Remember back in elementary school when they taught you all about bicycle safety? Older readers who were thrown in front of traffic on two wheels might not, but I grew up in the ’80s, and we got this stuff all the time (though I’m still a touch old to be part of the “wearing a helmet is natural” generation). It was all about defensive riding to stay safe.
“Suspect everyone is a raving maniac out to destroy you and your fragile little contraption!” they would scream, waving placards of malicious drivers opening their trunks to dump loads of watermelons at 90kmh on the cyclist who came too close. “Examine every parked car you pass to make sure the driver isn’t about to open the door or stick a cricket bat out the window” (I swear that before going to India I thought that was the only use for a cricket bat. Well, that and marmot wrangling.)
I’m sure you can tell where this story is going.
Ning Hua and I rented bikes and took to the streets this afternoon. Every bit of that grade-school knowledge came screaming back. I was seeing the people on the street drawn in safety cartoon fashion as I hurtled downhill on a bike with very poor brakes.
See, in most of China bicycles are common. That’s why Ning Hua wanted to go biking; it had been a while and it’s something he likes to do back home. Here in Wanzhou bikes are strange creatures that no one ever encounters. We were riding in a remote area of the city and I’m sure half the stares I got were at the bike and not me (see that? it’s the one not-entirely true statement in this post – unless this is).
The reason no one bikes here is the mountains (and today my calves are insisting they aren’t hills). Normally I’m right with those non-cyclists. I’m a Winnipeg cyclist; I like my mountain biking on the flattest terrain possible. On a windless day. A wind that changes direction and pushes me both ways is even better. But the weather was awesome and I’d been inside all morning so I was lured out.
Now, Ning Hua is a nice kid but he has no idea how to ride bikes with a person. When two people are cycling in traffic, you have to pick one person and say “You’re Rogue Leader. Go!” This is the person who knows where they’re going and can blaze a trail when needed. This person decides when to ride two abreast and talk but can jump into single file when traffic gets hectic. Ning Hua utterly sucked at leading.
He kept on slowing down so his rear tire would come millimetres from clipping my front when he swerved out into traffic. Then he would stop right at the bottom of a hill to make sure I was still with him, so all the momentum we’d gained got left there. But he did set a nice leisurely pace which is the main reason I won’t be in traction tomorrow.
As an aside, Reyn is a really good Rogue Leader. He keeps track of his wingman and doesn’t ride like an idiot. My only problem with him is he’s too damned fit, and I have to kill myself to keep up. And my mom works this system very well; heck, she taught it to me. She used to be the leader but now that’s my job. I always push myself too hard with her too, because she’s biking “for exercise” so I can’t just lollygag and let her have an easy time of it. I have to remind her that she’s not 22 anymore.
I didn’t want to be the leader for the first half mainly because I was getting used to the bike. I love my bike at home and know what I can do with it: how close I can cut corners, what my stopping distance is, all that. This thing was a strange contraption that needed testing.
For a city with all these hills you’d think brakes would be a priority. Mine worked, but it took incredible finger strength to get them to close tightly. And it didn’t help that the bike itself weighs a tonne and a half, which adds greatly to the hurtleability factor in descending (and the sisyphysicality of climbing). I was also getting used to the cars and doing the whole “ride against traffic down Wanzhou’s busiest one way street” thing. And my gears had a very narrow (but thankfully middling) range of usability.
Coming back, though, I was comfortable enough to take over. The problem here was that Ning Hua wasn’t comfortable with the paths I was choosing and we kept on clashing. We had a nice little discussion on our differing cycling philosophies in the middle of about a million taxis and buses trying their damnedest to get in our ways.
His philosophy (which shouldn’t be taken as some general Chinese response to power) was that you let cars do whatever they’re going to do because they’ll hurt you if you don’t. Pedestrians on the other hand are responsible for their own welfare as you heedlessly zoom through crosswalks. (See? No allegory at all.)
My view is that you have to stop for pedestrians because they’re more likely to get hurt if you make a mistake. And you tell the cars to fuck themselves sideways because you can’t hurt them. You have to argue from a position of weakness. Make them back off through fear of hurting you, because how are you possibly going to hurt them? As a cyclist you are the potential victim. So it’s fine to smack the hood of a car that is trying to turn right in front of you. In Canada, I lose more waterbottles from throwing them at cars who cut me off. I also had to explain that I wasn’t trying to represent all Canadians with this (or be allegorical in any way), because he tends to take things that way.
(Greatest inspiration for this philosophy, especially as it pertains to public safety issues: Dave Foley’s “Dear guy I clotheslined while you were riding your bike on the sidewalk” sketch. And, y’know, all those non-violent resistance people.)
By the time we got back and dropped off the bikes back at the saddest roller rink in the world we’d been gone for almost three hours and owed the guy $2.50CDN. Not too shabby for a death defying adventure in cross-cultural philosophy of leadership.