On November 28, Arjay Mercado’s day began at the break of dawn while the air was still crisp. From his home in Quezon City, he cycled across Manila’s empty streets and to Greenhills, San Juan, where he joined hundreds of others for a cross-city ride to celebrate the fourth Sunday of November — or National Bicycle Day, which President Rodrigo Duterte proclaimed in an executive order last year.
Mercado calls himself a beginner cyclist who, during the early months of the pandemic, practiced at home with his foldable bike. Now, with 313 kilometers of new bike lanes across Metro Manila, completed in July 2021, Mercado mustered the motivation to cycle outside more.
When asked about the benefits of cycling, Mercado quickly pointed out the obvious. “Health, of course,” he said. “Libreng exercise. Environmentally friendly pa siya. Tapos, it’s good for your mental health, given na ang tagal na natin nakakulong sa pandemic. It’s a safe way of going outside na wala nahahawa sa COVID-19.”
The bicycle ride Mercado attended was part of a campaign by health professionals and advocates in support of Leni Robredo’s presidential bid in the 2022 elections. It was also the largest in a series of events that day, co-organized by the urban mobility advocacy group Move As One Coalition. As of the time of writing, Vice President Robredo is the only candidate who openly expressed expanding the country’s active transport infrastructure if elected president, ramping the budget from its current ₱1.6 billion to around ₱14 billion.
Giselle Garvacio, one of the organizers of the event, welcomed this plan. As a cardiologist, Garvacio saw first-hand how cycling improved the conditions of her patients with noncommunicable or lifestyle-related diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. She said many even reduced their medications because of this form of exercise.
Garvacio stressed that people who exercise regularly have a lower risk of contracting infectious or communicable diseases — particularly severe or critical COVID-19, because their lungs are more efficient in fighting the virus. During the pandemic, Garvacio found relief when she saw lines of bikes parked outside the Philippine General Hospital where she works. “For me, that was such an encouraging sign — that people are really taking up [cycling] not just as exercise, but as a mode of transport.”
Metro Manila is consistently dubbed one of the most congested cities in the world — most recently in the TomTom Traffic Index, ranking fourth in the world for worst traffic congestion, despite an 18 percent reduction from 2019. While new pavement markings, dividers and signages encourage people to consider cycling as an alternative mode of transport, it doesn’t always translate as the safest.
Among the new bike lanes built by the Department of Public Works and Highways in NCR is in the R-8 and R-7. Quezon Boulevard is a main highway that sits between these networks of roads, and where Romeo Jacinto lives. He normally mans a small food stall in Quiapo but this weekend, he and his grandson hopped on their mountain bikes to join cyclists across the city.
To Jacinto, it’s not that cycling is inherently unsafe. Rather, unsafe practices persist despite these new safeguards. He sees this in his hometown where cars frequently crowd bike lanes with little regard for those passing through it. “Pumunta ka lang sa Quiapo. Lahat na nilagyan nilang bike lane, bihira mo makikita yung talagang bike lane,” Jacinto said sternly, recalling a time he saw a car brush against a cyclist on a bike lane, who was blamed for the accident instead of apologized to.
In fact, this hostility on the road is commonplace for any cyclist in Manila, which doesn’t magically go away on National Bicycle Day. During the ride organized by Robredo’s supporters, droves of cyclists peeled across Shaw Boulevard under the pouring rain, heckled at by drivers and motorcyclists: “Mga pasaway kayo!” Trucks and cars got so close that many cyclists fell into the gutter. On one occasion, as our team on bikes broke away from the crowd, a speeding car with a Robredo decal nearly swiped a cyclist who signalled to overtake a lane on a flyover.
In our pitstop at Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, we met Carey and Jerald who, together with their friends, formed the Five30 Cycling Club in October 2020. They climbed the 21-kilometer Boso-Boso in January 2021 – a route in Tanay, Rizal, with an elevation of 360-meters above sea level. The following month, they conquered Sierra Madre — the longest mountain range in the Philippines, with an elevation of 1,915 meters for 44-kilometers — while on their bikes.
Recalling his journey as a cyclist, Jerald’s first few rides were admittedly slow. “Now, we’re fit and practiced. We’re faster, and we know how to maneuver the streets better than before,” he proudly said. “That’s one of the good things if you continue cycling. It just takes time to be patient with yourself: to practice.”
“Basically, you have to be disciplined,” Carey interjected. As someone who owns a car, Carey believes there's a barrier of understanding between cyclists and non-cyclists. “If you’re a driver, a pedestrian, or a motorcyclist who doesn’t cycle, it’s hard to know what we go through,” he said. “Because of cycling, I’ve learned to respect cyclists. People say to ‘share the road,’” referring to road signs plastered across the city, “Now we appreciate the road with all the people in it.”
Away from the streets of BGC is a different group of cyclists, congregating in Escolta Street, Binondo, with their fixed-gear bikes. They’re here for an alley cat race, an informal urban racing event where cyclists dash from one checkpoint to another. There are no brakes on a fixed gear bike, and the only way to slow down is by “skidding” or reversing the pedals, which rotate when the bike is in motion due to the rear cog bolted directly on the hub.
Mong Feliciano is the founder of KLTRD, which co-organized the alley cat race with HUB Make Lab. While he no longer cycles due to an accident that cost him his back, the beauty of fixed-gear cycling is still fresh in his mind.
“Iba yung discipline pag fixed gear eh, lahat kontrolado ng paa mo,” he said. “Mga ahon, okay lang. Pero pababa, doon talaga ako natatakot kasi kailangan mo magtipid sa gulong — kung kailanan tamang liko o skid stop. Pero ang ganda. [Kaya] gusto ko yung fixed gear kasi ang ganda ng pakiramdam na kontrolado mo lahat.”
Fixed-gear cycling might raise some eyebrows among onlookers, who see it as glorifying risk in Manila’s already hostile streets. Yet, it persists as a fascinating culture that is compared to surfing and skateboarding, whether by its free-spiritedness or rites of passage in the form of rituals and codes. Ultimately, cycling, much like other forms of active transport, lends itself to a vision of a city where we are free to move in a variety of ways. Charles Montgomery alludes to this in his book "Happy Cities": “Cities should strive to embrace complexity, not just in transportation but in human experience … People make different choices when they are truly free to choose.”
Benny was one of the spectators of the alley cat race, who cycled from Tondo to Escolta. Before he bought his utility bike during the pandemic, Benny mainly got around by skateboard. One time, during enhanced community quarantine, police stopped him on his way home from work. Being past curfew, they asked why he was on a skateboard, thinking he was just playing around. Eventually they let him go, but with words of caution for the road.
Stop skateboarding, they said. Just walk.
“Iba’t ibang klaseng mindset talaga yung mga tao. Meron gusto mag bike, meron ayaw mag bike,” he explained. “Meron yung sisgawan ka na, ‘Hoy! Gumilid ka!’ Tapos meron din sasabi na, ‘Uy, gilid ka kasi malambot na bike mo.”
“Yung iba, hate nila talaga yung bike. Hindi ko alam kung bakit. Siguro hindi sila nagbibike.”