Photo by Miriam Núñez
Mari Ramos is 57 and learning to ride a bicycle. “When I was young, girls didn’t ride bikes,” she told Metropolitan recently. The world changed, however, in the time it took her to raise three children. Ramos is now part of a growing number of people over 40 in Barcelona, mostly women, who have found a ticket to freedom in the form of a bicycle.
“It used to be viewed almost like a sin in Catalunya or Spain for a woman to be on a bike,” said Anna Pérez, Ramos’s bike-riding instructor. “In the same way that women didn’t dress in certain clothing styles, or were frowned upon if they drank or smoked, they were likewise never taught to ride bicycles because it was considered indecent for them to do so.”
Pérez teaches bike-riding classes at the Biciescola, an initiative of the Bicicleta Club de Catalunya (BACC), an association that promotes cycling in Catalunya. She told Metropolitan that over 90 percent of her students are women, whose average age is 46. The school opened in 2001, and since then the number of students hasn’t stopped growing, with between 600 and 800 new people each year learning to pedal on two wheels.
Mari Ramos explained that a female friend of hers learned to ride a bike at the school and inspired her to do likewise. “I finally have the time. My children are all grown up. This was something I always wanted to do; learning is not a question of age,” she said, beaming a huge smile as she pushed off and glided down the gently sloping grounds of the Parc de la Barceloneta, where the school stages its two-hour classes.
Another student, 60-year-old Thelma Scharschmidt, was equally happy about her classes. She grew up in Jamaica and said that when she was young girls didn’t ride bikes there either. “I came here to live from London, because my two daughters live here, and they got me to take classes.”
The great majority of the students learn to ride confidently after taking one or two four-day courses. The school receives a subsidy from the Ajuntament, which means that course fees can be kept at a reasonable €45 per course; the fee includes insurance and a year’s membership in BACC.
“Many women are also encouraged by their families,” said Anna Pérez. “Their children and husband can all ride bikes and they want to be able to join them on their excursions.”
Pérez said she thought it was likely that a good number of older men didn’t take classes as a matter of pride. However, she added that her oldest student was a man, aged 76, who has become an avid member of the BACC since learning to ride at the age of 74.
Sixty-three-year-old José Luis Ruiz Castello, a native of Barceloneta, said he discovered the bike school while talking a walk in his neighbourhood. “I hadn’t ridden a bike in over 50 years,” he said. “I definitely don’t feel embarrassed about taking classes; I would never have gotten back on a bike otherwise.”
Another male student, 35-year-old José Bertomeu, had been encouraged by a woman friend to learn to ride. “Growing up in the city, I never had a chance to learn to bike,” Bertomeu said, adding that he had also been inspired by the Bicing programme.
Instructor Pérez agrees that Bicing is an important reason why people want to learn how to ride. “We have a lot more students since Bicing has been here. For many people, it represents the freedom to get around town.
On yer Bicing
The launch of Bicing in March last year was a huge boost to the number of people using pedal power to get round Barcelona. The semi-public bike rental system was overwhelmed with subscribers in its first months, presumably due in no small part to the starting offer of a year’s subscription for just €6 (the standard price is €24). Once subscribed, a user can pick up a bike from one of the 375 stations around the city, use it for the next half hour for free and then drop it off at an available station. If they use the bike for more than 30 minutes, they are charged 30 cents for every additional half hour up to two hours. It’s a simple, healthy and (theoretically) efficient way to get around. Unfortunately, Bicing has had its share of problems, including a lack of bikes, lack of stations and lack of technicians. However, the company has promised improvements as of this month. And it has to be said that despite all the issues, the number of users keeps on growing. Maybe they’re just born to ride here.