Travel: The City of Angels on two wheels

Think of Los Angeles and gas-guzzling cars on seven-lane freeways spring to mind. But Iain Millar, undeterred, cycled through the smog

`It's not a pedestrian place - you do have to have a car to get anywhere." So said Madonna to Johnny Vaughan on TV the other week. If the victor always gets the spoils then Henry Ford must have KO'd Los Angeles with a sucker-punch in the first round. Seven-lane freeways, irregular buses, no suburban railways worth writing home about and cabs that won't stop when you shout at them in the street. If you're on foot, you're on welfare. Four wheels good, no wheels ridiculous, but two wheels...? Maybe, just maybe, LA had more to offer to the pedal-powered visitor than its Buicked-and-bitumened-boulevard myth lets on. I was going cycling in the city of cars.

The facts belie the myth. LA is the city where nicotine equals narcotic and the personal trainer and the plastic surgeon have a celebrity cult all of their own. From my base by Venice Beach, I was minutes away from the South Bay Bicycle Trail, which runs for 22 miles along the coast, from Will Rogers State Beach in the north to Torrance in the south.

Venice itself hangs on to an air of faded boho counter-culture - imagine Camden Town had a blind date with Glastonbury and went on an away-day to Southend. Jerry Garcia-lookalikes lurk by tie-died, waif-like young women singing Joni Mitchell for nickels and dimes from tourists. Every other shop is a cheap T-shirt and sunglasses boutique and a scruffy man and his boa constrictor loll against a booth bearing a sign saying "Get your picture with a big snake".

As I pedal up the winding cycle path, Pacific breakers roll in to the shoreline to my left, and I'm nearly knocked sideways by a Rollerblading rabbi, a dead ringer for Orson Welles, who leads a sinusoid string of skating young men towards a brightly coloured building marked "The Shul on the Beach - Pacific Jewish Center - www.pjcenter". The Shul is next door to Gingerbread Court, a new-ageish mall selling crystals, marijuana paraphernalia and hands-on healing. Nearby, two Muslims are flying an acid-coloured kite. This is spirituality in a shopping basket. Glenn Hoddle could be happy here.

Of course, we've all been watching LA all of our lives - Hollywood and the big TV players have seen to that. So why am I cycling up a Californian beach with no sign of David Hasselhoff or Pamela Anderson? The only lifeguard I can find looks like Harry Dean Stanton's down-at-heel brother and he's not talking. As I ride up to him, he gets into his big, red four-wheel- drive and trundles off across the sand. Maybe he can only see you if you're bronzed and worked-out. I'm skinny, Scots and sunburned (who needs factor 25 in February?) and probably didn't register on his consciousness.

Back on the path and heading south, I'm passed by a skater who's trying to prove the validity of Lamarck over Darwin - he's being towed by a husky. The beast's tongue is working overtime and its eyes are calling out for Alaska. The skater is wearing the shortest of cut-off denims; the dog is wearing a fur coat.

Back past Venice, the path heads away from the beach, up Washington Street, to circle the world's largest artificial small-boat harbour at Marina del Rey. Storks wheel overhead looking like scale-model pterodactyls, while below skaters push the storks' deliveries in designer three-wheeled buggies.

On from the harbour, the ocean's soft-throated roar is quickly drowned out. Los Angeles International Airport is just inland and the jets circle back to head east or scream out to sea. The view over the bay would be inspiring if it wasn't for the smog, and just down the path from the airport is one contributor - the refinery at El Segundo. On a patch of grass overlooking the beach, Hispanic refinery workers sit on white plastic garden furniture eating their lunch, looking longingly at the jets. This was getting too depressing. The cycle path was too safe. I had come to LA to take on the hegemony of the car. It was time to take to the roads.

It's around noon on the following Sunday. I haven't eaten since 6am. I have ridden upwards of 20 miles. I'm on an endorphin high and a blood- sugar low, standing outside the former home of America's most notorious "not-guilty" defendant with a gaggle of Lycra-clad Angelinos - including an 83-year-old ex-TV director who is planning to cycle around Norway. If I'd bought cheap angel dust from one of the Charlie Manson-lookalikes on Venice Beach, I could have put it down to the hallucinations. But this is happening. This is recreational riding with the LA Wheelmen.

I'd set off to meet the Wheelmen at the crack of dawn. Maybe the Sunday drivers were just thin on the ground, but getting across the city seemed little different to cycling through London, Edinburgh or Newcastle. Some give you a wide berth, others just miss the edge of your pedals - same old perils of city cycling.

The Wheelmen, from LA's oldest social cycling club, now in its 55th year, were waiting at their usual meeting place, in a small park just off Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Kermit, the club vice-president, was planning a hill-climbing ride for the more experienced riders - but they had different plans for me. I was the visiting British journalist and they had a special treat lined up. The easier group was heading down to Santa Monica via Brentwood, one of LA's more exclusive districts - and former home to one Orenthal James Simpson. Club treasurer Bill Meyers is to be my guide and there's no time to worry about the ghoulish nature of the tour because we're off at a pace that makes me dread to think what agonies Kermit's hill-climbers must be going through.

We wind down through Beverly Hills towards Brentwood, and Bill and I are lagging further and further behind. The only rider behind us - and he's only just behind us - is 83-year-old Bob - and he'd had chemo for cancer just last year. Bill couldn't have been more patient - but by the time we got to our grizzly destination, my legs were like lead and my head was spinning. The original house has been demolished by the new owner, the telegraph poles drip ringlets of leftover cabling from the media coverage, and the Beverly Hills cops are prone to ticket those who linger too long.

We stopped at a fast-food joint and I inhaled burger after burger - restoring my energy just enough to listen to my fellow riders' stories. There was 73-year-old Lou Sirota, still carrying a bullet from a shooting in his grocery store; Pamela Farina, 25, only six months in LA and working for an animation studio; and, of course, Bob Hiestand, the octogenarian with the physique of a 60-year-old. They had all put me to shame.

Dorothy Parker called Los Angeles "72 suburbs in search of a city". If you drive through its sprawl, it is inevitable that the car-culture mentality is going to put its own spin on your viewpoint. But if you want to take a closer look, there's room enough for a few more cyclists yet. Hang on Kermit, I'm coming back. And next time, I'm heading for the hills.

LOS ANGELES

GETTING THERE

Iain Millar flew to Los Angeles with United Airlines (tel: 0845 8444 777). Economy return fares cost pounds 219 plus tax mid-week, pounds 249 plus tax at weekends. United is adding a second daily flight from 4 April.

GETTING A BIKE

Numerous outlets along the boardwalk between Santa Monica and Venice. Perry's (tel: 001 310 458 5566) has many branches and rents beach bikes from $6 per hour and tandems from $10. In-line skate hire and tuition is also available.

GETTING ABOUT

The LA Wheelmen hold weekly events around LA. Contact the president, MJ Grove, (tel: 001 310 556 7967; e-mail: mjgrove@ecn.com); or visit the website: http://home. earthlink.net/jcopley/

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