Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. I really rattled through them, and I wouldn’t try to mush them all together into one, nor want to, but there is a slow transition heading east. Less flashy cars are seen parked in the city centres, public transport is generally cheaper, and cycling is a bit more normal. That doesn’t mean much is being done to stop it from being squeezed to the sidelines, (Notable exceptions like Ljubljana aside) unfortunately.
The bicycle as a workhorse is still alive, though still a relative rarity, in the more industrial towns like Niš, Serbia, with mostly middle-aged or older men who seem to use them for their own businesses, much as a small business owner might own a van in the UK. Perhaps for their sons it is seen as part of the past, dangerous (I did see a lot of them in the very early morning, perhaps avoiding the traffic), or embarrassing. Looking at the cargo bike’s success in Denmark, I wonder whether it was mainly restrictions on the vans or the culture that meant that businesses are again using the bicycle for logistics?
Certainly it’s one area in which cycling in the UK is going backwards at some speed. With Royal Mail forcing posties to walk the streets with big trollies rather than use their bikes, and whistl suspending deliveries entirely, the role of the bicycle for deliveries in our streets has mostly disappeared except for urban couriers, who are only valued for their speed in a congested city context, not cost, emissions, or image. These places are an image of how vans became the default, and how difficult it may be to shift some work back.
Bulgaria and Romania come right at the back when it comes to rankings for cycling in Europe, and there are good reasons why – lots of high-speed, multi-lane roads and fewer restrictions on traffic in general, though there were a few segregated lanes in Bucharest which I would have happily used. It was very rare to see somebody on a bike who wasn’t on the pavement. It reminded me of cyclists I see at home from poorer backgrounds, people who are cycling out of necessity. I am no vehicular cyclist but it does bring into focus that my willingness to slow drivers down if the route they’re taking is also the most direct route for me might in part come from having a car and a driver’s licence, and that therefore, in my mind, I have the same status and am not entering foreign territory.
I spent the longest time in beautiful Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, famous for its many green, open spaces, and seeing a great number of people cycling in them, but not to them. How did they get there, then? Not on the roads, although I was lucky enough to give them a go in what ended up being the loneliest cycling experience of my life thus far. I found some information about a bicycle tour that was tips-only if you brought your own ride, so I borrowed a big chunky bmx from my hosts and headed to the start point, arriving five minutes late to an empty square. The route looked nice anyway so I decided to set off (I think it was perhaps cancelled as I never caught up to what was apparently an hour-long ride), moving between beautiful parks filled with communist sculpture and lairy roads.
Quite happy with myself for successfully navigating the first half of the route without issue, my pedals suddenly span free and I lost traction. The chain had fallen off. And landed in a drain. I am now quite glad to not be travelling in a group, as we would probably all be searching the ground for a chain that is not there. A lengthy walk later, involving a quick stop underneath a creepy children’s playground to shelter from the rain (somehow the weather would have bothered me less if I was still cycling) and I find a bike shop to fit a new chain so I can return the bike as found. The mechanic explains that the gears are worn down which stretched the chain, and I’ve switched to a gear my host has apparently never used, which after a while made it snap. His english isn’t so good and my Serbian is thankyou, excuse me and yes, but this was kind of my suspicion.
When you have a bike but hardly use it, it’s more likely to have some kind of fault like this when you come back to it, which is why The Big Bike Revival is really great work, reducing the number of bad experiences people have when they drag their bikes out from the shed in the summer, like if the LTA went round inspecting racquets after Wimbledon.
In the smaller towns it was often a better story, with the ring roads still there, but not so big and maybe more easy to fix. I also went to Hungary, I only mention it now because it’s a complete exception, both statistically and in my experience. Györ, which as best as I could tell is pronounced quite similarly to a derisively snorted ‘yeah,’ has its historic centre closed off to motor traffic, but is entirely permeable to bikes, and it’s a really wonderful place to just potter around. I was staying in a cheap place on the wrong side of a trunk road, but an open, attractive underpass took me towards the centre. It’s a country where all of its neighbours are getting it wrong, and they are really punching above their weight, showing that above all, it’s about will.