Monday, April 16, 2007

Being a Bicycle Biker in Bucharest

I've wanted to write about this for a long time now. It started with the entry about the ridiculous and diabolical street sweeper machines that make lakes of water at every intersection while "cleaning the streets and fixing the dust". As an added bonus, now entire forests outside Bucharest are being torn down to make way for housing projects. I wonder where the dust is coming from, hmm...
Anyway, I want this entry to be as complete as possible in order to tell anyone considering buying a bicycle to ride in Bucharest what exactly they are getting into.

Step I. Buying the bicycle

Now, being a girl or a slim guy and not having the desire to make bike stunts in the foreseeable future, you might be considering buying a bicycle from a hypermarket chain like Cora. Don't do it!! The bikes there are of bad quality to begin with, but considering the people at a hypermarket don't know anything about bicycles, you will also get a bike that is put together by marketeers.

Let me give you an example: the bike is twice as cheap as anything you saw in a bike shop, it also has a lot of accessories like wheel covers, water bottle support, ringer, bike support leg. Isn't that a good deal? No! The spikes of the wheels are bad Chinese quality, in short time your wheels will turn in an figure 8 like movement; the water support is nothing but a glorified wire, sooner or later you will deform it and it will scratch you or your clothes; The ringer works, but is placed in the middle of the bike horns, so you can't reach it; the wheel covers are cheap plastic and they will always fall on the wheel making loud noises and slowing your bike; the bike support leg will at first not hold your bike, since it is really bad, then it will get its mechanism jammed and you won't be able to expand it.

Still want to buy it from Cora? So where do you buy a bike from? I personally despise franchises. That's why I would not recommend First Bike or any other shop like it. However, not having bought anything from them, I can't express an opinion. I bought both my bikes from Magelan and I am rather satisfied with the bikes and the service, even if I had to pay a little extra. What is nice about Magelan is that they are a full time bike shop. They fix bikes all day long as well as sell them. They taught me about how to maintain my bike, they centered the bike wheels (this being a very important process if you don't want your wheels to deform or the bike to require more effort to ride), etc. They also presented me with bikes of 1000-4000 euros :) Luckily, you won't have to buy anything more expensive than 400 euros.

The things you want in a bike are: wheel covers (see the diabolical street sweepers above), firm brakes, an anti-theft device and a good saddle. Anything else is rather useless. You will need a bicycle pump, but I would recommend the foot pumps that are sold in car shops, not the arm muscle devices the people at Magelan sell as pumps.

Step II. Transporting the bicycle

What do you mean, transport the bike? It should transport you, right? Wrong!. The bicycle will transport you only on the road. Then you have to move it upstairs to your flat or to your office. Sometimes, like when you go shopping, you need to lock your bike and tie it to something. You will soon notice that moving your bike with an elevator is not an easy task, especially if you are tall like me and you bought a big bike. There are also old hags that insist on you cleaning the elevator after you dirty it with your bike wheels. There are blocks without elevators. The first rule about this: don't tie your bike downstairs, hoping it won't get stolen. It will!
If you have the misfortune to live in a block without elevators or with a too small one, you will have to climb the stairs with it. For example I have to do this at the office, but lucky me, it's only at the fourth floor.

Step III. Riding the bike

Oh, this part is going to be long. Take some popcorn and read carefully.
At first you will ride the bike on the sidewalk. It makes sense, since you want to be safe when you make rookie mistakes and you lose your balance. You don't want a big truck to hit you when you stop suddenly and can't keep straight. So, if you are allowed to move on the sidewalk and it's safe, you could always use the sidewalk, right? Wrong!

In a normal situation, where the city hall really thought about you, the citizen, and took measures to keep you happy, you would be OK using the sidewalk. There would be no holes, there would be easy access from the sidewalk to the street, no cars parked on the sidewalk, no cars running on the sidewalk. In Bucharest no one even considers bikes. There are holes in the sidewalk, since you have feet to go around, in or out of holes; sometimes there is a lower sidewalk edge for things like bikes, wheelchairs and child perambulators, but sometimes it is a bit too high for comfort or there is none; when there is, cars are parked in front of them and, at the street crossings, people stop on them, without even moving out of the way when they see you sitting on a bike next to them. That is, if you can move on the sidewalk at all, since cars try to beat the traffic by moving on the sidewalk or they just park there, blocking the way. Not to mention the weird thingies that one meets on the sidewalk: people!

There are three "banes of the biker" when moving on the sidewalk: lover pairs, old people and women with children. So, if you see an elderly couple that seem still in love walking with their nephew, at least go around them on the guy's side. Why are they banes? Lovers like to hold hands, while in the same time keep apart from each other, then suddenly get back together and split again. They are completely clueless, unaware of the world around them and totally unpredictable. Old people are equally unpredictable due to strange and unspeakable pains, aches and mental conditions. They can stop suddenly, zig-zag, turn around unexpectedly and, most of all, get completely freaked out when you pass by them (even at a few meters away). Women with children are firstly women, then they have children. I rest my case.

So, after a while you get annoyed with all this, you decide to move it to the next level: the street. Since the circulation rules regarding bikes are pretty clear, there shouldn't be a problem. Cars will leave the "ecartament" empty, not park there, they will move one meter away from you when they pass by you, the drivers will be civil and respect your legal status of vehicle. Rrrright!

Street "biker banes": women driving new cars, taxi cab drivers and men driving junk cars. Women with new cars usually cheated through their driving licence exam and the car is not even theirs. Someone probably bought it for them. Women in general have a strong sense of law and order, therefore they will expect you to obey every circulation rule they know of and, when faced with real life situations that are not in the bloody book, they panic, freeze, etc. Simplest way to solve this is to always consider the possibility they actually want to hit you and take precautions against it. Taxi cab drivers own the streets. They are afraid of nothing and no one, except other taxi cab drivers. And women in new cars. And men in junk cars. For example, a cab driver will always move on the tramway line and honk at you, explaining in vernacular why he has the right to be there and you don't. But it is understandable... they rarely take Latin. Anyway, the men in junk cars are careless. They know they can buy a car the next day just like the one they are driving. It will be junk, but whatever you hit or hits you, they have to pay more. What could happen in the worst case scenario? Die? They already lost everything. And worse of all, they have a junk car, which is humiliating. They try to cover this shame with loud music, usually bad music, which makes them not only dumb, but also deaf.

When you learn to avoid the banes you still have to fight the street sweepers, to learn to move quickly when the light goes green, as drivers will magically ignore you being there when they turn right and you want to go forward. And most of all, you will have to fight the "good" ideas of the city hall.

Example: they built this bike track (weee!) around the Alexandru Cuza park (formerly known as the I.O.R. park). It is a half a meter wide strip, marked with yellow, right in the middle of the sidewalk, with beautiful images of bikes drawn on it and occasionally some arrows to point out the direction. So, anyone wanting to circle the park in one direction, like a hamster in a wheel, can use this. Of course, last time I saw it, there was a cripple guy walking with dignity on it. At least he respected the direction pointed by the little arrows.

The city hall also plans to build bike lanes. A commendable effort if they didn't do in the same time things that nullify it completely. And I mean the street side garbage bins. These are the bins that drivers can throw stuff in. Of course, they are right on the side of the street, the place where the horns of your bike are supposed to be when you pass through there. Not to mention the remote possibility that any Romanian driver would want to throw things in the bins rather that directly on the street, in which case they would most likely not look behind before putting their hand out. Can you spell "open fracture"?

OK, OK, I don't want to scare you out of it. It's just that there are a lot of morons out there. You need to pay more attention, else you will get hurt. Once you understand that the world is a dark evil place that wants to cause you pain, you will be alright!

Step IV. Taking care of your bike

Your bike needs to have the wheels firmly inflated. A car has the wheel pressure at about 2.4 atmospheres. Your bike will require 3.0-3.2. That means regular pumping or, the lazy man's alternative, fill them up with air at any gas or vulcanization station. Also, if you have a flat tire, all you have to do is pay a guy at the nearest vulcanization 1-2 euros and he will take the wheel out, check the tire, fix it, put it back on. Some would be kind enough to refuse, just go to the next.

After you used it for a while, you need to take it to be checked. Not too often, like once or twice a year (recommended default value). Go to Magelan, no matter where you bought the bike from, and ask them to check it for you. They will do everything there is to be done. The service is really cheap, too.

That was a short chapter.

Step V. Miscellaneous

So you know where to buy it from, what you want on it, how to ride it, what to look out for and how to take care of your bike. What else is there?

Well, first of all, sweat. When on the bike one doesn't usually sweat as the air circulation quickly evaporates the humidity and cools the body. However, stopping is a bitch. All the heat builds up quickly in your system, now used to have external ventilation, and you start to sweat. So, when you get to the office, don't rest, don't catch your breath, take your bike up as soon as possible, go to the bathroom, remove your t-shirt, wash. Use a special towel that you brought with you or that you designated as body towel. You will have a lot of perspiration on your spine and on your chest. Your face will probably be very sweaty, too. Take your time. Your body needs to cool off, so you might need to splash water on you repeatedly.
If you do this, you will need no change clothes and you will be fresh and reasonably not stinky for your colleagues. You will rinse your mouth with water, but don't drink any until you get out of the bathroom and you are reasonably cooled down.

Also, special attention to buses. It is easy to go by them, as they stop often. But they also release those human thingies, sometimes before the bus station, sometimes they start from the station and they stop because they see some guy running after the bus or someone forgot something and they want to get off. Sometimes bus drivers do it on purpose.

The same thing goes for every car stationed at the stop light. The only accident I had with my bike was when a complete idiot opened the car door at the stop without checking if anything is coming. I slammed right into that door. The scary thing is that I also got out of a car at the red light and I realised I didn't even consider checking for a bike. So it happens to everyone. Go slowly by the cars at the stop!

The last thing: etiquette. If you are a girl, not necessarily a stunning image of womanly perfection, you will get honked, whistled at, disrespected, teased. The only ones that will not do that are the women, which, as stated previously, will silently come from behind and kill you in inept panic. Don't get mad, don't get even, just learn to let it go, ignore everything that doesn't have anything to do with you getting to your destination. If you are a guy, you will be challenged at every step of the way. Or is that at every wheel turn? Anyway, drivers will try to bully you, block your way, honk you out of composure. Same advice goes to guys as well: ignore anything that is not about to be in your way or hit you.

What you need to understand is that, in normal Bucharest morning traffic, you are faster than any car there. People that spent their entire economies and still paying huge rates at the bank to have their new car will see you pass right by them, not paying for the car, for the gas or caring about the traffic! There is a lot of frustration there, don't give it a chance to bubble up towards you.

No matter the genre, you will have to either wait for someone to pass on a street crossing and provide you with "cover" or you will have to descend from your bike and walk next to it on the crossing. This is the only rule that one would reason out of, since it it more advantageous for drivers to let you pass on your bike (since you will cross faster) than on foot. Yet 99% of them will ignore you wanting to cross the street while on your bike. It's a pride thing. Bow to the king.

If you got this far, then you probably should get a bike, it means you are committed :) It's not as bad as I portrayed it, either, but pretty close. Danger comes not from what you expect, but from the unexpected. You also expect less when you are not paying attention or are thinking of something else. I don't recommend music listening when you ride the bike, but I do recommend sun glasses and (didn't try it, yet, but soon) a face mask/air filter.


danezia said...

YEEH!!! Great article. I used to ride a bike a lot in Denmark. It seems impossible for me to do the same in Iasi.

But... guess it can't be worse than in Bucharest. By the way, yesterday I saw a lot of bikes getting around in the city (followed by an cop on an motorcycle)... it was a nice view.

Fritz said...

I like to read interesting perspectives from other parts of the world.

I don't know about Bucharest, but in the rest of Western Europe, in the UK, and the USA, the sidewalks are for walking on. In general, Bikes Belong in the street.

Siderite said...

Fritz, I would normally agree with you, but nothing in this world is so black and white. I would presume you agree that children on their bikes should go on the sidewalk, in parks, etc. Also, as I've stated in the article, beginners would do well to start with the sidewalk, then switch to the street.
Yet the whole point of the entry was that it would be nice to be easy to ride a bike on the street.

Anonymous said...

Dude, if they do it in Jakarta, why can't we in Bucharest? Agree with you, riding a bike in Bucharest it's an adventure. I know that, I lived here all my life. Good remarks and objective aswell, thank you.

Anonymous said...

There are some good things in this article, but as a woman ... and an AVID cyclist from New York city, there were some particularly offensive comments regarding women in here. It would be nice if us cyclists stuck together rather then create chasims between us. I used to ride up to 75 miles in a day and am an experienced urban rider and if any generalizations are to be made it is this: it is men in cars not women walking, or women with children that are the biggest hazard for cyclists.

Anonymous said...

There were some goodpoint in this article, but as a woman, and an AVID cyclist from New York City, there were some particularly offensive comments about women in it. I ride up to 75 miles in a day and am an experienced urban rider, and if there are any generalizations to be made it is this: it is men in cars that are the biggest hazard to cyclists, not women, or women with children or any other pedestrians for that matter. It would be nice if rather then create chasims amongst each other, us cyclists, men and women, stuck together...and with pedestrians. They are no the enemy. It is the cars and car drivers that need to change! Cheers.

Siderite said...

Well, I appologize if what I wrote there hurts your feelings, but the article is about Bucharest; maybe New York is different.

The content of the article is based (biased? :) ) on my personal experience and it tells me that, when you are on a bike, what matters in a driver is quick reactions to unexpected situations. Men may be jerks and a lot more reckless, but they can manage most of the time. I am sorry to say this, since my wife also drives (and I do not), but women are not that good at it. In fact, the only near miss/death experience I had was with a car with a woman at the wheel. Now, men. They are not perfect either, but at least the chances are they kill you because they wanted to. Not unheard of.

Sorry if I sound misogynistic, but this comes from actual experience, not malvolition. What I fear most in traffic are people who think the rules are there to protect them from consequences after a crash and not simple quidelines to protect you against one.

Loic said...

Hello and thanks for this great article !

So, finally, is there a shop in Bucharest where i can find a "good" bike not too much expensive ? (I am new in Bucharest~)

Thanks in advance for the answer, some adress are welcome so I can go check by myself :)


Siderite said...

I would have said Magellan, but in the meantime the people I liked there were replaced by more "business oriented" personnel. That means they would try to sell you things you don't need rather than help you. The bike maintenance shop on Baicului should still be cool, and I am sure you will get a good bike there, but I would guess you could find it cheaper somewhere else.