Cycling is a traditionally popular method of transport in China, and a great way to explore many areas where distances by foot are long, but easily coverable on two wheels. However there are some things you should bear in mind to make the most of your biking experience, while keeping safely and reducing hassles.
1. Choosing a Bicycle
When you rent a bicycle, you will often have a choice of type: cheap single speed bikes, small trendy fold up bikes with suspension, mountain bikes — cheap and expensive ones, tandems, and even in some places traditional bikes. Road bikes (racers) are almost never available to rent.
The following is an assessment of each type (based on experience in Yangshuo and Beijing).
The cheap and cheerful option. Perfectly adequate for short rides, fun rides, and getting around a city.
Small, fold-up style
Similar in price to the above, these are lighter and fun (particularly suited to smaller people), often with rear wheel suspension. They are great for riding slowly, but require more effort and start to feel unstable at speed.
These are usually around 50% more to rent than an ordinary bike. They are perfect for couples and families. An infant seat can be fitted (as with the options above). They are a bit slower and require a bit of coordination peddling, and more effort to maneuver, but are a great way to keep a weaker cyclist and a stronger cyclist together, saving time in the end.
Cheap (or poorly maintained) mountain bike
Think carefully before choosing this option, as having gears and suspension that don’t work well is often worse than not having them. You may be renting extra weight for not much benefit (they cost similar to a tandem).
Expensive mountain bike
This is the option for serious cyclists, or anyone who wants to go a long way without too much strain. China’s roads, especially rural ones, are often uneven/pot-holed, so suspension is handy. They rent out at twice the price of a standard bike or more, often with a substantial deposit needed.
2. Checking Your Bike Before You Set Out
Those who rent out bikes usually have someone available to adjust the bike to suit your height and make it a bit better to ride if you ask for the assistance.
Most important: make sure the brakes work well. You WILL sometimes have to stop unexpectedly in China or hit somebody or something. See Safe Cycling below.
Adjust the seat to the right height for you. The recommended seat height allows you to just touch the ground with the tips of both shoes. Chinese people usually ride with legs far more bent. Though it is easier to get on and off the bike and stop like this, it does require more effort. If your bike seat can not be adjusted high enough for you, consider another bike – it will make your ride easier.
Get the tires pumped up to the recommended pressure on the tire. Often, especially in hot weather, cycle renters are reluctant to do this, as they fear too much pressure, particularly with a heavy rider, or heat from the sun, will cause tires to burst. With good tires this should never be a problem, but it can happen with cheap ones. Strike a balance with the renter between hard tires for easy riding and minimizing the risk of a pressure blow out.
If the chain looks dry or rusty, get it oiled. This will make a big difference to reducing mechanical resistance, and, especially with multiple gears involved, it will reduce the risk of the chain falling off the cogs. If the chain looks loose, get it tightened too. Shedding the chain is a pain, which often involves greasy hands and some hassle, if there is no roadside maintenance outlet (see below) nearby.
3. Negotiating a Price
There is sometimes some leeway with the prices, particularly with the deposit. Often a local guide can get a price reduction. About 10 yuan is the right price for a day’s rental of a standard bike.
4. What to Wear
Wear light clothes and sensible shoes. High heels are difficult to ride in. Flip-flops don’t affect cycling too much if you’re just out for fun, but are not advised if you will be walking much or putting your feet down much on rough terrain.
In the summer, wear sun cream, paying particular attention to the face, back of the neck, backs of arms and hands, knees and feet. Alternatively wear a hat that shades both the tip of the nose and the back of the neck, long sleeves and light gloves, lightweight breathable trousers, and sports shoes. Sunglasses are great for not only reducing glare from the road surface, but also keeping bugs and dust from the eyes.
When riding in the rain (China’s wettest weather is from April to July, and the further south the wetter it is) wear sandals or Crocs or something similar and shorts. Soggy shoes and wet pants hems are no fun. If maintaining a moderate speed you should stay warm even in cool weather. Bike capes are recommended. See below.
Cycle helmets are not a legal requirement in China; they are only worn by enthusiasts in China and are not available from cycle rental places. If you want to wear a helmet you must bring your own.
5. What to Bring
Bring plenty of water if you’re riding somewhere out of the way. It is easy to get dehydrated cycling. 500ml bottles of water are available from almost every village and from small shops on major roads, so in most places you don’t need to go far to buy more water.
Back packs and racks: Though almost all standard bikes come with a basket or at least a rack on the back, some mountain bikes don’t, so you may need a small back pack to carry things. Though a rack and basket adds extra weight, it will improve your cycling experience to not have to carry things on your back, especially if you are just out for a fun ride.
You may want to bring a change of t-shirt at least. If you stop for a rest it is nice to be able to change out of sweat-drenched clothes, or put something warmer on if you cool down. Bring light windproof layers for if it turns cold. Bring extra sun cream for reapplication.
A map is very useful if you can get hold of one and highly recommended if you’re riding long distance or somewhere out of the way. See below for asking the way.
A bicycle rain cape is the ideal solution for light and moderate rain. They can be purchased for under 20 yuan and pack down small. They keep all apart from the feet and lower legs dry, which inevitably get wet from splashes and spray from the bicycle wheels and other vehicles.
You should wear shorts and free-draining footwear in the rain, but bring warmer clothing for if you stop and start cooling down. A tip is to tie or clip the front tip of the cape to the front of the bike to stop it blowing up in the wind. Though some bikes have umbrellas fixed to them they are more of a hazard than a help in strong winds or with low tree branches. Conventional waterproofs, though a better solution in really heavy rain, are generally too hot for summer weather.
In the Monsoon Season
If you’re riding in the monsoon season (April to August) in the south of China, be prepared for very heavy rain. Sometimes heavy rain can last for several hours and just taking shelter and sitting it out is not an option. In the event of really heavy rain you should take shelter, as heavy downpours penetrate even the rubber coated nylon of a rain cape in seconds. Bring a change of clothes, including some warmer layers, in a well-waterproofed bag, as rain and wind can bring the temperature down 10 or 15 degrees quite quickly. Bring waterproof bags for your camera and anything else that can be damaged by water as well.
Often the intensity of the rain will lessen within 30 minutes and you can set off again. Put your original clothes back on, as often there will be a second band of even heavier rain to come before the weather system passes. Preserve the dryness of your change of clothes by putting them back in a water proof bag. As a consolation for the inconvenience, rainy day scenery is some of the best in mountainous areas. If you are well-prepared you needn’t abandon your bike ride.
6. Asking the Way
If you have a map with Chinese on it, you can point to where you want to get to and ask “Zenme qu?” /dznn-muh chyoo/ (‘How to go?’), and someone will point the way (it’s usually best to ask a couple of people for confirmation). If you have the name of where you want to go in Chinese, add it to the phrase “Zenme qu ...?”, e.g. “Zenme qu Yangshuo?”
7. Roadside Cycle Repair
China has many roadside cycle repair men (and a few women). Usually there is one for every kilometer at least in the city. Out in the country every decent sized village has one. Usually they have a bicycle pump standing by the roadside ready for use, a tool box and a bowl of greasy water (for washing hands and locating punctures).
8. Safe Cycling
The three golden principles of safe vehicle operation in China (according to vehicle license test questions) are: concentration, careful observation, and prior prevention. These will go a long way to keeping you safe, but it is also good to be aware of some differences between cycling in China and in the West.
- Beware pedestrians walking out in front of you without looking. Most cyclists (most vehicles in general, except those going against the flow of traffic) do not keep to the near side of the road by the curb as Chinese pedestrians usually take the first few steps onto the road or cycle lane without looking. Be prepared to stop if pedestrians look like they might walk in front of you. Jay walking is common practice.
- Beware vehicles turning (right or left, or crossing a junction, or coming out of a side road or parked position) and cutting you off. Cars and other vehicles generally do not give way to cyclists even if they have apparently got the right of way. Be prepared to stop and let cars (or anything else not keeping to traffic priority rules) go first.
- Beware vehicles (or other cyclists) coming towards you on the wrong side of the road. This is most likely to occur at junctions where a vehicle is turning left using the oncoming lane of both the original road and the road being turned into. Be prepared to stop to avoid collision. Bikes (including electric and motorized) usually hug the curb when travelling on the wrong side of the road, so allow them to go past on the inside.
- Note that cycle lanes separated from four-wheel traffic by planted verges usually operate an unofficial two-way system, with bikes opposing the general flow of traffic generally keeping to their right, hugging the curb.
If in doubt, stop, have a look, and follow what the majority are doing, and then you will get through with the least opposition. See more on How to Cross the Road in China... Safely.
9. Securing Your Bike
Bicycle theft is quite common in China. Take all reasonable measures to limit the risk of bike theft (or you will not get your deposit back).
Be sure to use the locks provided when you hire your bike, particularly expensive mountain bikes. Try to lock your bike to an immovable object like a tree or lamp post. Also try to park your bike in designated bicycle parking areas where someone is watching them.