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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Girl Braves the Urban Jungle on Bicycle




The civilized bike lanes of Holland are a long time from coming to Moscow. Here it's potholes and hell- bent drivers and pollution.


It was my Walkman that got me through the winter in Moscow. A desire to explore the city and a need for exercise had me walking Moscow's streets for months, undeterred by ice or darkness. Accompanied by the music of Auktsion, I crisscrossed the city on foot, discovering the churches of Zamoskvorechye, snooping around chocolate factories, testing my suspicion that there is life beyond the Arbat.


But spring has arrived, and while Moscow transformed around me, I knew I had to make some changes of my own. The sudden heat bade me shed my winter garb, and the mirror showed the walks weren't enough.


Desperation called for something drastic, and one Saturday morning I took my last walk: to Sokolniki park, to put down $150 on a brand new bike.


Not that I hadn't at least thought it over a bit. I'd looked in the sporting goods stores, all with high-quality merchandise with prices to match, but I found nothing less than $300. No thanks. Then an insider tip led me to Sokolnicheskaya.


Congenial dealers gave me hope I could charm my way down to $150, $100 even, when upon a return trip I found the market had vanished.


A bit of investigating, and I located an indoor version nearby -- a store called Zenit at 9 Sokolnicheskaya Ploshchad -- with fewer bikes but tolerable prices.


Selection is a problem if you're not spending top dollar. At first I wanted a Soviet-made bike: tires like wood, chrome seat, no gears, no brakes. No brakes? So much for nostalgia.


I was left with a limited array of imported mountain bikes. No, no, I thought, all that unnecessary technology. Too flashy -- like all those New Russians and their silly Toyota Landcruisers.


A simple 10-speed had gotten me through my university days in Lafayette, Louisiana, but Moscow's streets aren't exactly shady gravel paths, are they? And besides, one graceful display model was already winning me over with its smart style and its low, low price.


It's a good one, my bike. Blinding yellow, with a shiny purple helmet to match. A Hungarian make, so it's covered with lots of bad English: an "all terraine bike."


But it is not without flaws, I discovered, as I was crossing the Moscow River and the handlebars came off. That's right -- clean off, which is the hazard of buying the display model.


But with nothing wounded but my pride, I carted the mess to the nearest service station, where a family of friendly Georgian mechanics saved my bicycle and my spirits.


Moscow mechanics are a biker's godsend. More than once they have impressed me with their seriousness and skill, and hearty good natures. The mechanics did their work, wholly uninterested in my funny accent (none of this "SO, what brings you to Russia?"), and were not in the least surprised by the presence of a bike.


Which, unfortunately, is a rare quality among Muscovites. In a city with a grossly underdeveloped biking culture, I often feel like the only rider on the road. Sporting areas such as the Sparrow Hills or Ismailovsky Park may be full of bikers on weekends, but the center remains practically off-limits to us all throughout the week.


No matter what time of day it is, few streets are not wall-to-wall traffic. The civilized bike lanes of Holland are apparently a long time from coming to Moscow. Biking here is potholes and hell-bent drivers and choking pollution.


I learned early on to stay off the major roads. Forced into rarely frequented alleys and quiet neighborhoods, I discovered a Moscow wholly different from the one I'd come to know from all my months of walking.


A pedestrian needs stimulation: casino lights, glossy store fronts, and the throbbing techno beat of the underpasses. Once pushed out of the center I'd loved so much as a pedestrian, I happily found the Moscow of quiet parks and deserted streets, of the Yauza River's elegant curves.


For me, the best time to ride is at dusk, when street lamps slowly flicker on and cooking noises float down from fifth-floor kitchens. Then the city belongs to roller bladers, and park-bench lovers, and bikers like me.


The snow has at last melted to reveal a city ripe for discovery. With classic Russian irony, it appears that I have bought my bike not for sport, but for Moscow.