China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Bicycle country.
Date: Thu, 07 May 1998 13:23:02 -0700

23:54 Fang Yuan Hotel; Beijing -- China :: 06 MAY 98

The following was posted to a bike touring mailing list I subscribe to.

Can anyone tell me where I can get mudguards for an old Zefal or Esge fender set? I'm not sure which, got 'em 10 or 15 years ago. They're black and have the plastic over aluminum. I've only used them before for touring in the Netherlands and for Cycle Across Maryland (it always rains on CAM). I really don't use them much because my shoes and ankles still got wet from the front wheel splash. Apparently I need to pop rivet one on, but are just the mudguards available? If not, can someone tell me what I can make them from? My only stipulation is that they have to look cool when they're complete. Thanks,
You know, it's not until you get to a real bicycle country, like China, that you realize just how deep the Western obsession for fashion is. Back home, fenders are not cool, so cyclists get grime stripes down their backs and front tire spray in their face. Or they just don't ride in the rain. That's not an option here in China. Undertandably, the Chinese often pointed out how ridiculous it was that Jay's bike had no fenders.

It's a pretty safe generalisation to say the average Chinese spends more time on a bicycle than anyone else anywhere in the world, including those bike-happy Americans and Europeans. But you'll see no toe-clips here. The bike shops don't often stock them. I saw a set of Shimano SPD pedals in one shop, but not the special cleated shoes they require. Instead, the typical good, sturdy, steel bike comes with fenders, a sprung seat, metal chain guards and the braking system on the most popular ones is driven by metal rods rather than cables. Bullet proof. It has one to three gears, but usually only one, and will cost no more than the equivalent of $50 US. This is the perfect bike for the liesurely, gently sloped, Saturday afternoon rides the majority of occasional cyclists in the West enjoy. But they'll never sell until someeone convinces the market place that they're cool.

You get a sense from these Chinese bikes that they, at least, would survive a cataclysmic encounter with a truck. Many of them appear to have done just that. They're rather pretty when new, but this condition is relatively rare on the road where a bicycle is the primary form of transportation for a vast number of the Chinese. There are 11 or 12 million souls in Beijing and spread among them are about 6 million bicycles. At rush hour, it often seems that all of them are on the road at the same time. There are fewer cars here, by as much as 2/3rds.

There appears to be little concern for maintenance or appearance of the inevitable squeeking, clunking, rattle-boxes these bicycles become. This despite the impromptu repair 'shops' thickly spread about on backstreets and sidewalks. Wobbly pretzl-wheels are de rigeur and you'll see Chinese in their Sunday best, women in pumps and skirts, riding a wheezing, clattering rust-bucket. I've never seen a Chinese cyclist in cycling shorts, or jerseys, or gloves, or a helmet. Rarely you'll see sunglasses, though these are cheap, cheap plastic and, in the countryside, still have the label affixed to the lens.

I can't recommend that active bicycling advocates from North America ever come here. It would break their heart. Bike lanes are common, and commonly wide. They have to be in order to accommodate the thronging commuters and pedicabs, trike loads of market-bound produce or dump-bound refuse. On major streets in urban areas, and many major roads in the country side, these lanes are typically divided from the automobiles and trucks by a boulevard or concrete-based steel fence. And on the narrower country lanes without a marked cycle path, trucks and cars typically follow behind a bicycle, waiting for a break in the traffic so that half the roadway can separate them from the cyclist while passing.

Guidebooks complain that while the infrastructure supporting cycling is superb, the complete absence of road etiquette makes China a harrowing place to ride. Pedestrians walk blindly into the bike paths, cyclists and cars change direction without shoulder checking first, and signal lights are roundly ignored. But cycling here is a breeze once a few things are understood.

To begin with, those 6 million bicycles are not ridden for a workout, or a liesurely afternoon ride to see the sights. People ride bicycles here when they need to get somewhere, and they're not very often in any hurry to arrive. So the pace is slow, purposeful, and attentive. Remember this. Make it your mantra. Slow. Purposeful. Attentive. Now, memorize these two simple rules:

1) Don't run into anything.
2) Make no sudden or gross changes in direction.
Because you are attentive you can see the pedestrian who is likely to step in your path and know when the bicycles and vehicles around you will be adjusting their direction. Because you are moving slowly, it's a simple matter to avoid the pedestrian and adjust to the changing flow. Because you are purposeful, you know where you're going, you will not be hesitant or confused, you will not need to make sudden large corrections. Because you know all the cyclists behind you are living the mantra--riding slow, purposeful, attentive--you need never shoulder-check before gently flowing around obstacles, or easing out to pass the pedicab. You are in the flow and a part of it. A bird in the flock.

In addition to themselves, the Chinese transport everything with bicycles. Astonishing loads on two wheelers: stacks of baskets of ducklings, slopping vats of used cooking oil, even lengths of PVC pipe strapped to the rear-rack and pointing straight up for 8 or so meters. Often the load is so unbalanced that the frame tilts at a 15 or 20 degree angle in order to remain upright.

On three wheels the loads become incomprehensible: there's a well known photograph of a man relaxing on a couch, smoking a cigarette, as the flat-bed trike on which they're loaded trundles down a busy city street. An infamous strip of food hawkers off Wangfujing Daijie in Beijing sells such delicacies as deep-fried bananas, searingly spiced bowls of noodles, scorpion and pigeon kebabs, pot stickers and red bean deserts. Every afternoon they roll in from I know not where, an armada of identical food-stall tricycles, each constructed with all that's needed to cook and serve up gastronomic delight and heartburn.

And then there's me, me and my far-out shock-forked mountain bike with aero-bars, love handles, water bottles, cycle computer, compass and lights. I am the oddest thing on the road. The Chinese can't resist touching it, testing the shocks, the aero bars. A few lift it, amazed by the lightness. When towing the BOB trailer, I try to avoid stopping in towns for long. Being surrounded by an audience of gobsmacked Chinese is just part of travelling China, but the full rig with bright yellow rain cover and bright yellow bobbing safety flag can gather crowds even in cosmopolitan Shanghai and Beijing. And they keep accidentally pulling the flag pole out of its slot.

Once, while pulled over for a quick meal in a small-town market, Jay and I were immediately treated to the full-court-press as everyone in the entire market gathered round. While I was replacing the flag yet again, one guy tried on my electric purple helmet. To the great amusement of the crowd, I rotated it 180 degrees for him, just to 'improve the fit'. It's the only time I've ever seen a local wear a bike helmet.

There's a potential market for Bell and Giro here, an opening for fashion I think. The American bicycle manufacturer Giant sells a respectable number of cruisers and mountain bikes here, but every cycle shop retailer will tell you the money's in the accessories. Accessories, though useful, are a fashion driven market. It's not enough to have water bottles, toe clips, bar ends, jerseys and shorts, component upgrades and sunglasses. No. They have to be COOL water bottles, toe clips, bar ends, jerseys and shorts, component upgrades...and, of course, helmets.

Remember, I've never seen a Chinese cyclist wearing a helmet of any kind. After the initial embarassment of realizing he'd put the odd thing on backwards, the fellow in the market insistently gestured, "Give it to me, please?" Then the guy who'd pulled the flag out offered a dull red motorcycle helmet with cheap plastic visor in exchange. Maybe if he'd had something cool...

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Colours blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open to the sky.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 12
trans. Stephen Mitchell