Riding for life
Cycling for individuals and groups alike is enjoying something of a renaissance in Egypt, writes Salonaz Sami
"When man invented the bicycle, he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And the more he used it, the fitter his body became," writes author Elizabeth West in her book Hovel in the Hills.
"Here, for once, was a product of man's brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle," West continued.
The bicycle is, indeed, one of the best inventions in the history of mankind. It takes you where you want to go, provides a mean source of exercise, saves energy, helps reduce traffic congestion, and is friendly to the environment.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), physical inactivity in developed countries is second only to tobacco smoking as a health risk. The WHO suggests that increasing physical activity is a public health "best buy" and that cycling is a highly suitable activity for this purpose.
However, in Egypt few apart from doormen and delivery guys are courageous enough to take to cycling as a means of transportation, though Haisam Yehia is among the few that are, having decided to "go green" some four months ago and use a bike for daily transportation.
"It started with small distances and nearby places, and then I started using the bike to get from my house in Heliopolis to where I work in Al-Tagammu Al-Khamis 18km away," Yehia told Al-Ahram Weekly. He discovered that cycling is not as tiring as some people might think. "On the contrary, it makes you feel more active and energetic, and it gets you where you want to go faster, considering the traffic conditions in Egypt," Yehia explained. The only problem was the sun, but even that didn't stop him.
On 30 June, Yehia rode his bike from Heliopolis to Alexandria, his hometown, about 300km away. It took him three days to get to his destination, passing through seven different governorates in the process. He didn't make the trip just for the love of cycling, however. "I have always wanted to discover the small towns and cities in the Delta, and that was the main goal behind the trip," Yehia explained in a note documenting his adventure on his tumbler.com page.
Using Google maps and GPS applications, Yehia was able to determine the best routes to take. He was also able to track his whole journey using Strava, an interactive social network for cycling devotees that allows them to track their progress on the road, record it and even analyse their performance to see how they stack up against their friends.
With all routes chosen and his back bag packed, Yehia had just one more thing to do: prepare his LE2,500 Spanish Orbea mountain bike. For that, he had to go back to Abul-Gokh, where he had bought it from.
Abul-Gokh is Egypt's oldest, biggest and best-known bike store. It has branches all over the country and shares the market with Bescletta, the bike house. Yehia had a pre-set plan and was running out of time, so when the salesman asked him to wait for a while for a new front light to be installed, he chose not to do so. He regretted the decision the very next day when he discovered that outside Cairo apart from on the largest roads street lights are nowhere to be found. According to Yehia, the bike has proven to be worth every penny he paid for it.
"Although it might appear heavy and slow, it is in fact strong enough to take the city's bumpy uphill roads in its stride," he explained. Yehia's third stop on the Cairo-Alexandria Agricultural Road was the small town of Sandanhoor in Qalioubiya governorate. "This was my first encounter with life in a village," Yehia said.
It was one that surprised Yehia, born and bred in the city, especially when he saw one old woman sitting in front of her house in the village holding on to her laptop and calling to her son to switch on her wireless connection. Yehia, a YouTube business developer, was happy to know that "the Internet revolution was still on" in the Egyptian countryside. "It contradicts elitist thinking that those who live in rural areas know nothing and just do as they are told," he added. "In fact, they know everything, though they also have their own way of thinking."
Some kilometres away from Sandanhoor was Tanta, Yehia's favourite stop of the trip and the place he spent his first night on the road. "Tanta is a city that is sophisticated, quiet, organised and beautiful," he wrote on his blog. Even more importantly, Tanta offered Yehia one of his best breakfasts ever at a small eatery called Al-Mahrousa.
This consisted of "humus that was so good you wished you could have all the refills in the world. There were also beans, eggs and bread, all as fresh as it gets. It was heavenly," he remembers. Small discoveries like Al-Mahrousa make life more meaningful and enjoyable, according to Yehia. He is thinking of going back to Tanta for more humus soon.
However, things then turned sour when he found himself stranded in a side street surrounded by six stray dogs. "At first, I didn't notice them because I had my earphones on and the music was loud. But then out of nowhere I saw a dog reaching for the foot pedal," he said.
For someone who has dog phobia, as Yehia does, the whole thing was very scary. "I had an adrenaline rush and I rode for my life," he wrote. And although he got away, this was not the end of his misery. Later on, a decision to take a shortcut between the towns of Bassioun and Kafr Al-Zayat to avoid the dogs on the main road proved to have disastrous consequences.
"On the map, the road was marked as paved, but in real life it was anything but," Yehia explained. "It was extremely dark, and the road was very narrow and made of wet dirt. It stretched out between fields filled with all kinds of things, like dogs, insects and rats, just to mention a few. I regretted not waiting for the front light to be fitted," he said.
When Yehia finally made it to Bassioun, five hours and 45km away from Tanta, he was pleasantly surprised to find that people were also connected to the Internet. "I noticed that the qahwagy [slang for a waiter in a traditional café] kept opening Facebook on his mobile every now and then, while I was waiting for my mobile to recharge," he wrote. During his journey, Yehia kept track of the availability and speed of the Internet at each of his stops, which makes sense when one considers his background in IT.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the electronic journal Yehia kept of his trip is that he always provided a bit of history of the place he was in, obviously using Google quite extensively. "I find history fascinating," he said. Last year, he embarked on a similar adventure, this time aiming to discover the small towns and villages near Assiut, Minya and Sohag in Upper Egypt. However, for that trip Yehia abandoned his bike and used public transportation, though he still chose to go alone. "I like to be free to take spontaneous decisions and unscheduled sudden stops," he explained. "When you are traveling with a group, you don't have such liberties because you have to stick to what the group is doing."
It is for this reason that Yehia is not affiliated to any of Egypt's many cycling communities, like the Cairo Cyclers Club or Cycle Egypt. To spread their view that cycling is not just a sport, but is also a better alternative to other forms of transportation, these groups organise weekly rides for their members, who roam the streets of Cairo and Alexandria on wheels.
The groups also provide a place for all amateur cyclists to connect with each other and to share experiences, as well as, perhaps, to deliver a message to the wider community, as they did at last weekend's "Aisha Ahsan," or "Live Better" marathon. Hundreds of young Egyptians gathered by Cairo University to ride their bikes across Cairo in an effort to raise awareness of the campaign, which had been organised by the Bedaya Team for Human Development. The participants wore matching T shirts with inspiring words printed on the back to convey their message.
The Bedaya campaign works to spread awareness of the importance of charity in society, and the cycle ride across Cairo was its first initiative. It perhaps proved the British writer H G Wells correct when he said that "when I see an adult on a bicycle, I don't despair for the future of the human race."