Monday, 1 March 2010

cycling in hong kong

To use a biological analogy, there are four species of cyclist in Hong Kong. By far the most numerous in the northern New Territories are regular cyclists, the people for whom a bike is the principal mode of transport, at least over short distances. They are very common around Fanling, partly because there is an extensive network of dedicated cycle tracks here, although not all sections are contiguous. The average skill level of regular cyclists is not high—they frequently have to push their bikes up the short and not particularly steep slopes that lead from subterranean interchanges to street level, for example—but apart from the odd situation that will be described later, they represent little threat, except to themselves. Many ride ramshackle machines that are badly maintained: these can be heard approaching from some distance away, even when you can’t see them.

A second type is also common around Fanling: the recreational cyclist; most of those we encounter on the main cycle network ride expensive bikes with small wheels, which are the latest fashion here, although those that ride past our house at weekends are usually on conventional mountain bikes. However, the majority of recreational cyclists who make it this far north do not live in the area, and it takes a lot of skill to ride along the narrow country paths that connect Fanling to Taipo, the next sizeable town to the south. At one point, the only route crosses the railway at a footbridge, the entry to which involves a very tight hairpin bend. If you’re coming in the opposite direction, there is a three-foot drop from the edge of the path, so you can’t afford to botch the turn; regular cyclists get off and push here too. The bridge itself is no pushover (unless you’re a regular cyclist): seen from a distance, there appears to be a flight of steps leading up to the bridge, but closer inspection reveals a bewildering alternation of short but steep and longer, more gentle gradients. It is terrain like this that prevents incursions of the other species of cyclist north of Taipo, albeit for opposing reasons.

Looking north from the footbridge with the 'steps': the path to Fanling can be seen beyond the railings.

Sports cyclists usually come out in herds containing as many as thirty individuals, and because speed is their principal raison d’ĂȘtre and because they ride narrow-wheeled racing bikes, they rarely venture away from the main cycleways south of Taipo. They seldom pose problems, although on narrower cycle tracks it can be intimidating to see a demented peloton approaching from the opposite direction, because they do tend to encroach on your side of the road. There is an arrogance about the way they ride that suggests they think they’re the ‘best’ cyclists around. They aren’t.

But they are a lot easier to live with than the fourth species: the weekend cyclist. As the name implies, these morons are only ever seen on weekends and public holidays; their skill levels range from not very good to downright incompetent. They don’t actually own the machines they ride, but bikes can be hired for the day from many places without prior proof of ability. They are the reason my wife and I never go cycling on a Sunday, and also why we don’t dally in Sham Chung on a Saturday morning after visiting our friend Tom.

Most cycle tracks here are wide enough for two cyclists to ride abreast in each direction, but south of Taipo, as far as the Hong Kong Science Park (about 7km), the track is wide enough for two double-decker buses to pass without either having to slow down. And it is marked out like a conventional road, with a central dividing line and occasional directional arrows to remind cyclists which side of the road they should be on. Both are ignored by weekend cyclists. When this section is busy, my wife likens it to Space Invaders, with the crucial difference that you have to miss the targets, not hit them.

One example of the dangers posed by weekend cyclists occurred on Christmas Eve, 2008. China Light and Power was digging up the road, so the untouched half was divided by a line of plastic cones. I was heading south, and it was clear ahead, so I was probably travelling at about 30km/hr when a small group of weekenders appeared coming in the opposite direction. I didn’t take a lot of notice, assuming that the cones provided sufficient guidance as to which side of the track they were supposed to be on. Unfortunately, the last rider in the group suddenly decided that the cones would provide an interesting slalom course. He pulled directly into my path when I was less than three metres away. Only my own fast reactions and the fact that the kerb on the left was a mere 6–7cm high, and bevelled, enabled me to bump up on to the footpath and avoid what would have been an inevitable collision for most cyclists. However, had the kerb been at a conventional height, this escape route would have been denied to me. I can still remember the six-word tirade that I launched at this idiot as I continued on my way: it included the words ‘you’ and ‘stupid’, but the other four words would be deemed unsuitable for sensitive ears.

A similar situation often crops up while we cycle through Taipo itself. Side tracks join the through route at regular intervals, and all have markings at the junctions that exactly parallel those on regular roads. In other words: ‘give way’. Not only do some regular cyclists ignore this exhortation; they come barrelling out of the side road without even looking. My theory is that these people don’t drive cars, so they’ve never learned what ‘give way’ markings on a road actually mean. At least they’re predictable, which is more than can be said for the typical weekend cyclist.

Finally, the question arises: is the quantity ‘four’ the total of all possible species? No it isn’t, because I have excluded a fifth type from my general classification on the grounds that these cyclists are only ever seen on roads. And it can be argued that they’re merely a subspecies of regular cyclist. However, let me introduce you to the lunatic cyclist, and an extreme example of his (they’re always men) typical behaviour.

I’d just dropped my wife off at Fanling station. My route home takes me along Sha Tau Kok Road, one of the main freight routes into and out of China. It is quite beautiful, for a road, with a long avenue of mature paper-bark trees in the middle section. It is also a two-lane dual carriageway, so traffic flow is quite brisk, despite the 50km/hr speed limit (there are no speed cameras, but there are two roundabouts and four sets of traffic lights). Anyway, I was coming off the second roundabout; the road curved to the left, and a high barrier protecting the cycling and pedestrian underpass below obscured my view forward.

That shouldn’t be a problem, because all the traffic is moving forwards anyway. Wrong! What should appear but the aforementioned lunatic, peddling furiously towards me. I barely had time to react. There are two points to make about this lamentable tale: first, the road beyond fans out into five lanes, and I was aiming ahead for lanes three or four (straight on). Had I intended to turn left at the lights, I’d have been aiming for lanes one or two and therefore a lot closer to the protective wall. I don’t think I could have missed at that range. Second, let me remind you what this fool couldn’t see (in addition to me and my car) because of the protective barrier: an interchange of dedicated cycle tracks! I often wonder what kind of deranged halfwit rides the wrong way down a dual carriageway when he doesn’t need to be on the road. Unfortunately, I have no answer to this perplexing question: the problem with stupid people is that they don’t know they’re stupid; people who only think they’re stupid are invariably pretty smart.

My wife negotiates a quiet cycle track on the eastern outskirts of the new town of Ma On Shan.

4 comments:

  1. Hi Dennis,
    Thank you for checking out my London Cycle Diary and for your nice comments! I can imagine Hong Kong has so much more going for cyclists, but I must say London is getting quite geared up with a fantastic new hire cycle scheme coming into place recently and also a few cycle highways. I think we've stolen that from your side of the world!
    Happy cycling!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Drives me nuts cycling in TKO area, in the mornings theres nobody around, but plenty of old people who stubornly feel the cycle paths are a great place to walk or do tai chi. On the weekends the groups you descirbed are all over the cycle paths. But as Im all for cycling I kind of tolereate it and see them as something to keep me alert. The main nuisance is people meandering on the bike paths, when its all clearly marked! Then they look at cyclists like they are the idiots!
    Still at least we have paths we can use, compared to HK island...

    ReplyDelete
  3. I know exactly what you mean. You ring the bell because they've stepped out in front of you, and they turn and look affronted. Joggers are a pain too, because they seem to prefer the cycle track to the footpath. However, there are usually few pedestrians where we cycle, except for a couple of places in Taipo.

    ReplyDelete
  4. That look on your wife's face says it all. Even though I am injured from my first try. I will not stop until I can bike like everyone (it seems) in hong kong.

    ReplyDelete

Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions. If you don’t have time to comment but enjoyed the post, please click the +1 button on the right-hand sidebar (near the top of the page).