The Beijing Biker – How to cycle safely in Chinese traffic

by CRTV

The Beijing Biker Tekst en foto’s: Alex van Egmond

When I first arrived in Beijing, now more than three years ago, I had never imagined myself riding a bicycle in this city. Mostly because of the ominous number of people and cars that are bustling around. For example, the number of car owners in Beijing reached over six million last year, creating a wonderful mess on the roads, especially during rush hour. Official statistics for China in 2010 say 65.200 people lost their lives on the road. The death rate in accidents is 5.5 times higher than the USA, where, compared to China, there are forty percent more cars. However, the Chinese nation is catching up fast; the number of private car owners has grown immensely in the past two decades for the car has become a symbol of wealth. Given these statistics, I must admit, it sounds like suicide to go out on the road. Nonetheless, being far from suicidal, I will list some helpful tips to make your cycling experience more safe.

Getting started
The Beijing BikerBefore setting out on the road, you need to gear up with a good city bicycle. Riding in the city involves a lot of turning and accelerating, so a mountain bike would be the best option. The small 26 inch wheels will help you quickly accelerate after avoiding a head on collision with whatever comes your way. When you find twenty-one plus gears unduly for a flat city, then you can opt for a fixed-gear bike. Recently, these shiny, candy licking colored bicycles have become quite popular in Beijing and they can be bought in various places throughout. Especially students and forgotten hippies in their fifties like to ride these speedy two-wheelers.

The Beijing Biker For myself, I don’t prefer those kind of fixed-gear bikes. Yes, they are fast and it’s pretty brave to ride without brakes, but the latter is your most essential part to rely on in the madness of Beijing traffic. Besides, the thin tires won’t give you enough grip on the dusty and slippery roads and the possibility of a puncture becomes greater. Better opt for a thicker tire with a good profile. For some time now, I ride a fixed-gear bike with small 26 inch wheels and 1.6 inch thick tires. This is just a perfect balance of speed, maneuverability and durability. Furthermore, it gives me a much smoother ride than with 28 inch wheels on the sometimes bumpy tarmac.

THE BEIJING BIKERBeijing has, as I mentioned before, a great stretch of tarmac available for the cyclist. But what it possesses in quantity, it lacks in quality. Poor repairing, sinkholes and cracks lie in your way, so keep both hands firmly on your handlebars at all times. Also, buy yourself an anti-pollution mask. Tour de France winners are not born on the streets of Beijing, or any Chinese street for that matter. If you experience the haze on a smoggy day, you’ll understand why. Last but not least, buy yourself the pleasure of a helmet. The effectiveness of wearing a helmet is still a much debated subject, as can be read at http://cyclehelmets.org, but I guess anything that can prevent you from banging your head on the concrete is better than cycling around bare-headed.

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