Fake police sirens sound. People are laughing and there are cyclists everywhere. Hundreds of Athenians on their bikes ignore the surrounding buses, taxis, cars, motorcycles, scooters and even pedestrians. It’s Friday and Freeday is cruising through town. Some drivers and especially older Athenians yell, honk or try to squeeze their cars through the masses. Yet the chain can’t be broken; cyclistscut in with loud whistles and stern looks indicating that this night bicyclists have the right of way. Freeday is more than a green event in the Greek capital, and it is more than a meaningless provocation.
On the bikes with Thanos
As a foreigner, I sometimes feel uncomfortable in this chaos, and feel like we are acting a bit disrespectfully to the cars. ‘One of the cool things about Freeday is that we show that we can still have fun, although there are not a lot of things that are going well in Greece,’ says Thanos Andypas, a 26-year-old student and bike enthusiast from Pyreus, a harbour city in the larger metropolitan area of Athens, Attica. He is here together with four friends who share his passion. Thanos is comfortable on his mountain bike and plays around as we make our way towards the destination 390 metres above sea level, on a mountainside north of Athens.
'We show that we can still have fun, although there are not a lot of things that are going well in Greece’
Once we are clear of the centre and arrive to the more quiet suburbs at some distance from the aggressive Athenian traffic it’s easier to notice the different cyclists. Many groups of friends are here – with a slight majority of young males in their twenties or thirties – but also many couples, and all age groups ranging from children up to some who look like they may be above 70. Even a group of nineteen Dutch males in their twenties have joined the race in their blue, yellow and white polos. Before coming to spend a week as tourists in Athens they had heard about Freeday through an aunt who lives in Athens. ‘I have also been here alone a couple of times and I am still in touch with some of the people I’ve met here. We meet each other at other bicyclist events or just to hang out,’ Thanos explains.
'This is Greece'
Plans are to expand the bicycling infrastructure in Athens –there are 250 kilometres of designated bicycle paths – but Thanos is sceptical about whether it will actually happen. ‘This is Greece,’ he laughs shortly, pausing to see if I get the point. Although change may happen slowly here, Thanos is proud to be a part of the Greek culture and history. ‘Some say that Greece is the last country where we are still brought up to care about our family, our country, and our religion. Maybe also because it is one of the few things we have left right now,’ Thanos remarks somewhat unwillingly. Yannis Parasuivopoulos from the political party Ecologists Greece says Freeday is the kind of social movement that has the potential to build up much wanted social solidarity in Greece, which traditionally lies with his family and maybe with his profession.
Although the organisers do not want to claim a political purpose of the event, some cyclists use an initiative like Freeday as a way to show their independence from established social structures such as cars, and show that as a group we can stand up against them. Parasuivopoulos argues that in the struggle of looking for ways to solve the financial crisis, with the price of gas increasing, the Greeks are becoming more prepared to make ‘a sustainable u-turn’ where choosing bicycles over cars is seen as one part of the solution. Freeday is also a break from local socialising culture. ‘These days my friends and I can’t afford to go out to bars every night, so instead sometimes we buy beers in kiosks and sit down on a square and meet new people. At Freeday, although it can sometimes be a bit too crazy for me, I don’t have to spend money on drinks, I get exercise and I meet new people who share my passion for bicycling,’ Thanos rounds off.
Images: main cyclists © Freeday official facebook page; in-text bike lane © Ulrik Borch