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Cycling a way of life for Hong Kong’s biking commuters and kid racers

Reporter: Liz Yuen

Road conditions checked, helmets on. The fast changing urban scenery keeps them pedalling.They know they stand out in this urban metropolis. Still, they pay little attention to how others view them. They love what they are doing and they get a lot from it, so they cycle.

To an increasing number of people in Hong Kong, cycling is more than a recreation. It is both an activity that builds character, and a means of getting around – cycling has become a part of their way of life.

Around the trails in Tsz Wan Shan, a group of breathless parents and coaches has gathered for the monthly Hong Kong Future Cyclists’ Race. The atmosphere is tense. “Faster! Faster! Someone is behind you!” come the shouts. “Oh yes! Now he comes first! Go John! Go!”

“So how do you feel right now?” Paul Hadley asks his son when he comes back to the resting area after his race. Sam smiles but does not respond.“Do you think you have done a good job?” asks Hadley. He then goes on to ask Sam what he thinks he could have done to improve his performance “Maybe concentrated more on the road, not just thinking about passing others,” says Sam.

This type of post-race evaluation is very common here. Most of these parents view cycling as an activity that helps in the growth of their children. “It is important for him to have team spirit and commitment, so he has to be trained and take instructions from coaches, not parents,” says Hadley after Sam’s first race. “A race which he can compete in and lose, and see how other people react, will make him work out what he truly is and wants to be.”

Johnny Choi Ho Wang’s mother proudly pats him on the back after he finishes first in his heat. The 10-yearold is happy his family has come to support him. Sam, Johnny and the other kids, all aged between seven and 12 are members of local cycling clubs and school teams who have been chosen to represent their teams in the monthly races.

On top of public competitions, these junior cyclists have regular training three times a week, with the longest lasting four hours, as well as general fitness training.

Even though he is just 10, Johnny has been cycling in a team for four years. Last year, he had an accident and needed three stitches. “Sometimes crashes can be very serious,” says Johnny, “But you get used to it.”

Indeed, cycling means so much to these children that crashes are only to be feared because they can affect performance afterwards. Leo Yip Hinsing, 12, recently missed training for a month because of injuries. It was hard for him to keep up when he came back.

“But I had, I had to keep up,” says the son of a cycling team manager. “My parents spend a lot of money on this. I don’t want to give up. So I just kept on going…But today I still have to improve a lot to catch up.”

To keep themselves and their bikes in good condition, the junior cyclists do not cycle much in their leisure time, especially during summer when lots of races take place. “Because if you cycle for leisure, then what happens if you crash?” says Yip. “It can affect your next race.”

For these competitive child cyclists, cycling is a test of skill and character but there is another group of people for whom cycling is a form of transportation and green living. They are the city’s cycling commuters.

“Cycling is transportation,” says Ruth Pifer. “It is the best choice of transportation.”

Ruth and her husband Tony Pifer lived in Texas before moving to Hong Kong. At first, they just cycled for recreation. “When our sons were born, we wanted to have an outdoor recreational activity which family members could enjoy equally,” says Ruth. It was her husband who first thought of using his bicycle for practical purposes. He bought some panniers for his bike and pedalled off to the shopping centre. “That’s how everything got started,” says Ruth.

Before moving to Hong Kong a year ago, the Pifers agreed that city living would not stop them cycling. They brought their bikes with them, and they even chose a flat in Ma On Shan because it is on the bike path.

For Ruth Pifer, commuting on bikes saves money and is good for the environment. Her husband, on the other hand, enjoys cycling because it allows him to stay away from public transportation. “To get to different places, we would probably be in really packed buses, or things might get really irritating after a while, switching trains, switching from a train to a bus, and going back to a train…It is not really wonderful,” Tony Pifer explains.

Tony is an art teacher in an elementary school, and he cycles 15 minutes to work every day. He says it is “spiritually invigorating” when he commutes by bike. “Actually I love going to work every day on my bike,” he says.“It is quiet, and I have the music on. I am moving my body. I am not reading any signs. I am not looking at other people. I am not getting distracted. And I get to work and I am ready. I just love that.”

He even cycles on rainy days. All he does is wrap a rubbish bag around his brief case. “I may be quite wet when I get to school but after an hour of air-conditioning I am dry…It is not a problem.”

It is not easy to maintain such a lifestyle. Ruth Pifer says that parking is the biggest problem. “There are a bazillion million million bikes locked up and no one ever rides them,” she says. “They are rusty, and that leaves us no places to put our bikes that we really do use. That is very, very frustrating.” So they often have to lock their bikes illegally, she adds.

Another problem with cycling to work is that it takes longer. Ruth gave up after she began a job as a teacher at a school in Repulse Bay. When asked how long it would take to get there by bike, she exclaims, “Holy Cow!” The entire family looks puzzled and starts to calculate. “It will take me at least four hours!” she screams.

Chim Shuk-fong, an experienced local cycling commuter says more people use bikes as regular transport in the New Territories because there are better facilities and it is safer.

“But in the city area, you really have to have a determination and a sense of the environment and health if you commute,” she says.

Chim loves cycling because it is free. “From point A to point B, I get the satisfaction of using my own power to finish the route,” says Chim. “I can adjust the pace. I can stop wherever I want to…I just go wherever I want.”

To Chim, cycling is not just a hobby or a sport. Her passion for cycle touring changed her career path. The former accountant decided to become a teacher because school teachers have four long holidays annually. Chim has now toured 40 countries on a bike.

Around five years ago, she decided to commute on her folding bike. The feasibility of commuting was one of her major considerations in her choice of school. “I tried not to apply for schools on Hong Kong Island so that I could realize my plan,” says Chim, who lives in Yuen Long.

Every morning, Chim rides from home to the Kam Sheung Road station, takes her bike onto the train, gets off at the Nam Cheong station and rides all the way to her school in Shek Kip Mei. The whole journey takes her 55 minutes.

Experience has taught her that cyclists are always treated as inferior road users. “With their bigger, faster vehicles, people always attempt to go ahead of my bike.”

Chim says road users’ disrespect can sometimes cause danger. “I used to scold them. But there are just too many of them. Now I just give way to them.”

Giving way is not the same as giving up. She bends over with laughter as she recalls a friend’s joke, “Women carry their handbags, while you carry your folding bike.” So central is cycling to Chim’s life that she has even incorporated the image of a bicycle into her signature.

Commuting by bike may be tough, but Chim wants to tell people around her that persistence pays, “If you really have the heart to do it, you will find the way.”

For nurse Laetitia Lam, the journey is just beginning. Inspired by her friends during a visit to Austria in 2009, Lam bought a road bike and began to commute between her home in Prince Edward and her workplace in Yau Ma Tei. Now she commutes twice a week, and says it is still very difficult for her to integrate cycling into her life. “It depends on many conditions,” says Lam, “like the temperature, whether there are too many people, and whether the roads are too dangerous.”

Despite the difficulties, Lam says she is satisfied that she can really carry out something which she thinks is meaningful. “I am proud of myself for really doing it. People may think that we are naïve, but I think that a society really needs somebody who is naïve to keep these basic things.”

“And I will continue biking,” says Lam.