Exploring a Foreign City by Bike

Unpublished photos are fun, especially when they tell a different story from the one featured in Bicycle Quarterly. When I was cleaning out old photo files, I was reminded of our trip to Mexico City a little over a year ago. The main reason to visit Mexico with our bikes was to cycle across the Paso de Cortès (BQ 56) and around Cuernavaca (BQ 59). In between these trips, we were based in Mexico City, and we used the opportunity to explore this fascinating city on our bikes. Part of the reason for our early-morning exploration was to photograph the Firefly test bike for the magazine… but as it turns out, the photos talk as much about the setting as they do about the bike.

Most of our rides were in the morning, before the city woke up. As our tires pattered over the ancient stone pavements, we rolled by the stalls of the shoe-shine people, still folded up and waiting for the day’s work.

The stores were still closed, too. From the signs, we could tell that each street specialized in one product, making shopping easy. If you need a wedding dress, you come to Calle Honduras (Honduras Street), where you can choose among at least a dozen stores with bridal gowns and dresses.

We could not figure out what the “Fancy Moustache” store sells. Whatever it is, the shutters say: “For connoisseurs only…”

The streets were empty. Except for the early-morning deliveries. Many came by bicycle, like the ice delivery on this ancient-looking bicycle with a sidecar. At each shop, the man chopped off a block of ice and dragged it into the shop with his special pliers. Then he continued to the next store, leaving behind a faint trace of water as his giant ice cubes slowly melted.

Mexico City is incredibly colorful…

…but also full of ancient history. The colonial architecture is amazing, with beautiful old woodwork…

…and many of the old buildings reuse stones from the great pyramids of Tenochtitlan, as this city was called before the Spanish conquered it. Seeing all this in the magic early morning light was special.

By the time we returned to the main square with its giant cathedral, the city was waking up. We visited during the Semana Santa (Easter Week), so the main square was closed to cars. Every day, a different festival was taking place: a rock concert on the night we arrived; a baseball game the next day…

Cyclists joined the many pedestrians that were beginning to crowd the streets. The sun was getting too high for photography. Time to return to our hotel for breakfast.

From the rooftop terrace of the hotel’s restaurant, we saw the small volcanos that dot the Valley of Mexico. In the distant haze, we could see the giant peaks that were the destination of our cyclotouring adventures. But in the mean time, cycling in Mexico City was worth the trip by itself.

During future travels, I plan to do more exploring by bike. It’s a unique way of seeing a city. You cover ground more quickly than on foot, yet it’s easy to slow down or stop to take in the sights. In many cities, you don’t even have to bring your own bike, since there are excellent bikesharing programs, like Mexico’s Ecobici. I hope this summer will take you exploring to great places!

And if you missed the Bicycle Quarterlies with the stories about Mexico (BQ 56 and 59), back issues are available. Or order the complete set of the last year’s four issues, which includes these and many other exciting articles.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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9 Responses to Exploring a Foreign City by Bike

  1. Bigschill says:

    Beautiful city, I’d like to visit someday. My wife still complains about having to walk down “lawnmower street” when we visited Guadalajara a few years ago on our way to the bus station.

  2. Zed says:

    I remember seeing lots of cargo trikes when I lived in Veracruz in the late 70s. As well as a milkman that rode a burro.

    • The cargo trikes – bicycles with the front fork replaced by a huge cargo cage with a wheel at each side – are alive and well in Mexico city. Burros are still used in the countryside… Some things in Mexico have changed tremendously, others have remained the same since I lived there as a child.

  3. Niels Lillevang Hansen says:

    I’ve explored Berlin (Germany) twice by bike. Fantastic experience, and it’s actually quite nice to be on a bike when it’s really warm in the city!

  4. Tom says:

    Nice photos. Did you lock up your bikes regularly while you were there? Where did you store them at night? Looks like a great way to see the city.

    • In the morning, we were always with our bikes, so need to lock them. Otherwise, yes, but we didn’t leave them out of sight for long times. Visiting museums, we took the excellent public transportation. At night, the bikes stayed in our hotel room. Nobody had any concerns about that in any of the hotels where we stayed. We did make sure the bikes were clean, of course, before bringing them on the trip.

  5. Conrad says:

    I completely refuse to drive a car in any city that predates autos. You can’t see anything or meaningfully interact with anyone from a car. Narrow winding streets of old cities make driving extremely frustrating or even downright scary. A lot of the towns in Italy outright ban cars and they are so much better for it.

  6. JonA says:

    Jan, those “special pliers” are ice tongs. Not exactly a common tool these days. I only know because my grandfather was an iceman when iceboxes were the norm, not refrigerators. I believe they are designed so that as you pull up with the tongs to lift the ice block, the prongs dig deeper into the ice block. That way you don’t have to work at simultaneously squeezing the tongs and lifting the heavy block.

    • tony dadson says:

      We used them as kids at the summer cottage as we had an ice house and an icebox. Remove the sawdust cover with a shovel, chop off a block of ice with an axe, set the tongs and lift with ONE handle so the points dig in well, carry the ice to the lake, dip it in to remove sawdust, carry it up to the cottage and put in the lower compartment of the ice box! THEN go out and bucksaw some pine logs and split and stack a load of firewood. Chores done, swimming time!

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