Friday, 15 February 2013

Argentines and Cycling

Coverage of the recent Tour of San Luis in Argentina got me thinking about cycling in this beautiful country.

About 8 years ago I went on a multi-country tour of South America, which ended in Argentina. I had the opportunity to cycle around the countryside in Bolivia and Peru, but I didn't have enough time to repeat this adventure in Argentina.

There were lots of cycling holiday packages to areas like Patagonia, Mendoza or Bariloche in the Lake District - obviously taken up by foreign tourists.
But in terms of general cycling around Argentina, this was not so widespread back in  2006 when I was there.

I didn't have time to go cycling in the beautiful areas mentioned, but I was able to cycle around Buenos Aires during the week that I was there. In fact, this became my main mode of transport during that time.



Getting hold of a bicycle was an adventure in itself. When I asked the staff at the hotel where I was staying, in the Recoleta district, they were not aware of any bicycle shops that hired out bicycles. I then set about doing it the old fashioned way - asking around in local sports shops nearby (they couldn't help me), then looking through the Yellow Pages in a telephone booth in a shopping centre. The few bicycle shops which did hire out bicycles were a long way out of the town centre. Then, eventually I rang a shop called Bicicletas Canaglia, which, to my pleasant surprise said that their branch in Central Buenos Aires had a few bicycles that they rented out. I rang up that branch, and indeed they did.

I caught the bus to the shop on Calle Suipacha and went to the place with a spring in my step. The folks were pleasant and they were able to find a bicycle for me. It was actually the only bike they had left - an old Payera (also known as a beach bike). But hey, it was my size and the guys in the shop had made an effort to make it rideable for me.

The shop assistants were friendly and they provided me with a lock and a map of the area. When I asked for a helmet, the assistant went into an old cupboard and dug something out that he had to dust down before he gave it to me. It was bowl shaped, and not sure that it even fitted me correctly. But it was better than nothing! The man then went through the map very carefully showing me the recommended cycle routes, then telling me that I absolutely MUST NOT go down this road, and that road - muy, muy peligroso were the words of the day. After giving me the lecture on all the dangerous roads in the area (which was basically most of them!) he wished me a good bike ride.

Being used to commuting by bicycle around London meant that I had not felt worried about the prospect of riding around the streets of Buenos Aires. In actual fact, I had underestimated the complexities and risks! My route from the bike shop back to my hotel led me along Avenida Libertador. It was quite a busy road, with 4 lanes in each direction. That meant lots of traffic, and notably loads of buses. The streets were jam packed with them, worse than in Oxford Street. While buses only go around Central London at 15mph - buses in Buenos Aires sped down Libertador at around 40mph. Some even looked like they were racing each other!

As a cyclist, this was daunting. There was no cycle lane, and even worse was that there were bus stops every 50m so you had to constantly be on your guard as buses screeched to a halt at their bus stop while others pulled away. Then of course you had to hold a visible position just to be sure the drivers wouldn't fail to see you as they rumbled along the road.

Once back at the hotel the receptionists were surprised, and a little impressed that I had managed to find a bicycle at all - the only snag was that they had no place to keep my bicycle - not even a garage. So I ended up having to park my bicycle in a multi-storey car park, and even pay an attendant for leaving it there! I'm not even sure if that was the usual procedure. He was quite surprised to see someone bringing a bicycle into a car park.

Once I was used to the bicycle, and the logistical procedures as well as the screeching traffic I was able to plan a few areas to visit. I rode around various vibrant districts, including San Telmo, La Boca and Palermo. Nearby was a port area that had been regenerated and there were cycle paths. This was a hidden corner of the city and quite a nice surprise. I even saw a handful other cyclists around this area.

The other place that I went to was Tigre, 28km from Buenos Aires. For this, I caught the train to an area just beyond Palermo district, and then rode along a cyclepath that took me most of the way there. This was a very picturesque area and a lovely place for a family bike ride.

Once at Tigre I was treated to a stylish and artistic port, with galleries, trendy cafes and restaurants and a quaint market. This town was a great hangout and I went there a few times during my stay.

When I returned the bicycle to the shop, the assistants were just so relieved to see me back - and even in one piece!

My conclusion about cycling around Buenos Aires was that it is a great way to see the city, which is very beautiful. Cycling around places like Puerto Madero was fun, but it was a shame that very few people in the town appreciated seeing places from this angle. Although I was glad to have ridden around Buenos Aires, I was very aware that to do it you really needed to have the cojones! Even avid cyclist (as well as Talking Heads maestro) David Byrne recorded similar experiences of negotiating Buenos Aires traffic in his book, The Bicycle Diaries.

I have heard that things have moved on since those days in 2006. Buenos Aires seems to have improved its cycling facilities. Since 2010 the mayor has made steps to develop a network of cycle paths, and there is even a bike share scheme like the Boris Bikes in London. Furthermore, you can even meet other cyclists every last Sunday of the month when you go along to one of the Critical Mass rides. There are now also various organised cycle tours of Buenos Aires, and even more cycling holidays in the different regions of Argentina. Cycling in this country has moved on a fair bit, it seems.. I would be very keen to go back and try things out there again.



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