Humble bicyclist becomes Beijing nighthawk

Updated: 2016-04-15 08:54

By Matt Prichard(China Daily Europe)

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As the Chinese capital settles in for the evening, the stage is set for a mild-mannered pedal-pusher to switch to his alter ego: A foreigner atop a bicycle zipping by in the dark

Daytime bicycling in a big city can be a series of stops and starts. There are waits for the larger denizens of the road. Herds of pedestrians include the dangerously clueless, with their faces glued to smartphones. Fellow cyclists dart in and out of traffic.

In Beijing, three-wheelers delivering cargo or hunting for passengers make for an obstacle course. You also have to keep a sharp eye out for parents pushing baby carriages or relatives taking a wheelchair-bound elder out on a pretty day.

Humble bicyclist becomes Beijing nighthawk

But all those things form the fabric of life in a busy city and some even have their own charm.

Perhaps the most delightful cycling takes place after the sun sets and traffic starts to thin. The city settles into a different rhythm as workdays end. Restaurants start to pick up and neon signs flicker and buzz to life. Couples chat as they walk along the sidewalks, and friends tell jokes and cut up.

Nip in the air

At those times, I especially love city streets that are broad, have generous peripheral lanes and cross only minor streets or lanes for long stretches. When it gets a little later and the city starts to settle in for the night, it's the witching hour for the nighttime cyclist. In Beijing, with its dry climate, there's often a little nip in the air in the spring and autumn. Even on most summer days, it cools down to a pleasant temperature.

There are many wonderful stretches for nighttime riding in Beijing. One that I like that's close to home in Chaoyang district is known as Yinghuayuan East Street, north of the Third Ring Road, and Hepingli East Street, south of the ring road. There, if you hit the traffic lights just right, you can build up some speed in a way that is impossible earlier in the day.

Ratchet your gears up a notch or two and get your legs pumping. The tall birch, oak and willow trees that line many such streets in Beijing zip past and you find yourself equaling the speeds of electric scooters that normally pass you with ease. You even pass a few of the slower scooters. Your heart pumps furiously and the slipstream of air cools your face.

Dark clothes

Humble bicyclist becomes Beijing nighthawk

You're hyperaware, cognizant of the need to watch more vigilantly for the car door opened suddenly in your path, the pedestrian wearing dark clothes or the fellow cyclist with no lights. But that's part of the urban cycling environment, and it doesn't spoil the enjoyment. Your steed has lights front and rear, and of course you're wearing a helmet.

At these times, especially during the bursts of energy and speed between intersections, you can sometimes feel a brief reverie in which you're transported from mere cyclist to a different reality as the nighthawk or the zephyr blowing through China's capital.

You pass through centuries of history, as, indeed, at one point my favored street crosses the Yuan Dynasty Capital City Wall Site Park, including the remains of the city wall built by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, starting in the late 13th century. At the time, Beijing was known as Dadu (Great Capital) or, in Mongol, Khanbalig (City of the Great Khan), according to That's about 200 years before Christopher Columbus first landed in the New World, and about 500 years before my country, the United States, won its independence from Great Britain.

There are many other good locations for cyclists to spread their wings in Beijing. Also near my home is the Olympic Sports Center Stadium complex off Aoti Middle Road, just south of the Fourth Ring Road and west of Anding Road.

Biking cities

This is among the reasons that CNN Travel named Beijing No 2 in its list of the top five best biking cities in Asia, just behind Kyoto, Japan, in 2010. The article, by Tiffany Lam, still rings true: "Asia's first city of cycling is renowned these days for its growing automobile traffic - but the infrastructure for cyclists here is still the best in Asia. Bike lanes cover nearly every inch of the city."

So if you're out at night in Beijing and you see a big laowai (foreigner) zipping by on a red bicycle, remember the nighthawk. And listen for the brrrin-brrrin of the bicycle bell.

The author is a China Daily copy editor.