Monday, September 17, 2007

Chain Reaction

When every last drop of fossil fuel has disgorged its energy into our ever warming atmosphere; when every Honda SUV is but a rusting hulk of iron half submerged by the ever encroaching sea, the bicycle will still be going strong. Bicycles are clean, green, and, when the driving of Ferraris and gas guzzling people carriers become socially unacceptable about 20 years hence, they will eventually be mean. For the moment though they still perhaps have something of an image problem and are no doubt still connected in many minds to people who like to grow their own denim, weave their own yoghurt and rear starlings in their beards.

Now I'm a lifelong cyclist. Admittedly, I was briefly seduced by the testosterone thrill of the motorcycle but after a heavy, bone crunching accident last year, I sold my iron horse and reverted back to the more gentle pleasures of my trusty mountain bike. But perhaps this raises some questions. Logically, bearing in mind Jakarta's no rules traffic free for all, am I any safer on the bike than a motorbike? Am I any less likely to get shunted through the plate glass window of my local Circle K by a runaway cement truck or shredded under the wheel arches of a Metro Mini just because I'm traveling at a more sedate pace? On reflection, perhaps not. But I will never give up the bicycle, mankind's greatest ever invention.

With this in mind, I headed out on my trusty 15 speed low rider last Sunday in order to pedal down to Senayan to check out the annual gathering of Jakarta's Bike to Work community. I first popped into my local cycle shop just down the road from me to pick up a couple of accessories (including a bell which makes a lovely tinkling sound - drives the girls wild it does). Disconcertingly, the Chinese lady behind the counter asked me if I'd like to buy some life insurance from her. Apparently she works for an insurance firm and was just filling in at the bike shop for her husband. Still, I was slightly rattled by her offer and, let's be frank, cycling in Jakarta can indeed prove deleterious to one's health. If the Metro Minis don't get you then breathing in the turgid atmosphere, equivalent to around 20 Marlboro gaspers per day, perhaps will.

Is Jakarta really so inhospitable to cyclists however? Certainly, on a Sunday I found it extremely pleasant coasting down to Senayan Stadium in the sunshine. A few cycle lanes would no doubt improve things though. Upon my recent trip home to the UK, I noticed a lot of new cycle lanes in the suburbs and cycling there is booming as a result. Many of Jakarta's suburban roads, however, aren't even wide enough for the two opposing lanes of traffic, let alone cycle lanes. It's anarchy out there I tell you.

Anyhow, as I sailed into the Bung Karno stadium complex, I immediately happened upon a group of around 20 Indonesians in Bike to Work T-shirts. They were mainly young males wearing futuristic cycle helmets and sunglasses and riding fancy bikes with elaborate suspension systems and disc brakes. There were a couple of veiled young ladies there too, riding more modest machines complete with feminine shopping baskets but it was the lycra clad, slightly homoerotic, male vibe that seemed dominant.

I discreetly tagged onto the back of their group as they rode out through the gates and slowly up Jl. Sudirman. This was the life. As we rode along I imagined all of Jakarta riding to shopping malls and restaurants in bicycling gangs like some vision of precapitalist China before Asia started to suffocate in its own soot belch.

The Bike to Work people were very considerate road users as well and indicated their intentions clearly with elaborate hand signals. Many Jakartan motorists, in comparison, don't even bother with their indicators.

After a few minutes, the group realized that a pasty faced Westerner in an England football shirt had infiltrated their group. After a hearty round of Hello Misters, I found out that they were bound for the new park in Menteng. I agreed to come along with them for the ride.

When we arrived at our destination, I got chatting to some of the guys and they told me that, yes indeed, most of them actually did bike to work. They were also cycling hobbyists though and said that I should join them on one of their numerous out-of-town jaunts. Usually, they told me, they stick their bikes on the train and get off in Bogor for a day’s cycling. Great chaps one and all and also environmentally aware, mentioning, as they did, global warming in their talk with me.

After our brief chat, I was presented with a Jakarta Bike to Work T-shirt which I proudly donned immediately. We parted company and I left the group as they cycled to the Sunda Kelapa mosque in Menteng in search of Bubur Ayam (chicken porridge). The stuff’s full of protein pedal power I'm sure but I draw the line at Bubur Ayam I'm afraid. It tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken in wallpaper paste as far as I'm concerned.

As I cycled home down Jl. Rasuna Said alone, I passed another group of renegade cyclists. This time there were about 50 of them and they all gave me a friendly wave. There's none of this road rage among the cycling community you know. Why not join us? You can buy a nice bike for about the same price as a mobile phone. Just don't ride on the Busway lanes unless you've always had a hankering to be 1 inch high and 4 foot wide.