Chain gang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2012, 12:00am


Official figures suggest that Hong Kong's roads host about 12.3 million trips by vehicles every day. About 62,000 of them are by bicycle. Cycling is thriving in the city, with more and more people taking it up, despite official efforts to dissuade cyclists from riding on the congested roads.

'Based on road safety considerations, the administration does not encourage the use of bicycles as a transport mode in urban areas,' the Legislative Council's Panel on Transport report noted last year.

However, enthusiasts can be seen out on their bikes in all places (including city-centre roads), in all weather and at all times, but especially during weekends, early mornings or late evenings, when traffic is lighter.

Popular off-road areas include Sai Kung West Country Park, Lamma Island, Shek O, Chi Ma Wan Peninsula, Tai Mo Shan and Tai Lam Country Park. Gentle rides can be found along water catchments, coastal pathways and closed roads (family pathways) at Plover Cove, South Lantau, Sha Tin, Tai Po and Tsuen Wan.

The city's compact nature makes it ideally suited to cycling - for commuters and those doing the activity as a hobby. 'I love cycling for the freedom it offers,' says photographer Stanley Shin, 32, who has ridden a bike for the past 15 years. 'It's great to get from A to B in a more enjoyable, quick and interesting way than by bus. I often go training around Hong Kong Island; and Tung Chung town down to the airport or Disneyland are also good cycling routes.'

Another enthusiast, Don Fung, 25, spends much of his free time cycling around Sha Tin, Ma On Shan and Tai Wai. 'I love being able to speed and exercise hard on my bike, and also to relax and hang out with friends when riding slowly,' he says.

Cycling is a sport that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. Once you start to ride a bike regularly you will notice a steady improvement in your overall fitness.

Over time, cycling increases the cardiovascular efficiency of the heart, lungs and circulation. It also reduces the risk of morbidity and mortality from coronary heart disease, stroke and obesity, and could help prevent Type 2 diabetes.

'Cycling is one of the most popular modes of exercise in Hong Kong,' says Lo Ka-kay, senior sports science officer at Hong Kong Sports Institute. 'Bike riding places less stress on our joints, tendons and muscles than many other forms of exercise, such as running, and decreases the risk of injuries, tendonitis and muscle pain. These factors are very important for people who are overweight - they can lose weight [from the moment they start] cycling.'

Lo says cycling is safe for both young and old, including those with joint or mobility problems. 'At the Institute we like to use cycling training for athletes with joint problems, or with injuries as a result of running, so that they maintain the training levels of their cardiovascular system.'

Two pieces of medical research published last year highlight cycling's health benefits.

Last August, the British Medical Journal reported findings suggesting that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a ratio of 77 to 1. A survey of 181,982 people signing up to a public cycle-hire scheme in the Spanish city of Barcelona compared the risks to cyclists with those to car users in the same busy urban area. It found cycling to be very low risk, even after negative factors such as pollution and crashes were considered. When taking only the risks of injury into account (cyclists are also exposed to air pollution), the benefit ratio rises to 415 to 1.

In another study, 5,000 healthy people, aged 21 to 90, were tracked over 20 years by researchers at Copenhagen's Bispebjerg Hospital in Denmark. They found that men who cycled quickly lived 5.3 years longer than those who cycled slowly. Men who cycled at an average pace lived 2.9 years longer. Among women, fast cyclists lived 3.9 years longer, and average-speed cyclists 2.2 years longer, than those cycling slowly.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This can be met through 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days per week, or 20 to 60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise three days per week.

Cycling is an ideal way to clock up those minutes, as it combines both low to moderate intensity (aerobic) and vigorous intensity (anaerobic) exercise.

For the most part, the activity is aerobic, meaning you're working at 50 to 85 per cent of your maximum effort, which can be sustained for long periods. When sprinting over short distances or biking up steep hills, you dip into the anaerobic zone, where you're putting in at least 80 to 85 per cent effort sustained for only a few minutes.

Aerobic exercise helps strengthen the heart and lungs, improve stamina, increase circulation and burn calories to help meet weight loss goals. Anaerobic exercise forces muscles to work in a state of oxygen deprivation, and strengthens muscles and bones.

Besides improving overall cardiovascular fitness, cycling can also help people to relax and can ease stress, improving quality of life. It raises endorphin levels in the brain, reducing feelings of pain and anxiety.

Saddle time can also help you think more clearly, as physicist and cycling fan Albert Einstein proved: 'I thought of [the theory of relativity] while riding my bicycle.'

Actor George Clooney and actress Michelle Pfeiffer both love their bikes, while British naturalist David Attenborough cycles whenever he can. Writers Ernest Hemingway, Iris Murdoch, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle were all enthusiasts.

'When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road,' Doyle said.

Professional cyclists, unsurprisingly, cycle for more than money and prizes. Italian Mario Cipollini, who ended his retirement in 2008 because he missed the sport, said: 'The bicycle has a soul. If you succeed to love it, it will give you emotions that you will never forget.'

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who also made a comeback, said: 'Chasing records doesn't keep me on my bike. Happiness does.'

Over the next four weeks, Health Post will run a series of articles aimed at getting you started in the sport. We'll look at how to select a bike, picking the right gear, and tips on safety and avoiding injuries.