“I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like,” sang Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett.
“It’s got a basket, a bell that rings, and things to make it look good.”
I too now have a bike, on which I travel daily to the beijingkids offices.
Bell that rings? Well, it has what, for want of a better word, I am forced to describe as a horn. However it doesn’t emit a honk, or even a beep, but more of a bewildered squeak, befitting of my lowly status on the road.
Things to make it look good? Err… did I mention the basket?
What my bike does have that Syd Barrett’s didn’t is a battery-powered motor, so that I am spared from any but the mildest of physical exercise. Fear not though, my finger muscles get a good workout from gripping the handlebars in terror as I weave through the Beijing traffic.
My excuse for this is laziness that I intended to take my sons home from school using it. Even as I type these words, I am laughing, hollow, ironic laughter at my former optimistic naivety. Carry two passengers, healthy, well-fed boys aged 10 and 7?
I can barely get myself home unscathed.
Riding through Beijing seemed at first like one of those fiendishly difficult “scrolling shooter” arcade games of the early 90s, when you have to guide your fragile spacecraft at high speed through clouds of bullets, bombs and laser bolts. As with those games, the only way to survive is to learn the patterns, recognize the danger points.
Like that place by Tuanjiehu where a swarm of tuk-tuks will emerge from the subway station and ride the wrong way up the road all at the same time, for example.
“I feel more of a man when I get with the herd,” as Julian Cope said, and like wildebeest on the Serengeti, we Beijing cyclists seek safety in numbers. Even the buses have to give way as we surge majestically across the ring roads in our hundreds.
And of course we have the city’s wonderful cycle paths, a safe haven for all of us on bikes. And trikes. And tuk-tuks, and delivery vehicles and mobility scooters and hoverboards. And pedestrians. And cars. So, so many cars. Which leads to existential contemplation: if a cycle path is full of cars, is it still a cycle path? Is it not, in the end, just a path?
Such are the thoughts which occupy me as I trundle along, scraping the soles from my trainers with the scuffling half-run required to squeeze through the gaps between taxis and trucks. Yet for all the dirt, and danger, and worn-out footwear, there’s a sense of freedom, of belonging, particularly when riding at night. It has cut my commute time in half, and I no longer have to spend two hours a day with my nose wedged in a stranger’s armpit.
The city is, if not exactly my oyster, then at the very least my whelk.
All I have to do now is glue my oven gloves to the handlebars, and I’ll be a proper Beijinger.
Photo: Andrew Killeen