Bicycles in China


A typical bike

An article today about Beijing’s booming (40 people!) fixed gear community got me thinking back to bicycling in China.  I visited China this past November and got to ride (casually) a few times.  In Shanghai, as in many other Chinese cities, bicycles are simply a way of life.  Unlike in North America, where cyclists battle for a narrow lane on busy streets, cyclists in China are probably second on the hierarchy of transportation vehicles (after taxis, who do pretty much whatever they want).  There aren’t “cyclists” per se, to be honest, but simply people who get around on a bicycle.  Usually an old, rusted black bicycle with a horribly noisey drive-train (again, rust).  The riding style (if I were to make a sweeping generalization) seems to favour pedalling with your heels, and keeping your knees as far apart as possible.  Most bicycles have a bag or two hanging from the handlebars, and likely an extra passenger catching a ride on the rear rack.


Bicycle installation at Shanghia bar

At first glance, the network of pedestrians (lowest on the hierarchy, so watch out), bicycles, and cars/buses all sharing the road seems baffling.  Somehow everyone weaves in and out and between each other with very few collisions (but LOTS of honking).  As I sat and watched the organized chaos from my room I became increasingly fascinated by how well the system worked.

Perhaps one day bicycles in North America will be just another form of transportation.  We won’t have to identify ourselves as “cyclists” simply because we choose to commute by bike, or because we enjoy taking long rides on the weekend.


Work bike

It’s also amazing how much work is performed with a bicycle.  Street vendors, delivery services (not messengers, but FULLY LOADED bicycles), and construction crews get around on two wheels.  And when these old bicycles die, if they are lucky, an artist will scoop them up and refashion them into contemporary Chinese art.


Bicycle pieces as art at Gallery 798, Beijing

So, the fixed gear craze is slowly making its way into China, which is great.  But it’s important to remember that in countries where bicycles are a way of life, there have always been fixed gears.  They were the cheap, functional, and reliable bicycles of generations past.  Like 20-somethings in North America who have returned to vinyl LPs, China’s fixie riders are taking elements of their parents’ adolescence and making it cool (again).  As long as they’re riding for fun. And going with the crowd.

Channelling Moses.

Channelling Moses.


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Every day is bike day

September 2009
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