On yer bike

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. 

Me: Yeah…

(Silence as I contemplate bleeding out on the floor of Moloney’s.)

Me: Pint?

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.

2014-05-18 15.43.23


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.

Riding Riga

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.

Thanks Søren! 


About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
This entry was posted in Expat, Humor, Humour, Latvia, Moving to Riga, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

93 Responses to On yer bike

  1. Askolds says:

    Just one comment on the picture with the bike lane – these appeared a while ago, but they are not official bike lanes, they were drawn by some people as a protest for lacking real bike lanes

    • Expat Eye says:

      The only one in central Riga that I can think of runs along Valdemara, up Stabu (I think), then onto Skolas and into the park – there could be others, but I used to walk that route a lot!

  2. expatlingo says:

    “Bikes are for hippies and the poor.” Ha! Sounds like something someone from the the city I grew up in in middle America would say.

  3. wasd says:

    In Liepaja there are pretty decent cycling lanes, the bad thing is there are often found peaces of smashed beer/vodka you name it bottles and it gets worse since summer is coming and weather is getting warmer. Still learning to stick with pedaling on road together with cars.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Yeah, you get that in Riga too – shame. Especially as it’s now flip flop weather!

    • Here’s a tip for dealing with that. In Denmark we often see that too.
      – Spend money on tires. Don’t buy the cheapest you can get.
      – Buy tires and hoses. Not tires only. Kevlar hoses and tires are great, but not cheap.
      – Keep them inflated to their max at all times. Look at the BAR/PSI number on the side of the tyre and make sure you have that pressure in.
      – If you often have a puncture, buy a tyre-foam and fill it in a fresh new hose.
      – Look out while riding. Foam and kevlar won’t save you from barbed wire.

  4. Everyone is writing about bikes this week. By the end of this article I was actually feeling the pressure to go out and join in just because it’s what all the cool kids seem to be doing.

  5. 1WriteWay says:

    Love this post! I want to put this on a bumper sticker: “A car runs on money and makes you fat. A bike runs on fat and saves you money.” Where I live in the U.S., while there are plenty of cyclists (but not enough for a critical mass), it’s still dangerous to cycle through town. Drivers here are mean. One time, a friend cycling was home from work, and in the bike lane, was followed closely by a vehicle with the driver honking and yelling at her. I’ve heard drivers boast about harassing cyclists (as if there were something to be proud of … cowards). So I personally only cycle for pleasure and stick to designated bike trails. Only in my dreams could I cycle safely to work 😉

    • Expat Eye says:

      It would make a great bumper sticker – he’s a wise man, that Soren! But they seem to be totally geared for this in Scandinavian countries – in others, it’s just chaotic. I guess the more people that cycle, the more the council or the state or whoever has to try to accommodate them. Attitudes will change eventually!

    • That’s really sad.
      First of all it’s really sad that you want to make a bumper sticker of the slogan, rather than a t-shirt you would be proudly wearing while cycling.
      Other thing is that it’s really sad one can find motorists harassing cyclists by default. I’ve been told such stories about Riga too. Look through comments for further details.
      I think you can cycle safely though. And I would love to prove it. It’s really often about overcoming the initial fear of being in the traffic without airbags, steel reinforced roll-cages and seat belts. If you feel extremely unsafe, wear a helmet and knee/elbow pads. I know it’s silly, but eventually you will feel comfy enough to get rid of them.
      Where do you live in the U.S. if I may ask?

      • 1WriteWay says:

        Hi, Soren! As soon as I wrote bumper sticker, I knew that would be so wrong 😉 I really like the idea of a t-shirt and might do that (giving you full credit, of course). I live in Florida, near the Georgia border, in the US. I always wear a helmet, use my lights, take all safety precautions that I can. My workplace is only 9 miles from where I live, but it may as well be 90. Our culture is so car dependent even our mass transit system sucks. If I wanted to take a bus, it would take me 1.5 hours, 3 buses, and 1.3 miles of walking. I used to live in San Francisco and either walked or took buses everywhere. Sorry for the rant. I would consider riding my bike to work but, seriously, it’s not worth risking life and limb. I’ve seen accidents. My husband almost got run over once, and we have a friend who suffer near fatal injuries from an accident. I’m sticking to the bike trails for now and just hope to eventually move to a bike-friendly town :). Thanks very much for responding to my comment.

      • Maybe, there’s the need for a traffic-change-agent where you live. Managing and promoting behavioral changes in usage of transportation is a long process.
        I’d love to have a look at it eventually.

  6. Anna says:

    I love how “Russians in SUVs” is a particular threat category. Those pesky Russians 😉

  7. linnetmoss says:

    “Luckily Riga has a well-functioning fleet of per-the-hour rental bikes.” They’re ahead of most American cities…

  8. Marianne says:

    We get loads of cyclists (but only the VERY fit variety) climbing the hills to where we are. I think they must be in training for the Tour de France. You could always try that out too, Søren! 🙂

  9. I got my drivers licence only a week ago, and I can honestly say, that I’ve been taught that a cyclist also is a traffic participant, and we have to respect them. They have rights to be on the road, even if there is a cycle lane on sidewalk… I think that some of older drivers may have problems with respecting cyclists, but not those who got their drivers within last few years.

    • Mārtiņš says:

      True. But there’s one interesting thing I was taught by the instructor (woman by the way) drive close to the right side in order not to give a cyclist a possibility to work one’s way through. Maybe it was in a traffic congestion, I don’t remember. But it wasn’t just once.

      • Mārtiņš I think your instructor is right. It’s not in congestion however, it’s in intersections. As mentioned in the post, don’t be on the inside of a bus/truck/tram/lorry/trolly because they can’t see you. However that applies to some modern cars too with wide rear mullions. My dad drives a Honda with such and the rear mullions can hide a whole Tour de France team.
        I’d recommend that you always try to get in front of all the cars and make eye contact with the driver of the car in front, so that you know he/she is aware you are there.

  10. northernbike says:

    sounds as if the twin city-centre bike riding challenges of bad routes and bad attitudes are common to wherever you go. We need more Sørens to go round and lead the way.

    • Thank you.
      I would love to make a career out of a cycling revolution. I might just try that one day. 😉
      It’s rather common that city strategic planners forget what bikes can do for their community unfortunately.

  11. Paul says:

    Cool! Here in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, our federal government is 100% behind cycling – which is great for cyclists and drive the rest of us nuts. Downtown, where the older streets are narrow, they’ve taken a 6 foot swath out of each main road for bicycles and protected them with concrete barriers. Which takes out a full turning lane at intersections and completely destroys any hope of street parking. In winter, they plow the bicycle paths and push the snow into the street – and I bet you can guess how many cyclists there are at -30 celcius in a snowstorm. For commuting there are great cycle paths from the suburbs into the core, although these are not maintained in the winter. There are also a network of cycle paths along our rivers and canals. There are cycle renting kiosks around the downtown for visitors. Also our city is sprawling – measuring over 100 kilometers from east to west so locals rarely cycle. So, as a visitor in summer, you’ll have lots of room and place to cycle – enjoy. The rest of us will be watching from our cars.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha! Sounds like a cyclist’s paradise!

    • Hi Paul,
      Creating a cyclist culture comes not only with lanes and rental bikes. It’s actually about making it practical and effortless, like if you had a car in the garage that could avoid any traffic jam. It seems your government have forgotten that. If your city is sprawling they’d probably want to add dedicated cyclist cars to the O-train (lightrail) so people can bring their bike, if they need to go long distances.
      I notice you have only 8kms. of O-train line. That of course needs to be expanded heavily also.
      In Odense, Denmark where I reside, we will be building a lightrail too, and it will cover 22 km. in a city measuring half yours in size and 1/8 in population. I really hope they include dedicated cyclist cars here.

      • Emmi says:

        also its about the culture. In germany you often see fourty smth professors and respectable gentelmen, business owners etc riding a bike to work in their business suits. In USA a car is a status symbol to an extent that a man can actually be respected less because he doesnt own a car. a sixteen year old needs a car to pick up girls. Good luck promoting cycling in this cuture!!

      • Paul says:

        Actually Soren, we are in the process of building an east-west light rail system. It is very controversial and has taken about 10 years to get to the construction stage. It’s a 5 year building plan that will do exactly as you suggest, and bring the suburbs within range of cyclists. I think a lot of the deference to cars here is due to the long distances between places, unlike Europe. Many live outside the city and commute in daily, some as much as 150 kms each way. It is over 2,000 kilometers from the eastern border of the province of Ontario to the western border, and that is only a fraction of the distance across Canada. It is honking big here, and often cold. The climate does vary a great deal within Canada, but a friend of mind once categorized it as 10 months of winter with 2 months of hard sledding. Not exactly welcoming to the bicycle culture. Thanks for your comments.

    • Hi Paul,
      I am aware that distances might be bigger, but you will on a regular basis see people in Denmark commuting 150+ km by public transportation with their bike/skates or other Co2 neutral means of transportation.
      I’d say it’s still a matter of culture and upbringing.

  12. Baiba says:

    OMG. I just hope that this will not encourage more people to cycle in Riga. And all this stuff about not bothering with neon vests and other stuff (meaning – reflectors, right? ) – seriously? Ever tried to ride a car in the evening and noticing a reckless cycler only a few meters before a possible collision? Because it was dark and he was wearing dark clothes too? So yes, dear cyclists, keep on being reckless and ignoring other people on the streets (because it’s them, who have to learn to notice you, right?), I’m sure, there is plenty of room in the hospitals in Latvia. Sorry for this outburst, but it obviously touched a sore spot

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hence my disclaimer at the end 😉 I’m still not tempted to cycle here!

    • Dear Baiba,
      I sense I touch a sore spot. Forgive me for continuing in doing so, but I seriously hope that more people will cycle in Riga. I’d make it a mission of mine if I had the time.
      Actually it’s the easiest way to minimize that gridlock. Remember: You’re not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic.
      The more cyclists on the road, following the rules of the traffic, the safer for both cars and cyclists alike.

      About the safety. I recommend following the traffic rules at all times. I thought that would be so obvious that I did not need to mention it in the blogpost.
      Let me tackle your questions about neon-vests by asking: Would you spray-paint your car in a neon colour if it could make it safer for you to drive? Of course you wouldn’t, because it’s ugly, right? Only neon coloured cars in Riga are Baltic Taxies. 😉
      I recommend using a pair of high-performance LED lights, whenever riding after dark. Also in dusk in fact, hence it’s much more complicated to spot a bike in fading light than in complete darkness. Most bikes will have reflectors on the pedals which are sufficient extra notification.
      Why am I objecting to a vest? Because it signals to people that cycling is dangerous, when in fact it is not. If you, like I want more people to cycle, to fight the gridlock and save the environment, you tend to notice, that the more restrictions is put on cycling, and the less people cycle, because they think it’s dangerous.
      Cycling needs to be cheap, effortless and uncomplicated to benefit everyone – also motorists.
      By the way; Have a look at this TEDx video, telling you why neither vests, nor helmets ar needed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07o-TASvIxY

      • Baiba says:

        Ok, if the bike has reflectors or the cyclist uses LED lights, then it’s ok, but unfortunately there are still too many who don’t.

      • Dear Baiba,
        If people don’t use proper lights in the dusk, dawn and night, it’s a huge mistake of their own. In Denmark, not wearing the required lights when the street lights are on, will set you back a whopping Ls 70, per missing light! Meaning that front/rear would cost you Ls 140. That is of course because of safety.

  13. Aggie says:

    sad we didn`t have chance to meet… maybe next time… when I will visit LV…

  14. lizard100 says:

    Looks like uk style bike path design to me. Get you with meeting your fans and having guest blog post! Very cool!

  15. The cyclists here in the UK sound very similar to the Latvian ones. I get quite cross about it. They cycle on the pavement all the time AND go through red traffic lights when they are riding on the road. It is illegal to ride on the pavement here, but no one seems to do anything about it. Oh, and they expect pedestrians to get out of their way! I’ve started standing my ground and making them ride round me.

  16. Now I am surprised! Jelgava is bordering with Riga and every family there owns at least one bike. Literately. Except the poorest ones who just can’t afford one. Every-freakin-one in Jelgava is cycling from time to time. Bicycles are for hippies or poor people? You better put on your most expensive dress before saying something like that in Jelgava. You don’t want your dead body look like dead body of a poor person, right? 😀

  17. rower says:

    actually just one comment (even before saying that half of what has been done for cyclists in riga is a complete mess) — recent traffic regulations have changed status of cyclists to “full blown participants of traffic”. which means, that cyclist essentialy MAY drive on any regular road and keep in middle of line. before that (aand, essentially, all through late soviet times) the regulations “allowed” cyclists on common roads in ~1m wide line by the right side of road (with allowed space to get around parked cars and obstacles – one had to use common sense). the “new approach” is okay, as long as cyclist can keep up with traffic, and does not slow down bypassers (which IS an issue, if one is slowly pedaling in middle line). cyclists on pavements/pedestrian areas — just remember, while you are in pedestrian zone – you MUST keep yourself low – to an average pedestrian – both in speed and agility. if you are on sidewalk – ALL pedestrian rules apply to you. the last thing is what most cyclers forget. 🙂
    on the bad side – weather, often less than decent quality of the roads and lack of safe parking space for bikes. 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Yeah, I heard that they should go at roughly the same speed as walkers but nobody seems to obey that! I’ve almost been taken out by cyclists as often as I’ve almost been taken out by cars – on the pavement. 😉

    • I don’t think it’s a great idea to let cyclists act as cars or motorcycles on roads, as you imply here. I think keeping right (whenever applicable) on normal roads is the way to go, as mentioned in the blogpost. For me it is not about creating disadvantages for motorists as cycling in the middle of the road would. It’s actually to resolve problems; gridlock, pollution, delays in public transportation etc. by encouraging more people to ride a bike on distances they can manage.
      However: Wether you like it or not, cyclists are full blown participants in traffic. Actually prams, shopping carts etc. are too. Anything in the street is. So let’s skip this about who’s major or minor. We actually need to travel all of us.

  18. I’d love to see him cycling in Toledo… 😉

  19. Emmi says:

    Germany is a cyclists paradise. I totally recommend you to cycle to work everyday once you move there. It helps to protect the enviroment, avoid bad car traffic and save money on public transport as well. And it helps german women stay in shape! Ive seen some great looking women in their 60s and all due to cycling. BUT I do recommend you stay on the bike portion of the sidewalk. Do not cycle on the roads. As decent as German transport is with very few accidents, they still do happen, especially in winter. Dont get jelaous when you see moms with tiny babies in monster prams cycling in the middle of the road. Its just not safe no matter what they think – even in Germany

    • Expat Eye says:

      I’m definitely going to get a bike when I go there – it’s just so organised. Proper cycle lanes that people don’t walk in – nothing like that here. And I need to get back in shape!

    • rower says:

      brand new local regulations (which are said to be compliant with european ones) are forbidding cycling on the road (or on the pavement) when there is dedicated cycling lane on the same road.
      me, as a 10+ year driver and ~25 years cyclist, am quite sure – one thing you must always equip – common sense. use dedicated line, when you have one, use appropriate line on the road, when you do not have dedicated. avoid motorways and really narrow/busy streets.

      • Emmi says:

        Sören you are so right! Its a shame they dont have bike roads in UK. They would have gotten rid of the kids obesity problem in 5 years if they buid those. In Germany all kids go to school on the bike and every building (school, college, office etc) has a bike parking lot. In austria and switzerland is the same thing. another thing, in germanic countries school food is so much better and actually keeps you full but its healthy. I recently started teaching at a UK univeristy and the canteen food is just gross… sorry for the rant Linda I hope you dont take it personal… but serving oil fried chips everyday along with some yuck gravy and dead overcooked vegetables… and so many sweets… Im just blowing up out of proportions(((( cant believe they serve it to kids at schools as well.

      • Expat Eye says:

        Ha ha! I’ve no problem with that! I agree – and I also like ranting 😉 Better out than in, I say!

      • I think one should follow the rules, and yes it is so i Denmark too. You cannot cycle on a road/sidewalk whenever a dedicated lane is available.
        If the lanes are like the one I talk about in the post, I might consider a bit of civil disobedience, but I will never ever recommend that to anyone else. Cycling beyond the limits of the law is a “Don’t try this at home” thing.

    • Mārtiņš says:

      It sometimes seemed than in Amsterdam there are more cyclists than cars. I was amazed by looking of the density when saw them parked http://www.dutchamsterdam.nl/i/aa/bicyle_parking_garage_amsterdam_da.jpg and it’s real.

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