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The city of dreaming spires hasn’t been designed for bikes yet its historic streets teem with cyclists. When more people ride, more people ride...

Oxford is second only to boat race rival Cambridge as the UK’s top cycling city: one in four residents rides to work and almost half cycle weekly. The explanation doesn’t require fictional detective Inspector Morse. Oxford is a fairly flat and compact university city where it’s convenient to cycle – and so both town and gown do. The medieval street layout and sheer volume of cyclists means that bikes aren’t muscled out by cars. Cycling is normal in Oxford.

The city was built at a convenient crossing point of the Thames. It’s best known today not as Oxenford but as home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world: the University of Oxford dates from the late 12th century. The city’s historic buildings – those dreaming spires – make it a regular fixture in films and on TV, and there are museums and galleries aplenty.

There’s more to the city than academia. It’s been a major centre for car manufacturing (Morris Motors, the original Mini) and its other industries have including brewing, publishing, and printing. Like most British cities Oxford saw industrial decline in the 1970s and ’80s but its economy is still supported by manufacturing, science, and publishing as well as tourism and education. The only mystery is that there isn’t more cycling infrastructure. With some bold urban planning, Oxford could be Britain’s answer to Amsterdam.

The best type of bike for cycling in Oxford

Oxford city centre sits in a flat valley created by Rivers Thames and Cherwell, which meet south of the city. It’s not completely flat: there are hills on the outskirts, such as Wytham Hill and Shotover Hill, and some in the suburbs. Aside from Headington Hill you can avoid most of them, and even Headington Hill isn’t high or steep.

As such, you don’t need a lightweight bike with super-low gears for Oxford. A heavy duty, hub-geared roadster such as the Light Blue Parkside 3spd (RRP £524.99) will be fine. The Light Blue brand is named after Cambridge University’s colours as the bikes were originally made there and sold to wealthier members of that university. But a bike that can comfortably be ridden in normal clothing – thanks to an upright riding position, a wide saddle, mudguards, a chainguard, and a 3-speed hub gear – is just as suitable for Oxford. You can even order it with a wicker basket on the front to complete the collegiate look.

A roadster is less likely to be stolen than a fancy looking machine, which is an important consideration in a city where bike theft levels are high (see below). The best defence against theft, however, is to take your bike indoors with you. For that you need a compact folder like a Brompton. The 11.2kg Brompton C-Line Urban (RRP £1,195) is the most portable of the more affordable models, and thus the easiest to carry upstairs to a flat or student room.

Oxford’s transport network

Cycling infrastructure is sparse in Oxford. There are a few Sustrans routes: NCN routes 5 and 51 run roughly north-south, while 57 goes east-west. Mostly they’re shared with motor vehicles on quieter streets, with short traffic-free sections here and there. The good news is that other road users in Oxford at least expect cyclists and have a better idea of how to behave around them. You’ll want to avoid the busier routes nevertheless. As there’s no good, readily available cycling map of Oxford, use CycleStreets or Citymapper for navigation; you’ll need to select London as your city for Citymapper.

If you find yourself in Oxford without a bike you can hire one. There are bike hubs around the city run by a partnership between Bainton Bikes and Donkey Republic. You must have a smartphone running the Donkey Republic app, as that’s what you use to find and unlock your bike, as well as for billing. The app is free, while the hire bikes cost from £1.50 for 15 minutes. Bainton Bikes also hires a range of bikes the traditional way from its shop on Walton Street.

Buses in Oxford are mostly run by the Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach Oxfordshire. Both will carry folding bikes. On conventional bikes, Oxford Bus Company says: “Bicycles and e-bicycles will only be permitted to be brought on board at the sole discretion of the driver.” Stagecoach Oxfordshire says: “Generally bikes are not permitted on standard buses but are usually allowed on coaches which have proper luggage storage facilities.” In other words: maybe. The only bus service on which cycle carriage isn’t a gamble is the Oxford Tube, a double-decker coach that runs between Oxford and London. It has two dedicated bike spaces.

Bikes are carried on trains that serve Oxford. CrossCountry trains generally carry three bikes (two reservable spaces, one first come, first served). Great Western Railway trains usually have two or four bike spaces (which must be reserved on intercity trains). Chiltern Railways carries bikes “subject to space available” and outside of peak times.

If you’re not sure which operator you’ll be using, visit the National Rail website. When you plan a route on the site and select a journey, hover your mouse over the bicycle icon (under ‘Additional info’) to read bike carriage restrictions. The National Rail app includes similar info under ‘Travelling with bicycle’.

Local rides in Oxford

Waterside rides are your best bet for family cycling around Oxford. The River Thames path can be ridden north (and then west) or south. If you’re going north you’ll want off-road capable bikes, as it’s muddy and bumpy. Going south the riverside path forms part of the Hanson Way to Abingdon (nine miles) and Didcot (15 miles). This is better surfaced and mostly traffic free, so it’s suitable for all abilities. You could get the train back from Didcot to Oxford.

The Oxford Canal towpath is also rideable. It runs north from the city as far as Coventry. North of Wolvercote you’ll be better off on a wider-tyred bike as it gets rougher. Closer to the city it’s better surfaced. The Oxford Canal Heritage Trail is a three-mile journey along that, which takes you through Oxford’s history.

Oxford is well situated for road cycling. It’s surrounded by a network of country lanes in amongst the bigger roads, and it’s in easy striking distance of the Cotswolds to the north-west and the Chilterns to the south-east. Both offer beautiful rolling scenery and picturesque villages. While you need only an OS map to explore these areas, you’ll find better routes if you join a local cycling club.

Road Cycling in Oxford

When it comes to mountain biking, Oxford offers thinner pickings. There are some unofficial trails in Shotover Country Park but you’re meant to stick to the bridleway, which is shown on this map. There’s no trail centre in the vicinity of Oxford; Swinley Forest is the nearest and is 50 miles away. There is some good ‘natural’ cross country mountain biking not too far away but you’ll want a guide, such as Vertebrate Publishing’s South East Mountain Biking Ridgeway & Chilterns or Cotswolds Mountain Biking.

Keeping your bike secure in Oxford

Locked bikes in Oxford

Oxford is one of the UK’s bike theft hotspots. Only Cambridge and London are worse. Bike theft makes up 2.9% of all crimes reported in Oxford post code areas, and theft levels in and near the city centre are double (or more) the national average. Don’t ride a bike you can’t afford to insure. A cheaper bike that’s less attractive to thieves – such as a utilitarian roadster – makes sense if you’ll be locking it up in public.

Always lock your bike whenever you turn your back on it, ideally with a Sold Secure Gold rated lock. Lock the bike through the frame to a sturdy piece of street furniture or a dedicated cycle stand. If you have a high value bike or will be leaving it locked up for an extended period – for example, overnight – use two locks.

The vast majority of bike thefts take place not on the street but in ‘semi-private’ locations at home. That means on your property but not in the house – for example, a garage, shed or garden. Lock your bike to a wall or ground anchor if it will be in one of those locations. Alternatively, park it indoors.