Mexico City bikers preach pedal power in mega-city of treacherous roads

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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MEXICO CITY Its after dusk in Mexico City and a policeman stands in a deserted park with pen poised over ticket pad, ready to take on 50 bicycles whizzing toward him.

The crime? Cycling en masse.

His wide-eyed curiosity satisfied after a few questions, the officer waves the riders on without charge, free to storm across highways and beneath overpasses and ride on through a city of more than six million cars, taxis and buses.

Biking in Mexico City is not just a death-defying ride its a feat of civil disobedience against a car culture at its worst. While the government extends bike lanes and encourages city employees to use them, cyclists still struggle with treacherous roads, hostile drivers and the occasional baffled police officer. Biking groups across the city seek strength in numbers, canvassing the high-altitude megalopolis on night rides and intrepid commutes.

Bicitekas leads the citys pedal-power movement, its members circling the steps of the Angel of Independence monument every Wednesday night to take on the teeming streets at rush hour.

The group whose name combines bicycle and Aztec in Spanish is loosely affiliated with the militant Critical Mass bicycling movement that first exploded in San Francisco in the early 1990s, barnstorming and often cursing its way through Friday rush-hour traffic.

But the Mexico City vibe is more about roadway harmony than teaching drivers a lesson.

Were changing the culture little by little ... but slowly, says group leader Guillermo (Memo) Espinoza, 43. Drivers here are terribly selfish and terribly bad.

In Mexico City, bikers account for just two per cent of all transportation in the metropolitan area. Among the other 98 per cent are aggressive drivers who zip through red lights and stop signs and head the wrong way down one-way streets.

The city government is earning praise for recent efforts to promote biking. It plans to build 300 kilometres of bike lanes and install bike racks at Metro stations. On Sundays, the citys central thoroughfare, Reforma Avenue, shuts down for several hours as families ride in the streets.

The Bicitekas riders, however, take off in the midst of headlights and exhaust fumes.

Some in the eclectic group don spandex and hop on bikes with hydraulic brakes and cushioned handlebars. Others sport sweatshirts and rusty rides with cracked leather seats.

Cars whiz around the rotunda as riders wait for takeoff, the sound nearly deafening.

They fly by the grittiest and prettiest parts of the city, passing prostitutes in dark alleys and brightly lit cathedral spires towering over tree-lined streets.

A half-hour into the ride, a cyclist and motorist have nearly collided, stepping out into the road to vent equally heated tempers. Minutes later, the group halts again as a fallen biker dusts herself off, scratched but unharmed.

By 10 p.m., Espinoza is leading the group through crowded intersections, calling out directions to the back. Another experienced rider flanks the group, stopping oncoming traffic.

Hoyo! someone shouts from the middle, the chant echoing down the line. Pothole!

Late-night minglers spilling out of a bar toast the pack with calls of Salud! and incredulous laughs.

The government doesnt track biking accidents or deaths, but estimates 9.5 pedestrian deaths for every 100,000 people. In New York, the rate of pedestrian mortality is 2.2.

Bicitekas riders see little danger and few serious injuries because everyone watches out for one another, Espinoza explains, sipping a beer during a 1 a.m. refreshment break.

But solo riders are more vulnerable, left to the whims of the citys streets. Even biking zones are fraught with trash piles, potholes, ramps and haphazardly built speed bumps.

Guillermo Ramon, 22, suffered a brutal blow two years ago on his commute to school, when he rode through a puddle hiding an open sewage drain. Flying three metres over the street, he broke his right arm and an ankle, and was covered in scrapes.

Mariana Sanchez, 23, hit a pothole last year riding down a bike lane in the citys historic centre, slamming to the ground.

Even so, Sanchez goes almost everywhere by pedal-power. She started the group Biciellas for women last year, after noting how few of them ride with Bicitekas.

Here, the excuse for women to not ride a bike is that its not feminine, that its looked down upon by men, she says.

Other Mexico City biking groups cater to conditioned athletes, riding in the mountains ringing the city or on long excursions beyond the capital. Together theyre slowly starting to catch the citys attention, and they all want just one thing: respect.

Organizations: Metro inc.

Geographic location: Mexico City, San Francisco, Reforma Avenue New York

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