Bicycling tourists would be a disaster, they said. They would come a cropper on Hyde Park Corner and be petrified at Piccadilly. Elephant and Castle? It didn't bear thinking about. But they're fine, the tourists, pelotons of whom have embraced London's "Boris" rental bikes without major mishap.
Now, as visitor numbers peak during the Olympics (in defiance of the background grumbling of frustrated drivers) and with Kilburn-raised Bradley Wiggins inflating civic pride by clinching the Tour de France, there's a sense that London is on the road at least to becoming a proper bike-friendly city. Even the much-despised "Zil lanes" will have little impact on the average cycling tourist – and the only Olympic road closure that is likely to inconvenience cyclists is the Mall between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square.
Hotels, too, are waking up to the boom. The InterContinental London Park Lane includes complimentary Boris bike rental and, on request and subject to availability, a weekend package that includes a guided tour of the capital with the renowned cycling writer, Rob Penn.
Other hotels are tempting Olympic guests with the use of their own bikes. The Sanderson, near Tottenham Court Road, and its equally swish sister, St Martins, off Trafalgar Square, have gone an extra mile by providing stylish fold-out maps printed with half a dozen self-guided tours. Cleverly devised by theme, they cover much of the city, avoiding, where possible, some of the hairier roads and junctions. "Fashion and Cake", the shortest circuit, at 2.5 miles, takes in Savile Row and Selfridges, the department store, and the trendy Nordic Bakery (the cinnamon buns will take some working off, but are not to be missed). The design-and-architecture tour nudges nine miles and winds between old and new, passing St Paul's and the capital's freshest, sharpest landmark, the Shard skyscraper at London Bridge.
But, this being the summer of pomp and spectacle, my fellow cyclist, Jess, and I swallowed our inner republicanism and chose the six-mile royal tour. If nothing else, it took in long stretches of parks Hyde, Green and St James's – perfect for a sunny Saturday morning – and offered a more sedate preview of some of the roads that will host the finish of this weekend's Olympic road races (fingers crossed for Mark Cavendish).
First, though, we had to sign away our lives. London's roads may be safer than media coverage of accidents here might suggest, but no hotel is going to send guests on to the streets without first asking them to sign a disclaimer. We did so at the Sanderson's vast reception desk in its cavernous lobby – full of bold, bespoke furniture – that has, next door, the Purple Bar, which is designed to look like the interior of a jewellery box. The hotel occupies a former textiles factory in the heart of Fitzrovia, one of those places few Londoners could point to on a map (it's off the grotty end of Oxford Street, if you can picture that). Among the city's slicker offerings, it was designed by Philippe Starck and became one of the first boutique joints to occupy the itineraries of the fashion forward and the jet set.
It wasn't clear who among the diners at Suka, the hotel's restaurant which majors in Malaysian street food, were staying overnight, but the Sanderson didn't strike us as the sort of place where guest bicycles would be in high demand. I'm told it's hard to pedal in Louboutins. Reception, however, reported occasional interest as we checked out of our room, where net curtains of the seductive sort served as walls, and a giant egg sculpture sat on the floor, serving neither as a pouffe nor a perch.
Forms signed, we were offered helmets, fluorescent bibs and the keys to decent D-locks. The bikes had been advertised as classy Dutch affairs, upright and stately. But we were presented with utilitarian hybrids hastily adorned with Sanderson stickers. Not the coolest, perhaps, but ideal for city riding. The map, produced in conjunction with A Hedonist's Guide, was reasonably detailed but even with a decent knowledge of London's geography, I occasionally reached for my smartphone for a closer look.
We pointed our wheels westwards first, before dropping through Marble Arch and into Hyde Park, past a silent Speaker's Corner. Bike lanes helped us negotiate Hyde Park Corner before we wheeled on to Constitution Hill through Green Park. Things quickly become very regal here as you creep up on Buckingham Palace and its ring of perfect tulips. We paused at the Victoria Memorial, its marble and gold newly scrubbed and buffed for a summer in which all eyes have been on London. A detour off the Mall (itself currently off limits) takes in Clarence House, where Prince Charles and Prince Harry hang out when they're not doing official things. Neither man was around for tea but we had plans anyway, paving the way forward, before ducking into St James's Park.
I cycle in London almost every day and have never taken it so easy, but rather enjoyed the pace as we retrieved the tea the Sanderson had packed into Jess's basket. As much as I like a chocolate petit four and a posh sandwich, both of which were delicious, £30 per person seemed a little steep.
Restored, we rode by Westminster Abbey, arriving with rather less fanfare than the Duchess of Cambridge had done a year earlier. Onwards up Whitehall and Downing Street to Trafalgar Square, we continued north before arriving back at the hotel with limbs in place and barely even flustered. Playing tourists in our own city by bike had been a bit of a busman's holiday, but also a joy at every turn. London may not be Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but with the right route and, crucially, weather, there can be no nicer way to explore.
The Sanderson Hotel, 50 Berners Street, London W1 (020-7300 1400; sandersonlondon.com) has doubles from £199 per night, including breakfast. Complimentary bike hire is available; download maps from morganshotelgroup.com.
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Not only does the US capital boast surprisingly leafy urban boulevards – Washingtonians are remarkably tolerant of cyclists on the pavements. Capital Bikeshare has 110 "stables" dotted around town, with $5 (£3.50) buying a full day of freewheeling from one great attraction to the next – so long as no single trip is longer than 30 minutes.
One to avoid...
Despite the city being almost entirely flat, it's hard to hire bicycles in St Petersburg. The reason? Appalling traffic. So unless you fancy being mown down by a Hummer on Nevsky Prospekt, it's probably safest to stick to shanks' pony.
...and one for the future?
New York's long-awaited bike scheme was due to launch this month. However, despite Citigroup being announced as its key sponsor in May, the scheme has now been postponed until August.Reuse content