5:37pm

Thu August 1, 2013
Europe

Cyclists Take Nighttime Ride Through Moscow's History

Originally published on Thu August 1, 2013 5:48 pm

Moscow is a city steeped in history — and clogged with traffic. It's among the world's most congested centers, renowned for erratic drivers and dangerous roads.

In an effort to appreciate the history and avoid the gridlock, cyclists have been getting together since 2007 for an annual late-night tour to explore the capital by bike.

Thousands participated in this year's Velonoch, which translates to "Bike Night." Most were in their 20s and 30s. Some had tricked out their bikes for the occasion, weaving lights through their spokes or tying on balloons. Fat raindrops splatted against plastic ponchos. Smart riders carried thermoses of hot tea.

The free ride is the brainchild of Sergey Nikitin, who teaches urban history at Moscow's Higher School of Economics and has put together historical tours for more than a decade.

The cyclists use FM radio to hear historians and architects talk about sights along the route. Beginning at midnight and lasting until roughly 5 a.m., this year's ride wound through the south of the city, far from Red Square, and was dedicated to the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Here is a collection of images from the event:

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Moscow is a city steeped in history and really bad traffic. It's among the world's most congested cities, renowned for its erratic drivers and dangerous streets. So in an effort to appreciate Moscow's history and avoid the gridlock, cyclists have started an annual tradition, a late-night tour to explore the capital by bike.

Susan Armitage went along for the ride and sent us this postcard.

SUSAN ARMITAGE, BYLINE: It's shortly after midnight on a rainy summer night. Thousands of people are registered to ride through the night and have gathered in this Moscow park. Most cyclists are young, in their 20s and 30s. Some have tricked out their bikes for the occasion, weaving lights through their spokes or tying on balloons. Fat raindrops splat against plastic ponchos. Smart riders carry thermoses of hot tea. This is Moscow's Velonoch or bike night.

The free ride comes around once a year and is the brainchild of Sergey Nikitin. He teaches urban history at Moscow's Higher School of Economics and has put together historical tours for more than a decade. Six years ago, he suggested midnight tours by bike. He says his colleagues initially had their doubts, but he went ahead with it anyway.

SERGEY NIKITIN: It was 100 people and a lot of dogs that were following us and barking at us. So it was fun.

ARMITAGE: Since then, similar events have been organized in Rome, London, Saint Petersburg, New York and Istanbul. The cyclists use FM radio to hear historians and architects talk about sights along the route, which winds through the south of the city, far from Red Square. Each year has a theme. This year paid homage to the early 20th century revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovski.

The broodingly handsome young writer was known for his verbal pyrotechnics and tumultuous love affairs. On the radio, his verses crackle above the rain-washed apartment blocks in this sleepy part of Moscow.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) You sit here today with an ironclad heart. One more day, you'll toss me out.

ARMITAGE: The poem ends with Mayakovski speaking of his love's retreating path. The rain-slicked streets are eerily empty, except for two-wheeled traffic. The police have closed the route to cars. But staying together is no small feat as the thousands of cyclists snake along Moscow's roads in the pouring rain. A clump of riders has formed before a busy intersection, maybe a sign we've split off from the main group? A bewildered pedestrian elbows her way through the sea of bikes to catch a bus across the street.

Aleksei, a student, tries to explain what's happening.

ALEKSEI: Now, we're waiting, and it's about eight kilometers to the park zone Tsaritsyno. Someone think that we are on the wrong way there.

ARMITAGE: My teeth are chattering a bit from having waited half an hour in my wet clothes. I think we're in the home stretch. Maybe, in tribute to the Russian soul, the ride wouldn't be complete without a little suffering.

It's nearly dawn when after some 16 miles, the ride reaches Kolomenskoye Park, once a country estate for Russia's royals. The white stone spire of a 16th century church looms dramatically against the deep blue sky. By sunrise, the showers have finally let up. On the bank of the river, a band plays a classic song from an old Soviet movie, "Ya Shagayu Po Moskve," "Walking Through Moscow." It's a love letter to the Russian capital and to summer rain.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Armitage in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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