- The bicycle is supposed to be quotidian. It is a form of transport that everyone can afford. It does not pollute and it invites a healthier lifestyle while relieving traffic congestion and pollution
Sep 9, 2017-In last decade or so, cycling has seen a resurgence in Kathmandu. Once simply the province of the poor, the bicycles that trawl the streets cost upwards of a lakh or two, more than a motorbike. Throughout the city, you can spy cyclists on expensive Treks and Giants, often in spandex, with a helmet on their heads, threading their way through traffic. The bicycle, in its modern mountain bike avatar, has become a middle-upper class affectation.
More than 10 years ago, when I was first starting to cycle seriously, there weren’t too many modern-day cyclists in Kathmandu. Most of my friends were still interested in motorbikes and cycles were not even an afterthought. They hadn’t become the hip symbol of athleticism and environmental consciousness that they are now. But one close friend cycled every day to Patan from Bhaktapur, a 30 kilometer or so ride. As a few more friends began to pick up the habit, I too was given a refurbished bicycle for my birthday. I used it diligently, cycling every day from Maharajgunj, Chakrapath, to Patan Dhoka for high school. It was an arduous ride, filled with smoke and soot. I fell many times, once crashing into the back of a tempo while checking out girls on a passing school bus. Another time, I swerved to narrowly avoid crushing a cat that had darted onto the road, only to have a motorbike come up from behind and threaten to run me over because I had swerved onto this path. I still remember, the motorbiker, his face obscured by his helmet, snarling, “I’ll kick you over.”
Then, I was cycling because my friends were cycling. I wasn’t particularly athletic or fit, nor was I interested in the particularities of bicycling and its various paradigms of travel. I just went along for the ride. After about a year or so of biking every day, my tyres gave out and while on the quest of buy new ones, I lost interest. That refurbished bicycle was carted away, never to be seen again.
That was in 2006. Now, eleven years later, I am cycling again. Since moving to Copenhagen, I have acquired an ancient Canondale, pale yellow and rusty. It is a serviceable bike, even though it creaks with every revolution of the wheel. Old and no doubt passed down countless times, the bike feels right at home in Copenhagen, where cycling is an intricate and intimate part of the city’s identity. You will be hard pressed to find a single Copenhagener who does not own a bike. The city is littered with cycles, everywhere you go. Every street has a cycle lane, there are long snaking queues of bicycles at every red light and cycles hold right of way, a step up from pedestrians.
It is quite a sight to behold, a city where bicycles outnumber motorised vehicles, where a phalanx of pedallers lines every street. The young and the old alike ride, in the rain and in the sun. Mothers and fathers attach their babies to seats at the back or a covered canopy in the front. There are bicycles to be found in the canals. Abandoned bikes litter the streets, locked and rusting. And most of these bikes, they’re simple machines. There are very few of the expensive mountain or road bikes that Kathmandu’s riders seem to prefer. Here, the bicycle is functional. Most are old and second-hand, passed down as people move onto other bikes and other places.
Ever since the early 1900s, Denmark has always been a cycling country. But it was only after the pollution and congestion wrought by the big car booms of post-war Europe that the country embarked on a radical push towards clean transportation. Cities like Copenhagen and Aarhus promote cyclists as city icons. Infrastructure like bike lanes are built with ever-more frequency and prioritised over motorways. Going further, many of Copenhagen’s tourist areas are pedestrian and bicycle only.
There is much to be learned here. The bicycle is supposed to be quotidian. It is a form of transport that everyone can afford. It does not pollute and it invites a healthier lifestyle while relieving traffic congestion and pollution. But alas, it is expecting too much for Kathmandu to adopt something similar. Kathmandu’s streets are not made for cycling; they have been built with the express purpose of facilitating cars. For, the dream of every Nepali is still to own a four-wheeler; the lowly bicycle does not incite much romance. Still, one can only imagine the introduction of a dedicated cycle lane. But knowing Kathmandu and its citizens, motorcycles will take over such a lane, cycles be damned.
I was always a walker, not so much a cyclist. But there is something to be said about being on a two-wheeler powered by yourself. Walking takes you on a small circumference where you are a flaneur. While cycling, your radius increases but biking is not as divorced from the elements as being inside a car, or even motorcycling, is. While cycling, you are still able to slow down, idle your legs and feel the air on your face, the crunch underneath your tires and the sweat on your brow.
Two days after I arrived in Copenhagen, I took a long leisurely bike ride through the suburbs, where there are lakes and marshland. Biking at night on a desolate road, with nothing but the whirr of my wheels to keep me company was a profound experience. There were dim lights strung up above and my own flickering illumination powered by the pedals. I was all alone and it was chilly. There was moisture in the air and flies buzzed around. I imagined some prehistoric beast shambling out of the marsh as if in a creature feature. On that back road, somewhere in the suburbs, I found a peace I had associated for so long with walking, a state of mind that I had longed to capture again while back home in Kathmandu, only to be denied cruelly. That night, I felt what every Copenhagener must feel implicitly: cycling as a state of mind.
Published: 09-09-2017 09:59