Let me start with a bit of background about myself. I’m a 60-year-old recently retired engineer from Australia who likes to ride a bicycle. I took up endurance sports about 30 years ago. Over time, however, my running has declined to just above absolute zero and I have shifted to cycling. It’s easier on the body and you see more of the world. At home I would typically ride 30 to 60km a couple of times a week or when I was working, a 40km commute. I’m not particularly fast, however. I was quite a good runner in my time but I’m Mr. Ordinary when it comes to cycling. In Perth, cycling is very big. The Over 55’s with whom I used to ride get around 300 participants on their Wednesday and Saturday rides, a level of interest helped by the fact that Perth is blessed with quite a good system of dedicated cycleways. On Saturday mornings you can get cyclist traffic jams there are so many of them on the paths let alone the racers out on the roads. This is the scene I was hoping to find in Zhengzhou but sadly, it’s nothing like it.
My first few visits to local bicycle shops proved disappointing, as they only had mountain bikes, which were not what I wanted. One storeowner referred me to the Specialized store in the new CBD area which we duly visited a couple of weeks later and walked out having bought 3 bicycles. The salesman said they had organized rides but I didn’t follow up on it at the time because it was still very cold. As the weather warmed up however I began to cast glances at my unused bicycle, still pristine and lonely in our storeroom. I got my wife to give Mr. Specialized a call, he emailed us back with their rides website www.joycycling.com and there it was: a ride of 51km, at 18 – 20 km / hr pace, maximum 15 riders, starting from the Specialized store.
Now, despite all the talk above about years of running and bike riding, I hadn’t actually ridden more than a couple of modest rides in the last 6 months, and here I was contemplating 51k plus 15k each way from my home to the Specialized store. However, there was no choice – it was do or die so my wife rang them and made arrangements for me to go along. She warned them that I was unfit and didn’t speak a word of Chinese.
Having gone everywhere in Zhengzhou by taxi under the directions of my wife, I have no idea how to find my way around Zhengzhou, so arrangements were made for me to meet one of the Specialized staff at the intersection of Guoji Lu and Zhongzhou Ave. I was very apprehensive about the traffic but it worked out ok. My two rules for coping with the chaos were 1: to avoid what I could see and ignore what I couldn’t and 2: to go with the crowd. Even when I had a green light, I felt nervous about moving out myself so I always tried to follow one or more others. Anyway, I got through this 5km journey unscathed and met up with my minder whom I followed along Zhongzhou Ave., then round the new CBD. It was a pretty easy to follow route except for some twists and turns through underpasses to get past intersection slip roads. I tried to memorize it knowing it was going to be another adventure getting home.
We got to the Specialized store without incident, but where were the 15 riders? I must be early! They would arrive in a flock over the next 10 minutes, I was sure, but they didn’t. The ride consisted of a grand total of 6 riders including 2 shop staff. One of the riders turned out to have quite reasonable English. His name was Wee, and he had gone to university in Washington DC. He had an obsession with pollution, and he said the one good thing about America was the air quality. A university law professor, I learned he is training for a triathlon after recently completing the Xiamen Marathon. I said I saw hardly any (i.e. nil) serious runners in Zhengzhou and he agreed that most people thought he was mad, including his wife, whom he said holds traditional Chinese values and thinks that to sweat is bad for the body. Wee indicated that he had been told by his doctor to do some exercise and it had grown into the marathon / triathlon obsession. He looked like a Bedouin swaddled against the pollution.
Anyway, after much standing around looking at bikes for want of anything better to look at, we finally got away. At least the pace was modest. It really was 18 – 20 km / hr to start with although it did pick up a bit later on as our leader saw that we could handle more. We had only been going a few minutes when I saw a similar looking group all riding Giant bicycles. You can pick the weekend warriors because they are the only ones wearing a helmet. We’d been going about 15 minutes and were already into semi-farmland when we were slowed by a traffic conflagration. As we passed I looked to see what was so interesting – it was a pond about half the size of a football field lined with fishermen at one-meter intervals. I pitied any fish that hadn’t had a good breakfast. We rode on past scraggy farmland, the odd cement plant, and half completed real estate dreams, until finally the road began to rise as we climbed the levee bank to the Yellow River. There it was, in all its haze, sand, and heat shimmering off pools. After taking some pictures, we rode a few miles along the Yellow River until we got to our lunch stop and again I was apprehensive. Our selected restaurant looked like a couple of tin shacks at the bottom of a dusty track, but fortunately, looks were deceiving as the food was really quite good. It consisted of deep fried small fish and prawns, a couple of vegetable dishes then a big fish followed by flat bread and soup. We divvied up the bill at 30 RMB each.
As we continued along the levee bank, I saw another group of 5 or 6 Giant riders before our next and final stop, which was a sort of fun fair where the main activity was shooting balloons with air rifles. I nearly walked in front of some kid with a machine gun but Wee saved me. From the fun fair, we turned for home. We fought our way through a freeway construction hell on earth then it was back into the outer suburbs of Zhengzhou where I saw an odd sight: a person on the side of the road selling extremely menacing looking black crossbows. Then another. And another. Crossbow crossroads. A crossbow wasn’t on my shopping list so I rode on. By this time I was pretty tired and was apprehensive of doing another 15k to get back to the shop, then still having another 15k to get back home, particularly with a significant risk of getting lost. Fortunately, our leader offered to change the route to allow me to cut and run. Normally I never shirk the hard yards, but on this occasion I was prepared to make an exception and accepted his offer. They guided me back to good old Guoji Lu then I was on my own. As soon as I saw the twin peaks of the aquarium shop I knew I was close to home. Finally the battlements of my gated community came into view and there I was. I had made it out alive and would live to ride again.