A blissful glide out of a week of chaos

Times Staff Writer

On wheels, we charge -- a vast and exultant army of cycling, skating, spinning, scooting, sweating warriors in the thrill of conquest.

We rule this city -- at least for a few hours.

Every Sunday morning, some of the biggest streets of car-flooded Mexico City are handed over to bicyclists, who roll in by the tens of thousands. Joining them are skateboarders, rollerbladers, toddlers on push toys and parents behind strollers in what has become a weekly festival on wheels.

The leftist government of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard launched the program last year, barring cars, trucks and buses from the regal Paseo de la Reforma and other streets around the historic downtown. Once a month, the route is expanded to form a 20-mile, engine-free circuit called the Cicloton.


The cyclist’s gain is the motorist’s loss. But city officials seek to limit the traffic snarls by opening alternative routes and letting cars across key downtown junctions once the bikes have passed. On a couple of short stretches, cars and bikes share the street in rare harmony, separated by orange traffic cones. (If only the exhaust fumes stayed in their own lane.)

Though mocked by some as a political gimmick, the Sunday ride has proved highly popular since it began in May 2007. The shorter downtown rides routinely draw 10,000 or more participants, the Cicloton as many as 70,000.

It’s an upside-down day. For a change, cars are the intruder while cyclists get a leisurely, intimate view that makes this huge and tumultuous city seem, well, not so huge and tumultuous.

We strap on helmets and spend two to three hours on a citywide loop: zooming past glassy high-rises and triumphal statues, through graffiti-spattered precincts where sidewalk stands send up a tang of raw seafood, along normally jammed commercial boulevards lined with chain stores and sex-driven billboard ads.

We are Mexico City residents of all shapes and styles, from Lycra-clad speed demons to wobbly tykes on training wheels.

There are gleaming road bikes and creaking wrecks that appear to predate the 1968 Olympics here. Signs abound of classic Mexican innovation, like the tiny wooden chair converted, by straps and blind faith, into a child’s bicycle seat.

The party mood is accentuated by a string of roadside tent stations set up to offer open-air exercise classes, refills on water, and plenty more. You can even get a tire fixed for free.

Mostly, there is an air of relief from the rigors of the sprawling megalopolis, whose 20 million residents spend much of the week dueling one another on the roads.

“Traffic is chaotic. People are racing around, stressed. Cars don’t respect bicyclists,” said 37-year-old Edgar Campos, who slowly pedaled an undersized bike along an avenue near the leafy downtown park known as the Alameda Central. “Today is a completely different day.”

His twin daughters, 11, rode bikes, as did his 10-year-old son. Another son, 14, shuffled along on roller skates.

For Campos, even police are a welcome sight on these Sundays. Usually viewed as more interested in seeking payoffs than protecting residents, the officers are posted at intersections to keep cars at bay.

“It’s one day,” Campos conceded. “Still, it’s difficult to get even that.”

If biking here feels like a novelty, it’s not hard to see why.

Though it’s safe to ride in the relative calm of certain neighborhoods or a few big parks, venturing into Mexico City traffic can feel like the cycling equivalent of the running of the bulls. About 4 million vehicles jam the streets daily, and drivers appear to share a guiding tenet: Anything goes if it gets you there quicker.

Motorists switch lanes suddenly and dart around corners without signaling. Red lights are often treated as mere suggestions. Newcomers may gasp the first time they see cars zipping in opposite directions around big traffic circles.

Because there isn’t much of a cycling culture here, drivers pay little heed to people on two wheels.

On a bike, you’re basically on your own, and, as a result, few people even try riding one. (Polls show 1 in 100 Mexico City residents gets around by bicycle.)

“The main barrier to people using bicycles as a form of transportation is the fear people have of getting in an accident caused by a vehicle,” said Jesus Gil Aldeco, who belongs to Bicitekas, a group here that promotes cycling as a means of daily transportation.

Mexico City has few bike lanes, and a plan for a 400-mile network of them snaking through the city is stuck in bureaucracy. With slim odds of improvement any time soon, Bicitekas plans to open a school to teach cyclists how to survive the hostile conditions.

A better solution, cyclists say, would be to create a climate in which motorists respect riders -- or fear prosecution if they don’t. “The culture of the road is very poor,” said Gil.

Cyclists and officials say the Sunday rides are beginning to change that, one pedal stroke at a time.

Riding through downtown, we bump over cobblestone streets a few blocks from where the Aztecs worshiped, then wheel down a stretch of cut-rate dress shops thumping with music.

Beyond markets selling Dora the Explorer pinatas and glittery fabric masks worn by lucha libre wrestlers, the route becomes grittier, tracking a power line and drab apartment clusters on a long, flat roadway before the first climb appears.

A hill? Hardly. It’s a highway overpass. On top, Raul Lopez is catching his breath and peering out over an outdoor subway station and eight-lane highway leading away from town. From below comes the low roar of cars and buses, the wail of an ambulance.

Lopez, 54, knows well the hostile ways of these roads. He drives a bus. For six days a week he’s a man in combat, piloting his boxy vehicle through choked streets along the city’s edge.

On this day, though, Lopez and his wife, Marta, a 53-year-old nurse, are pedaling Mexico City’s streets with the sweaty abandon of schoolchildren.

Soon, he’ll slip back into the driver’s seat for another week’s stresses. But right now, astride his shopworn 10-speed, his wife beside him on a road that remains free of car traffic for miles ahead, Lopez feels good. Better, actually.

“Perfect,” he said.