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Cycling in Los Angeles: How this family explored America’s second largest city

In a quirky little piece published back in 2009, the LA Weekly announced that Los Angeles had more cars than people. With spaghetti junctions and wild Hollywood car chases flashing before us, it was with some trepidation that the family signed up to explore Los Angeles by bicycle.

Launched on an eco-tourism platform in 2010, Bikes & Hikes LA fits pretty neatly into the Los Angeles ethos of health, fitness and sustainability – and, not surprisingly, the company chose trendy West Hollywood for its base. From there, its “LA in a Day” cycle tour takes in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Santa Monica, Venice Beach and Culver City – and notably not Downtown or the I-10 East.

Decked out in flattering fluoro-yellow vests, our party of five followed guide Eric like ducklings, single file, down the bike lane of Santa Monica Boulevard. This wasn’t really my vision of the promised bike lanes – racing four lanes of SUVs – but at least the bike allocation is generously wide, and after less than a block we diverted into side streets.

“Move to LA and you can’t swing a cat without hitting an actor,” according to Backstage magazine. To be sure, Eric had all the skills – a big loud voice, confidence in swathes, a repertoire of local jokes and anecdotes, and a remarkable and disconcerting resemblance to a recent reality TV star. While providing plenty of entertainment, he took his job seriously, however, and shepherded us around with military precision. None of us would have dared overlook a pothole or fail to notice an approaching vehicle.

Sadly, we may have been a bit of a disappointment to Eric, as many of his blockbuster references met blank stares – we would all fail the Entertainment questions in Trivial Pursuit. Regardless, an hour spent exploring the grounds of the Doheny family’s magnificent Greystone Mansion, overlooking the sprawl of the city, was fascinating – and later had us all trawling iTunes for months to catch scenes that had been filmed there. The real history of the infamous family – including the search for oil, and the scandalous events that played out at the mansion – is true Hollywood drama and was brought to screen in 2007’s There Will Be Blood.

In glorious winter sunshine, bicycles proved ideal to wend our way through the deserted streets of Beverly Hills. We were not in the least envious of the few tourist coaches we passed, nor the clichéd American Cadillacs and limos – we could see more than their passengers could, and moved at a better speed. Slowly enough, in fact, to spot Paris Hilton’s hot pink stretch limo parked behind a thick hedge, confirming for Eric a hot rumour that Nicky Hilton had indeed been the recent buyer of the property.

Between Beverly Hills and the coast is some distance on two wheels, but it’s flat, and tootling through residential backstreets made us feel almost local. We hit the beach west of Santa Monica, by which time we were ravenous and desperately hoping the tour allowed for a coffee stop. Sadly it didn’t, which we noted in post-tour feedback, so we joined the throng enjoying the famous waterfront boardwalk.

Flat, easy cycling on a dedicated path took us along past the famous Santa Monica Pier, iconic waterfront hotels, outdoor gyms and skate-parks, the luridly painted Muscle Beach Gym, and on to Venice Beach, where we gratefully parked bikes for a pre-ordered wrap and a fresh juice. In the potentially bewildering muddle of food and drink offerings at Venice Beach, having this on tap was welcome, though Bikes & Hikes’ sustainability imperatives must be challenged by the quantity of packaging the provider used!

From Venice, it was straight to the canals – the remnant waterways of an ambitious early-20th-century developer’s plan to recreate Venice in America. Expensive houses now line the canals after years of neglect, yet it must be one of the most difficult places in the city to keep a car; perhaps the residents maintain boats instead – at neighbouring Marina Del Ray, for example, which is packed with glamorous yachts and cruisers.

While technically still bike-trail, the return journey west covers some dull territory initially. Concrete Ballona Creek looks like the set for the car race in Grease, but the route is efficient and we emerge 15 carless kilometres later in the heart of Culver City. Long home to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and now numerous industry peers, Culver City has played a key role in LA’s movie history. The MGM building itself has appeared in many films, including Gone with the Wind – one that even we had seen, to Eric’s evident relief.

The sun was shining on this new-year Saturday for our ride back to the Bikes & Hikes headquarters. We passed the budget end of Beverly Hills (largely wooden bungalows east of Santa Monica Boulevard), and the elite shops and restaurants of West Hollywood, where rainbow flags and some eye-catching outfits signalled weekend, with the resident gay community ready to party.

A little saddle sore, we’d covered 55km of largely car-free Los Angeles. There had been no evidence of smog, we’d only seen one motor vehicle incident, and we all agreed it was a pretty good way to get up close and personal with the city. And judging from our experience, while there might be more cars than people in LA, in the city’s west there must be nearly as many bicycles.

Fast Facts

Trips are run every day according to demand. Bikes and Hikes LA offers alternative days if weather prevents your tour proceeding, or a full refund.

This story first appeared in Expat Living’s August 2015 issue.

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