Not too long ago, foreigners laughed at Britain’s efforts in professional cycling and scowled at the terrible instant coffee served in its cafés. Today, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins are leading riders on the world stage, while a London barista, Gwilym Davies, was last year’s world champion at the coffee industry’s top competition.
Might the capital’s new-found confidence in the worlds of cycling and coffee explain why so many “cycling cafés” are springing up? In a single week in May, three appeared in London – Look Mum No Hands!, Micycle and the Rapha Cycle Club – the latest in a string of openings over the past two years. In continental Europe, cyclists have always made time to stop for a caffeine boost at roadside cafés, but these London ventures are more focused, typically offering a bike repair workshop, bike parking space, cycling magazines and a big screen for watching the Tour de France and other races.
“We wanted to get away from the slightly surly atmosphere you get in many bike shops,” says Matthew Hilton, an interior designer who founded Micycle with his wife Penny. They rented a shop on a cycle route in Islington, north London, and now use the shaded garden behind it as a free bike-washing, parking and seating area. Customers can borrow tools to fix their own bikes, while an exchange scheme for children’s bikes has proved a hit. Meanwhile, the café serves Hilton’s own blend of coffee beans from Colombia and Papua New Guinea.
After years of feeling marginalised by drivers, things are looking up for the capital’s cyclists. New “cycle superhighways” are this month being marked out on key commuting roads, and the citywide cycle-hire scheme launches on July 30. Now cyclists have their own venues for socialising, too.
On Old Street, on the northern fringe of the city’s business district, Look Mum No Hands! seems to have achieved overnight success – it is busy from breakfast until it closes at 10pm. Free wifi encourages visitors to linger and enjoy excellent coffee produced by a refurbished Faema machine – a lovely touch, even if you don’t remember that the Milanese espresso machine maker used to sponsor Eddy Merckx.
The Rapha Cycle Club on Clerkenwell Road offers a space more akin to an art gallery than a café. Rapha is an upmarket cycle clothing brand and a selection of its products, including gingham shirts specially tailored for cycling, hangs beside shelves of cycling books and big screens. A classic Citroën HY van doubles as a changing room. The “club”, which is in fact free and open to all, also hosts photographic exhibitions, and acts as the start and finish point for weekly after-work rides. A second venue opened on Bowery in New York last weekend.
“Coffee is embedded in road-racing cycling culture, from Italian cyclists stopping for espresso to the café owned by Lance Armstrong in Austin, Texas,” says Simon Mottram, Rapha’s founder. And, though the Rapha clubs are “pop-ups” that will close at the end of the summer, the trend continues. New Zealand-based coffee company Allpress, which like Rapha sponsors a pro-cycling team, will open a roasting centre and café in London in September, with one unique attraction. Anyone in Allpress team cycling kit will get their coffee for free.
Micycle, 47 Barnsbury Street, N1, www.micycle.org.uk
Look Mum No Hands!, 49 Old Street, EC1, www.lookmumnohands.com
Rapha Cycle Club, 146 Clerkenwell Road, EC1, www.rapha.cc
Allpress Espresso (opens September), 58 Redchurch Street, E2, www.allpressespresso.com