Living Strong in Korea

This was originally posted as part of 30 Days of Biking, a group dedicated to riding their bikes “every, friggin’, day.” Since it was a few months ago now, and I promised to cross post it here, I decided it was time for this post to be cemented in the memory of Schoolhouse ROK readers everywhere. It’s worth noting that about a month following this post, the air pollution and heavy traffic got to be a little exhausting and I stuck to riding to school and back only. With that caveat, I stand by my words that Korea is a great place to explore by bike.

I had that dream again, the one where Lance Armstrong visits my little city in the Seoul suburbs as part of a new tour for LIVESTRONG, and for some reason, the powers that be put me in charge of giving him the bike tour of the city. It’s a strange dream for a few reasons, chiefly among them being that I’m not Korean but in fact a temporary resident of this town, here to teach English for the year and then be on my way. It starts at my tiny office-tel apartment wheeling my Surly out of the oversized walk-in closet of a living space I call home.

“We’ll go out on the main road right in front of the apartment here, take a left and head toward Lake Park, then loop around Daehwa-dong, and follow the Gyeonggui railroad line around the north end of town,” I tell Lance on the elevator ride down, “it’s one of my favorite rides.” Lance, of course, does not need to cram his bike into the elevator because his bike is waiting with some team hands from his crew. We strap on the helmets, and then head out.

Someone who has won the Tour de France as many times as Lance might not find this route incredibly thrilling, but the options are limited in this city, and this really is one of my favorite rides around the Ilsan district of Goyang, and it probably is the one I would take Lance on if I were so fortunate. The trickiest part of the whole loop is fending off the traffic.

In Korea, especially in the bigger cities, traffic can be a bit intimidating. Drivers on the mean streets of Ilsan are erratic at best and inattentive at their worst. Because biking is so popular here and traffic laws are a bit looser, drivers are used to sharing the road with smaller, slow-moving, non-motorized vehicles, which sometimes makes biking on the streets easy. The problems then, tend to be more with regard to people parking on corners, stopping in the middle of intersections, and being impatient at stoplights. It could be worse, but it’s the best option available.

Goyang prides itself on being a city of fitness. The tagline “Let’s Goyang” is plastered all over the city, and there are wide sidewalks and bike lanes along most major roads. A network of parks, parkways, and pedestrian zones make this town surprisingly easy to navigate on foot or by bike, despite its lack of street names or real addresses—as long as you have a good mental map. Most of the parkways stem from one central point, Lake Park. Here, a 5km bike/jogging loop winds its way around the largest artificial body of water in the peninsula. It’s a fine ride around the lake, and generally the earlier you can get out the better, particularly on the weekends. Since it is the only real place for sustained, outdoor recreation in Ilsan, it gets a bit crowded.

The off-street bike lanes in Korea suffer from the same problems that off-street lanes elsewhere face. They are rarely separate from the walker-only sidewalks, and if they are, it is even less likely to see a physical barrier between the two or see those barriers respected by cars, busses, and delivery scooters. Usually a white stripe painted down the center of the sidewalk, or a strip of the same stone the curbs are made from, marks the lanes. If the sidewalk narrows, the bike lane is the first to go, and regardless of how clearly marked the bike lane is, pedestrians will meander on over to the smoother, less crowded pavement on your side. The other problem with riding on the sidewalk is that sidewalks have curbs, and curbs hurt when you take them at 30kph (18mph) (if you can ever get going that fast on the sidewalk). These are curbs are not your run-of-the-mill, rounded-concrete corners, these are a little under a foot tall, mini-walls of granite meant to deter cars; just imagine what it would do to a road bike tire.

Riding on the streets may be dangerous, but it is definitely my preferred method. The ride I dream of taking Lance on is one of the longer rides I’ve managed to map out around Ilsan, and it was supposed to be longer, but to my surprise, half of the road on the far end of the trip was under construction. The only thing harder than biking around cars is biking around construction sites. This may be a universal truth, but in Korea, where as little of the road is closed as possible, it’s particularly prudent to wear a helmet, ride defensively, and react quickly to the unexpected.

My ultimate goal is to figure out how to get to Seoul from Goyang on my bike, but for the month of April, I’m determined to map a new route each day. Who knows, maybe Lance will show up some day.