"Excuse me, sir! Please get off your bike." I looked around and wondered, "Is he talking to me?" I was the only one on a bicycle, so I decided he must be.
"There's no riding in this area," the security guard shouted across the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I dismounted my rented hybrid bike and rolled it through Urban Light, an outdoor installation of 202 antique street lamps standing in lines like a manicured row of trees. Chris Burden's large-scale work was what had drawn me in from the street as I pedalled down the Miracle Mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, which, with barely two feet of space between parked cars and moving traffic, is not a miracle at all on two wheels. Of course, that makes sense, since the historic strip was developed and designed in the 1930s specifically to be cruised by automobile.
I had planned on this partly cloudy day - what my grandmother who lives in the San Fernando Valley later described as a "storm" - to spend a day touring from posh Beverly Hills east to edgy Echo Park, without a windshield ever separating me from the flora, fauna and architecture of Los Angeles. I just hoped I didn't get mowed down by a Lexus before I reached my destination.
After I had my picture taken in front of Prada on Rodeo Drive (I had to wait in line behind a woman whose poodle was wearing sunglasses), I didn't see another cyclist for a good 20 minutes. This is, after all, the undisputed capital of car culture. And yet cyclists are out there; as I discovered, Los Angeles is indeed bikeable, and the city's growing community of cyclists is fighting to overcome what one activist I talked to, Ron Milam, called a "perception problem."
Or, as he eloquently put it: "People think if they ride a bike here, they're going to die."
Milam, a 33-year-old native Angeleno (who sports, appropriately enough, a handlebar mustache), founded the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition 10 years ago with some friends. Back then, he fought to get the county to fund the creation of bicycle lanes, and won.
Still an advocate for cycling in Los Angeles, Milam has witnessed first-hand the growth of a bike culture in the city.
But this forefather of L.A.'s bike movement admits that the city famous for its labyrinthine freeways and gridlock traffic is only rideable if you're choosy about your routes. "The best streets for people to ride on are often ones that they don't even know the name of," he said.
As a tourist, I knew very few street names, but I learned quickly to ride on smaller residential streets if there was no bike lane. Still, after consuming two chili dogs flooded in nacho cheese at the legendary Pink's Hot Dogs, I had to head north on Fairfax Avenue, a busy four-lane thoroughfare. Remembering a tip I had learned from Milam, I took over a whole lane as I rode.
This was a tip echoed later that day when I talked to Kat Espino, a regular bike commuter. Although Espino says drivers in the city centre are used to seeing the odd bike messenger, as one heads to the outer reaches of L.A. County, they'll treat you like an intruder. "In some communities in South Central Los Angeles, they're not used to seeing cyclists on the side of the road and they honk at you and tell you to move over," says Espino, who rides home 37 kilometres daily to Lakewood from the University of Southern California, where she works. "But I hold my ground and stay where I'm more visible and safer."
Espino, who also fundraises and takes part in the seven-day AIDS LifeCycle ride that travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles each summer, says she plans her commute with the help of bike maps provided by the city online (see sidebar).
I wasn't run over, or even honked at, as I headed toward the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but I was still relieved to make it to Hollywood Boulevard, which, though it doesn't have a bike lane, is such a dizzyingly raucous scene that everything moves at a slow pace. I hopped on and off to do the usual tourist stuff - a picture of me with Michael J. Fox's star, a picture of me with a Lucille Ball impersonator (who, in case you're wondering, doesn't own a bike because she says she gets her workout from dancing) - but I was heading eastward when my two-wheeled journey departed from the usual.
East of Western Avenue, after the stars of Hollywood Boulevard have faded, and where the number of cars whipping by outnumbers pedestrians at least tenfold, I gazed into the windows of stores in L.A.'s Little Thailand and Little Armenia.
The architecture left a lot to be desired - old, broken-down buildings that retained the sun-bleached letter traces of businesses past. In a car, this less glitzy strip would fly by blandly while you changed the radio station, but I took the opportunity to stop at a restaurant called Hollywood Taron to chat with a couple guys chilling on the restaurant's patio. Aaron Graham, a recent grad from the University of Washington, told me that the two of them were on a road trip down the west coast.
"He likes to find hidden gems like this in cities," Mr. Graham said of his buddy, Ilya Golotavy. "You know, places run by first-generation immigrants." I went inside and ordered my first-ever lahmajune - the Armenian take on pizza, a snack I enjoyed on the patio as the sun finally broke through the clouds.
Heading onward, as I biked past hipsters lunching at cafés along Sunset Boulevard near Silver Lake, I noticed that Los Angeles has a smell, and it's not just the exhaust. The scent is a combination of a faint but permeating flowery perfume and baking tortillas.
"Bicycling becomes a process of discovery," Milam had told me, explaining that biking in L.A. often forces you to see parts of the city you would never get to in a car. After consuming the last carrot cake muffin at Delilah Bakery on Echo Park Boulevard, my planned final stop, I continued on without consulting a map. And as I happened upon MacArthur Park in the Hispanic neighbourhood of Westlake, where old men and families gathered to play and watch the orange light of the setting sun illuminate the downtown skyline in the distance, I knew what he meant.
That night, I was escorted back to my hotel in West Hollywood by 300 bicyclists who had met up downtown for a Critical Mass ride. At a stop, I got talking to a guy who rode a six-foot-tall bike while wearing a tutu and an army jacket. I asked him if biking in the streets of L.A. was a daily battle against cars.
"It's more of a beginner bike thing that people think it's a war zone and that it's really dangerous," Matthew Simmons, a 30-year-old paparazzo, told me. "When I first started riding, I got into some confrontations with motorists, but after a while you tend to get used to what pisses cars off and avoid it." And what is that? Mainly, he says, if you're moving too slow, they'll yell at you to ride on the sidewalk - which he points out is legal in Los Angeles. "But that's sort of reserved for the really old dudes on mountain bikes that ride 20 miles to work on the sidewalk."
Pulling over at North La Cienega Boulevard, the steep street that would deliver me to my bed, I became once again a lone rider, rolling past an unending chain of steel carriages. Glancing back at the distant darkness though, where the bike horde had already disappeared from view, I didn't feel alone.
Where to rent bikes
Beverly Hills Bike Shop 854 South Robertson Blvd.; (310) 275-2453; bhbikeshop.com. Hybrids $25 (U.S.) a day, five days $100; road bikes from $50 a day. The shop lends hybrids for city touring and will soon bring in a stock of road bikes. Col de Sag Coldesag.com; 323-254-1043. Call it bespoke bicycle touring: This company does everything to set up private bike tours short of actually pedalling. They can set up a romantic ride for two through the city ending with a picnic ($150 (U.S.) including food). Perry's Beach Café and Rentals 310-939-0000; www.perryscafe.com. Bikes from $9 (U.S.) per hour, $25 per day. With eight locations along the coast, this mini-chain is a good place to get set up for your boardwalk beach ride. They also offer guided tours for groups of three or more. [-rule-]
Where to stay Andaz West Hollywood 8401 Sunset Blvd.; 323-656-1234; westhollywood.hyatt.com. From $223. This second edition of Hyatt's new boutique brand was updated this January from its previous incarnation as the "Riot Hyatt," where bands like Led Zeppelin came to crash after playing the Sunset Strip. Redesigned with elegance and fitted with eye-catching art, amenities include a rooftop pool with ambient music and daybeds, and a hotel restaurant run by French-trained chef Sebastien Archambault.
Bicycle routes and transit in Los Angeles County http://metro.net/riding_metro/maps/images/la_bike_map.pdf Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition http://la-bike.org Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange (C.I.C.L.E.) www.cicle.org Midnight Ridazz cycle activists www.midnightridazz.com
Special to The Globe and Mail