Cyclescheme is the UK's most popular cycle to work benefit, creating more cyclists than any other provider.

With easy terrain, a growing cycle network, and some lovely riding on its doorstep, Southampton is decent city for cyclists...

Southampton’s motto is ‘gateway to the world’. It’s the UK’s cruise liner capital. For over a century huge ships have departed from its docks for the wider world, including the British Empire when it existed. The Titanic sailed from Southampton and trans-Atlantic liners still do. It’s also the biggest freight port on the Channel coast.

The city’s history as a port goes back to the Norman Conquest. It became the main trade link between England and Normandy, with French wine going one way and English wool the other way. You can see that heritage today: Southampton has the longest stretch of surviving medieval walls in the UK, with half of them still standing, along with 13 towers and six gates.

Some of the city’s Tudor buildings have also survived, although much of Southampton was flattened by bombers in World War Two. As well as being the key departure point for the Allied invasion of Europe, the port played a vital role in keeping troops supplied, making it a priority target.

Southampton’s Thornycroft Shipyard closed in 2004. While some other manufacturing remains in the city, employment is now mostly in the health services, education, and retail. Cruise operator Carnival UK has its headquarters in Southampton, however, as does Ordnance Survey, the mapping agency.

For a large city that has its share of deprivation – average wages are lower than the national average and significantly lower than those in the South East – Southampton is surprisingly pro-bike. The council’s journey planner makes active travel options such as cycling and walking more prominent than driving. And cycle routes aren’t just being talked about: they’re being built.

The best type of bike for cycling in Southampton

Southampton is low lying, with few hills of note. It’s not pan-flat like Cambridge but the gently rolling terrain makes for easy cycling. Derailleur gears will be useful more for trips outside the city than within it. And as the New Forest and the South Downs are in easy reach, such gears are worth having unless you’ll only ever cycle to work and back.

Southampton is one of the UK’s sunniest and warmest cities because it’s southerly and sheltered, being situated at the head of a long estuary (Southampton Water) rather than exposed on the English Channel. Nevertheless, the weather is, like most places in Britain, variable. It can and does rain during any month. You’ll want mudguards.

A gravel bike would be a good option. Most will take mudguards and a rack for the weekday commute, and a gravel bike’s ‘light off-road’ capability is well matched to the non-technical tracks of the New Forest and the South Downs. Plus it’ll be okay for road rides. The Sonder Camino Al Apex1 Mechanical (RRP £1,199) is keenly priced, given the carbon fibre fork and 1x11 SRAM Apex drivetrain, and it has fittings for commuting equipment. It comes with 38mm tyres but has room for much wider ones if you want to maximise your off-road enjoyment.

A budget touring bike would be another good choice, as that too will do double-duty as weekday workhorse and weekend explorer – on either lanes or good quality tracks. Decathlon’s Touring Bike Riverside 520 (RRP £799.99) is astonishing value. It comes with hydraulic disc brakes, a 1x11 Microshift drivetrain, chunky 42mm tyres, and everything you need for touring or commuting: rack, mudguards, and hub dynamo lighting.

Southampton’s transport network

After adopting a ten-year cycle strategy in 2017, Southampton City Council have taken the bold step (compared to some towns and cities) of actually implementing it. Routes 1, 3, 4 and 5 of its cycle highways are largely complete and others are in the works. As well as the quiet backroads you’d expect, these highways include shared-use paths and segregated cycle tracks to keep cyclists and motor vehicles apart. All in all, not bad.

Because it’s a busy port, Southampton has good road and rail connections. London (70 miles) is a trip down the M3, while nearby Portsmouth is a 20-mile drive down the M27. Big roads like this are good news for cyclists in that they can siphon off traffic that might otherwise be speeding down the A, B, and smaller roads that cyclists use.

Southampton Central Station is served by Southern Railway, which runs trains up to London and across South East England, and South Western Railway, which mostly runs more local services. Southern won’t carry non-folding bikes on peak hour services, which means morning trains to London, Brighton, or Kensington Olympia and afternoon/evening trains home from these stations. You can usually get a bike on at other times and for other journeys, although the website is rather vague. South Western trains typically carry two bikes per two- or four-carriage train, excepting morning trains to London Waterloo and afternoon/evening trains from there. Both Southern and South Western carry fully folded bikes without restriction.

Southampton’s buses are run by a range of operators: First Bus (folding bikes only); Bluestar (bagged folders fine, non-folders “at the sole discretion of the driver”); and Xelabus (cycle policy not stated so anything other than a compact folding bike unlikely to be accepted).

Cross Channel ferries no longer dock at Southampton. There are Red Funnel ferries to the Isle of Wight. Bikes are carried free of charge on the car ferries. The Red Jet catamaran services also carry bikes but only on a first come, first served basis as there are “limited bike racks”. Bikes are carried over the estuary on the Hythe Ferry, again for free but at the discretion of the ferry master.

Local rides in Southampton

One of the nicest family rides near Southampton is the section of the Test Way (National Cycle Network route 246) between Timsbury and Cottonworth. It’s a 10-mile trip along an old railway formerly known as the Spratt & Winkle line. It runs beside the Test River, which is popular for trout fishing.

There’s some excellent family cycling in the New Forest. Take the train to Brockenhurst or cycle out to Lyndhurst on NCN 236; it’s nine miles, mostly traffic free. The off-road cycling in the forest is on sedate gravel tracks rather than technical singletrack. (The Go New Forest CIC website says: “The rule of thumb in the forest is that if you aren't on a track which is the width of a car, then you’re probably on the wrong trail!”)

There’s plenty of nice road cycling through the New Forest too, as evidenced by the annual 66-mile Gridiron ride through and around it. It’s so called for the number of cattlegrids en route, which are there to stop the free-roaming ponies from straying.

Once you get away from the conurbations on the coast, there are plenty of country lanes for road rides in easy reach of Southampton. Southampton Cycling Campaign has some suggested cycle routes on its website, including downloadable GPX files to follow.

Mountain biking near Southampton is more ‘bridleways and big skies’ than trail centre singletrack. The 100-mile South Downs Way is easily accessible as it starts from nearby Winchester, and there are 27 other signed off-road routes across Hampshire.

If you’re after more adrenaline-focused off-road riding, Southampton Bike Park is the place to go. It’s in the north of the city at the Outdoor Sports Centre. Queen Elizabeth Country Park is a forestry trail centre that’s only 25 miles away. It’s arguably better for family cyclists and relative beginners than experts.

Keeping your bike secure in Southampton

Southampton ranks fourteenth in the list of the worst places for bike theft in England and Wales, by post code area. That makes it comparable to Bristol and little better than parts of London. Theft levels are highest around the city centre rather than outlying areas, as you’d expect.

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.