Česky English

This article was published in July 1983 in Technický magazín (Technical magazine), issue 8, volume XXVI. Written most probably by RNDr. Jiří Grygar, astrophysicist and cycling enthusiast (see for example Ebicykl.cz). I apologize for poor translation of the flowery ironic language.

My bike broke down,

and that is, my dear friends, a problem. For in a country renowned for its established bicycle factories, Velamos, Eska or Favorit, you usually can't get neither a front fork, nor a four-sprocket freewheel or a dynamo. One of the paradoxes of modern time is that after decades of motorism, a bicycle is becoming fashionable again, for three reasons. First one is oil crisis, second is ecological crisis and the third is physical activity crisis. The twentieth century man has harnessed steam, gas, electricity and atom, condemning himself to pushing buttons, so his heart and veins, as well as muscles of all kinds, began to protest.

Therefore, countries with active cycling tradition (one definition says Denmark is a small country densely inhabited by cyclists, the same certainly applies to Holland) are being joined by lands nobody would expect it from at first glance: in 1972, yearly bicycle production in the United States exceeded automobile production. There are 400 million bikes used all over the world, compared to only 275 million cars, and 50 million bicycles are being made every year (I wonder why General Motors' managers haven't yet founded General Bicycles affiliate company). Bike conquers the world and it's actually easy to understand why: with the exception of railway vehicles, bicycle has the lowest rolling resistance and allows efficient and relatively fast ride even to a non-motorized human being; its operating costs are low and maintenance is minimal (often none at all). A reasonably maintained bike can clock 300000 km, so bicycles often outlive their owners. Here, with our specific bicycle market, a remarkable economic or deduction factor applies as well: a used bike is almost as expensive as a new one. In short and in general, bicycle, which was born almost at the same time as automobile, is still winning the unofficial contest for the rule over roads and paths of this planet.

There is, however, at least one exception to this general statement. It is - to our pity - Czechoslovakia. A country that is mostly perfectly suitable for cycling of all kinds, utility, recreational, touring and racing, is wasting away in this regard, and by this I don't mean the results of our road bike racers at international competitions. Cyclists are simply being mercilessly marginalized by general opinion of the mobile public.

I remember an experience that would be close to unbelieveable here: I once attended a habilitation lecture which a docent from Utrecht was giving to the university senate and academic circles. At a given time, esteemed university professors began to gather at the vintage building - mostly by bicycles. They parked their sturdy all-weather Dutch bikes at the designated place in front of the university, removed pins or clamps from their trousers and proceeded to change into historic gowns. Nobody, neither dean nor prorector, arrived by car. Just imagine something like that here, for example during the scientific community annual convention!

If our stubborn cyclist fortifies themselves against the apparent or hidden ostracism of the public - which sees them in the better case as a quiet lunatic, in the worse as a person who scrimps even on footsoles - they will run up against the already mentioned lack of literally dirt-cheap parts for even the most common bike models. I wonder how the assistants in bike shops, already declining in numbers, can bear their everyday deal of bouncing customers-askers with worn magic formulas: we don't have those, we don't know when we'll get them, these haven't arrived yet this year etc.. As I observe, the Household Appliances company solves this difficult situation by gradually shutting down bike shops, probably to save us from useless running about the city. Of course, the same applies to complete products: if you are not really fond of heavyweight bicycles, you are not likely to find a normal sport bike neither for you, nor for your children or wife. There is, however, the extensively chromed and properly overpriced imported folding wonder. An appropriately folding cyclist can probably take it on longer tours as well - tucked comfortably in a cargo hold.

If, despite all these difficulties, you manage to assemble a vehicle (for example from three old wrecks found in the attic of a cottage you had just bought somewhere in deep border forest), another question appears: where to ride? Historic city centres are either overloaded with car traffic, or reserved for pedestrians only. "No cycling" signs hang at the gates of every nice and orderly park. There's not enough space in prefab estates even for parked cars, the less for pleasure trips on bikes. So there is no choice but to use normal roads where cyclists encounter quite a few traps.

In a duel with motorcycles, cars and lorries, buses and various tractors, a cyclist is inherently handicapped by not wearing plate armour or any other protective package. When you try to follow any urban route, you inevitably fall into pits and potholes which usually appear exactly where a law-abiding cyclist is expected to ride: at the right side of the road. The Municipal Technical Services show an extraordinary level of ingenuity by laying cast-iron manhole covers with their slots parallel to the direction of travel, so that narrow bike tyres could get stuck in them more easily (luckily, most of the covers are permanently clogged with dirt and therefore navigable).

It is simply not very smart to let motorists and cyclists share the same road in a heavy urban traffic. It would certainly be wiser to reserve a separate lane or part of pavement for the cyclists. These modifications can be seen abroad where cyclists enjoy appropriate respect, so the modified pavements even have lowered kerbs at crossroads just for them. We often tend to sneer at the laziness of people who drive their car across the street just to post a letter, but who of us knows that the classic land of supermotorism already has 50000 km of separate cyclepaths and they plan to triple that figure by 1985?

While our traffic rules do recognize a "bicycle path" sign, I swear I have never observed one in objective reality. Also, guidelines for travel expense reimbursement meticulously enumerate how many Kčs you receive for a kilometre covered by your private vehicle according to its engine volume, but don't grant you a single haller if you for some obviously foolish reason decide to perform the business trip by your private bike. Moreover, if there is no bicycle garage with an armed guard and a watchdog at your destination, such a trip would be disproportionately risky: bikes get stolen pretty often even if you lock them to a chain in a locked storage room. Being insured for this situation is of no use: insurance companies only cover damage with money, they don't stock bikes.

Despite all difficulties and pitfalls, cycling hasn't yet gone extinct here. In Haná county, in the lowlands around Labe and Dyje rivers and also around the town of Třeboň, roads are literally infested with bicycles and cyclists of all kinds and conditions. The popular flat terrain is still a compelling argument against the traps and wrongs of the motorized country. Especially at dusk, motorists have hard times in these regions: unlit bikes without any reflectors, loaded with hay, rake or scythe protruding across the road, wobble and sway in any direction - fortunately at rather low speeds. Even in towns, you can sometimes see tough men (very rarely women) in weird outfits, heading to work or recreation on their ragtag Favorits.

By the will of the Transport Enterprises, I joined this gang. After several weeks of commuting to work by city transport and railway, I found that even for distances over 25 km, a bike is faster and more reliable than a train followed by underground followed by bus. Alas, considering the motorists flying along the same road, I can't call it a safe ride. Even though maybe 90 % of drivers are nice and careful (city bus drivers set an especially good example), the remaining 10 % represent considerable danger to a vulnerable cyclist. If traffic police wanted to see a perfect compilation of traffic law violations, I would suggest the policemen without uniforms ride urban and suburban routes on bicycles. What they would see firsthand would probably frighten them. Maybe they would be able to gradually rid the roads of irresponsible hazarders, but the cost would be more than drastic. Because a warning I recently read on a bulletin board of a cycling club applies to every cyclist here: "Cyclists, be considerate to the passing drivers; they could kill you!"


It's year 2020 now. What has changed in those 37 years?

Transition from centrally-planned economy of communist Czechoslovakia to capitalism and free market after year 1989 completely solved the problem of critical lack of bikes and spare parts. The amount of cycling infrastructure rose from zero to "still a lot to improve, but there's at least something useful". Roads deteriorate more or less the same; rate and quality of repairs differ from one region to another, generally I would say it improved since the article was published. New manhole covers are safe (narrower slots perpendicular to direction of travel), but we can still run into the old ones at many places. There are many times more cars driving (and parking) on the roads and streets and they keep growing bigger, wider and more powerful. The percentage of careful drivers remains more or less the same, general despect for non-motorists hasn't changed much either. Cycling as a form of sport and recreation is fashionable and enjoys a great boom, especially in forests and on riverside paths. Cycling as a form of transport prospers mainly in the already mentioned flat regions, but even elsewhere, it has reached levels where it is just unusual to see a cyclist on the street, not extremely rare (it is said cycling comprises one to two percent of all transport in Prague). Quality of public transport has improved, but on shorter routes with transfers it is still slower than a bike. Technical progress brought many innovations, today you can get a bicycle in countless shapes and designs and auxiliary electric motors are common. The only thing that has never changed is the classic "safety bicycle" design from the second half of nineteenth century: two wheels, handlebars, saddle, chain and pedals. Will some true revolution happen someday? Who knows...