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China, Land of Bicycles

There are currently more than 500 million cyclists in China, 10 million of them in Beijing.


Despite efficient bus networks, legions of taxis and surging private car ownership, the bicycle remains a firm fixture in Chinese daily life. But to cyclists today, it is much more than just a means of transport, who demand a far greater choice of design and function than ever before.


Cycling for health and recreation


Each morning after cycling to the subway station Miss Wang folds her bicycle into a neat 10-kg package and carries it on to her train. On arriving at her stop and leaving the station, she unfolds it and cycles to the office. For travel during the rush hour, this bike/subway combination is cheaper and faster than driving a car or taking a bus. Says Miss Wang, "This way I save time, and as a folding bicycle is light enough to carry, there is less risk of theft. It also gives me the chance to take morning exercise." Office clerk Mr. Zhang agrees: "Confined to my office for most of the day, I have no time to take exercise, other than by bicycling." He undoubtedly speaks for hosts of other office workers.


To the fleets of chic Merida or Giant riders, bicycling brings both the thrill of speed and ease of access to nature. A variety of clubs and associations have mushroomed in recent years, variously aimed at bodybuilding, field research, or simply socializing. Xiao Zhang, member of the Cycling Association of Peking University says, "I heard of the association, and its members that cycle everywhere in China from Hong Kong to Tibet, before starting university. Joining it was one of the first things I did on becoming an undergraduate." Cycling clubs organize excursions and also road and mountain bike races. Having won a number of trophies at various national games they have drawn public interest, and given cycling enthusiasts the opportunity to turn professional.


Thrills worth the spills


Young people in parks and streets practicing cycle stunts like the pivot, and rear wheel and static hop as passers-by look on in fearful admiration are a common sight. These daredevils relish the challenge and thrill of seeing who is faster and most dexterous. As one high school student says, "After seeing someone doing something I can't, like hopping up and down steps, I have to keep on trying till I can do it even better, no matter how many times I fall. It teaches me patience and perseverance, and the satisfaction I feel on finally getting it right is indescribable."


Now 22, Wang Wei took up cycling six years ago. He has since won several mountain biking tournaments. "It's an amazingly absorbing sport. I've dabbled in roller-skating and soccer, but found neither as enthralling as cycling. Despite setbacks and disappointments over the past years, I never considered giving it up." Wang does not regret having left education after graduating from senior middle school. "If I'd gone to college I would only have been an average student, rather than the best mountain biker in China I am today." But for most, cycling is purely an out of school pastime.


Theft and anti-theft


The new wave of cycling enthusiasm has brought with it one in bicycle theft.


Hou Tao works at the Giant store in Beijing, and has much to say about his personal battle with bicycle thieves. "I have lost about a dozen bikes, altogether worth 30,000 to 40,000 yuan. All have been stolen in broad daylight, under the attendant's very nose." Hou was therefore forced to take his bike with him everywhere. When he worked as a tour guide, he put it in the tour bus luggage compartment by day, and at night by his hotel bed, always keeping it within eyeshot.


According to police chief Zheng of Beijing's Zhanlan Road Police Station, felons are on the lookout for any bike, new or old, cheap or trendy. Bicycle theft has reached such a pitch that many people opt for buying second-hand bikes in the knowledge that they are stolen goods, thereby supporting and maintaining the illicit bicycle trade. A Giant bike, normally priced 500 yuan, costs 100 to 200 yuan on the black market, while at the apposite end of the scale, a Tianji bicycle might sell for as little as 30 yuan.


Bicycle manufacturers have been forced to fight back, and Giant has developed a lock that fixes the handlebars at a 45-degree angle from the front wheel. But despite such efforts, bike theft is not likely to diminish in the short term.


The cycle as status symbol


"We go for sports bikes," declares one of a group of young dudes window-shopping at a bicycle store in downtown Beijing.


The current cycling vogue means that middle school students aspire to ever better, and consequently expensive, bikes. Super top-of-the-market cycles going for 1,000 yuan or more are such a prize possession that in order to gain face, young riders from low income households have been know to stick the labels of super cycles like Campagnolo, Tektro and Continental over those of their less exalted brands. One 13-year-old boy confesses: "I was heartsick and envious at the sight of my classmates on their stylish bicycles, but my parents wouldn't buy me a new one until I promised to get better grades." In a bid to check this trend, students at No.15 Middle School in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province were recently prohibited from riding bicycles on campus that cost more than 300 yuan.


The bicycle as a status symbol is understandably a concept welcomed by bicycle manufacturers. They maintain that the bicycle is a facet of culture that combines the latest in technology and fashion, and as such should be promoted by expert enthusiasts.


Good for the health - bad for traffic


Despite the rise in private car ownership and improvements to China's public transportation system in the past 20 years, the bicycle remains a firm favorite with Chinese citizens. It is the cheapest, most convenient, and often quickest mode of transport, particularly at rush hour. Bicycling is good for the circulation and the heart, and so reduces the risk of hypertension. Above all, the bicycle is environment-friendly.


But not everyone likes bikes, particularly motorists. According to the Beijing traffic administration department, there are on average 30,000 or more urban road accidents involving bicycles every year that injure more than 10,000 and kill 1,000.


Most auto/cycle collisions are caused by cyclists violating traffic regulations. They endanger pedestrians on the sidewalk and obstruct car drivers on the road, exacerbating traffic congestion, and obliging cars on the artery highways of big cities like Beijing and Shanghai at peak hour to crawl along at 16 kilometers per hour.


Taxi driver Wang Qingyun complains: "Too many cyclists violate traffic regulations. They run the red light, go in the wrong direction, ride two-up, and corner at speed, which means all motorists must be extremely cautious, and so drive slower".


But cyclists retort that the traffic problem stems from autos infringing on their riding space. At rush hour cars drive along the bike lane to avoid the jam, forcing cyclists to take to the sidewalk. This battle for road space inevitably increases the incidence of accidents.


Given its huge population and narrow roads, however, China's per capita road occupation is relatively low -- on average 5.7 square meters in 12 big cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, compared to 28 square meters in London, 26.3 in New York and 10.9 in Tokyo.


In order to reduce traffic volume, thereby increasing safety, experts urge Chinese to practice frugality in use of their road space, particularly cyclists, who are strongly recommended to take public transport for trips of more than 10 kilometers.


(China Daily February 16, 2004)


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