Cycling in Sofia (1)

On yer bike!

It’s the usual (sort-of) urban mix – multi-lane boulevards or cobbled pavé, speeding traffic, potholes, dozy pedestrians and other hazards. I’m talking about the journey from home to the centre of Sofia.

I write this with my fingers crossed: after all, my wife has one leg in plaster, after a simple fall on ice in February.

We live about 4 km from the centre of the city, and there are several convenient ways to travel there. Minibus-taxi, tram, Metro, car, and bike.

Well, which one to take?

Let’s be honest, the car is – out! Several sets of traffic lights, three-lane dual carriageway,  central parking impossible or becoming increasingly expensive and restricted.

Minibus – cheap, but you have to know which one you want, and they’re always full of fat shoppers – plus, the drivers are all frustrated Formula 1 stars.

The Metro – brilliant, especailly on a cold or wet day – BGN 1 per (unlimited) journey, full at the beginning and end of the working day, but otherwise a joy, clean and punctual (OK, so it’s not yet quite as extensive as the London Tube!).

Taxis – again, OK, and reasonable, if you know your yellow-cab company. Otherwise, everyone (locals included) can be ripped off unmercifully, just as in any other capital city.

So, it has to be the bike: it’s got to be an MTB, ‘cos of the potholes, wide grids, and tramlines you inevitably need to negotiate. A racing bike? – if you want a final, ceremonial ride, well fine!

Journey to the centre

From home, the Metro takes a maximum of 30 minutes (door to final station, one-way, from home to city centre), the other forms of transport vary incredibly according to traffic density (40-45 mins by taxi, one way, is now “good”), and the bike takes 40 minutes (for the return journey, including picking up mail from our PO Box).

The bike wins hands down for speed and convenience (except when it’s peeing with rain, or snowing).

Safety on a bike in Sofia?

The bike is by far the fastest (and cheapest) way to get directly to my typical destination and back. The only delay is the result of having to lock up securely, and remove any “bits and pieces”, like pump, computer and small saddlebag.

So far (again, with good fortune and – dare I say it? – with fairly advanced biking experience) – no problems. You definitely need to keep your eyes peeled for potholes; parked-car doors are the usual hazard; big 4x4s may intimidate you (not excessively, so far); and the idiots on their mobiles are probably the worst mobile enemy of all. Plus, you need to anticipate to an elevated level that the driver in front is going to swerve/stop/reverse, without any indication – that’s probably the most critical factor. But, all that is true of cycling in Cardiff, for example – it’s just a little heightened in Sofia, that’s all.

To their credit, though, the majority of drivers here give you enough space when passing (if they can keep up with you between sets of lights); they seem to respect a clear hand-signal; and very few have tried to intimidate me, by (for example) zooming out in front of me to join a main road. If they try it, they just get “the finger”. Nobody has drawn a gun on me, yet (seriously, it’s a possibility).

Hazards: the tramlines (and the trams themselves!) I mentioned, especially if it’s wet –  they can be really bumpy and greasy; trucks – especially, for some reason, mobile concrete-mixers: the Bulgarian version of “white van man”, of course: and bloody packs of stray dogs. Luckily, the four-legged animals seem to be totally intimidated by a stream of Welsh swear-words.

And – I almost forgot – the fabulous “yellow brick road” in the centre – it’s like a skating rink when wet – and it’s an awful, gut-wrenching surface to ride on, even in the dry. Drop one gear, at least, and push!

Regulations

I haven’t come across huge restrictions for bike riders. Sure, reflectors and lights as appropriate (we are in the EU, after all!). Helmets? Not compulsory. Do I wear one? Yes, and no – whereas I always wore one in UK (illogical, I admit). Tolerance of cyclists? Pretty good, I reckon (better than in a large UK city, cycle lanes or not). Courtesy from drivers? I’m pleasantly surprised, each time I take a ride; especially since driver-to-driver relations can be a little britle, all too often).

Cyclists’ urban etiquette

This, I’m ashamed to say, poses one of the biggest risk to other bikers and pedestrians. Whether walking or cycling in the city, I constantly see clever-dickies ignoring their own, and everyone else’s, well-being on both road and pavement. Idiots. As everywhere. Please don’t spoil it for the rest of us.

Post-script

A small, but lovely, gesture yesterday: a cyclist on the other side of a wide and busy road rang his bell (remember those?) and waved at me. Needless to say, I returned the greeting. Nice – thanks, mate!

(And: no, (see photo) I don’t ride a fixie, nor do I wear those “shrimp-catcher” trousers and daps, thank you! I’ll take a proper pic of the bike, soon).

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