Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bicycle Culture in Bogota

I sold my bike in Bogota in January. The bike had been stored for a year and a half at my friend Estela's house. I had hoped that she would use it, but she didn't because she never learned to ride a bike. So I sold it rather than having it gathering dust and taking up space. This is my starting point for some musings on what my bike meant to me, and as a reflection on bike culture in Bogota.

My bike had always been my primary means of transport, riding it to university, to work, to the gym, hauling groceries home in a backpack, on the carrier rack and in the basket. It is amazing the number of things you can transport strapped to your bike. More than once I have had to stop to collect groceries that were trying to make a break for it, notably ice cream skidding across the road.

The bicycle is a very proletariat means of transport in Bogota; it is not something that the upper classes would use on a daily basis. I would be met with disbelief when I would ask for the bike parking area at the grocery store. What was a foreign woman doing riding a bike in that city? I rode my bike all over the place in Bogota. An extensive network of bike paths (ciclorutas) crosses the city but they are not without challenges. At any point you might encounter broken glass, gaps in the pavement, and the path itself might disappear for a few blocks in some places.

Maintenance on the bike paths was not very consistent. I once saw a little kid ride his bike into an open manhole on the bike path behind the Carrefour store on Calle 80. The child broke his front teeth. It was a terrible accident, although it could have been worse. How many children have to drown when they are swept after falling into open manholes? By the question itself, you can tell that the answer is more than one. The recent cases in January this year and October last year, spring to mind, and they were not the first incidents.

If you ride your bike enough, you will eventually have some kind of accident. I had two bad crashes on my bike, both were the result of swerving so as not to hit pedestrians who were walking on the bike path. On one occasion I hit a streetlight post, on the other I collided head-on with a cyclist who was coming in the opposite direction. In neither case did the pedestrians whose presence caused the accident offer any assistance. In both cases I (and the other cyclist) walked away with only minor cuts and bruises. Bike helmets are obligatory for everyone in Bogota, a measure that I support.

Don Esteban
I rode my bike hard. Don Esteban would do my bike maintenance. Every Sunday he would be found at his post at the entrance to Parque Simón Bolívar, a prime location. During the week he would set up shop on a corner of the local square. He custom-built the mudguards for my bike, managed to affix the wonky carrier rack, fixed the flats, tightened the chain, adjusted the gears, rewired the brakes, and generally kept everything in running order. You can find people like him all along the bike routes.

Bogota's Ciclovías
On Sunday mornings a number of main arteries close at least one way lane to traffic for use by cyclists, joggers, roller bladers. I love the idea, even though in practice you might be riding alongside diesel-fuelled trucks and buses in the next lanes. The ciclovía is always nicer and less crowded first thing in the morning, and the serious cyclists go out early. There is something revitalizing about an early Sunday morning ride, with a stop for freshly squeezed orange juice. This was also my New Year's Day ritual. Not being a big fan of New Year's Eve parties, I'd be up bright and early on New Year's Day for a bike ride around the city. The roads were always pretty empty that day. I guess I won't be continuing that ritual in Canada.

On the weekends, packs of cyclists may be seen training on the roads.

Nestled high in the Andes, the rough, steeply inclined roads of the departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá have produced a number of world class cyclists, most recently Nairo Quintana who placed second in the 2013 Tour de France, taking the awards for the mountain classification and the best young cyclist (age 23).

I wish I could find the video interview I saw a couple of years ago of the parents of an up-and-coming cyclist who had just had a break-through win. The parents were subsistence potato farmers, being interviewed at their cottage in Boyacá. In the interview the couple is painfully humble. They are glowing with pride at their son's achievement, but abashed before the cameras and in the face of all the attention. They must have poured everything they had into buying bikes for their son so that he could compete. But they would have understood the mystique. The roads of Boyacá are lined with young men on bikes who dream about being the next wearer of the polka-dot jersey. This is an attainable goal in a breeding ground for champions made possible by an accident of topography.

On the days that they can't train on the road, many cyclists get up early in the morning and use the track that goes around the Virgilio Barco Library (as seen from my living room window).

If you are not decked out in high-tech-moisture-wicking-spandex, the bike is considered a lower class means of transport. As such many drivers feel entitled to run over cyclists without a second thought, in keeping with the logic that whoever has the most expensive mode of transport must be the most important person and therefore has the most rights.

This situation has also had the secondary result of producing scammers who stage accidents in order to try to extort money from drivers. My friend Sally had an experience with that. The accident itself was not staged, but when the parents of the boy involved found out that the car was driven by a foreign woman, for them it became the opportunity for a cash-grab.

I once caused a traffic accident on my bike, although not exactly as the result of my actions. Heading west at the intersection of Calle 53 and Av. 68, most of the cars would be turning left. But some would be turning right, and I always had to keep a close eye on the right-turners who would not hesitate to mow me down. As the light changed, I would eyeball the drivers, to see which way they were looking as they turned. On the day in question, when the traffic light changed, I advanced on my bike. In the distance I could vaguely hear a siren. A car pulled up on my left and slowed down. The driver was leaning over and looking at me through the passenger side window. To be specific, he was staring at my ass, and it pissed me off. I stepped on the pedals and sped up. As I crossed the intersection, I heard a crash behind me. The ambulance that was coming through on the red light had clipped the back of the car of the man who had slowed down to stare at me. No one was hurt, but the ambulance had to stop. The satisfaction that the man's car was hit because he was being a jerk was quickly replaced by the realization that if the ambulance had arrived seconds earlier, I might have been the one who was hit.

Bike riding might be very popular in Bogota, but it is always at your own risk. Matt rides his bike all over the city. I try not to think about possible mishaps. William rides his bike everywhere in Ottawa too. I have been out with William a couple of times on the bike paths here. The bike path along the river on the Gatineau side is particularly nice. William says that I am not a "passionate" enough bike rider. I suppose he is right. My bike riding is much more recreational than hell-bent passionate. This is yet another reason why I feel that he needs to be wearing a reflective vest when he is biking at night. All the passion in the world won't protect you from the driver who doesn't see you coming. The coexistence between bikes and cars is a somewhat uneasy relationship in Canada too.

I may have sold my Bogota bike, but I am still a bike rider here. It is a way of life, as much as a means of transport.

Waiting for the train to pass.