One Steppe at a Time – (Not) Cycling in Moscow

I am in Moscow this week and I’m trying to remember the last occasion I was in such a cycling un-friendly city. It’s got me stumped. I have covered a fair few global miles in my time and cannot readily think of a single place – certainly not another capital city – where I would be less inclined to get my bike out and tootle off to see some sights or get in some miles. I spent 4 hours today travelling around the city by car and only saw one solitary rider. And even he was on the pavement. I visited a shopping centre in the outskirts and found a priceless piece of cycling unhelpfulness. Outside the main entrance was a sign with a large ‘P’ and a pictogram of a bike. Nothing to actually lock a bike to. Just the sign.

Moscow Bike Parking

Moscow’s traffic problems are legendary and have become the main feature of any visit to the city. The transfer from the main airport can easily take up to 3 hours to cover the 26miles by car. It’s currently 3.15pm on a Thursday afternoon and over half the total distance of Moscow’s three inner ring roads (there are 6 in total and two more are planned) are showing solid red on the Google maps traffic indicator. This is before ‘rush hour’ actually starts. Entire days have been added to my trip to allow for the traffic between three points less than 50km apart. People live in constant fear of simply being caught up in the volume of cars on the roads. And then there are the roads themselves…

Vast boulevards with five lanes in each direction plunge right into the heart of the city before coming to an abrupt and chaotic end; raised tram lines cut across hundreds of intersections, electrified buses trundle along tied to overhead wires and private cars park two or three deep on every side road. There is no sense of anything out on the tarmac except ‘every man for himself’ as drivers sweep from lane to lane without even the most cursory of glances. When not filled with parked cars, the gutter is generally used as a slip road.

In the four cars I have been in this week two have had cracked windscreens – full-on top to bottom cracks, not just chips – and each journey has had what would be, in any other city, termed a very near miss at the least. The sort which would require a sit down and a cup of tea to compose oneself, if not actually an exchange of insurance details. On my last journey back to the sanctity of my hotel I was almost relieved to find that the passenger seatbelt didn’t work so I could readily excuse myself and get into the back seat where I could see less of the permanent horror unfolding in front of my eyes. The thought of putting myself into any of that on a bicycle is simply beyond contemplation.

And yet this is probably the best time of year for cycling in Moscow. The winters would preclude all but the fattest of fat bikes anyway. In the Spring the roads are still thick with the winter mud and even the shortest trip would give Flemish Tan Lines of such magnitude that they would probably require hospital treatment. In the Summer the amount of traffic lessens considerably but I expect that this just means that everyone speeds up and vents 9 months worth of traffic jam frustration on their accelerator pedals. It’s also bloody hot in Moscow in the summer. Autumn is the best time weather-wise and the drivers should be a bit chilled out from their vacations but it’s still a very big ‘Niet’ from me.

I have visted other places that weren’t exactly begging me to get on my bike. Cairo springs to mind, as do large parts of LA and the heat would exclude nearly all of the Middle Eastern cities I have visited for most of the months in a year but in all three I would give it a go. 

Cycling in Cairo would be definitely be ‘challenging’ and not without significant personal danger, but at least the warm climate means everyone’s windows are open and you could have a chance at some eye contact with the normally equally unconcerned drivers there. Plus every now and again you get a horse and cart or some other slow moving, unprotected road-user so you wouldn’t feel unutterably alone in your vulnerability. In Moscow everyone is hermetically sealed into their mud-sprayed cars and no-one would have good reason to be expecting anything else to be on the road but other cars. If you are on a road but not inside a car in Moscow you are a traffic policeman. There is no other possible explanation (even hookers tend to hang out in hotel lobbies rather than risk the very real dangers of kerb-crawling). I was told yesterday that more Russians die in road traffic accidents than from heart disease. And in general they are not afraid of a bit of drinking and smoking. In short, it’s fucking scary out there.

Of course LA has the same super wide highways criss crossing the metropolitan area as Moscow and getting to any decent cycling areas requires some level of interaction with roads which are patently not suited for bikes. But unlike here, I’m not afraid of cycling in the whole city because of that particular aspect of the traffic system. Here, I wouldn’t take the bike to the corner shop for a litre of moloko for fear on being taken out by an FM radio listening, phone-using Muscovite who probably wouldn’t even hear me go under the wheels because of the constant thunder of the thousands of other car tyres which deafen every street. Or the worry that I would get caught out crossing the monstrous tram lines and crash just as yet another one hove round the tracks clunking in my prostrate direction. I kind of assume that the drivers can manually stop those things but I wouldn’t want to place too much money on that.

I’ve (incorrectly) experienced unfriendliness on a city’s streets before too. In the midday heat of a Jeddah summer my friend and I were repeatedly put off during our little ill-judged walk around the city by the number of cars that honked their horns at us. It didn’t matter whether we were on the pavement, crossing a junction or just standing still looking at buildings. Angry sounding car horns over and over. At the time we took it be some kind of anti-westerner sentiment – it was at the time when that could have been quite popular in those areas – but later learned it was unmarked taxi’s offering to pick us up and save us from inevitable heat exhaustion. No-one in the Gulf gets out of their air-conditioned cars unless they are less than 10 feet from an air-conditioned building and similarly no taxi driver was going to wind down a window to ask if we needed a lift. They just honked their horn. At those temperatures there are no voices on the street, there are no interactions and, as a result, no street culture. The cold here instills the same attitude. Head down, collar up, get to the car, bus or underground as quickly as possible. The thought of being outside for the sake of it seems very alien to this city.

And yet, somehow, Moscow does have a bike race. Two in fact. A one day Grand Prix of Moscow and the multiple stage Five Rings of Moscow, which both take place in early May. The Grand Prix of Moscow 2012 has such a low profile that a quick web search throws up more links to the Wizarding Grand Prix of Moscow – a vaguely Dungeons and Dragons looking tournament based on Magic playing cards – whilst the Five Rings event uses multiple short circuits of the Kremlin, short circuits of a park, and short circuits on a short road by the river to make up three of its stages. A fourth cunningly combines circuits of another short road directly on the other side the river with a park section to mix things up a little before they go the whole nine yards and close the 16km inner ring road – somewhat ironically called the Garden Ring Road – for a few circuits of that for the finale. Fortunately this last one coincides with a national holiday so everyone is at home and the whole traffic system doesn’t implode.

Igor Makarov, the head of the Russian Cycling Federation has been trying to get a Tour of Russia off the ground since way before the 2009 UCI election, when both it and a mooted Tour of Beijing were part of Pat McQuaid’s ‘drive for globalisation’ manifesto. The Tour of Beijing is now with us and appears to be almost universally unpopular amongst the teams and the riders. I have a feeling that a Tour of Moscow, should one ever be proposed, would be even less loved. The Tour of Russia, which has not yet come to fruition – probably primarily because of the spectacular falling out that Makarov and McQuaid have gone through in the intervening years – is now spoken of as being exclusively centred around Sochi, instead of being a multi-city affair taking in the southern coastal resort where the Winter Olympics will be held, plus Moscow and St Petersburg. Perhaps someone from the UCI came here for a few days, saw what it is like, and had a quiet word.

The visit of the Tour de France to Britain in 1974, when the entire stage was held on the Plympton Bypass, should be a reminder that a country needs to be more encouraging of everyday cyclists on it’s roads before thinking of bringing in the professionals. Consigning the Tour to dull circuits up and down a dual carriageway outside Plymouth simply because no-one could possibly conceive of inconveniencing motorists by letting the cyclists race anywhere else says much about how Britain felt about cycling at the time. It was for either for kids in the park or mad time-triallists who got up at 4am to get in an hour on the A12 before it got too busy. Times have changed and, in theory at least, cycling is now part of an integrated transport policy in London, Paris and other European capitals. Now that Mr Cookson is in charge and Mr Makarov may be able to make a suggestion that won’t be ignored out of hand, perhaps he should bring the Mayor of Moscow to come and take a look.

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