to a Ride in Rio
Getting around Rio de Janeiro is nothing of a simple matter.
Taxis, Buses, Pedestrians, Motorbikes all whiz hastily through this cities tight, crowded thoroughfares. Add into the mix: an abundance of street merchants, short skinny sturdy males carting goods, can collectors and street performers that juggle hastily for a few reals at the traffic lights. The ‘cidade maravilhosa’ as it is colloquially referred to by its locals may be in a large sense, aesthetically beautiful with weather to match, but keeping it moving for its 15 plus million inhabitants is a complicated equation. One asks where a place for cyclists exists within this madness. The answer? There does, but it’s not negotiated, it’s fought for.
Bike riding is socially considered by Cariocas (Rios locals) as a leisure activity confined to the weekends, a pleasurable pastime in the cities wealthier districts. Only in these neighbourhoods on Sundays that a selection of main roads remains closed off for these recreational cyclists, who can take in some of the cities most stunning natural wonders. As a viable alternative transport, commuter cyclists are for the moment a sight for sore eyes. The potential risks contrast to the point where they outweigh the benefits, and as such prevent cycling from becoming a social phenomenon. A lack of infrastructure to facilitate riders onto the cities streets remains a key detractor. The threat of theft remains a significant other, which discourages many to lock their bikes up in public. The prime concern however are the manic habits of Brazilian motorists, who symbolise Brazil’s upper and emerging middle classes. In the Brazilian psyche, a car purchase comes with a license to dominate the roads and places one above the law. With the motorist seldom regulated, chaos and calamity are installed. In this jungle, it’s not the survival of the fittest, but the fastest.
These real conditions have prompted the formation of groups advocating political action to encourage commuter cycling. At the beginning of the year, one such group organised a critical mass ride of commuter cyclists in the southern city of Porto Alegre. The aim of the demonstration was simple, to send a message to motorists that commuter cyclists are road users too. It was, however, prematurely interrupted when a motorist deliberately ploughed into the group, hospitalising between 30 to 40 cyclists. The incident was caught on camera by a bystander, drawing the attention of world media. The day after the event, outraged advocates from diverse commuter cycling advocate groups in Sao Paulo, the nation’s largest city, staged a protest that drew media attention across the country to actively politicise the plight of commuter cyclists. Needless to say that as an alternative form of transport, commuter cycling still has a long way to pedal.
A month into university studies in Rio de Janeiro and I’m already feeling that saudade for the freedom that only cycling can give me. And so after weeks of bumpy bus rides, each trip eating away at the hip pocket, the inevitable delays, the crowded conditions, the sticky heat creating sauna like conditions, the hours stuck in bottlenecks: I lose it. I refashion my friend’s bike. Air in the tyres and I hit the streets. Retro may be the buzz word for a bike such as this on the cycle friendly streets of Melbourne but in Rio de Janeiro, anything old is imperative if you are to lock it up in public. And although it must be old, I fork out for top notch breaks to compensate for my expired travel insurance.
Every country has slightly different road rules, and rules that apply to cyclists. Rules are set in place to guard and protect the individual’s rights. So, when and where there is no set down rules, one must negotiate, and negotiate well. Observing the traffic is my first task, after all, it might all seem chaotic to the passer by or the inexperienced like myself, but within this chaotic labyrinth exists a complex code of road behaviour, social norms that aid road users. So let’s begin. The traffic light, as a meagre piece of infrastructure serves purely as a suggestion. A friend here imparts to me her local philosophy on the subject, ‘to me, yellow is green’. At night time, she explains that ‘red can also be negotiated as Green, although you a required to give gentle tap of the horn, but not obligatory, but strongly advised.’ With that information I’m given, I see the logic play out, but as for the flashing green arrows, what the fuck? I think to myself that all this is mind; the absence of traffic lights would change little of the rhythm and pace of traffic in Rio de Janeiro. One essential requirement here is to have your wits about you; 100% concentration. Riding drunk, among locals is commonly understood as a death wish. Coming from Melbourne, where the policing of rider behaviour on the roads can meet stiff fines, it took some time to adjust. Soon however, I realised that if I wanted to, I could just run a red in front of a cop car and not an eyebrow would be raised.
Cariocas can be credited with giving new meaning to the word, one way street. You should also forget prior logical conclusions about how to navigate T-intersections or crossroads. They should alternatively be analysed in their geo-spatial context. Then there are the more complicated 5, 6 or 7 cross road junctions. After a few minutes of observation, a rigid pattern of traffic emerges, so don’t worry you are just going to have to be patient, patience that pays off in the long term. It must be said that in such situations, trusting local drivers is actually a foolish decision. If you do however feel like being that fool, then some personal advise. Shelter yourself by remaining a breast to a car when passing through some of the more complicated intersections. Indeed they are numerous. Strength in numbers so to speak. Note: no matter how big your ego, two legs will never equal 6 cylinders.
The notorious roads of the Cidade Maravilhosa dramatically redefine the meaning of a paved surface. Indeed, the supposed concealed roads do indeed have a lot to reveal. Potholes come in all shapes and sizes, depths and patterns, and many invisible to the naked eye. As a personal goal, along with my university research project, I attended to researching the many hidden potholes on my daily run to the university. However don’t worry; you will be sure to feel their full impact on your already sore buttocks if you manage to pass over one. Consider it all part of the Rio bike experience.
Now it comes time for the cyclist to get acquainted with its biggest enemy, and potential predator: the monster size buses. These large buses, of which Brazil is a world exporter, fill the urban landscape. Something should also been known about the condition of the bus drivers. The Pilotos or pilots, the colloquial term for a bus driver in Rio de Janeiro, deserve as much respect as the name may suggest. With tough road conditions, long hours, poor salaries, short meal breaks and unpaid overtime, bus drivers are the backbone responsible for moving on a daily basis some 6 million Cariocas. Bus drivers have two eyes, and given the state of organisation and volume of traffic at hand, one can’t expect to be the centre of attention. For this reason, you need to gain the attention of the bus drivers, rather than the reverse. This can be achieved by going backwards. No?? That’s right, riding in the contra mao, or against the traffic. I was introduced to it when following another local friend, cycling around for the day, in disbelief of the route he was leading me on. Now as risqué as this is in any part of the world, in Rio de Janeiro, where lots of things already fit the risqué category, it works quite well. Dodging those buses coming for you, will, after a while develop your 6th sense. Coffee stimulation and good depth perception are prescribed.
Commercial cycling, something quite different from commuter cycling is a phenomenon we are yet to touch on, which you should be aware about. Cycling as a delivery service is common work for some of the cities poorest residents. Common delivery services by bicycle are limited to groceries but a medium also used by the cities younger drug traffickers. Bikes are a common way of circulating a diversity of substances out to the wealthy, happy to pay a premium to avoid potential dangers of a visit to the cities largest favelas. As a commuter cyclist, an unheard of concept for many means that you may cause social confusion, and command the attention of Rios paranoid Police Force. Stopping to observe the traffic movements of a 7 road junction, squinted eyes focused on the chaos will draw you to the attention of the police: a prospective salesman. This is no narrative possibility that will lead you to a happy conclusion. Worth noting here that the Police here are not the most pleasant people to deal with when you have a bike in tow. My personal experience with the latter gives legitimacy to this claim, as it wasn’t a one off occurrence.
Four months pass and ploughing through the cities more notorious traffic of Rio´s Zona Norte is a complete ease, an area known to the few commuter cycling friends as considerably risky territory. The noises, the colours, the awe inspiring landscape, the faces of the city, ever changing, provide one of the most dynamic backdrops for any given daily trajectory on my way to the university. Although my efforts at encouraging others to spin two pedals arouse little enthusiasm, I sense that attitudes are changing, albeit gradual. One morning, riding through the cities bohemian district, Lapa, I hear my name called out from the street. I stop promptly to look around. It’s a close friend, Luiz. I walk over to receive that standard big hug. ‘You would have to be the only idiot riding in that traffic this morning,’ he says. We both laugh. For the moment that might be the case.