I love meeting up with the people who read my blog. So far, it’s brought Lasma, Yummy Janis, Tamara and Gunta, among others, into my life. And apart from one slightly hairy moment with Gunta, it’s gone really well.
Gunta: Don’t you ever worry that someone you meet will try to stab you?
Me: Are you going to try to stab me?
Gunta: No, but, y’know.
(Silence as I contemplate bleeding out on the floor of Moloney’s.)
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I met up with a lovely Danish guy called Søren. (Sorry to disappoint you Latvia but no, he’s not a sex tourist.) He asked me if he could write a guest post on cycling in Riga, and, as is my way, I said ‘why not?’.
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of cyclists in Riga. I think they’re a danger to themselves and everyone else. They cycle all over the paths; they cycle in the road; they switch back and forth when it suits them. Red man? No problem, just cycle in the road for a bit then switch back to the path when the traffic lights go against you. But, I’ve realised that it’s not really the cyclists fault. There are very few proper cycle lanes here and the ones I’ve seen are so faded, it’s hard to even tell that they are cycle lanes. In short, I wouldn’t cycle in Riga if you paid me. Søren, however, is a braver person than I… Here’s his story:
35 minutes to cover 980 metres made this Dane pull himself together and face the Riga gridlock the only way a Scandinavian knows: by bike – on the road.
Five years ago
One of the first pictures I took in Riga, was of a cycle lane in the Quiet Centre/Embassy area. A small bike sign on the pavement indicated that you were supposed to cycle there. To a Dane this is most peculiar, as cycling on the sidewalk is a crime in Denmark. But that was actually not what made me take the shot. Ten metres after the sign was a huge billboard, effectively blocking even a small child-sized bike from passing.
Questioning the logic of this, I was met with statements like: “Bikes are for hippies and the poor.” “Cycling is very dangerous in Riga.” “I like my car.” and “Bikes are fashion items – not for serious use.”
I said that, for Scandinavians, bikes are a means of transportation. I also said that children from the age of three normally have their own bikes, and children younger than that sit in a seat on their parents’ bikes. My Riga friends were mortified. “I hope you never have kids if you transport them so unsafely” stated a girl.
A 4pm bus ride
Being in a bit of hurry, with half the family travelling to suburban Riga, we recently jumped on a bus by Kalpaka/Elizabetes, en route to Brivibas. Not really noticing the time or the traffic, we only realised what a mistake we had made when it was too late. The four o’clock traffic in Riga is beyond description. The distance between Kalpaka and Brivbas is approximately 980 meters, and the bus managed to cover that in a little less than 35 minutes.
Upon leaving the bus, I said to my spouse: “That’s it. I’ll find a bike.” Luckily Riga has a well-functioning fleet of per-the-hour rental bikes. I did everything I had to do and even had time to hit my favourite bar for a Lāčplēsis, thanks to being able to move on a bike, rather than being stuck on a bus.
After that, I decided that I would put aside everything I’d been told about danger, and every story I’d heard of cyclists being crushed by trams, Russians in SUVs, etc. and start cycling.
The following morning I got up early and decided to challenge the Riga morning traffic “Scandinavian style”. I would cycle like I would have done back in Denmark: swiftly, smoothly, and on the road. No avoiding pedestrians, advertising signs and lamp posts.
Having also had the pleasure of being a motorist in Riga, I know that the roads are not for the faint-hearted. But I figured that I could always crawl back on the sidewalk if it got too dangerous.
It turned out to be quite a nice ride. Apart from the manhole covers which are gaping enough to swallow a cyclist, it turns out that riding a bike on the road is not only significantly faster than riding the sidewalk, it is also significantly safer. Apart from Krasta and Satekles, I’d say it’s safe to ride almost anywhere. No Scandinavian would cycle on a four-lane road anyway. To my surprise, all motorists, even the trolleys and buses, took notice of me and didn’t drive too close. I managed to cross the aforementioned Satekles to cycle from Old Town to the market.
So why are so many people stuck in cars, buses and trolleys when so few cycle? I guess the answer blows in the mild Riga spring wind.
So, if you want to actually move around the city by bike, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Get a decent bike. Not a road racing bike with thin wheels that will get crushed in the potholes; not a heavy MTB that will exhaust you in no time. Get a regular city-bike with solid wheels, high-performance LED lights for riding after dark, and a decent lock.
- If you can’t cycle steadily, practise in a park or parking lot until you can.
- Wear your regular clothes. Don’t bother with the hassle of neon-coloured vests or other gear. You will be visible enough.
- Cycle on the road, but as close to the sidewalk as possible. Always go left around parked cars and watch out for people coming out of them/crossing the road behind them.
- At intersections, stop in front of the first car. Turn your head to make eye contact with the driver so you know he has seen you. If it’s a truck or bus, stop at least two metres in front of them, or wait behind them. Don’t ever cycle on the inside of a truck/bus turning right.
- Give a clear sign. Stretch your arm left/right prior to turning and stretch your arm up in the air whenever braking to a full stop.
- Make your friends ride bikes too. The more the merrier – and safer! Motorists will get used to watching out for you if there are cyclists on every road.
- Have fun! Cycling is freedom. A car runs on money and makes you fat. A bike runs on fat and saves you money.
If you happen to try out any of this and it goes wrong, don’t sue me. The man you’re looking for is Søren Sommerglæde, Author & Culture columnist.