Na rower!*

Cycling, Polish style

Cycling, Polish style

“Look! It’s Bradley Wiggins!”

We’d just come back from the beach, and I’d been about to jump into the shower, intent on washing off the residue of sand, sun cream and saltwater I’d accumulated during the afternoon. But my friend’s shout from the living room drew my attention. I hurried back to the TV just in time to watch Wiggo, in his familiar Team Sky jersey, cycling through the streets of Krakow to win the final stage of the Tour of Poland.

Well, I thought, as I finally headed off for my shower. At least I can say I’ve got one thing in common with Bradley Wiggins.

We’ve both been cycling in Poland.

Unlike Wiggo, I hadn’t gone to Poland with the intention of getting on a bike. I was there for a week’s holiday, in Gdansk to be precise, with my Polish friend Magda. We’d rented an apartment in the suburbs of the city, about a 15-minute walk from the Baltic Sea. With cities to explore, castles to visit and beaches to lie on, cycling had been the furthest thing from my mind. But then my cycling antennae had picked up on a cycle path along the coast; on our daily walks to the beach I’d seen lots of people whizzing past on their bikes, and I was itching to join them.

The plan had been that Magda and would rent bikes for an afternoon, and do a loop along the coast and then back through a nearby park. But then Magda changed her mind, the bike hire shop was further away than we’d anticipated and before I knew it an afternoon had turned into an hour.

An hour on a bike is hardly a long time – unless you’re Bradley Wiggins, that is – but I still managed to pootle a few miles on my sunshine yellow rented steed. The path I was following was of the kind I’ve encountered so rarely in the UK – one that actually goes somewhere useful and is entirely free from motorised traffic. Starting from the suburbs of Gdansk, I headed along the coast to the holiday town of Sopot (home to Europe’s longest wooden pier) through parks and pine forests, and past countless cafes, restaurants, ice cream shops, a campsite and even a windsurfing centre.

This area is a hugely popular holiday destination in Poland so, while there weren’t any cars to deal with, there were a lot of people around – joggers, rollerbladers, pedestrians, the odd pedal karter and, of course, plenty of other people on bikes. Of the latter, I saw a mix of families out with children, older and younger people, men and women, all riding bikes of various shapes, sizes, colours and ages.

Plenty of space for bikes, without a car in sight

Plenty of space for bikes, without a car in sight

Though this coastal path was the only one I used, it was far from the only cycle path in the city. In fact, there seemed to be a whole network of segregated cycle paths across the city. Every path I saw was on the pavement, rather than on the road, often with the pedestrian footpath between the cycle path and the road. And where there weren’t any cycle paths, cyclists simply rode on the pavement – according to Magda, that’s legal in Poland.

I was starting to think I’d unearthed some kind of hidden cycling utopia. I mean, there’s even a Gdansk Cycle Chic. If things are this good for cyclists in Poland, how come I’d never heard about it before?

It turns out that things really aren’t that good in Poland. It’s actually one of the most dangerous countries in Europe for cycling. Though cyclists only make up between one and two per cent of road users in Poland, alarmingly they represent almost 10 per cent of deaths on the roads. 

A little bit of research revealed that what I’d seen in Gdansk was very much a one-off in Poland. Most of the cycling infrastructure was developed through a unique partnership between grassroots cycling organisations and the local government in Gdansk, and part-funded by the European Union. According to this report, by Cities for Bicycles:

“This is the first and so far only case in Poland that the grass–root community developed project of this size, got the municipality involved, succeeded in fundraising and co–operated on implementation with the Ministry of Environment and other project partners. The Gdansk project is the first complex cycling activity of local government in Poland that is user–oriented and quality–oriented.”

I have no idea whether the project has achieved its aim of increasing bike use in Gdansk. I do know that they’ve built some pretty impressive cycling infrastructure. I’d certainly use it if I lived there.

It just leaves me with one question: if Gdansk can build something this good, why can’t we?

(*That’s ‘On your bike!’ in Polish. I think)

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