Local Cyclists Get Organized
With opportunities for an enjoyable bike ride few and far between, cyclists are heading out of the city. Cyclists are beginning to explore neighboring countries because of the obstacles that they face at home.
Published: April 24, 2013 (Issue # 1756)
The 2013 biking season in St. Petersburg got off to a chilly start last Saturday when bikers took to the streets for the VeloPiter Open. Now in its 16th year, the event attracted 2,500 cyclists, according to the organizers, with beginners setting out on a 16-kilometer ride, while experienced bikers challenged themselves with a 66-kilometer trek.
There are more than 1.5 million bike owners in St. Petersburg, according to data from RIA Novosti. And with about 200 thousands bikes being sold in the city annually, cycle tourism is rapidly developing in Russia. Specialized Internet forums are full of discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of various bike tour routes, and include information about both multi-day journeys with accommodations in hotels, hostels or campsites and short, one-day trips.
“Such trips are tremendously popular among cyclists,” said Alexander Rotov, a bike lover and organizer of cycling events. “We set out early in the morning and after a few hours ride by train or by car, we reach a place where we can bike, have a one-day bike tour and then go home. Because the trips only last a single day there’s no need to take large bags with you, which increases both speed and mobility.”
“Leningrad Oblast is extremely popular among cyclists; however, we often make such trips to Finland,” he told The St. Petersburg Times.
Cyclists are beginning to explore neighboring countries because of obstacles they encounter when planning bike tours in Russia. Cyclists face numerous difficulties when traveling by train, for example.
“Older trains, where we used to be able travel comfortably with our bikes, are being replaced by new ones that don’t accommodate bikes. The same thing is happening on long distance trains as well,” said Rotov.
In March of this year the VeloPiter bicycle club, an online forum, shop and tour organizer, and the Trade Union of Railway Workers and Transport Constructors signed an agreement of understanding that offers bicyclists hope that railways will do more to accommodate cyclists.
“Another issue is lodging,” said Rotov. “There are lots of opportunities in Finland, including hostels and even free shelters that can be used instead of tents. There is a real problem with accommodation in Russia.”
“The quality of the roads here, the high incidence of bike theft and the difficulty of finding replacement parts also make cycle tours problematic,” continued Rotov.
Finland now attracts as many professional bikers as it does inexperienced ones, due to its safe and agreeable environment. For some, such trips offer a chance to combine a Finnish visa run with a good time. There is even a special taxi service that shuttles bicyclists from St. Petersburg or Vyborg to the Finnish border. Cyclists can even go through customs without waiting in the often preposterously long lines, as there is a special line for them.
“Imatra and Lappeenranta have always attracted bicyclists. Their dirt roads are, in many cases, better than the paved roads in Russia, and the landscapes are so beautiful and picturesque,” said Rotov.
“I discovered cycling in Finland just a year ago and I’m delighted with biking trips there. I think the one-day cycle tours to Finland are really interesting for inexperienced riders,” he said.
“Traveling to Finland from St. Petersburg, first by train and then by taxi, is a bit of a shock for the unprepared and train passengers often have a negative attitude towards people with bicycles,” said Maxim Mikhailov, the CEO of Velofin, which organizes bike tours in the region. “Riders have to stand with their bikes in the vestibule of the trains, making it really uncomfortable for other passengers to get on and off the train.”
“We offer two routes,” continued Mikhailov, speaking to The St. Petersburg Times. “The easier of the two is to Imatra and back and includes a ten-kilometer ride. The second consists of a 25-kilometer ride to Lappeenranta from the Russian border and back. If the tour participants wish, we can stop for a barbeque and relax in Imatra, where cyclists can even do a bit of shopping.”
Such trips allow people of any skill level to give biking in Finland a try. Most experienced guides advise starting with the shorter Imatra trip.
“My friends and I are all cycling fans and we find a lot of problems with riding our bikes in Russia,” said Mikhailov.
“First of all, this is because of the absence of any sort of bicycle culture and the poor condition on the roads — driving regulations do not take bicyclists into account. Drunks acting erratically and stray dogs that try to catch and bite riders complete the picture. So we focus on Finland instead,” he said.
Although bicycle culture is slowly becoming part of life in Russian cities, most experienced riders agree it remains more of a hobby or sport rather than a part of everyday life or a real alternative to public transportation, due to the lack of segregated bike lanes or bike racks.
At the moment, bicyclists in St. Petersburg generally fall into one of two camps: Athletes with specialized equipment and expensive bikes, or inexperienced amateurs who can pose risks to others on the roads. But even experienced cyclists face a number of problems when they take to the streets.
“Experienced bikers are seen as aliens,” said Rotov. “Society just doesn’t regard them as normal people.”
“The culture of cyclists that use bicycles in their everyday lives is lost,” he added, pointing to the mutual lack of understanding between bicyclists and pedestrians.
For example, an experienced biker might say that he has no need of bike paths, as he would rather ride quickly along the road than slowly in line with others. But this does not address the needs of those people that might wish to use bicycles as an alternative mode of transport.
“In Finland, pedestrians never walk on bike paths and cyclists never ride along the sidewalks. In Russia, a pedestrian walking along a bike path will be surprised if asked to give way. It happens not because he is against bikers, but because he just does not understand that he has to pay attention to the markings on the sidewalk,” said Rotov.
As a result, mothers wheeling strollers or people walking their dogs walk unwittingly wherever they will, without realizing that they may be putting themselves at risk from bikers whose speeds can reach 25-30 kilometers per hour. Cyclists, for their part, face misunderstanding everywhere — from the regular people with whom they share the roads to the government officials who make traffic laws to the civil engineers who build new roads without addressing the problems facing bicyclists.
“Some people say that cycling is a seasonal phenomenon,” said Rotov. “But just look at photos of Copenhagen in winter — there are lots of bikers wearing warm clothes. Some argue that there isn’t enough space on the streets, but European towns are older than our big cities and they somehow managed to solve this problem.”
According to data from Velofin, there are 10,000 kilometers of bike paths in Holland, 900 kilometers in London, 700 kilometers in Helsinki and 300 kilometers in Copenhagen. In Berlin, an estimated 500,000 cyclists take to the street on a daily basis and accounted for 13 percent of total traffic in 2009, according to Neues Deutschland newspaper.
But there is now hope for St. Petersburg. Last year, the city’s Committee on Transport and Transit Policy announced plans to build 258 kilometers of bike lanes in the city by 2015.
“If they asked me where to put these bike paths, I would suggest using the part of the pavement where freestanding advertisement panels have been erected,” said Mikhailov. “Just get rid of those and there will be plenty of room for bike lanes. They don’t require much space.”
There are already nine parking lots for bikes in the city. Located in places like Volkovskaya, Parnas and Kupchino, they are aimed at helping cyclists travel around the city using a combination of bicycle and metro.
Yet even improved infrastructure cannot replace the absence of bicycle culture in Russia. The bicycle has to come to be regarded as a normal means of transportation, cyclists believe.
“Bike culture can only be said to have arrived when small children no longer exclaim, ‘Look mom, an adult man is riding a bike!’ or when security guards at banks stop preventing bicyclists from entering because they are wearing cycling outfits,” said Rotov.
“When people regard cyclists as normal people, then we can start to talk about a cycling culture. But this is something that is impossible to explain to people. There just has to be a turning point in the collective conscious,” he said.