Another thought for my ongoing series about the difference between riding in the U.S. and China:
Angst - One day close to the end of my China tour, I thought to myself: I’m too young to be thinking about death all of the time. That’s what I had been doing. Death was on my mind all the time. I survived too many close calls on Chinese roads. I witnessed so much idiocy, lawlessness and recklessness that could have easily claimed my life. I couldn’t help but believe that my luck would eventually run out. If I were a cat, I would be on Life 9. I was convinced that if I continued riding in China another year, I wouldn’t survive. Much of my cycling in my last year of China was done alone. One of my steady training partners decided to stop riding, partly because he was fed up with the increased traffic. Riding alone is risky because it’s likely no one will stop to help if the worst-case scenario happens. A friend of mine was riding with a group in Shanghai when one of the cyclists crashed and badly injured himself. They tried to flag down a taxi, but none would stop. It’s too much of a hassle getting involved with an injured foreigner. Luckily, a couple of women stopped and took the rider to the hospital.
I constantly debated whether I should put my bikes in storage and stick to the treadmill. I was supporting a wife and two children. Was it selfish and irresponsible for me to continue cycling on dangerousl roads? Each debate – and there were hundreds of them – ended with me deciding that I didn’t want fear to control my life. If I were going down, I wanted to go down doing something I love. I was too young to be hanging up my bikes. Then I would go out and ride hyper defensively. I feel blessed that I never had a serious crash, and my number never came up after hundreds of near misses. I don’t like talking about it. It’s seems like bad juju. Sure, the roads I’m riding on in the U.S. aren’t the world’s safest. But they feel 100 times safer than those in China. I don’t worry about them too much. My angst, dark thoughts and internal debates are mostly gone. It’s wonderful, not feeling bad about doing something you love.
Waffles & Steel occasionally gets pictures and anecdotes from readers in other parts of China that help confirm that Guangzhou isn’t the only wild and wacky place to ride in the country. We love to get this material and will find a way to post it, with permission from the source, of course.
Here’s something from a reader in Beijing who commutes by bike daily. The note inspired a discussion with Waffles & Steel:
Reader: It’s barely Spring in Beijing and already have had two incidents happen to remind me to be careful when pedaling around town. Maybe a week ago, one of those three-wheel cabs nearly flattened me on the way to work as I was going straight and he was trying to make a sudden right turn across traffic. We exchanged pleasantries in Chinese, then I gave his windshield a New York smack with the palm of my hand and rode off. A few moments later, the guy caught up with me going pretty fast and tried to sideswipe me down from behind. He came damn close to nailing me and then kept going away still very fast. Lesson learned. No more New York smacks. Haha. On Monday, I was pedaling home from dinner with friends when a car strayed over into the bike path to make a right turn and clipped my handlebar with its side mirror. The car, which did not stop, wasn’t going that fast but the nudge threw me off balance and almost knocked me over. Luckily, I hit both brakes hard and somehow managed to stay upright but snapped a brake cable in the process.
W&S: (About the smack downs) Yeah, they’re really sensitive about that kind of stuff. I did that to the hood of a car once, and the car completely stopped and the driver seemed ready to get out.
Reader: And yes on the smack downs. Smacks instantly piss the Chinese off because they are quite protective of their vehicles. Am sure if you were not a “lao wei” (a foreigner), that the guy would have popped out of his car and confronted you. Just remember, though, you can only play the “lao wei” card so far. Haha. The rundown attempt surprised me but I saw him out of the corner of my eye just in time to move over.
Maybe I’ve been watching too much “Dexter” lately. I might have given the serial dumper too much credit. Oh, he’s definitely a serial dumper. And he’s certainly ballsy. But I don’t think he’s as cheeky as I’ve made him out to be. Specifically, I don’t think he’s been rigging up the caution tape around the piles he’s been leaving lately in some of the most scenic new parts of Guangzhou. A correction or clarification is in order for Waffles & Steel.
I say this because on Wednesday morning we discovered another dump-and-run pile in the same general spot – close to the TV Tower, the city’s newest landmark. We found it just as two guys in an official white city government pick-up truck were leaving the scene. Caution tape had already been neatly strung up around the pile of debris, stuffed into heavy duty burlappy white nylon bags. It seems like the guys in the pickup were on dawn patrol, searching for fresh piles and calling them in to clean-up crews.
The dawn patrol guys were getting into their truck when I whipped out my camera to shoot a photo of the mound. They saw me do this and quickly got out of the truck. It looked like they were getting ready to stop me from shooting. That’s when I realized that the last time I uploaded photos to my computer, I forgot to stick the memory card back into my camera. I put the camera back into my jersey pocket and said to the men, “Who’s doing this? I’m seeing these piles almost everyday.” One of them grumbled back, “Some really bad person is doing it. Yes, it’s happening almost everyday.”
It’s interesting how efficient and vigilant they’ve become. When the Asia Games start in the fall, Guangzhou simply can’t tolerate dump and runs.
We warmly welcome you to our civilized city of Guangzhou!!!
On today’s morning ride, we encountered the best dump-and-run ever! Regular readers of Waffles & Steel already know that I’m obsessed with these things. Background: It’s common in Guangzhou for trucks hauling construction debris to dump their loads in the street overnight. Most of them do it to avoid tipping fees or to save fuel and time. But I’m pretty sure that I’ve discovered the work of a serial dumper who’s trying to make a statement. The culprit has been dumping his load near Guangzhou’s newest icon – the TV tower, touted to be the world’s tallest. It looks like a giant rolled-up newspaper that’s scrunched in the middle and standing up on one end. This is the second time I’ve seen a dump-and-run pile left so close to the TV tower. Also nearby is the half-built stadium that will serve as the venue for the Asian Games’ opening ceremony. By picking this spot to dump, the culprit is basically giving the big finger to the Communist Party mandarins who run Guangzhou. It’s extremely brazen.
Be careful, I just dumped a massive pile of crap on the road. Have a nice day!
Initially, I thought the dumper favored this spot because it was convenient. It’s a frontage road along the Pearl River, and there are no CCTV cameras in the area. But something in today’s pile tells me something more is going on. Check out how the dumper carefully rigged up the warning tape around the pile. It was as if he were saying: “Careful, be sure to avoid this huge pile of debris I left on the road near the spectacular TV tower. Hah! Boo-yah!”
A calling card?
It even looks like they took a break for a game of cards. Before Guangzhou really started to rev up for the Asian Games, these piles would stay on the streets for two or three days. Now it seems that crews waste no time cleaning them up. A street sweeper was already working on it when I stopped to shoot it. He said it would take three people to get rid of it.
King of the mountain!
This was the first of two piles that we had to ride around this morning. It was mostly bags of dirt and other fill, dumped in the fast lane a few kilometers from my home. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again. For me, the dump-and-runs are a perfect example of a popular attitude in China: “Screw everyone else! I’ll do what I can get away with!” Sure, this is a common attitude with the human race in general. But it’s way too common in China.
Few things make me crack a smile faster than a banana bike. And I really needed something to cheer me up at the end of a miserable ride – and week in general – on Sunday.
I was lucky to avoid catching a cold all “winter.” I got slammed by a couple stomach bugs but was spared by the common cold that seemed to torture Guangzhou’s other 10 million residents at least once or twice during the past few months. But last week, I started waking up with a sore throat, dull headache, fatigue and congestion. It kept me off the bike on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It should have kept me out of the office, too, but I was scheduled to move my operation. So for most of the week, I had to deal with the hassle of supervising the movers, switching off the utilities, shredding documents, cleaning, landlord inspections, etc. I dragged myself through the process in the morning, crashed for an hour after lunch, then pressed on the rest of the afternoon. By Thursday, I was feeling better and went out for a short ride. My exuberance got the best of me, though, and I rode too hard and strained my right Achilles tendon. That kept me off the bike on Friday and Saturday.
On Sunday, I was looking forward to a nice, steady 130-kilometer ride that would clear my mind, gently exhaust me and burn off any lingering nasties in my body. I planned to do laps around the 16-kilometer loop in “Unitown,” where the road is smooth and you can just zone out. There’s a section of rolling hills that I like to ride hard, and I was really looking forward to that. But once I got to that section, I discovered that construction crews had cut huge square patches out of the road. They ripped away the asphalt epidermis, leaving only the bumpy and rutted dermis layer of the road that, until Sunday, seemed perfectly fine – one of the best in Guangzhou. The rough patches were spaced about 100 meters apart for about three kilometers over my beloved rolling hills. So once I got into a rhythm, I would have to slow down to ride over a torn-up piece of road.
After doing this for the second time, I snapped. Rage and disgust welled up inside of me. It had been building for a long, long time – for several months actually. Living in a construction site is slowly driving me insane. That’s what Guangzhou has been the past couple years. A massive, sprawling construction zone. It’s impossible to avoid. The detours, the spilled concrete, resurfacing, scaffolding, construction barriers, hard hat zones, blocked sidewalks, rubble strewn roads. It seems to be everywhere.
After riding two loops, I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to cut my ride short at 65 kilometers. On the ride home, I got caught in a traffic jam of construction vehicles . It’s SUNDAY folks! Take a break! Spend some time with the family that Chinese people are supposed to value so much! Usually cycling mellows me out. That’s partly why I love to do it. But I was getting crankier and crankier. I was cursing under my breath, feeling like a grouchy Cadel Evans in the 2008 Tour after the stage 10 climb to Hautacam when he yelled at the journalists, “Don’t touch me!” But I was saved by the banana bike about two kilometers from my home. I rode up to him and couldn’t help admire the brilliant yellow of the fruit. It somehow had a soothing effect on me. I stayed behind him as long as I could before I had to turn off and thread my way through another set of road construction barriers…
Thinking outside of the box is still really hard to do in China. The education system still encourages a great deal of rote memorization. The authoritarian culture discourages people from challenging the norms. The legal system doesn’t provide much protection for intellectual property. At the same time, China’s ongoing success depends on its ability to be innovative and creative. Can the country pull it off? It’s a huge question. Last week, when I was walking around the Shanghai Bike Show, I kept looking for a booth set up by a local company that had a new mind-blowing product, something that would stop me in my tracks and force me to say, “Wow!” I never saw that product. Maybe I overlooked it. But most of what I saw was derivative stuff churned out by OEM companies.
I swear that I didn’t ask this guy to ride around with a box on his head so I could snap a funky photo. We had just finished a climbing workout on War God Hill and were pedaling to Niutou Mountain when we passed this guy. After I starting taking pictures, he took off the box and wouldn’t put it back on. There’s always something bizarre to be seen on Chinese roads. That’s what I really love about them.
Here’s your mission: You need to deliver a big chunk of meat across Guangzhou in morning rush hour traffic. How will you do it? By meat bike, of course! Follow this guy’s example and just drape the meat over your top tube. Don’t bother wrapping it in plastic so the meat isn’t tainted by car exhaust, dust and other pollutants. You’re not the one who will be eating it!
I was walking to work, climbing the stairs up a pedestrian overpass when I looked down and saw this meat bike going down the road. I stopped for a couple seconds, debating whether it was worth pursuing. I wasn’t in the mood to chase after this guy, but I knew I’d regret it later if I passed on the opportunity. I thought about how it has been about six months since the last time I saw a meat bike.
So I ran down the stairs and started weaving through people on the sidewalk as I fished for my camera at the bottom of my tote bag. Luckily, the meat bike started riding on the sidewalk, and I was able to sprint ahead of him to get into shooting position. People were looking at me like I was crazy, and when I started snapping pictures of the meat bike, I’m sure they were most certain that I was insane. The basket in the back contained a set of ribs or what might have been soup bones. I’m guessing this guy was delivering the meat to a restaurant. It’s one reason why I pretty much stick to vegetables when I eat out.
China’s biggest bike show used to cater to foreign buyers. Now, it’s more for the domestic market. As China’s middle class swells, more and more people can afford pricey equipment from Colnago, Campagnolo, Ridley, Cervelo and the other big brands (see this). They were all there when the three-day show kicked off Tuesday. I didn’t see many other foreigners while I roamed around on the first day.
I spend a fair amount of time at trade shows, and I’ve developed a few opinions about what works for exhibitors. Here are a few observations and awards from Waffles & Steel:
Most Depressing Booth: SRAM. This is surprising because the American company has been doing some exciting things and has been wildly successful breaking into the roadie market. The top three riders at last year’s Tour de France were all riding bikes with SRAM components. So what was the deal in Shanghai? The booth was modern and generally well done. But the guys working there were real zeros. I was really interested in SRAM’s new Apex gruppo and was hoping to get some information about it. The booth’s front counter had a messy pile of brochures, and as I began sifting through it, the guy sitting there didn’t even lift his head or acknowledge me in any other way. Aside from the zoned-out staffers, the booth was depressing because it had a big fish aquarium that was only one-quarter full of water. The bottom of the tank was full of blinky lights, and the few fish in the tank looked like they were blinded by the flashing lights and getting ready to die. It seemed cruel.
Coolest Steel Frame: Colnago. I don’t know why I find the orange and blue color combination so irresistible. The lugs on this rig are gorgeous.
Best Effort: Bianchi. Ahhh, leave it to the Italians to use models at their booth. Few others did. Wait a minute, doesn’t a Swedish conglomerate own Bianchi now? And are these ladies professional models? I had my doubts. I strongly suspect they were girls from the front office who were “asked” to pose with the bikes. They didn’t seem to understand how to work the cameras. They also didn’t seem comfortable in a bike kit. I don’t think the concept of “fitness modeling” is popular in China yet.
Best small booth: Cervelo. The company’s space was just a third of the size of Bianchi’s but it was well used. No models, though. Canadians…
Best schwag: Carnac. They were giving out free posters to people who asked. Sylvain Chavanel is one of my favorites because he rides so aggressively and animates almost every race. Cycle Sport magazine summed him up best in its 2010 season preview issue: “Sylvain Chavanel suffers from some kind of cycling hyperactivity, which causes him to attack all the time.” I also think this poster is hilarious. Oh yeah, “Sylvain Chavanel chooses Carnac” … because you’re paying him a bunch of money! I also like how they thought it was necessary to circle his shoes, just so you wouldn’t miss the fact that he’s really wearing Carnac. I used to wear Carnacs when they had simple, classic designs, like the Legend Ligne Pro. Every year, I look at the Carnac collection and hope they’ve gone back to their former style, but I keep getting disappointed.
Most Questionable Brand Name: SARS. This is a Taiwanese company that makes seats, frames and other parts. I saw their sign over their booth with the scary skull figure and said to myself, “No, it couldn’t be.” I asked the gal in the booth if the brand was named after the mysterious illness that killed more than 700 people worldwide, sickened thousands of others and caused global panic and severe economic damage in 2003. She said with a smile, “That’s right! We thought SARS would be a brand name that would be easy to remember!” It certainly caught my attention, but don’t you want to do more with a brand name? Don’t you also want to create a positive feeling? I’m not a branding expert so I’m just asking here. Wouldn’t a brand called “Leukemia” or “AIDS” also be easy to remember? I said to another visitor in the booth, “You gotta be careful when using this brand. You can get sick.” One of the SARS employees overheard me and quickly said, “No, no, no…that’s not true!”
The Most Improbable Backdrop: BMC. Shouldn’t there be an image of Big George behind this rig? Oh, all these white guys look the same anyway.
Best Model Name: Erotic. I guess it is made of rubber.
Coolest People: Shanghai Senior Citizens Bike Club. These guys – all in matching red warm-up suits – rode to the expo in a long convoy of bikes. One guy was on a mountain bike with clip-on aero bars. I like how they kept their helmets on as they roamed around the massive expo center. They spent a lot of time at one booth that had an elaborate bike computer system with several readouts. It looked like a control panel on a Cessna plane. It really captivated them.
The two big red characters on this sign say, “Xue Che.” It’s a phrase in the Chinese language that makes me more worried than most anything else about the future of cycling on this country’s roads. The most literal translation for “xue che” would be: “study car.” It often cracks me up when I think about it. A more fluid translation would be: “learn to drive.”
Driver’s education is a huge business in China now. The “xue che” signs are everywhere in Guangzhou: on billboards, newstands, storefronts. It makes sense for a place where a fleet of new cars hits the roads each day. During the past decade, the number of cars in the city has increased an eye-popping 30 percent each year, and now Guangzhou has 1.3 million of them.
Nationwide, car sales have been booming, and it has fueled a debate among China watchers. Some think something fishy is going on. They point to the figure that says last year, China’s car stock jumped by 24 percent. But gasoline sales remained flat. They suspect there was a conspiracy involving government and state companies that are snapping up cars under instruction from the state, which is trying to stoke economic growth amid the global downturn. There is unconfirmed talk of huge parking garages where hundreds of new cars are stored. But others insist the cars are being bought by real people, who are either driving less because of high fuel costs or are buying cars that don’t guzzle as much gas.
The popularity of the driver’s education classes seems to bolster the latter theory. But I also understand that many of these student drivers just want to get a license so that they can say on their resume that they can drive. That’s apparently a big plus for employers.
Last Sunday, I was riding home after climbing in the mountains in Longdong, on the outskirts of Guangzhou. There’s a 10-kilometer strip of road that I have have to ride that I call, “Study Car Alley.” The thoroughfare has five lanes and a wide, well-marked bike lane. But the bike lane is always clogged with driver’s ed cars, mostly banged-up VW Jettas with the characters “jiao lian” or “instructor” painted on the rear window or back end.
The cars are usually full with three students, and they practice driving at 5 mph for a couple hundred meters on the far right lane before they slowly pull into the bike lane, where they stop while the instructor gives them a talk or they switch drivers. This is a huge problem for me because I need to constantly swerve into the car lanes to pass them. Often, the student drivers will just creep along in the bike lane until they can work up the nerve to merge into the car lane. Last Sunday morning, I started counting the driver’s ed cars. I thought I’d tally 20 or so. But in 20 minutes, I counted 42! Each one had three students inside, so that’s 126 people learning to drive on just one 10-kilometer strip of road!
I can remember how unnerving it can be learning how to drive with other vehicles whizzing by you left and right while an instructor barks at you. So I try to be as patient and compassionate as possible. But at other times, they really piss me off. Making matters worse, I encounter them at the end of my climbing sufferfests when I’m tired and running dangerously low on blood sugar. A couple weeks ago, I pulled up to the driver’s side of a car that was tooling along in the bike lane and calmly asked the driver, “Why are you driving in the bike lane? Don’t you understand this is dangerous?” Then I glanced at the instructor, who – like his student – just kept looking straight ahead. I doubt that most of these driving instructors are really qualified to teach. The New Yorker magazine had a great story by the brilliant Peter Hessler about the whole racket a year or two ago. The story has a few great anecdotes about the crazy tips the instructors give their students. Once I was riding behind a driver’s ed car and the instructor rolled down the window and tossed an empty liter bottle of mineral water into the street. See kids, you can litter and drive at the same time! It’s an important skill to learn in China.
I’ve been sitting at the keyboard debating whether I’m a bike snob. On the one hand, I think if someone enjoys riding a bike – any kind of bike – that’s great. I’m happy for them. But on the other hand, I don’t really care to be near anyone riding one of those folding bikes, which are becoming outrageously popular in China. Wait, I should clarify something. If someone is commuting on one of those things or running errands or just tooling around like David Byrne does, that’s fine. I appreciate the utility of the machines. But I’m troubled by people – mostly men in their 20s and 30s in China – who ride them for sport (like here). And I don’t like how they try to adopt our roadie attire. They should learn from the fixie crowd and develop their own style.
A few months ago, a couple of foldies (Is that what we call them?) popped out of a side road and started tailing me. One of them stayed just a centimeter off my rear wheel, pedaling those donut wheels at an annoyingly high cadence. They didn’t seem to understand the common etiquette. If you’re going to suck a stranger’s wheel, you should at least introduce yourself, say hello. It was a bit unnerving because I had doubts about their riding skills and was just waiting for a wheel-touch accident. I finally dropped the two dweebs on a series of hills. In my mind, what they were doing was kind of like a guy in a VW Beetle – a cute and clever vehicle – tailing a guy in a Porsche. It’s just something you don’t do. It’s dorky and irritating. It’s like stepping onto a tennis court with a raquetball raquet. That’s OK if it’s your thing, but don’t try to volley with me.
On Sunday, I was riding home on a stretch of road with heavy, chaotic traffic (a Mad Max situation). It’s usually a spot where I just ride to survive. The objective is just to get through it safely. I passed two guys on folding bikes (They always seem to ride in pairs. Hmmmm), and they started racing me. It was a real dilemma for me because I would really hate to see two foldies get the best of me. But then again, I’d really hate to crash my bike and injure myself competing with geeks. It was a classic pride vs. commonsense conflict. One of the guys was riding like an idiot, weaving recklessly between cars and taking other risks. He eventually shot through a hole in the traffic and opened up a hug gap. I was tempted to chase, but I decided to just let them go.
Am I a bike snob? I’m still not sure. I’m certainly a grump. And I have strong opinions. Maybe I’m best described as a cycling segregationist. I’m not sure if that’s worse.