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The place where you want to be tooted


On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

View more entries from On Your Bike

Sri Lankan traffic: loud and chaotic, but somehow it works.

Sri Lankan traffic: loud and chaotic, but somehow it works. Photo: iStock

For the past 10 days I've been hooted at constantly while cycling ... and it hasn't bothered me one bit.

Ride a bike in Sri Lanka and you'll soon learn to accept – even appreciate – a cacophony of vehicle horns. It's not a demand that you get out the way, but instead a friendly heads-up: I see you, I'm coming past, hold your line because I don't want to hit you.

Most importantly, it's not a treatment saved for cyclists – as in many other Asian countries I've visited, everybody hoots at everything, all the time.

I never thought I'd be so happy to see a fellow Lycra-clad man.

I never thought I'd be so happy to see a fellow Lycra-clad man. Photo: Michael O'Reilly

And boy, there are a lot of things to hoot at. Trucks, buses, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, cyclists, pedestrians, cows, dogs, monkeys, each with their own particular speed and movement idiosyncrasies. (It's probably best not to hoot at the elephants.)

Cycle touring here is perhaps described as engaging, if that's the word for a road culture where overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic is an expected manoeuvre if traffic is backing up behind a slower vehicle.

There's one thing that makes it all a lot easier, however - a noticeable lack of road rage.

The local peleton sported bikes straight out of the 1950s.

The local peleton sported bikes straight out of the 1950s. Photo: Michael O'Reilly

People do some of the cheekiest, craziest things imaginable – driving side by side, blatantly pushing in, sneaking along the breakdown lane, squeezing big trucks up narrow roads and jamming the cars coming the other way, all to a cacophany of blaring horns – and yet no one appears to lose their temper or take it personally.

They slow down to avert disaster, they give way even if they have right of way, and then just get on with their journeys. It's an enviable attitude.

Also admirable is the cycling culture itself. I spent my first few days in the coastal town of Negombo, just north of Colombo, and delighted at the sight of people getting around on two wheels. All ages and sizes, dressed in their regular clothes, without hi-viz or helmets, perhaps dinking their sweethearts or offspring on the crossbar, cranking away on rusty old single-speeders with tyres sometimes in crying need of a few bars of air. So many bike riders, yet not a "cyclist" among them.

Or so I thought. On my third day, as I made an early start to a gruelling 105km leg to Kandy, I squinted into the rising sun and my eyes fastened on a familiar fabric ... Lycra!

Some 20 blokes in cycle kit were standing along the tree-lined edge of the road, bikes at the ready.

The reason for the hiatus was quickly apparent. As I reached the head of the line, the last few of the group were spilling out of a roadside food venue.

(Typical cyclists, clogging up the cafes in their activity-specific gear and tip-tap shoes, outrageously bringing income to the proprietor!)

Was this the Negombo equivalent of the famous Bar Coluzzi ride in Sydney, or Melbourne's Beach Road crew?

I got over to the side of the road and snapped them with my phone as they came past. One rider had a geared racer with caliper brakes, but the rest were on single speeds – lovingly repurposed vintage street bikes, with brakes operated by metal levers (not cables), "sit up and beg" handlebars, seriously short top tubes and head tubes with a rake so lazy they were trending to 45 degrees.

Surprisingly, I soon caught them, and they waved me up the line. What, on a pannier-laden tourer? Was I getting sucked in to something? We bantered a bit as I moved to the front at a leisurely 25km/h. Maybe these are those urban legend riders who only roll to the corner cafe to be seen, then go straight back home, I chuckled to myself.

Hardly. Their post-breakfast warm-up done, the riders formed into a neat peloton and flashed past me in style, legs pumping in a uniform cadence, with some resting their elbows on their handlebars to effect a "drops" position.

I was saddened I hadn't got to the roadside shop a bit earlier. Would I have found out if Sri Lankan cyclists have an equivalent for an espresso? If I'd told them I was from Australia, would the talk have turned to Cadel Evans, not the traditional "ah, Michael Clarke" response?

A kindly but ear-splitting hoot from a red Tata bus interrupted my reveries. "There had better be a Strava segment for this," I muttered as the road to Kandy stretched out in front of me.

What's the most exotic place or country in which you've ridden?

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter or email him.


  • Ah I remember travelling to Sri Lanka a few years back. The people were really open and friendly. I too was really surprised with the horning because as we all know here when you horn at someone they usually speed up in the next lane and shout profanity. In Sri Lanka none of that. Some even give a sheepish smile when they go past. I thought Trincomalee was one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever been to and it's probably because for so many decades it was deserted since the terrorist group the Tamil Tigers had that part of Sri Lanka until 2009. As much as I would like to cycle around this country my 45 year old self would barely manage cycling the flat area of Galle let alone Kandy!

    Good times
    Date and time
    January 23, 2014, 3:47AM
    • I wish people here would use their horns more to warn me. Riding on local roads on the south coast I almost never get a friendly beep to let me know somebody wants to get past. These drivers don't realise that above 30 kph wind noise drowns out their tyre noise, so I don't know they are passing until they do, often too close on a roughly patched road.
      Yet it was me given a ticket by a local idiot cop for not having a bell on the bike.

      Al Kidder
      Date and time
      January 23, 2014, 8:03AM
      • Your piece is lacking one obvious thing - balance,
        To do this, I would suggest adding figures for motor vehicle deaths, and those of cyclists.
        Then a reader can make up their mind how "envious" they are, of the location you visited.

        Date and time
        January 23, 2014, 8:35AM
        • India public buses have a 'please use horn' sign on the back, so you warn the driver that you are overtaking.

          But I agree with Dan - the traffic toll is horrendous. People avoid others without getting mad because they spend their time just trying to survive.

          Date and time
          January 23, 2014, 10:18AM
          • I biked around Bagan for several days checking out the temples. The same thing applies in Burma - everyone doing an overtake toots to let the other know they are being overtaken - and you get used to it quite quickly and appreciate it. While pedalling slowly as I drank some water I I even had another cyclist ring his bell to warn me I was being overtaken, then a big grin and "hello" as he went past

            Date and time
            January 23, 2014, 11:15AM
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