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Spain's Cyclists Don't Include Average Spaniards

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Tour de France wrapped up this past weekend with Spaniard Alberto Contador as the winner. Contador's victory means Spanish cyclists have won the tour for the last four years in a row. And although cycling as a sport is extremely popular in Spain, there's a contradiction here. Hardly anybody there uses a bicycle to go to work or run errands or just get around - as Jerome Socolovsky found when he went out with his kids.

(Soundbite of bicycle horn)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: We're on our bikes this morning like every morning and we're going to take my eldest son to his swimming class at the municipal pool.

Watch out for this car, Mendo(ph), that's backing up.

And we've just arrived at the pool. This is where we lock up our bikes, and our bikes are the only ones here.

Unidentified boy: Papa, take off your helmet, papa.

SOCOLOVSKY: Yeah, I'll take off my helmet.

Whenever I ride with my kids in Spain, people look at us like we're from another planet. According to the European Union, the average Spaniard bikes just 12 miles a year compared to between 500 and 600 miles for the average Dutchman or Dane. Even the car-loving Germans can manage almost 200 miles a year.

But paradoxically, Spain has the perfect climate for biking. It's a favorite training ground for the world's competitive cyclists, including Lance Armstrong who lived here for several years. You'd be hard pressed to find another country where the people who cycle as a sport are so obsessive about it. Every weekend, the roads outside Madrid are crowded with cyclists clad in their flashy skintight suits.

(Soundbite of vehicle passing)

SOCOLOVSKY: So here I am on my old mountain bike and I'm trying to catch up to one of the cyclists on this very steep road. As you can hear, hola, buenas dias.

Twenty-eight year-old Tomas Hernand(ph) says he and his friends are drawn to cycling by their love of the outdoors.

Mr. TOMAS HERNAND (Cyclist): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It helps you keep in shape, escape the monotony of the city, and enjoy the views, he says. But pressed on why there's very little casual cycling in Spain, 51-year-old Francisco Iyune(ph)says you have to be crazy to get on a bike in most Spanish cities.

Mr. FRANCISO IYUNE: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Look at our culture, he says as he points to the cars and motorcycles racing by. Everyone's in a rush. We cyclists are just in the way.

This is a country that jumped from poverty into headlong economic development in the late '80s and '90s. Spain's newly built infrastructure, combined with a passion for sport, is finally paying off in international medals. But many Spaniards look down on using a bicycle for transport the same way they would see riding a donkey.

The parking garage of a new suburban shopping mall is full of latest model cars. Almudeno Moreno(ph) says she doesn't even have a bike.

Ms. ALMUDENO MORENO: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It's too hilly and too hot, she says.

Ms. REBECCA SANCHEZ(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Because we have cars, we're very lazy, says high school student Rebecca Sanchez.

It seems that even the success of Alberto Contador and his countrymen in the Tour de France won't get more Spaniards biking, with their kids, to the pool.

(Soundbite of bicycle horn)

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jerome Socolovsky
Jerome Socolovsky is NPR's Audio Journalism Trainer. During a career of more than three decades, mostly overseas, he has covered major events such as 1994 civil war in Yemen, the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the Lockerbie airliner bombing trial and international war crimes proceedings in The Hague. As NPR's correspondent in Madrid, he reported on the 2004 Madrid commuter rail attacks and the immigration crisis on Europe's southern border. Socolovsky has been an editor at Morning Edition, and on the National, International and Culture Desks at NPR. Prior to that, he was a reporter for the Associated Press and the Voice of America and served as Editor-in-Chief of Religion News Service from 2015-2018.