Friday, 24 May 2013


Since my search for a bike began there has been one constant: coffee. These are not related events per se, for coffee has always been a companion of mine. I should add that it’s only in recent years that I’ve embraced the drinking of coffee outside of the home with such enthusiasm, but it’s been going on long enough. Mind you, I don’t recall coffee shops or cafés featuring on those early rides with the Raleigh Record Ace, although I suppose they must have done. They were certainly present on my reconnaissance missions to East and North London, searching for potential bikes, and were very much to the fore once I started riding the Carlos.
            They have a practical purpose though, these pauses for caffeine. They provide a target, or a half way marker – or a two thirds marker. The idea on my longer rides is to select a destination at which to stop for coffee, to work out a way to get there and then find my way back via a different route – never go back on yourself.
            It’s hard, actually, because there are only so many directions in which I can feasibly travel. I am confined by geographical limitations, namely the River Thames to the south (decreeing I first head west or east if I want to explore Surrey), and Heathrow Airport and the M25 out west (a bleak and industrious restraint). Moving south-westwards through the corridor between M3 and the River Thames works well for me, and I will take it as far as Walton Bridge. By the time I’ve made it to Kingston – my allotted coffee point – I’ve covered almost 20 miles, including a 1.5 mile steady push up Hurst Road.  This route also benefits from a paucity of traffic lights and junctions.
If I want to explore south-eastwards then I usually ride through and circumnavigate Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common respectively.  I can move south fairly easily from there. Carlos-Weltschmerz’s next trip shall see it stab deep into the countryside, another jaunt in a southerly direction intended to reach out as far as Box Hill.
            The farthest north I travel is Ealing Broadway, and that’s invariably followed by a swing to the right which takes me along the Uxbridge Road towards Shepherd’s Bush and often on to High Street Kensington. It may also happen in reverse.
            For the most part I like to head eastward, which offers up the most interesting terrain – London basically, and its labyrinth of streets. The prevailing path of late has been straight into Waterloo, through Richmond, Putney, Wandsworth, Battersea Park and Vauxhall. It’s a fast trip with surprisingly few obstacles – one can attain quite some speed.
I like this about cycling, this peripatetic feature, and I can quite understand why some cyclists get into touring or randonneuring.

I’m not a caffeine snob and don’t at all mind drinking in places like Starbucks, Caffè Nero or Costa, so long as I like the territory and can look at nice things – or if the café in question faces in a direction that allows me to feel the warmth of the sun. I’ve alluded to a few of these already, like that Starbucks in Wimbledon village, a capacious establishment reminiscent of an All Bar One or a Pitcher and Piano – pubs I never willingly enter. Its walls are made of glass and it strikes me that most coffee shops like their walls to be made of glass, as much as is architecturally possible. I think this is because people like to feel connected with the outside world when they take a break for coffee (or tea, maybe cake). It’s as if they don’t want to separate their leisure time from the rest of the day, even if the rest of the day is all about their work. Maybe if these places were too dark, or too ostensibly sheared off from their environment, the clientele would find that too much and slink off into a leisurely reverie from which they would find it hard to recover. They want distraction but not so much that they get too comfortable, unable to settle back into a work related state of mind (that’s what pubs are for).
            Starbucks in Wimbledon, with its wooden interior, glazed frontage and not too difficult jazz, overlooks an unobjectionable high-street, and it makes for a satisfactory place to drink; the filter coffee just about passes muster. There’s a Starbucks in Chiswick that I’m rather partial to as well. Its shape and size restrict the copious use of glass, but I like to sit outside of that one anyhow: it’s south-facing.

Nero is where my mother likes to drink her coffee – she appreciates the double dose of caffeine. At Caffè Nero (with its pictures on the walls of people drinking coffee, to look at while you’re drinking coffee) I order a white Americano, but they never provide enough milk and I normally have to ask that they re-fill my thimble of a jug. They hit you hard for drinking inside too, which is why I never bother with their lattes – too expensive. I should probably avoid Nero on principle, but they’ve got some choice locations. The aforementioned branch on High Street Kensington next to Boots Chemist is my favourite, with its triangular outside seating area and railings, to which I can secure the bike.
            There’s a decent Caffè Nero in Fulham Broadway, opposite one of the best equipped Evans Cycles in the whole of London. Tables and chairs ring the perimeter and the pedestrianized zone that separates it from Evans Cycles makes for a calming experience. However, the adjacent bike racks are normally overpopulated and finding alternative solutions can be a bit of a fag.
At Costa I am in the habit of drinking lattes. Many cafés top their lattes with too much froth but Costa don’t tend to, and I approve of the fact that they won’t charge you extra for drinking-in. There are only a few Costas I frequent, though. The first is in Ealing around the back of the mall. Its generous outside seating area is frequented by gentlemen of Middle Eastern and/or North African descent, talking and smoking. Inside is the stalking ground of the mother and child, and it is gloomy and unappealing.
            My favourite Costa is the one just across from Embankment Tube Station, although there are no obvious anchors for your bike. Interior wise, it’s quite small, but I like the intimacy.
Wimbledon Village also has a passable Costa.

Really, though, it is the independent cafés that I like to offer my patronage, and trips to Kingston-upon-Thames always involve establishments such as these. After a particularly brutal cycle out to Walton-on-Thames, I recently discovered The Terrace on Apple Market. The Americano was of a very high standard and charged for at a reasonable rate, and I was given hot milk without even having to ask.
            Then there’s the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank; awful coffee but a brilliant view.
            Kew Greenhouse Café in Kew is another good one, although as my rides have become longer it’s been harder to accommodate.
            And so on…

Coffee has strong associations with cycling – probably something to do with its robust Italian heritage. I ride an Italian bike. I’ve been to Italy twice. I would like to go there again.
            British riders used to be encouraged to ride British bikes, and not without justification. This wasn’t loose jingoism: we used to make very high quality bikes and Reynolds steel was – and maybe still is – considered (the Italian) Columbus’s equal. You may recall that the Raleigh Record Ace was made from Reynolds steel, and it is a bike that I think of with fondness. Those early rides were something of a revelation and set me on the path that has led me to where I am now.
            There have been other British bikes I’ve looked at along the way. Some I’ve mentioned, like the (allegedly) stolen Holdsworth, and others I’ve not (out of compassion for my readership). I’ve never been biased one way or another and I’m only riding Italian because the Romani is the bike I’ve come across that most suits my needs.
            But I’ve been to Italy twice and would like to go there again. I think it would be a nice idea to ride the Romani in the L’Eroica, assuming it meets the criteria: no cleats; shifters on the down-tube; manufactured no later than 1987 (although the Romani might well be). It would be like some sort of homecoming.
            I’ve heard that certain travel companies have started putting together package tours centred around the annual L’Eroica race in Tuscany. You don’t even have to worry about the bike because they will hire you one on the day. What do you think of that?  What do you think of people – people who might not ordinarily own a bike that qualifies – throwing some tour operator a wedge of money and flying to Italy to impose themselves on an event geared towards those with a genuine affection for vintage bicycles?


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