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Photo by Yan Pekar
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Barcelona is not a city traditionally associated with the bicycle. Much of its urban fabric was knitted together long before bikes came on the scene, and up until about 10 years ago, the wide streets of the Eixample were dangerous to the unmotorised vehicle, whilst the narrow lanes of Ciutat Vella were unaccustomed to the shrill ringing of a bicycle bell.
Today, however, the scene is quite different. The city has embraced the 21st-century global cycling trend, and the once mean streets are going green, little by little. With an ever-growing cycling infrastructure of integrated bike lanes, bike parking, reduced speed limits and a city-wide bike sharing programme, Barcelona is speeding right past other cities and becoming a real inspiration to cycling culture. “I remember when it was only students on bicycles,” said cycling enthusiast and Managing Director of Barcelona Metropolitan, Andrea Moreno. “Now it’s so easy to bike around the city; bikes are everywhere.” As they should be.
In many ways, Barcelona is the quintessential city to embrace cycling culture. As far as landscape goes, there are no major hills in the city centre and it has the climate for biking. Sunshine, rare blustery days and seldom a day of constant rain make for a pleasant environment in which to run a quick errand by bike. Another factor is density, which is essential for a successful cycling culture. With 15,991 people per square kilometre, Barcelona is one of Europe’s most densely populated cities. That’s a lot of people living in the same place, making it an ideal setting for an effective public bike sharing scheme—Bicing. It also means that whether you’re pedalling to work, a friend’s apartment or going out for dinner, biking distances are going to be short and sweet (Bicing has recorded an average journey of just 13.22 minutes).
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing. Overcrowding on the streets of Ciutat Vella, where pedestrians and cyclists share the same thoroughfares, can make for cumbersome cruising and sometimes perilous situations for pedestrians, particularly for the unsuspecting tourist. Or where your lovely smooth cycle lane comes to an abrupt end and you’re left hanging somewhere between a busy pavement and heavy traffic. Then there’s the bus and taxi lane issue (does anyone really know if you can or cannot use them?), not to mention the grey areas that surround the rules of the road and the general disregard for the cyclist’s principal road safety tool, the helmet. Cycling in the city can be a hazardous pastime, and it’s not just down to external factors—some cyclists can pose a danger to themselves and those around them, as they haphazardly alternate their status between road-user and pedestrian and rush through red lights as though exempt from the highway code.
Nevertheless, the wheels are in motion for a biking culture that is expanding in many directions—whether you’re simply interested in getting from A to B, you aspire to join the trendsetting clan, to whom the bike is a cool accessory, or you’re a lycra-clad member of the keep fit brigade.
Barcelona has never let the car completely dominate public spaces—75 percent of public space is devoted to people, and increasingly to bicycles. Inaugurated on March 22nd, 2007, Bicing is the cheapest form of public transportation in Barcelona, with an annual subscription price of just €47.15. Since the beginning, subscriptions have grown steadily—now including over 96,000 members, from first-time cyclists to octogenarians—as well as a respect for this cleaner form of transport.
We all know the Dutch are the true experts at this cycling thing. According to The Copenhagenize Index, Amsterdam ranks number one as the most bike-friendly city in the world, followed closely by two other cities in The Netherlands—Utrecht and Eindhoven. However, Dutch Barcelona resident, Natalie Handley, 23, said, “I was pleasantly surprised by how well-equipped Barcelona is for cycling.”
Handley moved to Barcelona in November 2014, and immediately got her Bicing subscription, saying it was “a no-brainer”. Just like when she lived in The Netherlands, cycling is common sense, it’s habit. “I cycle as a lifestyle, not to follow any trends,” she said, “and I’m so happy I got to bring that part of life at home with me.” She also added that there’s a Bicing station outside her flat, next to her work and by her gym. That kind of convenience can’t be overlooked. The service includes 420 Bicing stations, 6,000 bikes and over a million monthly journeys, so Handley isn’t the only one spoiled by the scheme’s serviceability. A public bike sharing system also has advantages over owning your own bike if you’re going to move around a lot—walking, bar-hopping, etc. You don’t have to go back to the exact place you left your bike, and you don’t have to remember where the heck that place is. As Handley put it, “You park your Bicing and scram.”
It also means that you can enjoy your day without the worry of coming back to find that your bike has been stolen. Theft is a real problem to the bicycle owner in Barcelona. With stolen bikes on the rise, the Mossos d'Esquadra and the Servei Català de Trànsit (SCT) launched a public register of stolen bikes on January 1st 2014, where stolen items are published and citizens can check if a secondhand bicycle that they have bought or been offered technically belongs to someone else. So far, thousands of bikes have been registered, and that figure only considers reported incidents. There is a similar register published on redciclista.com and www.bicisrobadas.net.
Barcelona has come to know cycling not only as a convenient form of public transportation, but also as a personal statement. When it comes to casual cycling, the brand of your bike can affirm your trendiness and determine just how hipster you are. There are plenty of desired brands on cyclists’ radars, but two of the biggest competitors for everyone’s attention are the Fixie and Brompton bicycles.
The Fixie, technically known as fixed-gear bicycles, is for true aficionados. A real, original Fixie has no gears or brakes—now about 90 percent of people cheat a little and have a front brake on their Fixies. Natalia Leite Campos, 29, from Brazil, has been riding bikes since she was little, and six years ago she built her very own Fixie, finding every perfect piece and meticulously painting it her two favourite colours, purple and yellow. It’s lighter and sleeker than brand new Fixies, and she designed it to fit her height and body type. “I took a lot of time to personalise my bike because it's part of me,” Campos said. “It defines me in a way. My lifestyle.”
A Fixie isn’t a practical choice. A lot of test runs in parks and on uncrowded sidewalks are required before hitting the streets, but once you master it, you’re unstoppable. “Without brakes, I have to always be aware of my surroundings,” Campos remarked. “I need at least five seconds to stop.” She likes the slight sense of danger, though. It keeps her from getting too comfortable and forgetting that there are still drivers—especially taxi drivers—who don’t always know how to deal with cyclists on the road. Also, without gears, if she pedals fast, she goes fast; if she stops pedalling, she stops. “Me and my bike are one,” she said, smiling admiringly at it.
In the six years she has owned her own bike, Campos has only had it stolen once. Not bad for a Barcelona bike owner. After it was stolen, she searched the whole city for it. “I found it locked up on the street one day. Locked up by somebody else who thought they could just claim my bike as their own,” she described. “So I simply broke the lock and took it back.” Campos was lucky. But if you don’t want to have to worry about your bike being stolen or sabotaged on the street, a Brompton bicycle might be the one for you.
Brompton Bicycle is a manufacturer of folding bicycles and, according to Andrea Moreno, they have “the perfect folding design”. It took her no time at all to learn the ins and outs of compacting the 1,200 parts of her full-sized bicycle into a little, lightweight bundle. Living in a building without a lift, Moreno can attest to the manageable weight of a Brompton. “I can carry it up and down stairs, no problem,” she said. “Being able to take my Brompton wherever I go—into the office, a café or home—is a big relief.”
The drawback? The pricetag. If you take the time to observe Bromptons zipping about, you’ll probably notice that a lot of owners are over 40—and with a pricetag of €1200+, it’s no wonder.
EAT, SLEEP, RIDE
Some people push their bikes to the extreme—training for races, taking on mountain paths and even playing sports on their two wheels. Whether you’re just looking to burn some extra calories, or you’re a professional training for competitions, the Collserola hills are conveniently located close by, or you can tackle more epic routes, such as the one that heads inland from Castelldefels towards the Garraf Massif mountain range, and includes the spectacular mountain pass of Rat Penat, at an elevation of 600 metres above sea level with grades of 23 percent. The road is scarcely wide enough for two cars to pass at the same time and has no guardrails along some parts.
If you don’t feel like climbing hills or maneuvering around cars, hardcore riders can always get on the track—the Velòdrom d’Horta, built for track cycling in the 1992 Olympic Games. Open to the public, Barcelona’s velodrome has seen athletes of all levels race around the 250 metre, wood-panelled cycle-racing track. The open-air facility has positioned itself as a hub for serious cyclists and a reference point for fans of the two wheel sport.
If you're looking for adventure and to meet new people, Meetup has a group for you. Check out the Barcelona Road Cycling Group. They host various intermediate and advanced events such as the classic Collserola loop every Thursday morning at 7am, the 80 kilometre Barcelona-Caldes de Montbui-Barcelona route and evening rides. They also offer a Garraf loop with four separate climbs, which covers over 110 kilometres. There are plenty of biking day tours that leave from the city, too. Serious cyclists searching for a guided tour of the local countryside need look no further than Montefusco Cycling. Led by Claudio, a local cyclist with 25 years experience pedalling all over Europe, Montefusco specialises in high-end road cycling. Their bikes all have carbon frames and ten gears, and while you’re more than welcome to go it alone, check out their website, www.montefuscocycling.com, for six different day tours around Barcelona and Catalunya.
Barcelona Mountain Biking is another company that offers expert guides to usher you through the beautiful Catalan countryside, making an obstacle course out of the off-road tracks, alpine climbs and shallow riverbeds. With the friendly crew at Barcelona Mountain Biking, you can witness the natural beauty of the Serra de Collserola, the limestone cliffs of El Garraf, the jagged rocks of Montserrat and the rolling hills of the Penedès wine country using your own two legs to pedal you there. Tours leave Wednesdays and Saturdays at 9.30am and cost €68 per person. Email them at email@example.com for more information.
ON TRACK FOR THE FUTURE
Over the last decade, the Ajuntament has helped to create the cycling culture that exists today by steadily increasing the bicycle lane network (104.9 kilometres in 2013), parking spaces, introducing the Bicing scheme and generally making the city’s streets more bicycle friendly (notably, there have been very few recorded cyclist deaths on the city’s roads despite the rise in two-wheeled traffic). In 2013, the Ajuntament promised to invest a further €2.5 million into improving the cycling infrastructure over the coming years, adding 12 new bicycle lanes (23.3 kilometres) to the network and 2,000 bike parking spaces. It has also committed to the creation of a new online guide to cycling in the city, which includes an interactive map of the cycle lanes, itineraries for cyclists and bicycle parking spaces in the city.
And if you’re not a bike lover, or don’t even know how to ride one, take a look around the streets of the city and see if you don’t become slightly curious about this two-wheeled culture. Maybe you’ll save yourself cramped, summer metro rides, or eventually embark on an epic cycling escapade.
CITIZEN CYCLISTS: George Cowdery (USA) and Sara Bossaert (Belgium)
How long have you been cycling in the city?
George: Since I moved here in 1984. I put my mountain bike in a box and checked it at the airport as just another piece of luggage, no extra charge. It was cheaper back then to buy a bike in the States and bring it over. Bikes were expensive in Spain, without much variety. I got some looks at the beginning. I think I was like the first person to have a mountain bike in the city. People would joke “Where’s the motor on that thing?” and ask “Isn’t it heavy?”
Sara: I’ve been riding a bike since I was about three years old. Where I’m from, they teach you to walk and a couple months later you’re already on a bicycle. My whole life I’ve used a bicycle for everything: school, work, leisure and pleasure. So when I came here, it was natural for me to try to ride my bike, but it proved to be impossible. Cars didn’t respect riders. This was 27 years ago, and drivers weren’t used to bikes sharing a lane with them. I was shouted at many times, “Hey, you should go on a sidewalk”. There was simply no cycling culture or bike awareness.
How has Barcelona’s cycling culture changed since then?
George: When I first moved here there was no commuting. People just did it for sport. I used to go to class—I was teaching at the time—with my bike, and I was considered an oddball. Nobody did that. They took the metro, walked or drove to work. Now it seems like everybody has a bike and cycles all over.
Sara: It was slow, but yes, more and more people have started using bikes. And cars have gotten used to looking for bicycles riding next to them. Up until about 10 years ago, we were still riding in between cars, sharing the same lanes, which didn’t make for the safest trip.
George: Also, 30 years ago, I had to have some pretty big chains to lock up my bike. Bikes were like gold. Now, there’s so many, I tell myself there’s safety in numbers. I still see cut chains once in a while, but not as many being stolen as before.
What do you think caused the bike boom?
Sara: When the city started incorporating more bike lanes into the city’s infrastructure, everything changed. Now you don’t have to be a real experienced biker to be able to cycle through the city.
George: I think it is also related to people’s convictions for staying healthy. And once a couple of people start doing it, the movement mushrooms from there. One year there are only a hundred people who are avid cyclists. The next year 500, then thousands. It just catches on. And as with anything like this, you’ll eventually get the people joining in who do it to be trendy. The people on Fixies and Bromptons, they’re doing it as a fashion statement. No matter what initially caused this progression toward more cycling, I think it’s a great thing.
Do you think Barcelona’s cycling infrastructure is sufficient?
George: I think the city is pretty well connected now. The two-way bike lanes especially help bikers with their commutes.
Sara: It is totally. All the commutes I do, I can always find a way to use bike lanes 100 percent of the time. And when I arrive at my destination, I always look for official parking—I don’t like to hang my bicycle on a garbage can or a railing—and there’s a ton. Even going outside of the city is convenient. I’m an architect, and I used to work, for example, at a site in Terrassa. That commute from Barcelona is really bad in a car. The highway is always clogged, traffic for miles. So I’d go with the bicycle to the train station, put the bike on the train, and then I had a little bike trip in Terrassa itself. It’s nice that you can combine cycling with public transportation. There’s only two times a day, during peak hours, that you can’t go on the metro.
Are there any disadvantages to cycling in Barcelona?
Sara: The weekends are hard this time of year. You can’t really go anywhere on your bicycle because of all the tourists. People are renting bikes who aren’t used to riding around this city. They’re clumsy and get in the way without trying to.
George: Yeah, you can’t really ride around the Born and Gòtic after Easter weekend. After 10am, it’s impossible to get from our apartment to Plaça Catalunya at any speed other than barely walking. You have to be so careful weaving in and out, trying not to collide with a French or Italian school kid on Spring Break. Another big problem when it’s warm is that by the time you get to work, you’re a sweaty mess. It’s horrible. We actually have a friend who rides his Brompton from Port Olímpic to Sant Just every day for work. After nine months, he actually got his boss to put in showers. So he’s able to get to work, take a shower, and now there’s three or four other guys cycling to work as well.
DEDICATED TO THE BICYCLE
Bicitecla. Bonavista 20. www.bicitecla.com
Owners Marcio and Luis opened Bicitecla in 2005, following a philosophy to be a great repair shop, provide personalised customer service and keep a range of products in stock for the general public. Although they sell a selection of imported, urban and folding bicycles, the duo specialises in touring bikes. One of their most memorable customers was Jordi Romo. Born in Barcelona in 1981, Jordi has been riding his Velotraum bike, purchased at Bicitecla, around the world for one year and 200 days (and counting). Jordi made the seemingly exhausting decision to embark on his adventure across the globe on a bicycle for a number of reasons. First, bikes are a clean form of transportation. Second, pedalling around offers close contact with people and scenery along the way. And finally because he loves sports—cycling and more—and wanted his trip to be as much about physical challenges as exploration.
“Originally, Jordi came in to order a cheap bicycle,” Marcio explained, “but we told him he couldn't accomplish what he was planning to do with such a shit bike.” So instead of getting the bike that he had intended to purchase, Jordi left Bicitecla with a Velotraum costing around €2,000, “but he won't break down in the middle of his tour,” Marcio promised. “He'll have that bicycle for life.” The bike Jordi was persuaded to buy has a strong, steel frame, non-puncture wheels and can carry more than 160 kilograms. Jordi thanks Marcio and Luis, and their bicycle, for helping him pedal a little over 30,820 km to 31 countries so far. You can follow Jordi Romo's journey at www.aroundtheball.net.
Cap Problema. Plaça Traginers 3. www.capproblema.com
Cap Problema is not your average bike shop. Customers rave that it is the “Best Brompton shop in the world”, “5 Stars”, “An amazing shop with great people!” When Dani Milian opened his first store in 1997, he manufactured standard bicycles, though he himself was using a Brompton daily. “One day I thought, ‘I should sell what I use, what I know best,’” he explained. He opened the current Cap Problema store in 2001, and in April, the first Brompton bike to ever be bought in Spain was sold there. Since then, Dani has helped revolutionise the cycling industry in Barcelona. “I saw a different vision for the sector,” he recounted. “Up until I opened my store, bike shops only specialised in cycle sport, not in transport.” But why fixate on Bromptons? “Having tested the wide range of folding bikes on the market, we believe Brompton is the brand that best meets today’s needs,” Dani said with confidence.
Now Cap Problema is all about making the lives of Brompton owners as easy, comfortable and rewarding as possible. Dani said their philosophy at the shop is simple: they offer the level of service that they would want to receive and sell the materials that they themselves use and trust. The team at Cap Problema understands that for their customers, cycling is a way of life. So if you make an appointment to leave your bike at their workshop, they lend you a substitute. You won’t have to go a single day without a bicycle.
RULES OF THE ROAD
There is many a grey area when it comes to the rules of the road for cyclists, and this is not unique to Barcelona. Here’s a rundown of the rules specified in the local by-law (Ordenanza de Circulación de peatones y vehículos).
- Cyclists must ride in the segregated cycle lanes and zones, where they exist, or in the Zonas 30.
- When a cycle lane forms part of the pavement, cyclists must give way to pedestrians and not exceed 20 km/hour.
- When a cycle lane forms part of the road, pedestrians must cross at the pedestrian crossings only, and must not stand or walk within the cycle lane.
- When a cyclist is riding on the road, they must do so in the lanes closest to the pavement. If explicitly signposted, bicycles may use lanes reserved for other vehicles.
- Cyclists riding on the road must follow the normal rules of vehicular traffic.
- Where no cycle lane exists, cyclists should ride on the road, with the following exceptions: Pavements with a width of 5m or more, and 3m of clear space. Public parks and pedestrian zones. However, this is the complicated bit. The above exceptions only apply where a minimum of 1m can be maintained between cyclist and pedestrians, or where cyclists can feasibly cycle 5m in a straight line without bumping into anyone!
- When cycling within a pedestrian zone, cyclists must: Always give way to pedestrians, adapt speed to the pedestrian pace, and not exceed 10km/hour, and maintain a distance of at least 1m from buildings.
- Cyclists cannot ride around on one wheel or hold onto moving vehicles.
- Motorised vehicles must change lanes and maintain a distance of 1.5m when overtaking a cyclist, and when following a cyclist must leave a distance of at least 3m.
- Bicycles must have a bell, reflectors and lights.
- Children under 7 can be carried by an adult in an additional seat or trailer.
- Bicycles must be parked in permitted areas, leaving a space of 3m for pedestrians.
Money, money, money
If you throw caution to the wind and disobey these rules, it’ll cost you. The Guàrdia Urbana can fine cyclists for a whole host of wrongdoings. Running a red light is fined with the same zeal as other road users, whilst cycling within a pedestrian-only zone, using your mobile or listening to music can also result in an on-the-spot fine. Between 2012 and 2013 the amount of fines being dished out rose by 95 percent; they typically set you back about €100, but can be as much as €1000. And if you think drunk driving laws only apply to those behind the wheel, think twice before you wobble back from a night out—you can be breathalysed, charged a hefty fine, and you may also receive points on your driving license.