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Deej Fabian and his friends after climbing Boso Boso in Antipolo, Philippines. Photo: Courtesy of Deej Fabian
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How the Pandemic Got People Biking Again, Even in Asia’s Congested Cities

Biking is one of 2020’s most unexpected trends — an activity you can do at a safe distance, while appreciating nature and cityscapes.
December 11, 2020, 10:25am

Early in 2020, Filipino photographer and event producer Deej Fabian went from roaming Manila daily to being glued to his gaming chair at home. The pandemic restrictions were affecting his physical and mental health and after feeling sick from exhaustion during a simple bike ride, he knew he had to do something about it. 

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Casas (middle) and Fabian (right) with their cycling friends. Photo: Courtesy of Deej Fabian

“[I] realized how horrible my health was. After that, I made a resolve to trying it again,” Fabian told VICE. And so his cycling journey began.

“From then on, I just kept joining group rides, and noticed my stamina and endurance kept getting better as the rides went. I monitored my improvements and that totally got me hooked … I started sleeping properly, feeling better, and my mood was lighter.”

“I started sleeping properly, feeling better, and my mood was lighter.”

Fabian now regularly bikes to nearby provinces with a bunch of his friends, many of whom only rediscovered cycling in 2020. And they’re just some of the many people who have taken to the busy streets and rural trails of Asia this year.

In part due to quarantine restrictions, biking has become one of 2020’s most unexpected trends — a sport you can do at a safe distance, while appreciating nature and cityscapes. It’s also a mode of transportation with no risk of crowding, an activity that lends itself well to wide open spaces, and a good alternative to gym workouts. 

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Photo: Courtesy of Deej Fabian

In Manila, where Fabian is based, the suspension of public transportation in areas under quarantine earlier this year forced commuters to use bicycles to get around. Now that mass transport facilities are operating at limited capacity, people continue to turn to their bikes. 

Cycling used to be an expensive hobby loved by well-off middle-aged men — kinda like golf — but an influx of bike shops in recent years suddenly made affordable brands accessible to the wider public. Now, younger Filipinos are biking more too. The trend has gotten so big that local governments have — finally — started to designate bike lanes on roads. Many of Manila’s new cyclists opt for gravel bikes, a hybrid of a mountain bike and road bike, to take on the bumpy streets. 

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“I got into it because I wanted an exercise that allowed me to go around Manila during the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ),” architect Felix Imperial told VICE. 

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Imperial speeding through Manila. Photo: Courtesy of Felix Imperial

He said it was much easier to get around when a stricter quarantine was enforced. Now that Manila’s usual traffic has resumed, problems like roadblocks and errant drivers have returned too. Imperial now chooses to ride his bike early in the morning or late at night to avoid the rush hour. Many wish Manila was more bike-friendly. 

“It’s taught me that the traffic and public transport systems here not only could be better but they should be better,” advertising producer and photographer Carlo Casas told VICE. “Prioritizing the people in the city instead of the cars would be a great start here.”

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Casas poses with his bike in the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City. Photo: Courtesy of Carlo Casas

It’s a similar situation in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta. Like Metro Manila, Jakarta has one of the worst traffic congestion in the world, but more people have started biking in the city since the pandemic started. 

In June, Jakarta saw a 500 percent increase in cycling activity compared to 2019. As one of the cities in the region hit hardest by COVID-19, residents found that it was crucial to maintain their physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, with the rise of biking also came a rise of begal (street robbers) targeting cyclists on the road, with cases shooting up throughout October and November. Biking communities in Indonesia are now working to spread awareness about these begal incidents. Urban cycling community Bike2Work shared photos of bicycle riders with signs on their backs that read: “I am poor. Don’t rob me, please.”

For Kuala Lumpur-based IT consultant Efrem Gabriel and software developer Darius Reyes, it was the closure of their favorite sport centers that led them to biking. Gabriel often played basketball with friends but early in the pandemic, cycling and jogging were one of the few things allowed under Malaysia’s protocols, thus beginning his two-wheeled adventure. 

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Gabriel and his cycling crew in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Courtesy of Efrem Gabriel

“I’ve been here [in Malaysia for] five years and cycling didn’t cross my mind. I have basketball and some computer games, but now I think I’ll keep cycling even after the pandemic ends,” he told VICE. 

If Reyes’ gym hadn’t closed, he would still be practicing Muay Thai and yoga. But after purchasing his bike a month ago and inviting a friend for a ride, he fell in love with cycling.

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“Before, I thought I may not enjoy cycling because it’s really hot here in KL, but I ended up liking it anyway. I think it’s the fact that you get to go outside and interact with people,” he said. 

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Reyes and his recently purchased bike in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Courtesy of Darius Reyes

In 2018, the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) added an 11-kilometer bike lane, which cyclists initially criticized for being inconvenient and dangerous. However, Gabriel and Reyes said that they personally have not faced challenges on the road, with the help of their respective bike groups. One of their favorite routes is around the residential Bukit Tunku area — despite an uphill climb — because of its peak and beautiful view.

In neighboring Singapore, bicycle shops are running out of stock and prices of some brands have reportedly gone up. “There is definitely more increased ownership now, rather than relying on shared bicycles,” Dominic Chia, retail lead of MyBikeShop SG, told VICE. Despite the high demand, he said that cycling is still more of a leisure activity. 

“It has become more popular as a family weekend activity here. Cycling is still done more as a recreational activity here rather than a public-wide mode of commute. The factors that discourage this are the humid weather and the lack of facilities for showers and storage around Singapore.”

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Singapore also has an efficient public transport system and managed to control the spread of the coronavirus early on. 

The biking trend has also reached Tokyo, even though cycling was already quite popular in Japan. The city is infamous for its crowded trains during peak hours and according to bike shop owner Soshi Kuwata, people wanted to avoid this during the pandemic. 

“In fact, sometimes biking is a faster way to get around than public transportation in the city,” Kuwata, the owner of Soshi’s Tokyo Bike Tour and Shop, told VICE. 

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Kuwata during a bike ride in Tokyo. Photo: Courtesy of Soshi Kuwata

The Japanese government has encouraged residents to ride their bikes this year by creating more bike lanes and tightening rules on biking. It added up to 15 new regulations, with fines that go up to 50,000 yen ($479) for violators. 

“It’s good for your health, physically and mentally. It’s also very useful too. You can go much further than walking and you can stop and spend your time anywhere you want,” Kuwata said.

He also noted that adopting cycling early on has given Japan an upper hand when the trend sparked in the region. “The world’s biking demand in general has had a positive effect on Japanese bike parts makers like Shimano,” he said. 

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Despite everything the pandemic has changed in people’s lives, Casas, the advertising producer from Manila, said he’s happy that he rediscovered biking as a way to look at his city from a new perspective. 

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A biker outside Manila's Quiapo Church. Photo: Courtesy of Carlo Casas

“I’ve been able to appreciate the city a lot more. I can enjoy moving around Manila at my own pace; I can stop pretty much whenever I want to take photos or rest. And I can smell everything  — from the stench of the river to the ihaw (grill) stands on the street. I’ve been able to eat at places I haven’t been to in years due to being unwilling to drive the distance,” Casas said.

Fabian, the event producer, agreed that one upside from 2020 is his newfound love for biking. 

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Cyclists ride along Clark, Pampanga's bike lanes. Photo: Courtesy of Carlo Casas

“This pandemic made it (biking) a necessity for me, both for mental and physical health, and if it wasn’t a necessity, I might have never found my love for it,” he said. “Now, I’ve realized the benefits of cycling for myself and I’ve seen how much it’s changed my friends’ lives as well. I’m probably never letting go of this ... hobby.”