TENS of thousands of cyclists swamped the streets of London yesterday for the city's biggest ever bike ride.
The centre of the UK capital was crammed with smiling faces as young families, hardened roadies, laid back BMXers, wizened mountain bikers and Brompton fiends all got on their bikes. Some 38,000 people had registered for London Freewheel, which saw a 14km circuit of the capital shut to traffic.
The official participants could be spotted on the day by their bright red vests and streamer decorated bikes. But, while final figures have yet to be released, thousands more joined in without signing up. Registrations had been closed a week ago, when Transport for London announced the Freewheel had reached capacity.
Members of the London Cycling Campaign and other experienced cyclists volunteered to help out for the day, leading rides in from the suburbs. They also provided a roving puncture repair service, complete with free inner tubes, to cyclists unlucky enough to succumb to a flat tyre.
The Eskenazis, originally from Montreal but now living in Northwest London, were one of many young families who took advantage of the car-free streets.
Speaking to Bikeradar.com near Big Ben, Dad Jem said they'd signed up after seeing the Freewheel advertised at a Tube station.
"We ride a lot on weekends. I certainly wouldn't let my kids ride on the streets, it's still too dangerous."
Mum Pamela said: "I biked in Montreal all the time - I was younger too!
The roads are wider there - there's room for parking, people are more relaxed. The roads are narrow here and biking is being encouraged, but there's nowhere secure to lock up your bike."
Young Max Eskenazi, eight, and Jemima, four, were also enjoying themselves. Max had seen a BMX display at the Freewheel's Festival site in St James's Park and was keen to show off the trick he had learnt. His parents said it made a nice change to be able to cycle safely in London.
"Today has been great," Jem added.
Further along the route Corsican Laurent Grossi, 32, was earning many admiring glances thanks to his classic Pashley cycle. But what passers by didn't know was that the gleaming bike was so shiny because Laurent had only just learnt to ride it. In fact, he'd only been out half a dozen times before the Freewheel, cycling in Ireland with his partner John Fingleton back in July.
Laurent, who lives in W1, said: "I was under a lot of pressure! John really likes to ride so I thought I should learn. I found it a bit challenging."
John said: "Laurent was learning in Ireland in July and it was quite hilly. He was riding my bike, which has 24 gears, and it was a bit much, so we got this bike from Velorution."
Searching, but not quite finding the right phrase to describe how he felt about the day in English, Laurent added: "It's unleashing the power of your happiness on the bike. London is a great city and just seeing it from a bike without being threatened to be killed by a taxi or a bus is great."
Taking in the view of London Bridge were friends Ellie Moss, Sacha Alleyne, and Sarah Buttwell. The trio, who all live in Ilford, had borrowed bikes from friends to take part.
Sacha said: "I saw it advertised in London on the buses and on the Tube and I told Sarah about it."
"And I told Ellie about it," Sarah, 21, interrupted, cheerily.
"It's the first time I've ridden since I was 16," continued Sacha, who admitted to being "about 30" but refused to be drawn any further.
"We're really enjoying it," Ellie, also 21, told Bikeradar.com.
Sarah was sporting a fetching helmet decorated to look like a turquoise ladybird - complete with spring antenna, which she'd bought in a street market in Taiwan,
Sacha, meanwhile, was wearing his friend's wife's helmet.
"For me the fun part is cycling through in the crowd," he added.
After completing the circuit, many cyclists took time out to relax in St James's Park.
Peter Boothman, who lives with his family in Wood Green, had covered the whole route with daughters Megan, seven, and Lillian, who told Bikeradar.com she was "eight, nearly nine". The trio were joined in the park by the girls' brother Max, four, and mum Ruth Powell.
"We all go out very locally," said Ruth. "There are some quiet roads near where the children can practise."
Peter said: "The only problem we encountered today was that we'd planned to travel from our local train station into King's Cross but the train was so full of bikes we decided to cycle and get on at Finsbury Park." For the girls the highlight of the day was the designated noisy section of the route, when they rang their bells and yelled as they passed through tunnels. Lillian said: "The loud zones were really fun."
Also unwinding in the park were friends Nick Probert and Bryony Inge, from Spitalfields, and Robbie Jefferiss from Barnes.
"It's been an excellent day - it's a very relaxed atmosphere." said Bryony, 26, who rides to work every day. "It's good to have a chance to cycle on the roads that are normally so full of traffic."
Nick, also 26, said: "Robbie told me about it last night and it sounded like fun." Robbie, 28, said: "It's been very well organised. I take part in Critical Mass and this has been like an official one.
"I heard one woman saying she couldn't believe how close it was between the Tube stops." Nick agreed: "The centre of London is so small, this helps people to realise that."
It had been too late for the trio to sign up, but they had no problems getting into the Freewheel and didn't think it was overcrowded.
Cyclists taking part were given a red vest with reflective strips and a variety of logos including "Easy Rider" and "Watch Out, The Bikes Are Coming".
They also got a gift set including a very noisy bell, a water bottle, and a set of Top Trump cards. The Freewheel cost Transport for London £1.5million, with another £600,000 coming from sponsors Hovis.