SQUEAKY WHEELS: (from left to right) Irek Bartyzel, Anna Gluch and Rafal Dlugolecki say they are impressed with the quality of bike lanes and rental shop services.
KLAIPEDA - The long awaited spring arrived this week, bringing mid-July temperatures, driving all bicycle fans out from the indoors. Some two-wheeler lovers from as far as Latvia, Kaliningrad and Poland hurried to get onto ferries bound for the 52-kilometer bike lanes on the Curonian Spit, Lithuania’s Mecca of cycle-leisure lovers.
“We have been to Lithuania before, but never made it to the bike lanes along the Baltic Sea coast on the Curonian Spit, though we’ve heard a lot of excellent feedback from other Polish cycling fans who went for bike rides there. Having taken advantage of a couple of extra days off, and the biking opportunity on the Spit, we set out for Klaipeda, where we stayed with our Lithuanian friends,” Rafal Dlugolecki told The Baltic Times.
Along with his other two friends, he rented bikes for last Sunday from Du ratai-BaltiCCycle, a bike rental service at the Klaipeda Pier. “I left very content with the service and the rental price. And the lanes, so picturesque, clean, crowd-less and pine-and-spring-greenery-smell-saturated, along the Baltic Sea, were beyond our expectations. The Polish bike lanes on the Polish Baltic coast are a lot shorter and much less impressive,” the 36-year-old Pole said.
Anna Gluch, his female friend and a lawyer in Krakow, also showered the Curonian Spit’s bike lanes with compliments. “We had a very enjoyable ride. The rental fare - 20 litas a day - is far less than what you could expect in Poland. The bike ride was comfortable and no squeaky wheels, a sign of good maintenance. Poles really could envy the serene and beautiful nature’s panorama along the bike lanes,” Gluch said to The Baltic Times.
Asta Ruzinskiene, a representative of Du ratai-BaltiCCycle, says that the bike rental service offers nearly 200 bikes at its Klaipeda location. “The season has gotten off to a very good start, as I’ve rented nearly one-third of all bikes during the unusually hot end-of-April days. The rental price is 20 litas per day till May 1, and then it will go up to 40 litas. I believe the attractive price also was important to many,” Ruzinskiene said to The Baltic Times.
She says that the rental service started offering a new service: renting a bike anywhere at any BaltiCCycle point and the possibility of returning it at any other. “It is very convenient. One can rent his bike in Klaipeda and drop it off in Riga or Tallinn,” she says.
Bike helps save, but mentality has to be considered
The statistics say that every year more Lithuanians choose two-wheelers for their leisure and as a means of transport. However, the progress of the latter is slow with poorly developed bicycle infrastructure and the dangers bike riders encounter on the streets. “Certainly, a bike is the best thing in dealing with the traffic jams in Vilnius. Second, it allows avoiding all that rush hour elbow-nudging in public transport. Third, a bike is about healthiness and a good mood, even in the off-season. Every Dutch or German acknowledges these benefits. But when it comes to Lithuania, the mentality for a bike as a means of transport is still quite different. I don’t think that my boss, at an IT company, would be happy to see me in rumpled trousers, or, even worse, with a rancid smell,” says Algirdas, a student who spent a few years in Germany.
He notes that Vilnius lacks a bicycle-friendly infrastructure, as there are only a few far-reaching bicycle lanes. After an accident in winter that left him bruised all over, he put the bike in the garage and uses public transport for now.
Antanas, a resident of Vilnius, explaining his decision to saddle up on his bike instead of cozying up behind the wheel of his car, pointed to the current gas prices in Lithuania. “With the current price hovering at two dollars per one liter, I figured I’d spend over 30 litas for gas per day. If I were to use Vilnius’ public transport, I’d spend roughly 10 litas, as I need to take a connecting bus to reach my job. The bike ride costs me nothing,” the 56-year-old security guard said to The Baltic Times.
“The bike causes only a few inconveniences: it takes me twice as much time to get to my work on the bike than in the car. And, sure, the weather factor also matters,” the car-driver-turned-bicyclist added.
Bike infrastructure needs improvement
However, Martynas Cerkauskas, advisor for the Minister of Communications and Transport, says that Lithuania, in the context of Western Europe, where cycling is very popular as a means of transport, lags behind old Europe. “Unfortunately, the bicycle infrastructure is not as much developed as we wish it were. But this should be a concern of local municipalities, as the Ministry gives allocations only to the building of bike lanes, only along the state highways. Also for laying down lanes connecting major population regions, and if they are tourism-oriented,” the ministry representative emphasized.
According to Grazvydas Jakubauskas, interim head of the Expansion and Innovation Division of the Transport Politics Department at the Ministry, in larger towns, bicycles, for many years, have been considered as a recreational transport, also serving the cause of active leisure and tourism. “That is why many towns have not created, until now, united bicycle networks. No one, until recently, thought that the bike could be used as a two-wheeled vehicle to get to work or school. The plight has also been encumbered by lack of planning and the projecting of bicycle lanes. Therefore, the municipalities often did whatever they thought was the best for them: painting bicycle lane stripes on sidewalks or combining traffic for both bicyclists and cars,” Jakubauskas said.
He says that the percentage of bike riders in the general travel structure doesn’t exceed half a percent, while the EU average is at 5 percent.
Virginijus Pauza, director of City Property and Transport Department at Vilnius City Municipality, says that bicycle lane infrastructure development and lane promotion has been one of the city’s priorities. The municipality official says the general length of Vilnius bicycle lanes is 94 kilometers, as two new lanes are to be added to the mileage.
However, Vilnius municipality was not among the other six Lithuanian municipalities to have participated in the Communication and Transportation Ministry’s tender to build EU sponsored European-standard exemplary bicycle lanes. Officially, the municipality explained it had not had enough time to prepare the necessary paperwork on time.
Spring bike customers cannot make up their minds
If one were to take a look at local bike stores, one could find a very large variety of cycles and price range. “Generally, the price range is from 50 to 10,000 litas, so a big supply is available.
However, store bike sales could be a lot better if not for the second-hand bikes at local markets. Their sales take up a significant part of the business. It is a public secret, however, that many bikes in local markets are stolen. I hardly believe that even a second-hand superb-brand bicycle can be sold for a couple hundred litas. Alas, some Lithuanians do not even shy away to tell everyone that they are going to the market to buy a cheap, good quality but stolen bike,” Viktoras Malinauskas, a bicycle store owner in Klaipeda, told The Baltic Times.
Rytis Paulikatis, director of Vasare, a bicycle store, claims that bicycles are among the goods whose popularity is constantly rising. “For many Lithuanians, the bicycle is one of the most enjoyable leisure alternatives. With comparably little investment, as it can be used for many purposes,” says Paulikaitis.
He claims it’s too early to tell how bicycle sales will go this season. The businessman, however, expects this year to be better than the previous year. “The mid-July temperatures we are having this week have been a miracle for me. I’ve sold as many bikes this week as in an entire murky summer month. However, most customers needed bike maintenance services and repair work. To tell the truth, with only one store sales assistant, who is also our repairman, we could hardly handle the number of bike-ride thirsty customers,” Malinauskas said.
He notes that the bicycle buyers he had seemed to be having difficulty making up their minds. “It’s natural that bicycle buyers need more time to choose what they like and what suits them most, but the spring customers seem to be too hesitant,” he said.
“From what I have seen over the last couple of days, most people, price-wise, stick with the middle-range prices, somewhere around 1,000 litas. A good sign for all bicycle sellers is that even budget-tight Lithuanians prefer buying their bicycle in a specialized bicycle store, not in Maxima, like before,” he says.
Youngsters are especially choosy
Vytautas, a salesman and consultant at Dviratis Plius, a specialized bicycle store, says that customer numbers have been going up lately, but cautions that bicycles are especially susceptible to economic fluctuations. “Many Lithuanians, particularly elderly ones, think this way: “If I save some money and the economic outlook currently in the news stays, then probably I will buy a bicycle,” says the salesperson.
Most bicycle sellers maintain that many Lithuanians are ready to pay in the price range of 1,200-2,000 litas. “What is attributive to Lithuanians is that most of them want the most advanced bicycles of the best brands at the lowest price,” notes Malinauskas. He adds: “And, sure, many haggle over the price.”
In the bicycle market, he says every year’s global bicycle fashions set certain trends, but the novelties’ inroads into the Lithuanian market are hindered by their high prices. “No need to say no one can compare the salaries of Lithuanians and Germans. However, some years ago, one could hardly imagine that somebody in Lithuania could buy a 3,000-litas bicycle. Now this price tag is affordable to many,” says the store owner.
The bicycle store owner says he cannot name any special bicycle style that customers are especially interested in. “Usually town or mountain bikes are the most sought-after,” he says.
Speaking of the clientele, he says the bulk of it is people up to their 40s. “But the youngsters are especially choosy when it comes to the assortment,” the businessman notes.
As for the sales segment according to gender, he says that men edge out women by a little. The store owner suggests that women customers, as a rule, come in with male companions capable of giving a piece of advice on bicycles. “Some men also come with their male friends, who are more knowledgeable of bicycles. I never saw a man coming in to buy a bicycle with his wife or female friends, only with men,” Malinauskas noted.