Recreational cycling is gaining ground across the nation
By Margaret C. Jones
It’s not dangerous,” the young man says, with easy confidence. “We take the road.” He and his fellow cyclists are gathered with their shiny sports bikes outside the San Stefano Mall in Alexandria this Friday morning for their weekly ride. It always takes them the same route — up to Montazah, then down again the other way, ending up at Qaitbey Citadel — a round trip of 30 kilometers. No wonder they all look so fit. They don’t seem one bit concerned about braving the morning traffic that even at 8:30 a.m. is already hurtling past at a scary pace. They crowd around on the sidewalk like club cyclists the world over, checking their machines, sharing maintenance tips, swapping stories.
Do they undertake this Corniche run all year round? I ask. Not in winter if it’s been raining, they say. “Then it’s too difficult.” There can be puddles and flooded drains on the road, “and sometimes things hidden under the water.” What sort of things? It could be an open drain, a pile of rubble, a dead cat even. They feel safer when they can see where they’re going. At least they can be sure of nearly all-year-round sunshine — something cyclists in many other countries would envy.
In the mall’s Starbucks, I run into Reem, an IT engineer with Vodafone. She’s here with a group of women friends to join the Corniche run. Reem takes part in triathlons and regularly cycles long distances; she’s ridden in fundraising cycle marathons in Europe. Not all women cyclists are as confident as Reem though, as she freely admits. Some women who do the weekly Corniche ride, she says, stay off the road and “take their mountain bikes on the sidewalk.”
So how safe, really, is all this riding about in traffic?
Cycling in Egypt was once just a way of getting about for people with no car. It was transport for the young man in shabby clothes pedaling his way on a creaking old machine at the crack of dawn to start his day at some garage or construction site. Or the bike was a workhorse for the bakery rider with a tray of bread balanced skillfully on his head, weaving confidently through the traffic. Though such riders are still a familiar part of the urban scene, these working cyclists are increasingly joined on the road by others with expensive new bikes and elegant designer sports gear, who ride in their spare time purely for the joy of it. Many who would never dream of commuting to work on two wheels find happiness in the company of other cyclists, whether for a brief fun run along city streets, or for a punishing long-distance ride through the desert.
When in 1988 American college teacher Edwin Crosswhite brought his elderly Motobecane road bike to Egypt and proposed to ride it in Cairo, everyone — Egyptian colleagues and other Americans — said he was crazy. Turning a deaf ear to their warnings he took to cycling to class every day — and survived. Soon Crosswhite was teaching a course in ‘Effective Cycling’ to anyone who wanted to learn. By 1989 the class had given birth to a club, the Cairo Cyclists Club (CCC). From being mainly a group for Americans and other foreigners, the CCC has become an established part of Egyptian life.
These days the CCC is home to hard-core long-distance racing cyclists and experienced triathletes, dedicated riders who think nothing of traveling 70 to 100 kilometers, at an average speed of 30km an hour, even in summer heat. Favorite rides are to Ain Sokhna (125 kilometers from Cairo), to Saqqara and to the Kattameya Observatory (145 kilometers). Members also regularly cycle to Helwan, and sometimes further afield to Fayoum and beyond. Though taxing, these outings take riders out onto quieter, safer roads well beyond the city limits. For those with the stamina to do it, it is generally agreed to be a pleasanter experience than riding in the city.
Egyptian online cycling groups now claim 20,000 members nationwide. Not all these members are necessarily regular, or even active, cyclists — but the figures, if accurate, bear witness to a widespread interest in cycling that simply wasn’t there 10 years ago. According to Alia Alloula, a spokesperson for the retailer 3agalMasr, her company now sells around 400 bikes in Egypt annually. As a leisure activity in its own right, cycling is drawing them in.
The online campaign Cycle Egypt promotes cycling as an environmentally friendly alternative to driving and a way of reducing traffic jams and pollution. Unfortunately, until their aim is achieved, they have to ride where the dominance of the automobile makes the journey stressful. There are no bicycle lanes in Egypt, and if there were, as one keen cyclist comments cynically (but no doubt truthfully), the minibus drivers would quickly turn them into car parks.
Egypt’s cities are not ideal places for cycling. A recent study by the Center for Public Mobilization and Statistics reported over 15,000 auto accidents in 2013-14 alone, with an estimated 40 road deaths per 100,000 of the population. This is roughly twice the world average, according to the World Health Organization. It’s worth noting, though, that nearly 60% of fatal accidents last year happened to car drivers and passengers, or to pedestrians. Cycling road deaths accounted for only 2% of all fatal accidents. Of course, it might be argued that the low percentage is because the number of cyclists on the roads is still relatively small; but some might find the figure reassuring.
Egypt is by no means the world’s most dangerous place to cycle – that doubtful honor is claimed by the US state of Florida. In any case, Egyptian cyclists have quite a few techniques for surviving in city traffic. Using side streets wherever possible is one simple strategy. Others recommend the use of crazy-looking hand signals, combined with frequent recourse to bells and hooters. “Pretend you’re a car,” one experienced rider writes online.
The Cairo Cyclists understand the needs, and the nerves, of beginner cyclists in this challenging environment. The club offers a weekly beginners’ ride every Friday, starting in Kattameya. More experienced riders accompany newcomers to the group, giving the new members reassurance and support as they “build up their abilities.”
Many Egyptian cycling websites offer advice on riding safely, including Mountain Bike Egypt for off-road mountain biking. A useful site for navigating Cairo streets is www.bbbike.org which specializes in recommending the shortest and safest cycling routes between any two points in the city. If hoisting your bike over railings or carrying it for meters around a building site is part of the journey, that only adds to the adventure of the ride.
For women cyclists, the challenges of the Egyptian road are even greater. A woman on a bicycle is often the object of prejudice and harassment — which, when drivers come too close to the bike or cut in front in an attempt to scare her, can actually be dangerous. (No wonder some of Reem’s companions on the Alexandria Corniche ride prefer to stick to the sidewalk). Even so, the women won’t be put off. Last October dozens of Egyptian women in Cairo took to the road on bikes to assert their right to cycle, under the slogan We Will Ride! “We dream,” writes one of these women riders, “that one day we can go anywhere we want on a bicycle without fearing harassment.”
You don’t have to be a women’s rights campaigner, though, or a 100-km triathlete to cycle for pleasure. And you don’t need a lot of money. In the modest Alexandria suburb of Sidi Bishr, I came upon an ancient bike outside an electrical repair shop. The contraption was decorated like a fairground ride, with ropes of colored beads, bits of shiny glass, religious texts, badges and lucky charms. The proud owner, a teenager named Ahmed, had clearly spent hours turning his clapped-out machine into a work of art. He works at the repair shop, but in his spare time, he assured me, he rides his bike all over Alexandria. And no, he’s not in the least scared of riding in traffic. In fact, when I asked about this, he looked puzzled, seeming to find the question foolish.
All Egypt’s cyclists, from athletes to commuters to recreational riders, have had to find their own ways of out-maneuvering the traffic. One thing seems pretty clear: They’re not going to let a few automobiles stand in the way of their right to get on a bike. When you come down to it, ‘We Will Ride!’ the slogan of the defiant women cyclists, is the slogan of them all. et
Ready to Roll?
Several websites offer advice and outings for cyclists
BBBike, a cycle route planner: www.bbbike.org/en/Cairo/
Cairo Cyclists: www. cairocyclists.wordpress.com
Cycle Egypt: www.cycle-egypt.com
Mountain Bike Egypt: www.mtbegypt.com
We Will Ride campaign: www.stopstreetharassment.org/2013/10/wewillride/
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