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After a ride, a reward: a cupcake in the Echo Park neighbourhood.
After a ride, a reward: a cupcake in the Echo Park neighbourhood.

L.A. on two wheels Add to ...

"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.

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