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Tips for Bike Travel in China

I’ve been to Shanghai several times but until I brought my bike and travelled around the city on it rather than taking the metro everywhere, I didn’t really know how to get around. Although cycling snobs may tell you that cycling enjoyment goes up as a function of money spent on parts, I believe the average Chinese bike is more than enough to enjoy yourself. As well as providing great exercise, taking a bike with you when you travel gives you a new way to experience a city. Travelling with your bike is really much easier than you might think.

Getting There
Travel between cities with a bike appears daunting with crowded train stations. However, there is room to bring a bike on most any train. China’s network of trains and buses makes taking your bike to a new city with you fairly painless.

Before you bike to the train station, you need to make a couple very cheap purchases. While you can bring your bike on the train, it can’t be in its fully rideable state – but fret not, you will only need to take off the front wheel and pedals. To do this, you should be able to get away with only an adjustable wrench; just make sure it opens to at least 15 millimeters (remember that the left pedal is reverse threaded, meaning you must turn it clockwise to loosen it). Practice doing these things at home and ask your local bike shop for help if you have trouble.

You can try to catch a taxi to the train station but most drivers aren’t too happy to put a bike in the car, no matter how clean the bike or dirty the car. Get a map of your city, plan your route and give yourself some extra time. 

When you get to the train station, remove the pedals before you enter – people aren’t too happy when their ankles and calves are hit by the possibly sharp edges of your pedals. You should keep your front wheel on at this point, unless you want to lug your bike through the crowds. Despite the stares, act like it’s totally normal to wheel your bike through the station and you shouldn’t have any problem with security. Only take the front wheel off when you are on the platform about to board the train. Take everything aboard and ask one of the stewardesses where you can put your bike. Usually they will put it in a vestibule between cars. Enjoy your train ride – no one will steal your bike! – and reverse this process when you arrive at your destination. Make sure you have a map, the address of your accommodation and the route between the two written down before you start your trip.

Bike Safety: Keeping Your Bike and Yourself Safe
Firstly, when you travel, you will naturally want to stop your bike to go to a museum or park and you will need to leave your bike out of sight. Even if you can see it through the window of the café you’ve found tucked away on some quiet road, lock your bike. And when I say lock, I don’t mean attach a flimsy cable or chain that looks like you could break with your hands to the rear wheel alone. When you buy a bike, you should buy the best lock you can afford – the investment will pay off when you don’t have to buy a new bike. Look or ask for locks at proper bike shops, not the roadside repair places because everyone has a key to those locks; I’ve opened jammed cheapo locks with a screwdriver. Additionally, you should lock your bike to something because it’s much easier for a thief to carry away a wheel-locked bike than a bike locked to a bench. Locking your bike is like the joke about the two guys running from the bear where one guy says he just has to run faster than the other. Make your bike look more difficult to steal than the next guy’s bike and you’ll never suffer the pain of a stolen bike.

While I’ve only ridden a bike daily for a year or so in China, I’ve avoided being a hood ornament for Chinese drivers in several cities. Traffic laws are varied and mostly nonexistent in every Chinese city, so you need a set of your own to abide by. Here are some basic tips on how to safely ride a bike in China.

Drive your bike. In China, bicycles are looked at not as toys but as tools or vehicles.  My advice is to treat riding your bike as seriously as you would drive a car. Try to be predictable and signal your intentions as best you can, even in the bike lane. If you can stay aware of everything around and behind you while looking far enough down the road to anticipate possible problems, you will avoid all but the most unlikely accidents.

If you have to ride at night, don’t depend on reflectors – buy some lights for your bike.  The cheapest blinky lights will set you back a measly 10 RMB and are well worth the added visibility, especially if you ride in the road with cars that don’t use headlights. Have some red lights for the back and some white ones for the front and if you can, get lights that not only point toward the front or back but also shine to the side. The more lights the better; if you look like a mobile KTV, then you’re doing it right.

Try to keep a level head. People will step out in front of you without looking, cars will turn in front of you without checking their blind spots, wagon guys will block the entire lane going the wrong way with hay bales stacked three meters high…I could go on but you get the point. You’ve taken your bike travelling with you to have some fun; remember that the next time a truck pulls out of a driveway and nearly into you. If you find your life suddenly jeopardized by a crazed taxi, don’t give foreigners a bad rep by giving him the bird. As they say, be the better person. If you feel you must do something, a point and an eye-locked stare will make sure they, and everyone who sees you firmly pointing, will know they just screwed up.

Last but certainly not least, wear a helmet! If you at all value the money and time you may have spent putting valuable knowledge in your head, you will understand why this is good idea. Spend the extra dough and buy one that looks cool and you won’t be afraid of looking like a dweeb.

Follow these tips, and hopefully you’ll ride away with not only your life and dignity; remember that you travelled with your bike to have fun exploring a new place in a new way!

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