52mph in a 20mph zone: How cyclists are turning UK roads into death traps

Man on his bike
Whoever takes top spot on one of Strava's leaderboards is referred to as the 'King of the Mountain'

Chelsea Embankment, 7am. On a summer morning there can’t be many nicer stretches of road to head down on your way into central London. The houseboats will just be stirring, the dog walkers taking advantage of the wide riverside pavements, strolling under the dappled shade of London planes. The speed limit is 20mph. Even the taxis have to maintain a sedate pace.

It would all be so civilised if it weren’t for the boy racers on two wheels rounding the bend at the yacht club, gearing up for one of the most hotly contested time trials in the capital.

A remarkable 52 miles per hour. That’s the record logged on Strava, the GPS fitness tracker, for a 0.63km stretch of road: a 20mph zone hugging the Thames. The leaderboard for the “Tite St to Chelsea Bridge” section of Chelsea Embankment shows it took the current reigning champion (or the “King of the Mountain”, as Strava record holders are known) just 27 seconds to complete on a Tuesday morning in July last year. Newly-crowned, he headed on, victorious, towards Millbank and over Vauxhall Bridge, stopping just past the Albert Embankment Gardens. You’d imagine he felt that was a commute well spent. The knowledge that cycling friends could log on and spot his morning achievements must have only added to the buzz.

Cyclists on the Embankment near Chelsea Bridge heading eastbound along a popular Strava segment
The Tite St to Chelsea Bridge segment is popular with Strava speedsters - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

To date, just over 122,000 people have attempted this particular route, one of hundreds of so-called “segments” that have cropped up across London (and, indeed, cities all over Britain), which now serve as invisible race courses for cyclists.

There is no start and finish line marked out on these routes, no one there to invigilate – just a phone zipped into a cyclist’s back pocket, or perched on their handlebars, that measures the stats as they charge along, chasing down a personal best or hoping to trounce someone else’s.

For these undercover athletes, GPS apps have become a kind of addiction, allowing them to map out a route or pick from a selection of user-generated segments to try to one-up their peers. In 2023, more than 120 million people used Strava (among the most popular of the apps) worldwide – up from 95 million the previous year and 20 million in 2016. For many, they are merely a useful fitness tool. Others, however, fear they are increasingly turning Britain’s roads into death traps.

The apps came under fire this week from the Royal Parks, who wrote to Strava and other companies demanding the outer circle of Regent’s Park be removed from their roster. An 81-year-old woman, Hilda Griffiths, was struck by a bike in the park in June 2022 and later died of her injuries. Brian Fitzgerald, a director at Credit Suisse, was involved in the collision. He was in a “fast group” of cyclists that had reached speeds of up to 29mph in a 20mph zone when Mrs Griffiths was hit. He had been completing timed laps using a Garmin device, a tool for tracking and analysing fitness activities.

An inquest heard that police had concluded he could not be prosecuted as speed limits don’t apply to pedal bikes. Officers pointed out there were “no specific” speed limit signs for cyclists; and a review found there were “no criminal acts which would allow prosecution” for riders who exceed speed limits spelt out for cars.

Mrs Griffiths’ son, Gerard, said his mother died as a result of a “culture of cycling” in the park which saw people “race” around attempting to log faster and faster speeds. He claimed more than 35 cycling clubs use the green space as a “velodrome”. Meanwhile, The Telegraph revealed a dog walker was seriously injured by a cyclist at the same spot on May 1. Paolo Dos Santos was struck in the outer circle after a cyclist allegedly strayed onto the wrong side of the road when he “overtook a car”. Ms Dos Santos is waiting to see if the Metropolitan Police will charge the cyclist.

Gerard Griffith, with his mum Hilda
Gerard Griffith, with his mum Hilda - Geoff Pugh

A Strava spokesman offered condolences to Mrs Griffiths’ family and added: “the behaviours related to this incident violate Strava’s community standards.” It is already possible, they said, to flag a cycling route as “hazardous” within the app. “Anyone can report a segment that they would deem as hazardous. If segments are flagged as hazardous, achievements are not awarded for that segment and leaderboards are disabled. Any Strava community member who cycles on that same route segment will receive a warning of the hazards on that segment.”

But while apps such as Strava continue to leave it largely up to users to report any potential hazards, concern is mounting over the impact competitive amateur cycling is having on our streets.

In Britain, cycling has never been so popular. People are using bikes 50 per cent more than they were in 2002, according to figures from the Department for Transport. Accidents also appear to be on the rise. Official statistics show 462 people were injured by cyclists in 2022, up from 437 the year before, when one person was killed, and 308 in 2020, when four people were killed.

This week, the Government agreed to a change in the law that means causing death or serious injury through dangerous or careless cycling will now become an offence. It followed a campaign by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who wanted to close a loophole that meant cyclists who killed someone while riding recklessly could only be jailed for a maximum of two years under a law from 1861 drawn up for horse-drawn carriages. As a result of the change, offenders could now face life in prison.

Speak to pedestrians about the risk that speeding cyclists pose and the feeling is fairly unanimous. On Reddit, people despair about streets that have suddenly become segments near their homes. “We have a new footpath that also has a cycle lane,” writes one woman who lives on a “new build estate” and uses the path to walk her dogs and ride her bike. “Our new footpath has been made into a segment! This means that cycle enthusiasts race down it with little care about who else is using it.

“I have been on the path when an irresponsible cyclist has zoomed past me. We all use the path to walk our dogs and young children to play or ride their bikes and having a bike zoom past you with little warning is dangerous.”

Strava’s segment leaderboards – many of which have nifty names like the “Whitehall Tourist Dodge” (a half-mile stretch in Westminster, which 92,810 cyclists have navigated, and whose record holder rode through it at 42mph) – cover cities all over Britain. Some leaderboards are populated by professional cyclists clocking impressive times on race days. But the vast majority are dominated by amateurs. In Manchester, one of the most popular runs is called “Gun it to the lights” – a 0.26 mile section of Oxford Road, an area where many of the city’s students live. The speed limit is 20mph; the record holder appears to have completed it at 47mph. Others at the top of the leaderboard, featuring nearly 14,000 entries in total, have clocked in at around 33mph.

In Birmingham, no one has managed to beat the record holder for the Lee Bank Underpass segment since they flew along it at 46mph in May 2019. Meanwhile 40,730 attempts have been made on the Calthorpe Road segment to the south of the city centre, where the record holder exceeded the 30mph speed limit for cars by 8mph.

In Bristol, with its brutal hills, a new record was set alongside the Avon in Clifton in March this year, with a 40mph entry. Just around the bend, on Clifton Down, where the speed limit is 30mph, over 11,000 people have attempted the segment, with the record holder having done it at 39mph.

It isn’t just inner city streets that are becoming rat runs. Even in Richmond Park, with its trails, sprawling woods and parkland, tensions between cyclists (many of whom go there for the chance to up their speed away from busy London roads), walkers and drivers is rising. “On a 10 mile an hour road that runs through the middle of Richmond Park a friend and I were shouted at by a cyclist who thought we were in his way,” says one woman, who asked not to be named. “He screamed at us: ‘I’m doing a time trial!’, as if we should have felt bad for holding him up.

“He was going way faster than 10mph. And when driving in the park at the regulation 20mph I am regularly overtaken by cyclists doing far more.”

On one path, meant to be shared by pedestrians and cyclists, bikes “regularly whizz up behind us”, she says. “They either give no warning or shout something as they are almost on us, but not having eyes in the back of my head you can’t tell which side they are coming past. It’s so dangerous.

“There have been many occasions when the dogs have been nearly clipped by cyclists who don’t seem to understand the concept of looking ahead, and clearly don’t know where the brakes are. I once walked past a cyclist who had stopped and was bragging and laughing to his friend that he had just run over a squirrel.”

According to Strava’s own data, the current King of the Mountain for Richmond Park’s most popular segment (a 0.8 mile climb up Sawyer’s Hill) completed it in 1.36 minutes, flying along at more than 30mph.

Another segment, which takes in both the hill and a further loop around the park has now been flagged as “hazardous” and its leaderboard hidden, though you could view the leaderboard if you simply agreed to the Strava “flagged segment waiver”. The waiver specifies that you must “expressly agree that Strava, in allowing these segments to be flagged, does not recommend, encourage, suggest or direct you to begin, attempt, or complete any Flagged Segment”.

Strava enthusiasts claim dangerous cyclists are a small minority. “The idea that there are cyclists all over London obsessed with setting PBs on segments of flat, pedestrian heavy roads in London is fanciful,” says one, though he adds: “Regents and Richmond Park are well known loops so are an exception – there will be people trying to set times there.”

Cycling clubs are to blame, he says, for giving bikes a bad name. “[They] cycle in large groups, it’s very anti-social.” Particularly in parks that “aren’t designed to have packs of cyclists travelling at very high speed”.

For most people, posting your times simply offers a certain “accountability”, he says, which can be useful when you’re training for a race. “When I was training for an Ironman, I knew the guy I was training with would see my sessions.”

For him, completing short, sharp, inner-city segments doesn’t appeal. “The only segments I really pay attention to tend to be hills as your times are a good indication of fitness. On some of the more well-known ones you often see the time it’s taken a pro to cycle up it, so it’s quite fun seeing how you compare to the best cyclists in the world.”

Road cyclists in Regents Park
Cycling groups in Regent's Park can easily top speeds of 20mph - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

But others say apps such as Strava motivate them to speed up. One user describes how he likes to have Strava on in the background every time he cycles, even if he isn’t doing sprints. The app “encourages” him to “cycle faster”. “Because you’re still on the clock and want to meet or beat a time.”

It’s worth noting that while the apps help you to map out a route, they don’t set the time challenges – users do. A cyclist will simply identify a good stretch of road for a speed ride, attempt it and log their results. Then, if a second cyclist decides to follow suit, and a third, and a fourth, suddenly you have a contest.

The problem, many argue, is that these contests are playing out in busy urban settings and on roads whose main purpose should be to allow drivers, cyclists (of all speeds) and pedestrians to get from a to b safely. Instead, they are playing host to a daily Tour de France.

Perhaps these apps could be used by non-cyclists too, as a way to avoid these segments? In London, you’d only need to avoid: the river, Whitehall, the Cromwell Road near the Natural History Museum, Vauxhall Bridge, Hyde Park Corner, Holloway Road, Constitution Hill, and, well, a few other hot spots. You’ll want to give most of the parks a wide berth too – Battersea, Richmond, Hyde, Burgess among others.

The other option, of course, is that the lycra army take their personal bests and their King of the Mountain ambitions to a nearby velodrome and move the daily time trials off the streets.