Useless Brit expat and TCN guinea pig Stuart gives his impressions on learning to ride again while cycling in Zagreb.
I bought a bike. The last time I owned such a contraption it was a blazingly bright, neon green and orange number with the word “THUNDER” emblazoned upon the frame. Subtle it was not, instead attracting a fair amount of abuse from local bullies, putting me off cycling almost for life. I don’t have a particularly good track record on two wheels, as my coordination isn’t the best, and I pretty much spectacularly stack it every time I’m in the saddle. While working at a hostel recently in Zadar, I borrowed a colleague’s bike for a quick visit to the bus station to pick up some supplies, only to totally wipe out within seconds of mounting the thing, buckling the front wheel in the process, in full view of the entire hostel. It probably didn’t help that I was wearing a kilt at the time and I’d had a few gins. Still, bicycles and me don’t really get on.
Alas, in order to advance my career as a journalistic superstar covering the four corners of Zagreb with flair and panache, I required such a device to get from A to B and get under the skin of the city. Whether or not that means getting safely from A to B remains to be seen – I’m more likely to become news myself.
Added to this, summer has always been a weight gain season for me, so it’s time to get back in shape. What better way to kill two birds with one stone than hurtling around town on a bike with careless abandon. I signed up to that useful “letgo” app (well worth a look if you’re not already a devotee) and instantly fall in love. A Diamond Back Response mountain bike for 1300 kuna?! I startle myself at just how much of a fixated psychopath I become in desiring an object I know nothing about.
However, I do remember those days when I was trying not to get knocked off my luminous THUNDER machine that there are particular mountain bike makes that hold a certain prestige – a gravitas if you will. From memory, I can recall my small posse of geeky friends discussing the likes of Muddy Fox, Giant, Ridgeback and Diamondback bikes, and to own one would sit you at the head of all tables, and your mates would all demand to come around after tea for a go. Like when you’re the one kid who owned Castle Greyskull and suddenly you had several more friends than you thought. I made do with THUNDER until I graduated high school, but when I spotted this beast for sale in Zagreb I wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity – thus fulfilling a childhood dream of owning one of those aforementioned, revered creations. Look who’s laughing now, eh?! HAHAHAHAHAHA! I’m clearly still scarred.
She handles like a dream, smoother than a tube of KY jelly on a window, and so silent I could ride unnoticed into an Agrokor board meeting. Whether or not I can actually ride her is a different matter entirely, as it’s taking a lot of getting used to – both riding regularly for the first time in 20 years, and cycling in Zagreb.
The latter of which, as I’m sure I’ll come to understand, still seems to be in its fledgling days. One thing I have noticed which is particularly irksome is the apparent lack of respect for the cycle lanes by pedestrians. This was especially evident in my recent exploration of Bundek Park, where I discovered a high proportion of Zagrebians don’t seem to understand what that painted bike symbol on the floor is for.
My new toy comes with a lovely little bell. It’s a gentle ‘ting’ rather than a honking “GET OUT OF MY WAY, MORTALS” banshee wail. It’s respectful. Courteous. It politely encourages you to stand aside before your face is besmirched with my tire tracks. Yet the glare of hostility one can receive for even the most apologetically lightest of dings is like looking into the eyes of the basilisk. And woe betide you if you approach a family with young children absent mindedly milling about in the designated cyclist pathway. You’re going to wish you weren’t born. The rage in a parent’s eyes as you slowly and carefully negotiate your way around their precious darlings can burn a hole in your very soul – even as they’re the ones taking little Davor for a toddle in the bike lane. Why don’t we start building ballparks on the E65?
Speaking of motorists, Croatians aren’t the best. They’re not the worst, mind – but they’re not the best. The Italians take that crown. I’ve nearly been knocked down on more than one occasion, although in hindsight one of those occasions I ran a red light – so I guess that doesn’t count. It appears that cycling lanes are improving all the time, but they’ve still got a long way to go to match the European cycling powerhouses of say, Amsterdam and Berlin. Painting a line dividing a pavement is better than nothing, but I’ve very nearly slammed into several pedestrians stepping into the bike lane with their noses glued to a smartphone. Security isn’t the best either, which we’ve experienced first-hand as my partner’s brand-new Giant bike was stolen just days after purchase. Granted, she left it out overnight attached to a lamppost with a chain that was as much use as locking it up with a paperclip – but you get the idea. “I’ve had my bike stolen three times” trills her work colleague with remarkable enthusiasm. Maybe it’s par for the course – but lumping the thing up three flights of stairs every time I come home does not a happy Stu make.
Theft, zombified pedestrians and careless drivers aside, if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to put the willies up me – it’s the tram lines. The tram lines and those little, indented paths that run alongside some of the roads here, their curbed edges just deep enough to keep your bike wheels prisoner. How do you get out of it? HOW DO YOU GET OUT?!! Once you’re in you can’t escape without running the risk of sliding your wheels along its lip and flipping over your handlebars in front of hundreds of folk during their shopping binge on Ilica. Either that or a tram comes rattling up behind and it’s a scene right out of The Temple of Doom. I’m peddling as fast as my little legs can carrying me, utterly terrified of deviating from this path as the tram lurches ever closer to my rear wheel. My only salvation comes in outrunning it until the next stop – whereupon I can dismount and safely walk to sanctuary off the death-rails via a ramp. I like ramps. Ramps are my friends.
The thing is, it’s not Zagreb that’s the problem – it’s me. I’ve never been so utterly useless as when you put me on wheels. I can’t roller-skate, skate-board or skate-anything, but I think with a bit of practice, I’ll get there. Outside of a brief flirt with getting fit and cycling to work in Glasgow, circa 2008, Zagreb is the first city I’ve properly peddled in, so I’m no real authority on the matter at all. Some minor gripes aside – I think we’ve got it pretty good here, and if we just all could learn to respectfully share the space more, keep adding those lovely little red pathways and maybe learn to drive – Zagreb could become a cycling utopia. At least until I get in the saddle, that is.