Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Musings: Gotta new car, now ya need a license

Many of the people behind the wheels of the shiny new vehicles on China’s roads just got their licenses after finishing a crash course in driving. They're adults, often in their middle ages, but they drive much like I did when I was a sophomore in high school.

Some are courteous and sympathetic to cyclists because it wasn't too long ago since they were pedaling to work. But many drivers - especially the nouveau riche in Audis and BMWs - show an obvious contempt for bike riders.

China has a very clear caste system, and those on bikes are usually regarded to be at the bottom of it - the untouchables doing the crap blue-collar jobs. They’re the losers who haven’t figured out a way to capitalize on the economic boom of the past 30 years. Most are among the bedraggled masses of millions from the countryside who come to the city to work. They pedal their rusty, squeaky bikes to sweatshops, where they churn out the latest plastic trinkets for Wal Mart shelves. They’re digging the foundations and welding the steel beams for the gleaming skyscrapers featured in the articles in glossy business magazines about how China’s economy will be bigger than America’s in a week or two.

The nouveau riche won't yield the right away to cyclists. Cutting off bikers seems to be a skill they're constantly trying to perfect. Usually they do it without even acknowledging you. In rare cases, they will.

Once I was on a training ride with a friend. It was 6:30 a.m. and we were hammering down an empty three-lane thoroughfare at 40 kph when a driver began honking at us. He was about 100 meters behind us and approaching fast. He raced up beside us in his new black Volkswagen Passat, and we exchanged obscenities for a few seconds. Then the driver swerved in front of us and nearly knocked us down before roaring away.

I got a good look at the guy. He was beefy with a crew cut – a hair style popular with the police, military and the mob. In China, he could have been all three.

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