are now pouring into the stadium as we get ready to leave. The planned route starts a kilometer or so away, so we follow the suggested route from the ELEMNT ROAM to the official starting point.
We pedal outward into the noise of South-East London towards Peckham, past a make-shift stand selling flags, buttons and scarves. The scarves on the stand match those strewn about the shoulders of fans marching under the railway bridge to The Den. “No-one likes us – we don’t care!” is the slogan emblazoned across them.
Cruising through Peckham, Camberwell and up to the river at Vauxhall, I reflect on the mounted police we left behind at The Den. As far back as the early 20th century, football in South London has seen rivalries with other local teams playing out off the pitch in the streets and alleyways that surround the stadiums, as well as in the stands. Back then, South-East London had a thriving shipping industry, and a story of an incident there in 1906 tells of two sets of fans, comprising of mainly local dock workers spilling out of the ground in a huge brawl, as the crowd was largely made up by two rival shipping firms.
Similarly, in 1965 a hand grenade was thrown onto the pitch from the Millwall end during an away game at Brentford Town. Although the fighting between both sets of fans which ensued was fierce, the grenade turned out to be a dummy. We’d seen both sets of fans earlier in the day at the Den, and as we pressed on to Battersea Park we had only seen passionate supporters, ready to urge their team onward to stave off relegation. Peace for another match, at least.
As we trim the northern edge of Battersea Park, past the pagoda and along the South Bank of the River Thames, the ELEMNT ROAMs chirp in unison to signal a right turn onto Albert Bridge. Now north of the water, we trundle upwards through Chelsea and past the Stamford Bridge stadium. While this is a venue for the upper-echelons of international football to face off, like the Emirates or Wembley, they only tell part of the story. We’ve come in search of burger vans, Reebok Classics, knock-off merchandise and club emblem tattoos.
Loftus Road is thronging with supporters enjoying the early afternoon sunshine when we arrive. Spilling out of pubs and sitting along curbs and low brick walls on South Africa Road are fans from both teams. QPR desperately need a win today after recently sacking their manager following an unfortunate losing streak, but even so the mood is congenial. Sauntering along outside the ground, we spot more DIY mascot outfits and dogs adorned with blue & white jerseys.
Checking the clock on the ROAM we realise we only have 40 minutes to make it across town to Leyton. Back on the bikes, we wind back down towards the river. We hit a closed road at Earls Court and following the lengthy diversion would mean we’d miss the final game. Turning down a side street we set a test for the on-the-fly routing of the ELEMNT ROAM to navigate the diversion. Flashing its lights red for a moment, it spits out a new trail of blue chevrons for us to follow and LED lights blink to snap our attention to upcoming turns.
We turn off Kensington High Street and through the gates of Hyde Park. Inside, the grass is covered with people basking in the sun. For today, the lawns are carved out into a thousand private oases. Relaxing with friends in one London’s parks is such a gift on a sunny day, and despite our urges we manage to resist stopping with the thousands of people who have set up camp, armed with picnic blankets and bottles of white wine.
Now heading due East, we pass along the north bank of the Thames and onward into the financial district, deserted at this time for the Easter weekend. Through the Bank of England, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and into Victoria Park, we’re pressing onwards with urgency to reach our destination before the match finishes to catch the atmosphere at one of Leyton Orient’s final games of the season. Darting through gaps in the traffic, we have to increase our pace to make it in time.
As we pull up to the Leyton Orient ground in the early evening the home side are just boarding their team bus to leave. Having just defeated Harrogate Town 2-0, the sea of red shirts of the home fans is rolling. We lock up our bikes outside the ground and revel in the atmosphere before managing to slip into the bar by the entrance of the stadium. Away from the chaos outside, the tide turns and the fans start to leave and we get swept away, back out to the street and into East London.
Both of these teams compete in the National League, which sits below leagues one and two. It’s hardly El Clásico, but all around you can feel the intensity of support emanating from impassioned fans, who’s red shirts and banners adorn the windows of pubs and shops surrounding the ground. Unless you’re brought up in the direct vicinity of the stadium, you’re unlikely to wake up one day and decide to support Leyton Orient. Far more likely is that you were born into it; if your parents were Orient Fans, chances are you’ll inherit that before you’re old enough to fully understand the game.
With our shadows stretching away from us we decide to call it a day and finish at a pub called The Northcote Arms. I look through the stats from the ride on my ELEMNT App and wonder how the city has changed over the years and how these days, with technology, you can see such a lot of a city at the speed of a bike.
Londoners are typically insular, and as someone who has lived here for almost a decade I’m ashamed that I don’t explore by bike more within the city. Polluted, congested and ever-more dangerous roads make for an unfriendly environment for the cyclist who would normally favour the lanes of Essex, or the Kent or Surrey Hills for a ride. But with the sunset to my right as I spin across Tower Bridge on my way home, I think what a joy it has been to explore London at the speed of a bike. The huge variety we have in football here in London truly is a thing to treasure, and it helps make
The ELEMNT ROAM allows us to lose ourselves without getting lost, and in lieu of the leafy hills of Kent or Surrey, I used it to power a mini-adventure which I never knew was on my doorstep.
Born in London, Rowley Clifford is an avid road cyclist, representing renowned London cycling collective RMNC. For him, cycling encompasses adventure, fun and creativity above all else; Whether that’s racing the revered Crystal Palace Criterium, The Dirty Kanza 200 gravel race or solo bike-packing across Europe.
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