All-weather road warriors in Athens

Bicycles are a useful way to get around town. Though conditions in Athens are not ideal, some dedicated cyclists persist. I met some of them during a recent cyclists’ rally in downtown Athens. They were campaigning for the right to take their bicycles on board the metro and buses. They also want the train system – which allows two bikes per train on board, but only if they are in the last carriage – to loosen its regulations. Other demands include the creation of bicycle paths, provisions for bicycles on new roads, and a 4.4 percent reduction in VAT for bicycles. These rules, say the cyclists, are the bare minimum needed to make cycling in the city a realistic transport option. Mathieu Francois, 49, a marble worker born in France, now lives in Athens and cycles every day to the Acropolis, where he works. Mathieu first learned to ride a bicycle in his village near Avignon and has lived in Athens for 13 years. It takes just 20 minutes to cover the distance from his home in Kaisariani to the Acropolis. «Now in winter when I leave home at 6.40 in the morning it’s still dark,» he said. «I go a bit faster in the morning because it’s downhill. But on the way back I enjoy the trip with more comfort and freedom.» When I asked him what it’s like getting around Athens in winter on a bicycle, his response is disarming: «It’s not very different. You just put on more clothes. It’s only when it’s raining that I don’t take the bike. The roads are very slippery; the quality of the asphalt plays a part in that too.» «Don’t you get cold?» I insist. «No, I don’t get cold, even at night. The cold is no obstacle, because you’re moving. With the traffic and pedaling you don’t get cold. The cyclist becomes the bicycle.» He does point out the problems he faces on the road. «You have to be careful. Car and bus drivers don’t pay attention to cyclists. They don’t understand that someone on a bike has the right to be on the road and so they see us as a nuisance.» «Why don’t you use a car?» I asked. «There’s no problem parking with a bike, you don’t have to pay for gas and it’s faster getting round downtown than a car. But that means we have no excuse for being late,» he joked. (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement K on December 17, 2006.

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