An Extreme Winter Sport

Moscow bicyclist Andrei Kuznetsov has one complaint -- biking when temperatures dip below minus 15 degrees Celsius turns his beard to ice after a few minutes.

Since 1995, he has exclusively used his bicycle to get around the city, rain, shine or freezing cold winter. On a given day, he can commute from Skhodnenskaya in the northwest to Kolomenskoye in the southeast and back again. Each way takes him about 1 1/2 hours. "It would take two hours driving, so I actually save time," said Kuznetsov, who, though he can afford a car, does not own one.

As traffic worsens and the cost of public transportation increases every January, many people are considering using their bikes in the city. The Bicycle Transport Union estimates that over 3 million Muscovites own bikes. According to some bike enthusiasts, it is not the climate that stops people from biking, but lack of infrastructure, public support and road safety.

Igor Nalimov has been studying the "bikefication" of European cities and advocating for bike-friendly measures for the past five years. In October, he created the Bicycle Transport Union, which is pushing city authorities to improve bicycle infrastructure.

Maria Antonova / MT
One of the few bike racks in Dubna's residential neighborhood left from old times.
"Stores sell half a million bikes in Moscow every year, the potential is tremendous," he said, adding that climate is not the main problem. In Helsinki, 10 percent of all passenger trips are on bikes. Central Moscow, with its daily flood of 2.3 million commuters, is one of the few prefectures that have included modest changes to its urban planning, promising to install bike racks by the metro stations, Nalimov said.

Unfortunately, Mayor Yury Luzhkov has turned a deaf ear to the bicycle problem, making an exception on only one occasion when he sent two officials to Paris to study the Velib urban bike rental system, said Nalimov.

"When they came back, they pressed for an enormous sum to be budgeted for the creation of something similar in Moscow. We think it's a very bad idea -- the money will just disappear, solving none of the structural problems," Nalimov said. The first steps should be simple public support for bikers and basic structural changes like flattening curbs and adding bike lanes.

Not many bikers have the patience of Nalimov, who regularly attends Moscow urban planning meetings and bombards the city government with letters and propositions. Critical Mass, the international social movement of monthly bike rides, started a Moscow chapter in 2004, but it has little dialogue with the authorities. The last Saturday of every month, Moscow bikers depart from Turgenev Square in order to prove that interest in biking is there. Only a few participate in the winter months, but summer attendance can reach 200, said Dmitry Kokorev, head of the Moscow branch.

Since Moscow was not designed for bicyclists, the quest to make it more bike-friendly must start from square one.

Dubna, a city in the north of the Moscow region, has a different problem. It was founded in 1956 as a city for atomic physicists, with infrastructure that included bicycle lanes and racks by every residential building or industrial facility.

"Dubna has always had a really strong bike culture: kids biked to school, and academics biked to particle accelerators," said Alexei Nikitsky, head of the Velodubna association, a group that formed last summer with the goal to preserve what he called the city's bicycle transit microclimate. This microclimate is being transformed by increased motorization. One local enterprise had recently done away with a rack that held 1,000 bicycles. The space is now occupied by eight cars. Likewise, old bike paths serve as improvised parking strips.

Maria Antonova / MT
Two Critical Mass bikers near Turgenev Square on the last Saturday of December.
"For many Russians, driving has become a status thing, and biking is associated with poverty. The problem is that we are headed toward a collapse in the system, and in a few years people will inevitably seek alternatives to driving. It makes more sense to preserve the town's old bike infrastructure instead of spending huge amounts in the future to develop it from scratch," Nikitsky said.

Few practical measures have been undertaken so far in response to Velodubna's letters and propositions. But the group is supported by a local furniture company owner, who is considering financing a huge wooden bicycle monument. And when Velodubna members proposed a citywide bike parade last summer, the demonstration was enthusiastically accompanied by traffic police.

In the winter, Dubna is overrun with ice fishermen on bikes every weekend. Wobbling over the ice of the Ivankovskoye reservoir, hundreds of men pedal as far as three kilometers into the reservoir with their fishing gear and return at sunset. Yearly drowning accidents don't stop them, nor does the winter climate.