“Riding an electric bike is a euphoric experience. You no longer feel the bump of cobblestones or curbs. You can just pedal and revel in the speed. The ease with which you can ride around Prague, without breaking a sweat, can make you cocky, so remember, ride safely,” says Forum’s Jitka Jiřičková. The new bikes should be available to staff at CU in September. Two of our vice-rectors, Radka Wildová and Jan Royt, tried the bikes ahead of time… as did our reporter.
On my test run, I was joined by Jakub Ditrich of Ekolo.cz. He planned several routes among Charles University faculties in the city centre: our first destination was the Faculty of Law near the embankment. If you think we took a shortcut across the Old Town Square, no way: it was the long way around – from Revoluční Street to the banks of the Vltava for us.
Getting around with ease is what e-bikes are made for: they are quick, efficient, and ecologically-friendly (reaching a maximum speed of 24 km/h with a battery life of 80 km in Prague terrain). But riding in Prague traffic can be tricky: there are lots of cars, pedestrians, tourists, trams, and other riders to watch out for. Cycle paths are available along some routes but not others – so be watchful and mindful of traffic as you go.
If you are a traditional cyclist, turning on the power on a bike takes a little getting used to. But it’s also cool: first you hit the button to turn it on, then you activate a control panel on the handlebars and set the speed of the engine’s assistance mode from a variable of one to five (depending on how much added help you need during your ride).
And we’re off.
I discover the first “pitfall” just outside the Powder Gate, where there is a one-way bike lane that veers off in a different direction than our destination. It takes a second to get my bearings. “It's a rush, isn't it?” my guide laughs as we navigate among taxis and other cyclists. “Always cross the tram tracks diagonally,” he adds as we cross the square at Naměstí republiky (the last thing you want is for your tire to slide on the track or get stuck, which could turn ugly).
On Revoluční, we glide through with the rest of the traffic to the first red light. The traffic lights show an additional bike pictogram, which is curious as this side of the street is without a marked bike path as yet. The official cycleway only runs on the opposite side of the street! “Once they extend it, the semaphore will already be here, ready," my guide laughs.
As an experienced cyclist – used to biking daily from the village of Černý vůl near Horoměřice just outside of Prague – Jakub is not put off by signals or signs on paths that end abruptly or don’t yet exist. We continue. He bikes ahead, calmly turning at the intersection that leads us parallel to the Vltava River. Here, cyclists finally feel the city is theirs. There is more room to breathe, even if, at peak times, traffic can be dense here as well.
More people should ride
The use of bicycles as a means of transport in Prague still lags far behind other major cities, including Bratislava, which is a shame, Jakub says, because on the whole many Czechs own bikes, often more than one. Cycling accounts for a maximum of three percent of transport in Prague. Although the coronavirus increased the number of cyclists who commuted by up to 40 percent year on year, it is still a rather courageous means of transport.
At Čech Bridge, I get off the bike and instinctively want to hook its frame over my shoulder and carry it up the stairs, but whoa! I have misjudged the difference between an electric bike and a classic one, with a battery weighing up to five kilos. Electric bikes are awesome but lifting and carrying them? Not so much.
We follow the embankment until reaching the Faculty of Law at 17 listopadu Street near Pařížská. A word of advice: to leave the electric bike at any university building, look for a barrier free entrance or car park entrance from where you can ring the front desk. The Faculty of Arts, only a few blocks away, has a back entrance and inside courtyard, used often by Charles University Vice-Rector Jan Royt, who also took the opportunity to try one of the new e-bikes (Above: Royt cycling by the Carolinum).
Across the river
Charles University’s Faculty of Mathematics and Physics (nicknamed Matfyz) is located across the Vltava at Malostranké náměstí. We pedal across the bridge, which takes only a few minutes and follow a longer route around the Czech Senate in order to avoid a parallel road with both tram tracks and cobblestones. When we arrive, it’s easy to get to Matfyz’s courtyard to park the bikes but difficult to lift the bike into the vertical position of the faculty’s bike stands. Jakub shows me an option by which users can “walk the bike” with electrical assistance (4 to 6 km/h) which makes it far easier to tilt the bike back to get it into the rack. But I still find it just too difficult and so lock the bike to a nearby rail instead.
Later, we head to the Faculty of Education by way of Újezd and for the first time experience something like panic as the ride there is very bumpy, through congested traffic including trams. A driver lets me overtake his vehicle and move ahead but another honks at Jakub who, however, is unperturbed. He concentrates and calmly continues to zip along pretty much down the middle of the lane. The driver has to wait as there is no room to overtake the cyclist due to oncoming cars and trams.
Don’t get forced to the curb
“Often the road is so narrow that when overtaking, the driver is forced to move into the oncoming lane. They try to pass you anyway. They can make you feel you should be riding as close as possible to the shoulder of the road or the curb, but don’t: that is dangerous for cyclists. You don't want to end up in the gutter or splattered on a curb just to accommodate a car! For your safety, you should take the centre of the lane, which is your right. But most cyclists lack the confidence to do so,” says Jakub. As we reach the Legion Bridge and get away from the worst, I can feel the speed of the bike again. And it's awesome.
Riding an electric bike in Prague is, on the whole, so very fun as well as very efficient. That proves the case when we run into CU Vice-Rector Radka Wildová whose car is blocked by a double-parked van. Could we lend her one of our blue e-bikes? To help her get to her meeting on time? We oblige and she is off in a jiffy. Meanwhile, I borrow the photographer's bike.
Most likely from September, electric bikes will be available to all Charles University staff. To borrow a bike, employees have to provide the attendants at the Carolinum’s front desk with their employee card and enter their data in the loan book, in return for a lock and helmet security code. Once introduced, the bikes will be parked at charging stations in the rectory's courtyard and will be available between 9 am and 7 pm on weekdays. It should make short distances between the university’s many buildings and workplaces, fun to traverse. Riding e-bikes, I found, is an absolute joy.