‘It’s not dangerous,’ the young man says, with easy confidence. ‘We take the road.’ He and his fellow-cyclists, are gathered, with their shiny sports bikes, outside the San Stefano Mall in Alexandria this Friday morning for their weekly ride. It always takes them the same route – up to Montaza, then down again the other way, ending up at Qait Bey Citadel – a round trip of 20 miles. No wonder they all look so fit. They don’t seem one bit concerned about braving the morning traffic that even at 8.30 am is already hurtling past at a scary pace. They crowd round at the kerbside like club cyclists the world over, checking their machines, sharing maintenance tips, swapping stories.
Do they undertake this Corniche run all year round? I ask. Not in winter if it’s been raining, they say. ‘Then it’s too difficult.’ There can be puddles and flooded drains on the road, ‘and sometimes things hidden under the water.’ What sort of things? It could be an open drain, a pile of rubble, a dead cat even. They feel safer when they can see where they’re going. At least they can be sure of nearly all-year-round sunshine – something cyclists in many other countries would envy.
In the Costa café at the Mall I run into Reem, an IT engineer with Vodafone. She’s here with a group of women friends to join the Corniche run. Reem takes part in triathlons, and regularly cycles long distances. She’s ridden in fund raising cycle marathons in Europe. Not all women cyclists are as confident as Reem though, as she freely admits. Some who do the weekly Corniche ride, she says, stay off the road and ‘take their mountain bikes on the side- walk.’
So how safe, really is all this riding about in traffic?
Cycling in Egypt was once just a way of getting about for people with no car. It was transport for the young man in shabby work clothes pedalling his way at the crack of dawn on a creaking old machine, to start his day at some garage or construction site. Or the bike was a workhorse for the bakery rider with a tray of bread balanced skilfully on his head, weaving confidently in and out of the traffic. Though such riders are still a familiar part of the urban scene, these working cyclists are increasingly joined on the road by others with expensive new bikes and elegant designer sports gear, who ride in their spare time purely for the joy of it. Many who would never dream of commuting to work find happiness in the company of other cyclists, whether for a brief fun run along city streets, or a punishing long-distance ride through the desert?
When in 1988 American college teacher Edwin Crosswhite brought his elderly Motobecane road bike to Egypt and proposed to ride it in Cairo, everyone, including his Egyptian colleagues, said he was crazy. Turning a deaf ear to their warnings he took to cycling to class every day – and survived. Soon Crosswhite was teaching a course in ‘Effective Cycling’ to anyone who wanted to learn. By 1989 the class had given birth to a club, the Cairo Cyclists. From being mainly a group for Americans and other foreigners, the CCC has become an established part of Egyptian life.
These days the Cairo Cyclists Club is home to hard-core long-distance racing cyclists and experienced triathletes, dedicated riders who think nothing of travelling 60 miles, at an average speed of 18 miles an hour, even in summer heat. Favourite rides are to Ein Sokhna (80 miles from Cairo), to Saqqara and to the Kattameya Observatory (90 miles). Though taxing, these outings take riders out onto quieter, safer roads well beyond the city limits. For those with the stamina to do it, they’re generally agreed to be a pleasanter experience than riding in the city.
Egyptian online cycling groups now claim 20,000 members nationwide. Not all these members are necessarily regular, or even active, cyclists – but the figures, if accurate, bear witness to a widespread interest in cycling that simply wasn’t there ten years ago. According to Alia Alloula, a spokesperson for the retailer 3agalMasr, her company now sells around 400 bikes in Egypt annually. As a leisure activity in its own right, cycling is drawing them in.
The online campaign group Cycle Egypt promotes cycling as an environmentally friendly alternative to driving – a way of reducing traffic jams and pollution. Unfortunately, until their aim is achieved, cyclists have still to go where the four-wheeled vehicle is king. There are no cycle lanes in Egypt – and if there were, as one keen rider comments cynically (but no doubt truthfully), the minibus drivers would quickly turn them into car parks.
Egypt’s cities are not ideal places for cycling. A recent government study by the Centre for Public Mobilization and Statistics reported over 15,000 motor accidents in 2013-14 alone, with an estimated 40 road deaths per 100,000 of the population. This is roughly twice the world average, according to the World Health Organization. It’s worth noting, though, that nearly 60 % of fatal accidents last year happened to car drivers and passengers, or to pedestrians. Cycling road deaths accounted for only 2% of all road fatalities. Of course it might be argued that the low percentage is because the number of cyclists on the roads is still relatively small; but some might find the figure reassuring.
Egypt is by no means the world’s most dangerous place to cycle – a doubtful honour claimed by the US state of Florida. In any case, Egyptian cyclists have quite a few techniques for surviving in the city traffic. Using side streets wherever possible is one simple strategy. Others recommend use of crazy-looking hand signals, combined with frequent recourse to bells and hooters. ‘Pretend you’re a car,’ one experienced rider writes online.
The Cairo Cyclists understand the needs, and the nerves, of beginner cyclists in this challenging environment, and the club offers a weekly beginners’ ride every Friday. More experienced riders accompany and advise newcomers to the group, giving the new members reassurance as they ‘build up their abilities.’ One cycling website specialises in recommending the shortest and safest cycling route between any two points in Cairo. If lifting up your bike and hoisting it over railings, or carrying it for yards around a building site is part of the journey that only adds to the adventure of the ride.
For women cyclists, the challenges of the Egyptian road are even greater than for men. A woman on a bicycle in Egypt is often the object of prejudice and harassment – which, when drivers come too close to the bike or cut in front of her in an attempt to scare her, can actually be dangerous. (No wonder some of Reem’s female companions on the Alexandria Corniche ride prefer to stay on the pavement.) Even so, the women won’t be put off. Last October dozens of Egyptian women in Cairo took to the road on bikes to assert their right to cycle, under the slogan ‘We Will Ride!’ ‘We dream,’ writes one of these women riders in her blog, ‘that one day we can go anywhere we want on a bicycle without fearing harassment.’
You don’t have to be a women’s rights campaigner, though, or a 90-mile triathlete, to cycle for pleasure in Egypt. And you don’t need a lot of money. Last week in the modest Alexandria suburb of Sidi Bishr, I came upon an ancient bike parked outside an electrical repair shop. The whole contraption was decorated like a fairground ride, with ropes of coloured beads, bits of shiny glass, religious texts, badges and lucky charms. The proud owner, a teenager named Ahmed, had clearly spent hours turning his clapped-out machine into a work of art. He works at the repair shop, but in his spare time, he assured me, he cycles all over Alexandria. And no, he’s not in the least scared of riding in traffic. He looked puzzled in fact, when I asked, seeming to find the question foolish.
All Egypt’s cyclists, from sports athletes to working-class commuters, to those who just enjoy a short trip around city streets, have had to find their own ways of out-manoeuvring the traffic. One thing seems pretty clear with all of them: they’re not going to let a few crazy drivers stand in the way of their right to get on a bike. When you come down to it ‘We Will Ride!’ the slogan of the defiant Cairo women cyclists, is the slogan of them all.