Column: Cycling through Mexican streets is enjoyable

Phillip Barron
The Herald Sun
August 11th, 2005

OAXACA, MEXICO — After asking at a taller de bicicletas (a bike shop)
whether I could rent a bike, a mecanico leads me across the street to Pedro
Martinez. Sr. Martinez is a former Olympic mountain biker who rents bikes
and leads tours in Oaxaca, Mexico.

(Bicicletas Pedro Martinez)
His office is small, just big enough for a counter, ten
bikes to hang tightly against the wall, and shelves for helmets and cycling
shoes. A collection of cycling jerseys hangs overhead, and inside the glass
case that forms the counter are cassettes, pedals, hubs, and derailleurs.
What available wall space is left is covered in poster-sized photographs
of Martinez himself competing in races.
While Sr. Martinez is busy
arranging a hiking tour with customers, his nephew Roberto invites me
in. In the best Spanish I can muster, we joke about the pain of a long
climb, about reaching down to click into the next easiest gear only to
realize that you’re already in it, and about the white-knuckles and big
eyes of a sketchy descent. He tells me there is a 50 mile endurance mountain
bike race on Sunday and invites me to race on a rented bike. I’m tempted
but decline in favor of a ride through the streets of Oaxaca.
morning, I arrange to take a bike for two hours and ask about the local
mountain bike scene. Roberto charges me 50 pesos (about $5.00) for
a nice bike (a Giant Rincon), a pump and spare tube, tire levers, a
lock, and a helmet.

(Rincon in the Zócalo)
Leaving the shop, I ride down
la calle Aldama and turn south on JP Garcia. Although the sidewalks are
crowded, traffic flows swiftly in the streets. Oaxaca is, like most developed
areas, an auto-centric place. But bicycles fit right in with traffic
here, and I never feel threatened by the buses, trucks, and taxis swirling
around me. In fact, as I get more comfortable with the new traffic patterns,
I realize that drivers around me seem to be more aware and respectful
of bicyclists than I am used to.

(I snapped this one the day before)

I decide to ride the road
up Monte Alban, a tight, steep road that leads to Zapotec ruins dating
back to 100 AD. It’s a grueling climb, but the views alone from the roadside
make it worthwhile. Halfway up the road, I can see all of Oaxaca to the
east. I snap a photograph in my mind and turn around.

Next I head
north, riding the narrow one-way streets up to Chapultepec Highway.
I see a few cyclists riding traditional road bikes, because of numerous
speedbumps and the occasional cobblestone street, mountain bikes are
the steeds of choice.

(typical narrow street, facing north)

(Iglesia de Santo Domingo)

reach the northern end of the city passing la Iglesia de Santo Domingo,
a cathedral built
between 1570 and 1608. Santo Domingo sits squarely inside the art
district of
Oaxaca, and I pass several cafés catering to gallery patrons.

(art district, facing south)

My two hours
are coming to an end, so I turn back and begin riding southwest. On a
bike, it’s easy to navigate a city laid out in perfect square blocks,
and I make my way to the Zócalo and the adjacent Alameda de León.

The Zócalo
and Alameda de León are wide, auto-free pedestrian plazas where
kids chase balloons, artists sell crafts, and musicians entertain day
and night. I ride slowly through the crowds and notice several other
cyclists also converging on the parks. These plazas are both the geographic
and cultural focus of the city, drawing people to it. I feel as though
I’m traveling against the natural flow of traffic as I leave the Zócalo
and head south again for Aldama.

(Zócalo and sculpture in the

(creativity on the Alameda de León)

Roberto welcomes
me back into the shade of the office and asks where I’ve ridden. I
tell him that I now believe that a bicycle is the only way to see Oaxaca,
and he agrees.

Out of curiosity, I ask whether he rents
any single-speed mountain bikes. He laughs at the idea of riding a
bike with only one gear in the mountains. I guess he needs to visit
North Carolina.

See the rest of my pictures from Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido here.

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