There are days that I wake up and can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror.
I think about what I did last night and shake my head. I never thought I’d turn into one of them. The unnecessary risks. The disregard for other people. I’m ashamed of what I’ve become. And yet, when the weekend comes and I inevitably get that itch for a cheap thrill, I’m sure I’ll just do it again.
It’s in my DNA now. I’m a biker.
Not in the tattoo clad, Aryan Nation sense, of course. I’m a Beijing street biker, part of a proud but shrinking group of tiger moms, crusty old men and expat hipsters traversing a city increasingly ruled by cars.
It’s not a lifestyle for the passive. Cars don’t respect bikers, and neither do pedestrians. All three often end up fighting for the same space, and usually the first one to occupy it wins. It’s a dirty and sometimes deadly game of chicken.
Not long after I moved to Beijing, I saw a Pizza Hut delivery guy get creamed by a truck. After witnessing a few more accidents, I vowed not to buy a bicycle. And so for two years, I relied on the subway, buses and taxis to get around.
All three have their drawbacks. The subway can get ridiculously crowded (I was once nearly lifted off my feet by a mob trying to cram into an already packed carriage car). Buses tend to get stuck in traffic, especially along older and narrow roads. And vacant taxis can be hard to find late at night, or often refuse to stop when it rains or snows.
Walking isn’t very ideal either. Beijing is a huge city – at around 6,500 square miles it’s bigger that the state of Connecticut – and for nine months out of the year, the weather is either scorching hot or freezing.
During one of those hot months last summer, a friend of mine sent me a text and said he was moving back to New York and looking to sell his bike for 200 yuan ($32), lock included. I hesitated for a few weeks, but when he couldn’t find anyone else to buy it, I finally said yes.
This marriage of convenience soon turned into a steamy relationship. I now go everywhere on my bike: to buy groceries, to exercise at the park, to meet friends at bars. Whatever safety concerns I had have dissipated, and I run red lights, squeeze between buses and startle pedestrians when I whiz by.
There have been some close calls. I recently came within inches of rear-ending a car. A couple of months ago, I clipped an old man on a bike heading in the opposite direction, who veered right when he should have gone left. We glared at each other and then kept going. No blood, no foul.
None of the near misses slowed me down, but I did buy a helmet. I might not yield for other cars, bikes or pedestrians, but the pavement I respect.