A Visit to London’s Original Cycling Cafe

Cycling is social. Riders have stories to swap, advice to share, fine points to debate, and what better setting than the time-honored locus of loitering and conversation: the café?

Among the best known of a newish crop of bicycle-themed cafes cum clubhouses is Look Mum No Hands! located along a busy cycling thoroughfare in Islington. It’s the spot that the London Cyclist recommended for our recent interview about the cycling scene there.

Hip, Yet Homey Vibe

The key to Look Mum’s appeal, aside from its charming name, seems to be a rare combination of hip, homey and inclusive. If you’re traveling on two wheels, you can nerd out on all things bicycling — the cycling caps and bags for sale, the bikes and memorabilia that decorate the walls, the racks of magazines. If you’re not, you can still tip a beer (the house brand is called Slag) or a Square Mile espresso while savoring a made-fresh-daily hot British beef, Stilton and ale pie and salad.

On a weekend afternoon , cyclists of all tribes could be seen steering off Old Street and into Look Mum’s roomy courtyard to rack their bikes along a wall decorated with posters for Rouleur. They greeted friends seated at long tables outdoors, while the chairs and tables inside were being re-arranged for viewing of a cycling race on TV. Not surprisingly, the schedule on the shop’s website this week lists all Olympic cycling all the time, while the front window is decorated in a gold medal theme (above). The shop also screens cycling films and hosts special events such as the London launch of Levi’s Commuter Jeans.

But this is also a place to get your bike fixed. Look Mum offers floor pumps and a box of basic tools at the entry and a stand in the courtyard for customers’ use. You can pay to have a flat fixed, or the staff will sell you a tube and show you how to do it yourself. In addition, a full-service shop in the basement provides bicycle repairs and maintenance and teaches monthly bicycle maintenance workshops.

Hanging with the Bike-Minded

With its good vibe and sensible amenities and services, Look Mum represents a certain ideal. If you love cycling, wouldn’t you want to stop in and hang out with the bike-minded? It makes me crave an NYC clone.  But this kind of an enterprise requires space — to park bikes, operate a shop and a kitchen, set up tables and seating — and the cost of real estate in NYC may go a long way toward explaining our own current shortage of similarly convivial outposts.

Will ‘Ride-Through’ Be Next?

Among the teasers was the Rapha Cycle Club, the British bicycling apparel firm’s pop-up shop on the Bowery two summers ago. During its three-month run, it served as a clubhouse where cyclists could grab a good cup of coffee, browse bicycling publications, shop for clothing and accessories, and attend special events.

Since then, a permanent Rapha cafe has landed in San Francisco, another launched in London in time for the Olympics, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Rapha finds the right real estate deal in the Big Apple. In the mean time, Red Lantern Cycles in Brooklyn, which opened last spring, became New York City’s first permanent cycling café, joining the U.S. party started more than a decade ago by Sedona Bike & Bean in Arizona and followed more recently by Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington, MA and Heritage in Chicago.

And who knows, with everyday cycling gaining traction in urban centers around the country, cycling café chains (ride-up windows anyone?) may eventually emerge as the next new thing on the horizon. Starbucks had to start some place, too.

Photo above: Yu Fujiwara, others velojoy

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