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Los Angeles by Bike

Ditch four wheels for two, and get a handle on the City of Angels at 15 kilometres an hour.

Bike gang grinds in Griffith Park

A bike gang grinds in Griffith Park, a favourite destination for its climbs and lookouts (Photo: Brad Torchia)

For 10 kilometres, Ballona Creek snakes through ­southwestern Los Angeles County, and cycling the bike path that runs alongside it, I see the day-to-day of the city from the inside out: girls playing basketball on the courts behind Culver City High School; the backyards of Mar Vista Gardens, a 1950s public housing project criss-crossed with clotheslines; an older couple enjoying breakfast on a perfect palm-shaded deck (hello, house goals). The creek widens, the air gets saltier and shrubs and overgrowth creep up the cement bank. Biking through the Ballona Wetlands, I flush out a great blue heron, then suddenly there’s water on all sides: the world’s largest manmade small-craft harbour, Marina del Rey, to my right, Ballona Creek (almost 100 metres wide at this point) to my left, and the entirety of the Pacific Ocean dead ahead. I cycle straight for it until there’s a sharp turn at a bridge that spans the width of the tributary, where I stop. Perched on a fence eating an orange, I bask in the morning sun and a dash of self-satisfaction – 20 kilometres before breakfast ain’t bad. Another cyclist pulls up and nods hello. Friendly fact: All the cyclists here nod hello, or ask you how your day’s going. He says what I’m thinking: “This is the best spot, isn’t it?”

A few days earlier, as we flew high above the sprawl during our descent into LAX, I never expected to see the city on such a human scale. (Another welcome surprise: the relatively flat terrain.) On two wheels, the famous sprawl resolves into distinct communities, connected by a growing group of tenacious cyclists, 350 kilometres of new cycling lanes, more doughnut shops than I could have imagined and the ever-present scent of fresh coffee.

Neutra VDL Studio and Residences

The best seat in the house at the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences in Silver Lake

On the ground, my first pit stop is the Wheelhouse, a brand new cycle-centric café, store and community centre in the Arts District, the neighbourhood west of downtown named for the creative class that took over and transformed derelict industrial buildings in the 1970s. The owners of the newest, hippest kid on the block are Chase and Tami Spenst, a young couple with broad smiles that betray their Midwest origins. They moved to L.A. a decade ago and found it difficult to adjust to the city’s car culture – but getting into biking here wasn’t easy either. According to Chase, “It used to be that only fanatics commuted by bike. CicLAvia changed everything.” The event, started in 2010 and inspired by Bogotá’s Ciclovía, closes L.A.’s streets to cars and opens them up to everyone else. It also created a space for cyclists and reminded Angelenos that biking was an option. So Chase and Tami got back in the saddle, and found they got to know – and like – L.A. better. “It stopped being endless sprawl,” says Chase. “Now, I see it like 88 small towns smashed together. Plus, it’s nearly impossible to be in a bad mood on a bike.”

Los Angeles Wheelmen t-shirt

The Los Angeles Wheelmen have been touring southern California since 1945.

That’s a dictum echoed by Art Palacios, the owner and operator of LA Cycle Tours – though maybe not his parents. “They don’t really understand what my business is. For them, a bike is for getting from home to work. Why would anyone ride for fun?”

Art needs to get his parents out on one of his tours. We spend the afternoon freewheeling through downtown L.A., the former no man’s land that’s seen a massive resurgence over the past decade. Our outing is a time trip, starting near Olvera Street, the oldest part of downtown, where we loop around the plaza at El Pueblo de Los Angeles, and ending up in South Park, a name so new, Art says it would mean nothing to his parents. They’d know this neighbourhood as “the flats,” which is such perfectly noir nomenclature that I feel I should be getting hushed, staccato instructions from Philip Marlowe to meet him there at midnight.

Tami and Chase Spenst at the Wheelhouse

Wheels up with Tami and Chase Spenst at the Wheelhouse, in the Arts District.

The bulk of our time is spent in the Arts District, now a three-dimensional brick-and-mortar canvas covering one and a half square kilometres, weaving up and down streets, dipping into parking lots and out alleys. Art points out gritty-pretty work by local and international street artists along the way: Kim West’s sherbet-tinted nature scenes; saturated, jewel-toned facades by homegrown legend Risk; Shepard Fairey’s Peace Goddess, presiding over the district from her position above the flagship location of local design brand Poketo. Down on the corner of 7th Place, Art stops short and points to an open garage door. “That’s Retna’s studio.” His voice is low, both out of reverence and a desire to remain unseen: The artist, whose idiosyncratic script can be seen on Miami’s Wynwood Walls, in Louis Vuitton’s 2013 campaign and on Nike’s Las Vegas store, is skittish about voyeurs. Somewhat hypnotized, we watch him paint his huge black letters – part hieroglyphs, part blackletter, with Arabic and Hebrew flavouring – from across the street as oblivious cars zoom up Santa Fe Avenue.

L.A. River Camp Coffee crew

The L.A. River Camp Coffee crew rocks on every Wednesday morning.

One afternoon, I head east on Sunset Boulevard, somewhere near the electronics shop where Elliott Smith used to work. As I cycle up to Silver Lake’s namesake reservoir, the steepening incline slows me, but it’s a series of mid-century-modern marvels that stops me in my tracks. I ditch my bike (and any sense of propriety) and peer through the lush landscaping: It’s nothing but uninterrupted windows, rectilinear shapes, wraparound patios and cantilevered roofs. These hills are home to the Neutra Colony, a cluster of 10 glass-and-beam gems designed by Richard Neutra between 1948 and 1962. Hidden off Silver Lake Boulevard, these houses constitute a world-class architecture museum, and you can find work by emerging and stratospheric street artists in pockets of the Arts District, but you’ll miss it all if you’re going over 15 kilometres an hour.

Two bikes in the city

Spoking around the city.

Under a pink and purple and golden sky, I take a sunrise ride through Koreatown. After one slipped chain and a few wrong turns, I hit the L.A. River bike path and head for Sunnynook River Park, home base for the L.A. River Camp Coffee crew, a group of cycling and coffee aficionados that meets every Wednesday morning. I slow down when I see three guys squinting out from under their cycling caps, homemade coffee-making paraphernalia at their feet. One of the trio speaks – “Pull up a rock” – before taking care of the introductions: “I’m Ray, this is Ray and that’s also Ray.” Ray #1 is joking, but it’s too late. Ray #2 offers me some coffee – attendees are responsible for bringing their own brew, but I’m relying on the kindness of strangers (though I did BYO mug) – as Ray #1 hands me a slice of “organic, picked-this-morning” orange and Ray #3 explains that there are usually more people here by this time. On cue, a bearded man rolls up. Ray #3: “Our fearless leader.”

LA Cycle Tours’ Art Palacios

City of Angels: LA Cycle Tours’ Art Palacios gets his wings.

This is Errin Vasquez, the beans behind this two-year old operation. He got the idea during a fatbiking trip in Minnesota one March. The L.A. native’s favourite part of the excursion was a hot-chocolate stop in a snowmobile shelter: slowing down, stopping and taking a moment. Back on the banks of the L.A. River, five, 10, 20 cyclists roll in, all keen to take a moment, whether it’s before a serious uphill grind in Griffith Park or a stop on their commute to work. They mill about, in an effortless combination of Lycra and streetwear, chatting about past rides, new injuries and last night’s dates, while I internalize a new life motto from the “no Garmin, no rules” sticker on one woman’s water bottle. Two of the Rays are talking about the different rides on offer by the city’s myriad cycling groups, many of which visiting cyclists are welcome to drop in on: The Wolfpack Hustle likes to, well, hustle; Sins and Sprockets takes it flat, slow and easy; the Passage Ride is bringing L.A. cycling off-piste (tunnels, stairways and storm drains are all fair game). As I roll out, armed with pages of restaurant and route recommendations, I hear Ray #1 telling the group: “What the hell, just ride it.” I don’t hear the context, but I don’t need it.

View of L.A. from Griffith Park

Four-wheel drive: A view of L.A. from Griffith Park.

On my last night in town, all the axled axioms I’ve acquired over the past few days come rushing back when a flat tire and a flatter phone battery conspire to ruin the evening. But after a quick patch from a stranger (biking really brings out the best in people) and a bit of borrowed juice at an IHOP, I’m soon whizzing past the standstill traffic in the designated bike lane on Venice Boulevard. I’m going fast; it’s euphoric. At this speed, covering this much distance, the sprawl contains itself. Gliding past the cars, I get snippets of a SoCal-only soundtrack: Sublime, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses. A tank-topped gentleman sitting pretty on his banana seat asks me how my night is going, and recommends a burger place on Fairfax. Yes, this is the best spot, I think. And I’m in a fantastic mood. L.A. – what the hell, just ride it.

Off the chain

Raise the bar with these bike-friendly brands.

Dish & Du/er jeans

British Columbia-based Dish & Du/er manufactures good-looking, hard-wearing jeans (his $139, hers $129) with technical fabrics designed to keep you cool when it’s warm and warm when it’s cool.

Bike Citizens Finn smartphone mount

Photo: Bike Citizen

The simple and versatile silicone Finn smartphone mount (US$17) from Bike Citizens fits any bike and any phone.

Bookman magnetic reflector

Swedish brand Bookman designs sleek, portable bike accessories like magnetic reflectors (US$10), USB-charged lights (US$45) and reflective backpacks that double as shopping bags (US$35).

Café du Cycliste apparel

Photo: Café du Cycliste

Café du Cycliste peddles retro-styled cycling apparel like the Georgette (US$174), a summer-friendly jersey in high-wicking merino and thermo-regulating mesh.

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