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Rise of London's pedal culture
The British capital may not be Amsterdam or Copenhagen but it’s becoming a great -- and fashionable -- place to explore by bike
Ride a bike in London and it’ll change your view of the city forever.
As more cyclists clamber on, the city’s cycle culture is developing, underpinned by a packed calendar of cycling events, an evolving breed of cycle cafes and a government with £1 billion ($1.54 billion) to spend on making London a bicycle city on par with Europe’s best.
The number of cyclists in London has doubled in the past 10 years, according to the London Cycling Campaign.
Yet when you compare the British capital with, say, Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where strict laws preserving cyclists' rights have created near-utopian bicycling cities, London still feels like a car town.
That could change, however, with Transport for London’s recent announcement of a £1 billion investment in cycle lanes and cycle safety.
From proliferating cycle cafes to themed rides and protected cycle lanes, London is showing all the signs of being on the verge of a “velorution” -- to borrow the name of a particularly trendy London cycle store.
London cyclists get together at cycle cafes -- neighborhood haunts where camaraderie is built over common denominators of cycling and caffeine.
Lock 7 (129 Pritchard’s Rd, E2 9AP; +44 (0)207 739 3042), in Hackney, was one of the first London cycle cafes. Sprouting up more recently in other London neighborhoods are Look Mum No Hands (49 Old St, EC1V 9HX; +44 (0)207 253 1025), Rapha Cycle Club (81 Brewer St, W1F 0RH; +44 (0)20 7494 9831) and Micycle (47 Barnsbury St, N1 1PT; +44 (0)207 7684 0671).
Lesson for cycling travelers: Now you can watch mechanics retuning your bike while you refuel with an espresso or two.
Some cyclists don’t care a fig for fashion and opt for form-fitting lycra that just lets them go as fast as possible.
London Cycle Chic is a style blog and online shop that launched to sell better-looking helmets to the growing number of women cyclists. It has expanded to sell panniers, lights and other good-looking cycling accessories.
“A big cycling culture has developed [in London],” says the blog’s founder Caz Nicklin
“It’s become a lifestyle statement, and perhaps nowadays a fashionable cycling outfit is part of that personal expression.”
Velo-City-Girl is another cycle style blog that captures this zeitgeist with a travelog of founder Jools Walker’s cycling adventures around London, complemented with photos and reviews of the latest gear.
The outfits combine streamlined practicality with a look suiting the (mean) streets of London: water-repellent jackets, vintage bike caps and jeans with rollable cuffs.
Lesson for cycling travelers: Whether you opt for the fashionable or functional look in London, fellow cyclists will be checking you out.
Jacquie Shannon’s themed cycle rides were born of trawling the London Fixed Gear and Single Speed Forum for cyclists who shared her passions for cycling and London architecture.
As a result, she says, she organized cycle routes that sought out “really great architecture” in the city -- from which the Tweed Run evolved in 2009.
Now 500 cyclists get together every April with just one rule: dress in tweed.
Critical Mass is another example of cycling with a cause: an unofficial meet on the last Friday of every month, when hundreds of cyclists travel en masse to raise awareness of cyclists amongst motorists.
Lesson for cycling travelers: You can go online to find meets with like-minded cyclists before you hit the city.
Alternatively, just follow someone on two wheels who looks interesting. Who knows where you'll end up?
Cycling consciousness is rising
The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, launched a city-wide cycle hire scheme in 2010 -- borrowing partly from Paris’s widely imitated Vélib’ scheme -- to integrate cycling into the city’s transport.
Nicknamed Boris bikes, the distinctive, chunky blue vehicles have substantially increased the number of cycle journeys in London, but they’ve also had a more viral effect: raising awareness, particularly among motorists, of cyclists.
“Having 20 or 30 official city bikes [in traffic] every two or three hundred meters makes cycling very visible,” says Mike Cavenatt, of the longstanding London Cycling Campaign.
Lesson for cycling travelers: London’s a big, traffic-heavy city but increasingly you can cycle without fear.
But the best news for London cycling in years is the government’s announcement of £1 billion funding to improve the city’s cycling infrastructure.
Plans include physical segregation between cyclists and motorists on high-traffic roads, adding two-way cycle lanes to one way streets and -- crucially, for a place where bike theft is endemic -- adding secure cycle parking to transport hubs so that commuters can cycle instead of drive to their next bus, train or Tube.
More of the city’s well known “cycle superhighways” -- dedicated lanes on fast-moving motorways -- are planned that will allow cyclists to make long journeys across the city more quickly and safely.
Lesson for cycling travelers: London may not quite resemble those bike nirvanas Amsterdam or Copenhagen yet but the future looks bright.