Guangzhou, China A friend sent me a YouTube link to a video called “Insane Cycling — New York City.” I clicked on it, hoping to glean a few tips for my own cycling on the anarchic streets of China.
I came away feeling like someone who expects to see “Mad Max” and is shown “Sesame Street” instead. New York seemed like a wonderful place to ride. Pedestrians used the crosswalks. Buses lumbered along like gentle whales. Taxis used their turn signals. The streets looked so clean. No one honked.
If that’s insanity, what can be said of cycling in Guangzhou, the muggy, traffic-clogged city once known as Canton? It’s my constant dilemma — hit the road or stick to the treadmill at the gym?
Cycling always wins. Not only is it more fun being outdoors but it’s a way of taking China’s pulse.
When the economy began stumbling last year, some of the earliest signs of trouble in this industrial southern city were on the roads. On my early morning rides, I noticed far fewer migrant workers pedaling to work in their yellow hard hats with shovels and toolboxes strapped to their rusty, squeaky black bikes. Many had been laid off and returned to the countryside.
Although officials were denying reports of a wave of factory closures, I was finishing my rides much faster because I didn’t have to weave through the pedaling multitudes. Assembly lines were shutting down and millions of migrant workers were going back to the countryside.
Those throngs are an iconic image for China, but it’s becoming outdated. Led by a swelling middle class, people in Guangzhou and other cities are ditching bikes for clean, new subway trains.
Watching out for yuppies
Two years ago, Guangzhou proudly announced that the number of cars on its roads had reached 1 million. The metropolis of 10 million people has several auto factories, and aspires to be China’s Detroit. Last year, 180,000 new vehicles hit the city’s roads, the government said. That’s nearly 500 a day.
Cyclists feel themselves being pushed aside. A bike lane near my home is marked with a thick white line, a sign and a bike symbol painted on the pavement. But the line has been chopped up for parking spaces. It’s now a bike lane only when motorists aren’t using it.
Anyway, lanes may as well not exist — drivers seem to think their cars are protected by a force field. And it’s not just drivers who are a menace, but pedestrians and even other cyclists. I recently slammed into a migrant worker who blindly pedaled into an intersection. Neither of us was seriously injured, but I badly bruised my hip and wrist as I hit the road and bounced for a few feet.
While leisure bikes are catching on among Chinese yuppies and college students, few take to the busy streets. Those who do wear helmets, as do I, but we’re a tiny subculture. The commuting laborers don’t wear helmets.
Many of the people behind the wheels of the shiny new cars just got their licenses, and their driving sometimes reminds me of my own in high school.
Some drivers are courteous to cyclists, perhaps remembering they were once among them. But others, especially the nouveaux riches in their Audis and BMWs, show an obvious contempt. They cut off cyclists and deny them the right of way. A honk is usually not a warning to be alert, but a “get out of my way” threat.
I encountered an extreme example during a training ride with a friend. It was 6:30 a.m. and we were hammering down an empty three-lane thoroughfare at 40 kph when a black Volkswagen Passat behind us opened up with its horn. As it raced beside us we exchanged obscenities until the driver — a beefy man in the kind of crew cut that’s popular with police, military and the mob — swerved in front and nearly knocked us down.
Few people seem annoyed by Guangzhou’s cacophony of car horns. Sometimes drivers seem to be beeping just as a way of saying hello to the weird spandex-clad foreigner.
Once, while I was barreling through a tunnel, a cement truck rumbled up on my back wheel and the driver started honking. The sound echoing off the tunnel’s walls was deafening.
Then I saw the driver and another guy in the cab laughing and yelling “Jia you!” It means “Add fuel!” — a Chinese sports cheer.
Being tailgated is especially unnerving because roads are so poor. If your skinny racing tires hit a brick or pothole, you can quickly find yourself under a car.
Guangzhou is hosting next year’s Asia Games, and a construction frenzy keeps the roads under a constant cover of dirt, gravel and debris. Water trucks cruise the streets before rush hour each morning, spraying water to control the dust. But they have no sweeping mechanism, so they leave a slippery layer of mud that clogs expensive bike parts and can bring a cyclist down.
Each new pothole must be marked on the cyclist’s mental map. Recently after a hard rain, I thought I was speeding through a harmless puddle but it was a hole. It cracked my custom-made bike frame and broke the wheel.
Speed bumps are another hazard. The Chinese authorities love them. Their purpose seems designed not to slow speeders but to punish them. Rarely are they signposted, and they are usually unpainted and hard to see. Near my home, officials have opted for the cheap option — a thick pipe across the road, anchored by roughly cut spikes of rebar that can slice open a bike tire.
Perhaps the most hazardous obstacles are created by the midnight mystery dumpers. Their trucks bring construction waste — cement chunks, broken bricks, scraps of dry wall, splintered plywood — to unlit stretches of road and dump the loads where they can easily bring down any unwary biker.