On the Pavement in Buenos Aires
As a committed cyclist in the US, I knew biking had to be a big part of my life when I moved to Buenos Aires. The city proper has just 3 million people (the metro area is 13 million), but don’t think that’s peanuts. After all, BsAs is more densely packed than New York City.
With that kind of crowd, you can image what you’d be competing with in the streets if you were on a bike. Thousands of buses that emit clouds reminiscent of nuclear power plants, the Italian influence in the city that extends to all drivers thinking they are the direct descendants of Mario Andretti. Bottom line is that the streets are more stuffed with moving vehicles than an Argentine parilla with meat on a Sunday afternoon.
After witnessing this, I still decided I needed to ride to try and understand my adopted home. I started with a beater bike: a beach cruiser, which the Argentines call a Playera. I really lucked out, as I scoured the ads on Craigslist for a while but eventually found a neighbor who was moving back to São Paulo and sold me hers for the equivalent of about 70 bucks.
The bike was violet and white, with wide handlebars and foot brakes. I hadn’t ridden a bike with foot brakes since I was nine! No stickers, no handlebar tassels, but of course the requisite front basket. After riding it for about a week, the handlebars snapped. A few weeks later, a pedal met a similar fate. Before too long, the seat began to take on the posture of a severely arthritic woman–tilted, unsteady and in desperate need of help. I ignored this for a while and just kept my weight contained to one side.
Before too long Playera One eventually met the sad (but all too common) fate of being stolen in Palermo one crisp fall night while I was having a beer with a friend, so now I have Playera Two – a shiny red one with a squishy seat, six gears, hand brakes and a serious bitch lock.
Despite Playera One’s structural imperfections, this creaky, slow, gearless jalopy was ideal to start riding in the city. Learning how to be an urban bike rider, no matter where, is about learning to read the signals of the drivers, the walkers, and everything else that is whizzing in front of you. And in a foreign country, it’s like learning a language on top of the one you are already trying to learn! Drivers in Buenos Aires are particularly terrifying, with lanes, signals, seat belts, speed limits, and even sober driving all optional.
When I first got on the bike, I was petrified. In the early days of riding, I would pace around for twenty minutes before I could gather the gumption to hop on to my bike. Once I convinced myself to actually ride, it would be a start and stop affair, with me slamming on those foot brakes when a bus would whisk by so closely I could feel the hot wind hitting my face as the bus accelerated to the next block. Cars would zoom around me, just to then make a right turn directly in front of me, as if I was invisible. Sometimes I would just go on the sidewalks (a no-no in many North American cities) defeated and too scared to share the streets. Mostly because there was no sharing.
In addition to the behavior of the drivers sometimes seeming like Greek (or the Argentine dialect Lunfardo in this case), the terrain is, well… different. Many streets are covered in knobby cobblestones, a bone shaking ride regardless of the quality of your shocks. Add in potholes the size of a crater on the moon and you have a whole other type of urban challenge going on.
I finally found my gumption by watching the other cyclists. There were pint-sized girls that rode confidently next to the bus. Bike messengers and delivery boys carried packages while weaving through traffic. Since many of the streets in the city go one way, a friend recommended riding on the left side, making it easier to avoid the insanity of the buses that stopped at nearly every corner to expel passengers. I am still trying to incorporate this into my right-sided tendencies.
On days when I don’t have the nerve to fight the traffic and I just want to enjoy the day, I can take one of the bicisenda that the city has begun to construct all around Buenos Aires. While there are just 30kms of paths, the city will expand with 60kms more before the end of the year. The 30kms already in operation are centered mostly along the city’s eastern and northern edges, where there are parks and wide green spaces. They are nice for a little exercise, but they don’t get you too far to anywhere. A new bicisenda along the 10-lane Avenida del Liberatador gets you from Plaza Italia in the city’s Palermo neighborhood all the way to the main train station, Retiro. The path is set off the road with yellow painted curbs. It’s a great path overall, as long as you don’t hit it on Sunday when people decide to use it as a walking/running/dog walking path. But oh well, that’s why I have a bell!
I have no idea how many cyclists there are here in Buenos Aires, but once a month many of them get together for Masa Critica (Critical Mass). The event is just over a year old and happens on once a month on Sunday afternoons at 4pm. Last month, even on a rainy day, nearly 200 people raced through the streets together. Hippies, spandexed uber-bikers, kids with their parents–you name it! It’s a light-hearted affair, with no destination in mind. We wander through the city, chanting, yelling, clapping.
Sometimes there’s a guy with a boom box, giving us a soundtrack to our afternoon ride. Sure, some come with a deeply political agenda, cursing the cars and threatening drivers, although only when provoked. And with all the overly aggressive drivers here, it has happened before. One month the police arrived after a taxi driver destroyed a guy’s bike. The entire group of cyclists (over 100 strong) all waited for the police, all witnesses to the taxi driver’s wrongdoing.
For me, Masa Critica is a reminder that I am not alone on those mean streets. There is a whole community of people just like me, who love the feeling of the wind in their hair as the cityscape moves by. No matter what city I am in, no matter what kind of bike I have, I love knowing that there are always others who love it just as much as I do, all who started as tentatively as me.