Psykling in Chengdu: A 5-Point Guide

Two-wheeled locomotion has long been a hallmark of Chinese culture. Propaganda from the Cultural Revolution depicts pigtailed city girls in olive garb mounting bikes before heading out to liberate their brethren, while today vintage Flying Pigeon bicycles are now sought after by cycling connoisseurs worldwide.

We’ve all heard about the rise of the automobile in China – and our respiratory system and stress sensors are already well aware of the ramifications. You know this. But the bicycle is like the book: been there forever and not going anywhere, no matter what new gimmicks the world brings.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you own a bicycle or have had at least several bikes stolen, and somewhere beneath your chiseled chest or firm bust lies a sturdy heart. Some beat faster than others, some deal with stress better than others, some have clogged arteries from too much twice-cooked pork, and others are clean as KFC bathrooms. It takes heart to brave the streets of China on a bike. If you’ve taken that step, then carve another notch on your hypothetical totem pole of life achievements.

Taking the Chengdu Streets

City cyclistI remember when I first arrived in Chengdu on the eve of the Olympic’s closing ceremony, on what will forever be remembered as a “hot stinking night in Chengdu”. The sheer mass of humanity frightened and fascinated me. I took to the streets amid the horde of stinky dofu slayers, three-wheeled rickshaws, buzzing armies of e-bikes, and grannies pedaling slower than molasses uphill in winter.

Like a mountain biker on a steep descent I made a mental map of the obstacles in my way. Curb hop to avoid the parked scooter; swerve to avoid the kids in tracksuits chomping on hotdogs; track stand at the red light to shoot out before that cross-legged chain-smoking water deliveryman would block my path.

If you ride fast you will crash. It’s impossible to dodge that 3-wheeled trike as its driver pulls a u-turn taking up the entire bike lane. Or that e-bike who’s passenger probably had more oil in their lunch noodles than their brake pads have seen in their entire existence. Or that black Audi or bread car, which will turn right at the intersection even if the reincarnation of Mao Zedong himself was crossing the crosswalk.

Chinese cyclist

China is almost as well known for bicycles as for tea, Kung Fu, and noodles

You will crash. Or something will crash into you. But you can reduce the chances of injury, embarrassment, and arguing over hospital bills for fake victims. You must master the art of psykling.

The 5 Commandments of Psykling

Yes, psykling: this is the Kung Fu of the bicycle.

Masters of this art can stare down a Dongfeng dump truck on the lowliest of Benda road bikes; they can dash through four lanes of traffic at Tianfu Square without anyone belching a beep; they can dodge sea of shoppers at Yanshikou Market with highest heeled Sichuanese beauty in tow.

These are the guidelines:

#1: Be Confident

BicycleThe first teaching in the art of psykling is mastering your confidence on the road. If you find a speeding e-bike coming at you against the flow of traffic, by no means should you waver or swerve. He will match your move with some kind of e-pyskling reverse logic and you will be on a crash course unless one of you slams on the brakes.

As a cyclist you feed on the mana of momentum - it’s something that cannot be wasted, you must be bold and stick to your path. If you keep at him, he will move away. Or if you are like me and prefer the “ranger” approach, always encounter e-bikes from the inside lane, this forces them to move to the outside lane and closer to traffic. Never put yourself at risk by swerving closer to traffic because someone is coming at you the wrong way. I had a friend spend 20 days in the orthopedics ward of Huaxi hospital for a broken wrist resulting from an encounter with a rogue driver.

#2: Seek Distance

Traffic is deadly, so seek distance wherever possible. I despise those short blue fences just as much as the other guy and have wacked a shin or two due to unruly pedestrians. However, I’m happy they are there because they ensure that there will be less cars in the bike lane. This isn’t Germany, so you can’t expect a car-free bike line so it’s best to take advantage of your natural defenses.

The same goes for sidewalks. For whatever reason, pedestrians in China have joined up with the International Occupy Movement, and are taking to the streets in four-person packs. Perhaps there are too many cars parked on the sidewalks, or they aren’t fond of walking on the “blind man tiles” with their sandaled feet. Whatever it may be, a throng of four pedestrians in the bike lane spells trouble. In this situation you have two options: seek the sidewalk or ring your bell like a maniac in hopes that one of them will recognize that they are obstructing the flow of bicycles. Yelling choice adjectives, regardless of language, also seems to be an effective method of clearing the way.

#3: Wear a Helmet

Bicycle helmet

Helmets keep brains safe. Wear one.

I too was once a skateboarder and understand that helmets degrade from one’s “cool-factor,” but like I said earlier, crashing is inevitable. Your memories and ideas are worth protecting, so put a lid on. You don’t want to be reduced to a vegetative state because some rickshaw or e-bike cut you off.

I’m baffled by the fact that Chinese parents aren’t covering their kids with protective pads or smog masks when they hit the streets, seeing that these are practically living 401k plans that must bear fiscal responsibility for their parents later in life. So it’s up to you, laowai, to lead by example. Helmets are hip. Get a funky color or cover them with Jah Bar or Disco Death stickers if you think they make you look square. If it’s cool, the locals will follow suit – as they seem to be doing with with fixed gear bikes – but that’s a totally different story entirely.

#4: Wear a Bandana

In addition to looking badass, the bandana has several advantages.

  • It reduces your inhalation of some particulate matter and exhaust. Sure it doesn’t compare to a good filter, but it’s better than nothing and looks cooler than a SARS mask.
  • You can go incognito. People will stare at you less and you can flick the pinky to inept drivers and pedestrians without feeling exposed. This can bring feeling of strength and confidence for those who are a bit meek.
  • Keeps your face warm in winter when the wind and cold damp air will take a toll on your face. The bandana or scarf will have all the aforementioned benefits plus will keep you from showing up to work red-faced and nipped.

I recommend a Lycra/Capilene quick dry sporty bandana as it’s more breathable and will wick sweat and respiration droplets in winter and summer.

#5: Wear Gloves

Cycling glovesPick up a pair of gloves and save your ulnar nerves. Most of you foreign folks will be riding bikes that are much too small. Personally I take pride in having the same crappy road bike since I was a student in 2008. A pride rooted in a stubborn “freegan” philosophy, which has prevented me from “buying” something more suitable. Moreover, if you are a fairly tall chic or dude you’ll have to pay premium prices for a bike from Decathalon or the Giant store that actually ‘fits’.

Such bikes are obviously targets of theft so make sure you take precautions (like these). Regardless of fit, a good set of gloves will save your nerves and save you the unpleasant experience of removing gravel from your palm with a sterilized sewing needle. When you crash, you will naturally use your hands to break the fall and scuffing up some old cowhide is much better than your fingers and wrists, especially if you are musician or rely on (monkeyism) for part of your sustenance

Stay Focused & Alert

The final tip is to Keep Your Senses Aware.

I wish we all had spidey sense to dodge obstacles and stray loogies, but we don’t, so you’ll have to be vigilant. This means, don’t hit the street with tunes for the first couple weeks, and practice surveying your space and learning the patterns and rhythms of traffic. There is a bit of a method to the madness and with some practice you’ll be able to learn which lights you can run, what intersections are always delayed, how fast you need to pedal to overtake a bus etc. 2Pac said it right: “Ya got to keep your head up!”

Conclusion

For the past 13 months I have been making a 16+km commute to work in the north through the gauntlet of RenMin Nan Lu, Yanshikou and several one-way alleys. Additionally, I have made my fair share of cycling treks around southwestern China. Take it from me, psykling is a terrific way to get around Chengdu.

If you have any tips or guidelines that you’ve learned from cycling in or outside of China, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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About Elias

Elias is an American writer and activist currently located in Chengdu. In his free time he enjoys cycling, international politics and excessive lajiao consumption.

37 Responses to “Psykling in Chengdu: A 5-Point Guide”

  1. Vincent NL

    Cycling in China is amazing, it makes you feel alive. Sure, you have to be careful a bit, but as said above take it easy at the start and soon you’ll fly through the streets of Chengdu.

    A tip, if you cycle on the wrong side of the road yourself, stick to the sidewalk and the Chinese will go around you… that is if they’re looking ahead. If not, pray they will soon or quickly go on to the sidewalk to avoid a crash.

  2. I loved biking in China and i really loved having a little moped too. It’s like Frogger and Grand Prix mixed with Attack of the Living Dead.

  3. i am a father and a family cyclist and i want to take the adrenalin out of cycling:primarily to preserve the years of my off-spring. it really saddens me that british cities are so cycle unfriendly/especially given the increasing levels of diabetes and heart disease caused by sedentary living and poor nutrition. i was a little surprised by your piece. i had always imagined that chineses cities would have accommodated cyclists more favourably. it strikes me that it is the dutch, and to a lesser extent, the germans who have got this right/probably because they have had to rebuild their infrastructure fairly recently (postwar) and post industrialisation.

  4. I’ve found that my best weapon is my bell which I ring whenever someone commits an infraction such as going the wrong way, suddenly darting out in front of me, or walking in the bike lane. It’s averted many a collision because many people do notice the ringing. The reason is because I ring incessantly until I get the desired response.

    I’m going to keep what you said about staying on the right side when jokers come at me from the wrong direction, that’s a good idea. Also, keeping distance is of paramount importance at all times. I learned this the hard way when a car turning onto the road the wrong way ran over my foot!

  5. Fixed gears seem to be all the rage in Chengdu right now but they seem kind of dangerous to me riding in Chengdu. How do you feel about a fixed gear bike versus gears? It’s difficult to break quickly but from what I’ve heard, experienced and skilled fixed gear cyclists can manage in traffic with no problem.

  6. Good brakes should be #1. I have no clue how people manage on fixies, but it seems like sacrificing safety for style.

    Good tips Elias.

    • That’s exactly what I’m thinking. Seeing as I’ve never owned or ridden a fixed gear bike on a regular basis though, I’m wondering if there’s some angle that I’m missing. My understanding is that fixed gear bikes are popular with NYC bike messengers, which has to be among the most hostile cycling conditions around. It must be possible but from the few times I’ve messed around on a fixed gear bike it seems extremely dangerous to be mingling with traffic.

      • Vincent NL

        In Holland the fixed gear bikes can brake by kicking backwards on the paddles… works much better then an average brake and I wish they had them here too. This way you also have your hands free. Especially fun for kids to make skidmarks.

        The fixed gear bike I bought in Chengdu only had a front brake which is indeed a little less save. I can tell you in a few weeks what I think of it… and if you don’t hear anything it should say enough.

        • I’ve seen a lot of fixed gear bikes in the US without brakes at all. You’re supposed to use, um, the laws of physics to make sudden stops. I guess the high skill level involved is what gives the rider street cred. Maybe we need an investigative report.

  7. By the way, we have a good blog on things you can yell at people in Chinese to augment your Psykling skills.
    http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2012/08/a-chinese-language-guide-to-road-rage

  8. I prefer just a good sharp shout instead of a bell. People actually listen and you don’t have to fumble for the bell.

  9. Glad folks enjoyed the article, as Lindsay points out brakes are key. However its always hard to get “good brakes” on your 2nd/3rd hand road bike. Alas you must learn to judge distance, swerve, use your foot to slow down etc, kind of like BMX .

    After being home for 2 weeks I finally hit up the trails with my Gary Fisher, hello hayes disc brakes!

    @Jim shouting works, but can escalate situations especially if you yell things like” kuai dian gua wa zi” which I had a tendency to do on narrow streets. Ah quick ” lai lo!” sichuan dialect or “zou zou” usually works. I still like the bell..people get it and people won’t shout at you (and if you are wearing a bandana you will be more apt to swear at ppl)

    I’ve seen a friend put an air horn on his bike…

    Personally I have a vendetta against fixed gear bikes. But hope ya’ll be safe and I hope to read more about your cycling exploits in the Du.

  10. When I first went to the People’s Republic of China in 1983 to study there were no cars…save for the occasional Russian sedan a Party official was driven around in…
    Everywhere we went there were thousands of Flying Pigeon bicycles – heck we were even on them ourselves…
    Indeed the cycling China of 30 years ago is but a vague and fond memory…
    Happy to hear you are enjoying cycling in Chengdu – thank you for the post!

  11. My dream is to put a police air horn on my bike like some of the 蹦蹦儿 (three wheel rickshaws) have here in Beijing.

    • That would be a dream come true. When I was in the states recently I met someone who rigged the horn of an 18 wheeler on his motorcycle. It was deafening and hilarious at the same time.

      In Chengdu you occasionally see people with modified horns that are really loud on ebikes. I was on the back of one not too long ago and asked the driver about it, he said he set it up so that everyone gets out of his way without hesitation.

  12. I think there is a lot of great info in this article like seeking distance and letting people going the wrong way take the outside path, but wearing a bandana and gloves seem pretty useless most of the time.
    In the winter, a bandana could be an ok block from wind, but you’re still probably better off with a ski mask or something if that’s your goal. The thin layer of bandana isn’t going to block much exhaust or particles and contrary to what some may think, you don’t look like a badass, you just look silly. Plus it’s a pain to keep tied to your face bandito style.
    Is the sole reason for wearing gloves to break your fall? Maybe some don’t have as good as luck as me, but I’ve been riding in Chengdu for about a year and never have fallen off my bike. I think you’re better off investing in good bar tape or grips if comfort is your concern.

  13. @Keoni, or just a jousting lance haha that would really get people out of the way :) as seen in the movie B.I.K.E. http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/bike

    @Justin You’d be surprised what protection a bandana has in winter. Also I’m referring the the single piece of lyrca ones that you pull over your head, more of a hiking wrap than a traditional bandana. You warm up if its a long distance, but agreed short distances you may opt for a scarf or keffiyeh. As for looking like a badass, it depends on the person but its nice to feel incognito if you want to go a day or two w/o stares. This can be relieving if you are stressed out about a business meeting,insubordinate students or failed NGO partnership.

    Agreed, having nice grip tape on a road bike makes all the difference if it is a proper fit. However if your frame is running on the small side or if you are putting in over 15km per day you are going to want a pair of gloves with good ulnar nerve padding. If you go a size larger you can fit a thin finger glove ‘sleeve’ underneath and ride all winter. Gloves are a staple of longer distance riding, probably not necessary if you were running errands around Yu Lin but nice to have if you were riding large sections of renmin/ 2nd ring road or heading out to huayang/longquan/wenjiang As for the bit about picking gravel out of your hand, thats a common experience for mountain bikers which gets them to wear gloves everytime they get on the saddle. Perhaps I overplayed it but its good to get in the habit as despite your luck over the past year you will crash someday ><

  14. okay to be defensive once more, start riding offroad or 100km+ on roads and you’ll see the difference. but neither are crucial part of the “psykling” in chengdu agreed..but you will wipe out someday

  15. @Elias, I like the idea of using a lance. Lately, I’ve been relying on a my Kung Fu kicks. The other day I kicked a cigarette out of a guy’s hand because he was flicking his ashes on me while he was riding in slow motion in front of me.

    That’s a cool movie by the way.

  16. Wear a helmet and wear gloves? Ahaha… The author of this article is extraordinarily humorous

  17. ALL YOUR EXTRAORDINARILY HUMOROUS ARE BELONG TO US!

  18. Yeah, I get comments from a lot of local Chinese people saying things like, “it’s funny how foreigners like to wear helmets when they ride their bikes.” I don’t like to wear a helmet at all, but I do it for safety. There was a tragic accident recently on the road I ride every day in Beijing where female cyclist died from a crushed skull. http://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2012/09/10/News-You-Might-Have-Missed-Stabbings-Hit-and-Run-and-Marriage-Ads

    • I was at a bar with friends who ride fixed gear bikes on Friday night (the Natooke guys were there as well) and the topic of helmets came up. I asked my friend (Chris) if he wore a helmet and he said he didn’t, although the previous day he had witnessed a Chinese guy riding a fixed gear fall and bust his head at an intersection. It sounded like he had a concussion (he kept asking the same questions repeatedly), which seemed like it might prompt you to pick up a helmet. He didn’t and later that night Chris fell and hit his head also, going to the hospital on Saturday and missing the pub crawl. I haven’t even picked up my bicycle yet but I’m already thinking that it’s time to get a helmet!

  19. Helmets are just a safe bet. I think if anyone were offered the choice to ride a bicycle without a helmet and no risk of falling they’d do so, but all it takes is a little mishap to lay you out or hit your head.

    I’ve had my fair share of falls and have hit my head on a few occasions, and even with a helmet doing so is nerve wracking. You just don’t want to screw up your brain, it’s debilitating and easily preventable.

    I went to the States this summer and was amazed at how much more popular helmets seem to be with everyday cyclists. A large part of this is due to manufacturers making varying styles that are less dorky. There’s a number of choices now that are affordable, comfortable (whoa!) and can suit your style.

    My bet: go with the helmet and have no reason to ever regret not wearing it!

    All I can say

  20. Chengdu roads can’t be as dangerous as Shanghai’s, can they? I’ve never been to a Chinese city with worse drivers than here (Shanghai).

    As a former helmeted and body armored downhiller, I never where a helmet here though I do don shin guards.

    I miss the thrill of hitting a ramp on a steep inline at 5okm/hr, but Shanghai streets are more than dangerous enough to get the adrenaline pumping and for that I am thankful.

    My advice is buy something with disk brakes and maintain the brakes. Chinese bikes are laughably unable to stop due to poor design and zero maintenance. that’s why they are always dragging their feet and ungodly screeching noises are heard coming from where the brakes used to be.

    Having good brakes, ones that require no more than a single finger to operate (Avid hydro or cable pull (BB7) are my recommendations)are probably far more useful safety devices than a helmet, and cooler too! With a good set of disc brakes travelling between 20 – 40km/hr you effective braking distance should be no more than 2 or 3 bike lengths. At slower speeds stopping is very nearly instant. This allows you to avoid the many obstacles wanting to destroy you and your ride.

    I have two main bikes I use for flatland riding, a Rocky mountain Flow DJ single speed 26″ wheel MTB, and a 24″ wheeled Intense BMX single speed. For downhill and freeride (yes, I’m getting back into it), I’m building an Intense SlopeStyle 2. The BMS is the cheapest ride at a mere 2000rmb, the FlowDJ at about 20,000rmb, and the Slope Stlye 2 will weigh in around 50,000rmb when completed.

    In order not to get them stolen I follow these simple rules.
    1) Store the bikes inside your flat.
    2) If you lock them outside, do so for no more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
    3) Lock them TO something!
    4) Use an non Chinese made lock, either a u-lock or a cable lock with protective armor. (ABUS locks, running typically from 300-600rmb on average are your best bet.)

    Happy cycling!

    (Some of my past and present rides here: http://www.kalanstar.com/china-photo-albums/?locale=en_US&wppa-album=5&wppa-cover=0&wppa-occur=1 )

  21. Ray

    Pedestrians are far more of a danger in Chengdu than cars or buses; wandering in bike lanes, fixated on their cell phones. And keep in mind that if you hit them, you, as a cyclist are liable. There is no concept of fault in Chinese law. How do i know? i’ve hit pedestrians twice. You are gonna pay, whether its hospital bills, compensation, or both. Oh yeah, it can be VERY expensive….

  22. Ray

    Gloves? Gotta disagree. you’re diggin a ditch, you need gloves; on a bike, naaahhh

    • I quickly got shooting pains in my hands when cycling for more than an hour, gloves fixed that. And they keep my hands warm now that it’s colder, too. A lot of people who’ve been cycling for much longer than me believe they’re unnecessary but so far I’ve found cycling a lot more comfortable with gloves on. Same with the pollution mask, I keep it and gloves together all the time.

  23. HI, everyone. i’m a local, can I join you guys?

  24. I just got in an accident with a motorcycle today. I was riding my bike when they smashed into me as we were both trying to squeeze pass a delivery truck parked on the right side of the bike lane while there was a landscape wall on the left. I ended up flying onto the low concrete wall and skidded for a while on the wall. Fortunately, I was wearing a ton of layers of clothing and was unscathed. The motorcycle rider actually stuck around to see if I was OK and gave me his phone number in case I needed any help.

    • It’s good to hear that the motorcycle driver showed concern for you – you tend to only hear stories about how motorists in China are inconsiderate, but I don’t think that’s a fair reflection of how it always is. Good thing you weren’t hurt, also!

  25. Keoni you are lucky that the guy even stopped! I had on an e-bike cave a rear rim of mine and just keep riding along. Also been knocked over by a car or two, but no real injuries.

    Yeah Charlie lots of people have knocked me for gloves, and as I mentioned, they are crucial if you are a big guy riding a smaller Chinese bike for the hand padding. Folks with the expensive fixies probably have a good fit and nice handlebar tape thus see gloves as unnecessary. But if they will see the benefits if they make any day trips longer than a round trip to san sheng xiang. And yea, bandana or smog mask + gloves are a must for winter!

    Happy Psykling

  26. Thanks Charlie. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised about how concerned they actually were. Right 3li4s, I’ve seen similar incidents when the driver will actually just accelerate rather than stop if their vehicle is still functional.

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