Don’t do it, Camilla, they told me. Are you crazy? You’re going to get yourself killed.
You’d think that I had just told my friends that I was going to pick up base-jumping or shark diving as a weekend hobby. So, what actually sparked these cries of alarm?
It’s simple, really: I wanted to start biking in Prague.
The Czech countryside is beautiful for cycling, and many locals claim biking as their favorite sport. Biking within the city limits of Prague, however, has a bad reputation. (This is surprising considering that supposedly, every other Praguer is a bike owner.)
Despite Prague’s small size, excellent public transportation, and sprawling pre-automobile historic center, it is still one of the most motorized city in Europe. Prague’s former councillor for transport once remarked in an interview that Czechs are “very fond of driving their cars.” Many cyclists have complained that this fosters a culture of intolerance towards bikers. A German expat in Prague described some of the common challenges faced by cyclists in the city:
When I am being overtaken by a speeding car in one of those ridiculously dangerous narrow lanes next to a tram stop, where only a single sheet of paper fits between me and the side mirror whizzing by. When a bus sneaks up, starts to overtake me and then honks at the sound level of a starting Apollo rocket, exactly when it’s next to me. When a driver begins to yell at me through closed windows, blush with unjustified anger and gesticulating like a pantomime because I dared circumnavigate one of the myriad two-meter-deep and one-meter-wide potholes, thus slightly swerving into their path.
Fortunately, though, the situation for bikers in Prague has improved drastically. There are more cyclists on the road, thanks in part to an effort by the city to add new bike paths and lanes. Groups like Auto*Mat are actively working to transform Prague into a bike-friendly city. There are now even regular events in Prague that celebrate cycling: European Mobility Week (September 16-22), World Car-Free Day (September 22), and the Critical Mass bike ride (every third Thursday of the month).
This is good news for me, because biking has always been a part of my life. Growing up in northern California, weekends were full of long, scenic family bike rides through the hills around my hometown. This hobby morphed into a full-on lifestyle choice the day I purchased a road bike for getting around Providence, where I attended university. When I moved to Washington DC, my bike was still my favorite mode of transport. I even dabbled in the hardcore, doing a couple of triathlons and developing a love of clipless pedals.
So, when the movers finally arrived at the end of February with my boxes, I was visibly giddy to be reunited with my maroon-and-yellow 1980s Trek road bike (lovingly nicknamed “Marvin”). I prepared myself for my first bike ride in Prague – the 4km trip to my workplace – alternating between eager anticipation and outright fear. But, on March 9th, Marvin and I set off. Aside from a few grumpy drivers (which I’ve found in every city), that first ride was a delight. I had a goofy grin plastered on my face for the entire day thanks to the exhilaration of bike commuting.
Biking in Prague isn’t impossible. It probably won’t get you killed :) But it definitely has its challenges – some of which I didn’t think of until I was already out on the road. Here are a few tips:
1. Scout out paths beforehand
Prague’s winding, cobblestoned historic streets are an aesthetic treat. But they’re hell for bikers. I’ve counted around five different types of cobblestones in Prague: from big, uneven, protruding stones to small, square, tightly-packed cobbles. It’s important to check a map beforehand to figure out how you can get from Point A to Point B while avoiding as many cobblestoned roads as possible. Depending on where you’re headed, it may be impossible to completely avoid them…but try your best. Your tush (and your bike) will thank you.
2. Watch out for tram tracks
I learned this one the hard way. Prague’s streetcars are a charming and efficient way to get around the city. However, the grooved metal tram tracks that ply many roadways are perilous for bikers. I took a big spill after my tires got wedged in a set of tram tracks (fortunately, the only thing I hurt was my pride). Exercise caution when biking near tram tracks, especially when you are turning.
3. Get a sturdy bike
Although I love my bike Marvin, I know that he’s not the best choice for Prague. Slim tires and a lack of suspension make me more vulnerable to the challenges posed by this city’s roads. If you’re planning to bike in Prague, consider getting something along the lines of a hybrid bike.
4. Be attentive!
Prague’s roadways are full of hazards: hapless tourists, aggressive drivers, speeding trams, uneven surfaces, narrow streets… The list goes on and on. The best advice I can offer is this: Be extremely attentive when biking. Keep your ears and eyes open, and constantly scan around you for obstacles. Don’t be lax about bike safety in Prague or take unnecessary risks: wear a helmet, put lights on your bike, use hand signals, and obey traffic laws.
Despite the challenges, biking in Prague is a great way to see the city in a new light. I’ve found that biking is an intimate way to explore a city: you can cover a lot of ground quickly, but because you’re not inside a vehicle (be it a car, tram, or train) you can immerse yourself more readily in your surroundings. It’s amazing how a simple bike ride has the power to make a city feel like a neighborhood.
Do you have any urban cycling tips to share? Or suggestions about navigating old European cities by bike?
Resources for Bikers in Prague
Grant’s Prague Bike Blog – English-language blog all about biking in the Czech Republic, by American journalist (and my co-worker) Grant Podelco.
Cycling in Prague – The city of Prague’s official information portal for cyclists, with maps and information in English.
Zelená mapa (Green Map) – Comprehensive map of Prague, with information about everything from bike shops to vegetarian restaurants. This site is in Czech, but the map is pretty simple to understand thanks to the straightforward icons and labels.
Prahou na kole (Prague by Bike) – Highly detailed, up-to-date map of Prague for cyclists. The map is in Czech, but labels can be easily translated with Google Translate.
*Photo 1 by Tomas Kohl (Flickr)