Summer cycling in Sofia (part 1): plus/minus

cyclists in Sofia

The joys and drawbacks of cycling in Sofia

The weather is (at long last) perfect for cycling! There’s no excuse for not venturing out onto the streets and cycle paths of Sofia, even though it’s rather hot. Or is that quite true?

Cycling in most large European cities is still fraught with classic problems. The main and universal obstacle is sharing road space with motorised vehicles in city-centre streets never designed for a huge influx of cars (e.g., the medieval layout of central London) and a belated awakening of civic and national authorities to the growing need to promote healthy and efficient alternatives (e.g., closer to home, Sofia).

However, the municipality here has introduced some fundamental improvements in its transport infrastructure in recent years.

The Metro: if you are lucky enough to live near the existing lines, what an easy solution for getting to and from the centre! It will be even better, once the next phase is opened (September 2012?). And it already justifies the investment – try getting on a train at Serdika at 6 p.m.!

(I only learned last week that, after 9 p.m. on weekdays and at the weekend, a cyclist can take a (clean) bike on the metro, by buying an extra ticket. I haven’t seen anyone taking advantage of this – after all, if you’re on a bike, you presumably don’t really need to go underground – but it shows a flexible, customer-friendly attitude on the part of the operator.)

Buses, trolley-buses and trams: again, recent improvements – cheap fares, the addition of new and  units. Comparing the service with that of Cardiff (300,000 population), I am constantly impressed by how comprehensive it is. The only drawback is that these vehicles have to compete with all the other traffic on the over-crowded main streets.

Private cars: oh dear! ideally, one owns a Smart car, to cope with narrow side streets, to park (legally, of course) in tight spots, and to save a fortune on fuel wasted in queues. Other than that, an ordeal best avoided, if possible.

That leaves us with – the bike.

Collecting the mail

A visit to the central Post Office to retrieve our mail involves a round trip of 8 kms.

Going by car during the afternoon means a journey that can take about 1 hour – including parking for 5 minutes (3 Leva for the first hour in a nearby car park, or 1 Lev if you find a space in the street) and then walking the short distance to the PO Box. And that’s on a good day!

By Metro, the round trip also takes up to an hour, as the walking distance is increased. Actual travelling time per one-way trip on the metro is 7 minutes. Cost: 2 Leva return.

Taking the tram saves a few minutes only, because of having to wait for the next one to arrive. Apart from that, a relaxing and colourful mode of travel. Cost: again, 2 Leva return.

On the bike, the entire job, door-to-door, takes less than 30 minutes. Cost: a few calories.

Given the weather, then; which solution has most appeal?

Cycling pros and cons

The benefits of cycling are obvious and don’t vary over time:

  • once you’ve bought a bike and some basic accessories, regular running costs are minimal.
  • parking is free (although even a securely locked bike can be ‘liberated’ by someone determined enough)
  • you get a burst of fresh (?) air, and some good exercise
  • you save time and feel good.

Perfect, so far!

There are some drawbacks, one has to admit:

  • it’s not much fun in the pouring rain, or when it’s cold (just think back to the past winter)
  • there’s a limit to what you can safely carry, depending on the way your bike is equipped
  • a city-centre run, in particular, is fraught with obstacles: the volume of traffic; individual(istic) drivers; rough road surfaces, pot-holes, missing drain covers, tram-lines; dozy pedestrians; other cyclists; and bloody dogs!

Progress to date

So far (fingers crossed), I’ve been lucky.

I’ve only been carved up by a handful of motorists, and that only to the point of annoyance, not acute danger. The point is to ride defensively but positively, and to anticipate. It also helps to wear bright clothing, especially when using the Lyulin tunnel.

Pot-holes are tricky: you quickly learn where the bad ones are and can usually avoid them. It’s the new ones that magically appear overnight that can catch you out. The same goes for drain covers. Even when they’re still in place, those with gaps running parallel to your wheels can be lethal traps.

The central roads are mostly well-surfaced; side streets are another story. And the ‘yellow brick road’ rattles your teeth in the dry; when it’s wet, it’s a cycle skating rink if you need to stop suddenly.

Tram lines: oh, those big intersections are fun! Move off from the lights while keeping clear of accelerating cars, pick the smoothest crossing-point, watch it when you have to make a turn that includes those tracks, and – heaven help you when they are wet and greasy.

Pedestrians: more dangerous to a cyclist than cars! This may sound extreme; but I’m constantly amazed at the way so many pedestrians seem oblivious to their surroundings. Engrossed in conversation on their mobiles, they step into the road without looking; mothers push their baby carriages out in front of them; old men wave a hand in the air and simply set out across multi-lane roads; young women in T-shirts and shorts seem to think everything stops for them anyway: an endless variety of dangerous idiocy.

Dogs: the entire population of Sofia is aware of the phenomenon of stray dogs. But cyclists have to learn to cope with specialised canine behaviour. Why is it that certain dogs just love to chase bikes? And why are they so damned fast? There are two schools of thought on how to react: the first is to out-pace them and keep going as fast as you can (a dangerous trick in traffic); the other is to stop and (nicely) tell them to push off. As far as I’m concerned, this last option remains theoretical – I’m not taking the chance of being polite to a pack of mean-looking street survivors. I’m also convinced they get confused when I swear loudly at them in Welsh!

Finally – and you may be surprised by this category – other cyclists. More about them in the next post.

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2 Responses to “Summer cycling in Sofia (part 1): plus/minus”

  1. sozofia Says:

    Agree with every word! In my view, Sofia wins top marks for letting you take your bike on trams/buses – in Edinburgh, they refuse even if you are miles from home with a puncture…

  2. Славянка Says:

    Except in Welsh, you could chase them with the Bulgarian ‘chibba!’ and whip them energetically off with your hand 🙂

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