Learning how to bike seems to be a staple in everyone's childhoods. It was normal to have a graze or two in pursuit of learning this activity and Sunday bike rides along the park definitely gave us fun memories to treasure. However, while some turned it into a more serious sport later in their lives, cycling never really became a popular mode of transportation in most of the countries here in Asia. Regularly biking to work and to all your other appointments is daunting, even more so when you live in cities with quite unforgivable roads. Bikes just didn't seem the best choice, especially when we have more convenient cars, buses, and trains to help us in our commute. It seemed as though that's how it would remain — well, at least, right until the pandemic happened.
If you live in the Philippines, specifically in the National Capital Region, you'd have noticed by now that there's a surge in biking in the recent months. Just look out the window at any time of the day, and you'll find cyclists zipping through the sidelines, in between speeding cars. It's a surprising sight, given that most of our cities don't really have lanes reserved for bikes. The roads in the main cities are created with the ever-increasing car population in mind. But when Metro Manila entered its long series of lockdown measures, which began with the three-month-long Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) last March, non-essential businesses and public transportation were completely halted. Cities became ghost towns with everyone in isolation. And those who absolutely needed to go out of their homes to make a living? There wasn't really any other choice than to shift to biking to work.
Marc Riodique, a nurse who was already used to cycling as a form of endurance training, chose to ride his bike to save time and effort. As the officer-in-charge of the operating rooms who supervised the whole complex in the hospital he works at, he reports five days a week.
Like him, 29-year-old barista Leigh Gison, chose to cycle for convenience. Initially, she recounted, "I tried to go to work by walking, however, the load of work we have in our field makes it impossible to make it at home in time by just walking." Considering the curfew set and the distance to the coffee shop where she works, she ended up borrowing her little brother's bike to work instead.
Aside from the lack of options, it appears that people have been cycling for safety and practicality. Instead of walking or carpooling with a colleague, 24-year-old banker Daizy Beley opted to use her dad's rusty second-hand BMX bike, which they had to repair to be functional and safe. She's only had experience cycling through the small streets near her home and Daizy knew it was different and definitely dangerous riding amongst cars in bigger roads. But those things didn't stop her. Daizy said, "[I] still decided to use the bike because it would save me more money in the long run and also save me from the virus since I am just alone riding the bike."
Marc had been biking to work since last March when the heavy lockdown measures were still being imposed. Back then, it was easier for him. He said, "Everything was fine because there's a minimal amount of vehicles on the road and I can [bike] to work with ease and comfort." But when the cities began opening up, it was a wholly different matter. "It became harder and harder as days passed due to the increasing volume of cars and all sorts of vehicles," Marc shared, "This I can say is a burden for me especially when traffic hits and the heat of the sun is extreme."
Leigh echoed the sentiment. Leigh fears getting hit by larger vehicles, so when she set out to bike to work once these relaxed measures of General Community Quarantine (GCQ) were implemented, she experienced a panic attack. "It became challenging since everyone’s already allowed to go out anytime — that means there are more vehicles at all times," she lamented.
Given her little experience with cycling, Daizy, on her first attempt to commute with her bike, had her boyfriend who rode a motorcycle to guide her along the road. "Of course, at first, I won't deny, I was very nervous and afraid to make a mistake, which might lead to an accident. Before I start to pedal, I make sure to do the sign of the cross and pray for God's guidance," she shared how she successfully and safely began her biking journey.
You'd think that speeding vehicles are the only things that endanger you as you cycle every day, but there are other frightening encounters cyclists experience on the road too. One of those that women cyclists, in particular, might have to face as they ride their bike across the city is, as always, catcallers. It's sadly something women from all over the world can't escape. In her months of biking, Leigh has experienced it twice.
On both accounts, being the fearless woman she is, Leigh faced such unsolicited comments head-on. "I stopped and approached them. Then I asked what they needed, what their problem was, and what they were calling me for," she narrated. Shocked by her reaction, they suddenly acted shy and mute. "They'd look down and apologise," Leigh continued.
Thankfully, Daizy hasn't experienced such spine-chilling encounters yet (and hopefully won't ever). What did happen in one of her rides though, was that she was chased by a terrifying dog. It was perhaps trying to protect its territory, but she confessed, "It was really a traumatising experience because I'm afraid of barking dogs."
We really can't control when or where we'd be bothered by rabid animals. It's not always safe to aggressively handle the situation as they might bite back. Unfortunately, like the heavy cars driving past, they remain one of the hazards we have to be alert with in order to keep safe.
Hitting two birds with one stone
Still, despite these troubles, biking in this pandemic proved to have some benefits. Before, Marc usually turned to activities like lifting weights, playing basketball, swimming, and so on to keep fit and healthy. "But when I started biking to work these activities have lessened, in short, it already served as my training," he noted.
This activity also helped Daizy become more aware of her health. "I am happy," she explained, "because it is a good exercise and gives me a positive mental condition." And more than the instant cardio biking to work gives, Leigh loves that it helped her cut back a bit on expenses. "I saved PHP100(~USD2) a day since I started biking, because I usually spend PHP50(~USD0.50) going to work and another 50 going home for my fare," she detailed. It might not seem a lot, but spending that much on daily transportation is considered expensive already in the Philippines.
But of course, to minimise risks, the three highlighted the importance of following safety measures. "Ride safe, use hand signals, and wear protective gear," Leigh advised, encouraging those who find it aligned with their beliefs to "pray, pray, and pray!"
On the other hand, for those really just starting out, Marc suggests before anything else to "make sure that you are fit enough to endure the exertion of cycling," as riding a bike in long distances can be physically taxing. And before setting out, he emphasised, "Know your route and distance well if it is safe and attainable." According to him, joining cycling groups online can help, as the more experienced members can get you professional advice. Gearing up with safety accessories like tail lights, and so on can help keep you safe on the road too. And finally, when you're on the road, he reminded to "always hydrate especially when it's a long ride."
The rainy season is here too, so take it from Daizy who once got caught in the rain: "Having a raincoat every time is a must. It won't only save your things from the rain but also save you from sickness."
Riding towards the future
Who knew that the bikes we've had stocked up as a relic of our childhoods would become our unlikely companions as we navigate the uncertainties of the "new normal"? Our roads may not be the best right now, but this surge in biking during this pandemic might just be what we need to overhaul our cities to be safer and more livable.
If you've been considering using your bike as your main vehicle, Daizy urged everyone, "Change the way you see transportation and be independent." She believes that this is the time to shift to cycling. A lot of organisations and local government units are starting their own initiatives to support cyclists in the country. Not only that but as Marc said, a number of online groups, like the Tropang Women Bikers (A Group of Women Bikers), where Daizy is a part of, will be ready to support women along the way. Definitely take the time to consider — not only would it help you maintain your health and your finances, but biking to work and to other places help save the earth as well.
Another reason to take up cycling? Starting a new hobby benefits your mental and emotional health.