As the weather starts to heat up, many are taking up cycling for either commuting or sport.
The number of bicycle riders has gone up steadily over the past few years here. According to the Korea Transport Institute, it now stands at more than 13 million people, translating into 1 in 4 Koreans.
The growing affection toward bikes is hardly a surprise for commuters. People in metropolitan cities with notorious rush-hour traffic need an alternative transportation option.
Ho Sung-hyun bikes downhill. (Bak Se-hwan/The Korea Herald)
For avid enthusiasts, like Ho Sung-hyun, cycling is far more than just a way of getting around. It is, among other things, a way for him to let off some steam.
“Cycling turns me into a different person. While it is as friendly and enjoyable as any other sport in the world, it can be also very competitive and push you to go past your limits,” Ho said.
Unlike in Europe, where the annual three-week Tour de France attracts hundreds of thousands of roadside supporters a day, professional racing still draws little attention here.
But more are beginning to find pleasure through intense pedaling.
“You start with a group together first, smiling and chatting away. When you start the climb, it all becomes a matter of who will climb up there faster.”
The 41-year-old business man regularly rides up Bugaksan in northern Seoul, one of the city’s most popular roads for cyclists.
While climbing, he endures pain and pressure in his legs and his lungs struggle for air.
Some kilometers later, Ho finally reaches the top, exhausted. He exchanges handshakes with his companions, and looks down at a stunning view of the light-glittering city.
“Every time, I love the challenge of steep hills,” Ho said. “It’s definitely a getaway from work. I’m a new me on a saddle.”
Members of a cycling club climb the incline of a road in Gyeonggi Province. (Bak Se-hwan/The Korea Herald)
Park Se-hoon, a 45-year-old company worker, cycles around the country. He said there were some reasons behind his growing affinity with cycling.
For one thing, Park enjoys spending money on his ultra-lightweight carbon bike with high-end components and a bike computer.
Like many of his cycling friends in the online sport club With Bike, where he has been a member since 2015, he also believes the country has great places to explore and world-class infrastructure for cycling.
“We have bike lanes everywhere, leading to paths all around the country, alongside mountains and astonishing rivers,” Park said.
Ever since he bought a road bike in 2013 to stay fit, he has become a fan of long rides and the sociable nature of cycling.
On the weekend, the amateur cyclist travels with five to six club members to find a new cycling mecca to hit, including his recent ride to Homyeongsan, Gyeonggi Province, east of Seoul.
“The mountain itself has a good level of tension and thrills with curves and many ups and downs. It takes less than 30 minutes on the road to get to the top,” Park said.
“But the pleasure also comes from on the way to the mountain, some 60 kilometers away from Seoul, with stunning lakes and views you would never forget.”
Large-scale amateur races are held every year, putting a spotlight on the sport as well.
Some of these local events are designed to get potential cycling advocates involved in the community activities.
The toughest and most technical of all among the races, however, require dedication and long hours of training. Kim Ki-hwa, a 23-year-old college student, has been preparing to attend the upcoming Seorak Granfondo in May.
He now cycles up to three times a week after school as part of his training for the race.
A 200-kilometer competition held in the Seoraksan area, the Gran Fondo, or “Big Ride,” offers arguably the curviest course and steepest hills for amateurs, Kim said.
“I have to complete the course within 12 hours, otherwise I will be cut off. I didn’t make it last year, but I’m better prepared this year,” he said.
Not everyone joins the race to compete. There is also the Mediofondo held on the same day organized by the same organization, only half as long and easier to complete.
“We’ve got some feed stations throughout the course, where riders take a break to eat free supplies and enjoy the scenery,” Kim said. “It serves whichever you like, as long as you have a bike and you love saddling up.”