Cycling in Nairobi: How to Peddle Through the City

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I learnt to ride a bike when I was 19 in South Africa on a housing compound with no traffic, opening doors or bystanders to laugh while I fell. I learnt to cycle after 2 hours of wheeling around on this compound until I felt confident enough to get on the road. Luckily in South Africa, people are forgiving to cyclists and give them a wide berth. I experienced the same thing when I went back to the UK.
However in Nairobi, it’s different. Public transport swerves precariously. Cars stop abruptly. People will laugh at you. But this does not stop many intrepid Kenyans and expats from thoroughly enjoying the open and in some cases well finished roads that lay beautifully empty on Sunday mornings. In the last 2 years I’ve seen an explosion of lycra and shiny new road bikes imported from Europe with impressive teams of cyclists meeting at 6am to cycle all over the city and up to the popular routes through the Limuru tea fields.
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My boyfriend cycles to work everyday, through some of Nairobi’s most gridlocked traffic, always returning with  a beaming smile on his face, telling me of the things he has seen. The friendly hello’s, the new back routes he finds and  how easy it is to dismount when the craving for a 20bob street side mango comes calling. Our friend Annina says cycling on her commute is her favourite part of her day since moving here. As I am still a novice cyclist, my friend Morgane R. wrote this entry about her top tips for biking in Nairobi and how it has renewed her love of the sport and the city.
Cycling in Nairobi – Morgane Allaire Rousse. 

8 months ago I bought a bicycle of a friend of mine who was about to leave the country. It seemed that cycling might be the perfect solution to my sedentary work life and increasing frustration with Nairobi traffic but, a month later, the bike was still in the parking lot outside my house, gathering dust, and acting as a daily reminder of my utter lack of commitment.

Enter: The magical combination of Tinder date + Ego + Awkward British tendencies

One evening, I was dropped home by a tinder date who, upon seeing my bike in the driveway, immediately exclaimed: “You ride a bike, that’s so cool! Do you ride it to work every day?!” Inevitably, I told a blatant lie and found myself riding my bike into and back from work every morning and evening, just in case I ran into them again. In no time, obligation became habit became sheer joy!

Cycling in Nairobi has completely changed my relationship with the city. I am on time to things, I feel energised and I even improved my spin class score by 70%! I am also infuriatingly peppy about meetings and catch ups in far flung neighbourhoods of Nairobi (e.g. anything the other side of Waiyaki Way) that force me into longer and more challenging bike rides. I’ve officially dipped my toes into a tight knit community of Nairobi cyclists. Although I’m definitely still a newbie and have much to learn, here’s a quick list of the things that have kept me on track so far…

DISCLAIMER: CYCLING IS DANGEROUS, CYCLING IN NAIROBI IS DANGEROUSER. The tips below relate to the way I prefer to ride, other riders may prefer to ride more conservatively or stick to pavements. This is your prerogative.

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To get started with cycling in Nairobi, here are some MUST BUYS to purchase:
Lights
  • Front Floodlights
  • Rear lights
  • Helmet
  • Bike!
    • Check before you travel as some airlines will allow you to swap out one piece of luggage for a bike. You’ll need to take it apart yourself and flatpack it. Getting it through customers on the Nairobi can be a doddle but of course check before you travel
    • You can have it reassembled at the Pro Bike Shop at Yaya Centre (1st Floor. Prices vary)
  • Reflective jacket
  • A wing mirror. So you can make sure cars aren’t up your backside!

Nairobi Sports House (various locations) also sells a small amount of bike equipment as well. It often sells reflective jackets.

Repairs: On the intersection of Kileleshwa Ring Road and Oloitoktok road is a repair guy who is out rain or shine tinkering on bikes large and small. He does repairs and sells bikes as well but they go fast. I know this seems random and sketchy but you will learn to love this about Nairobi!

 

Do’s:
  1. All the gear all the time: It gets dark very quickly in Nairobi. Bring your lights with you always just in case you get stuck out in the dark. Never go out without a helmet.
  2. Enjoy!
Don’ts:
  1. Don’t ride at night
  2. Don’t drink and ride

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Things to watch out for:
 
Old Trucks & Busses
  1. Avoid riding up hill behind old trucks and buses. It is rare, but their brakes may very well slip or snap and a big old bus/truck rolling backwards will kill you.
  2. Nairobi’s famous matatu drivers are paid per number of trips, not per hour. They drive very fast and will expect you to move out of the way.It is not worth playing chicken with these. If you notice a matatu coming up behind you, best move well clear of the road and let them pass. Don’t just move to one side – Make sure you leave enough space for their wing mirrors & erratic driving. If you don’t move off the road or can’t stay ahead of them with a clear enough distance, they will decide for you what a comfortable distance is and you will feel the wind crash past your ears as they speed past you leaving an inch of space between you.
 
Low Traffic: Early morning, Night time – BEWARE SPEEDY & DRUNK DRIVERS 
This may seem like optimum riding time – it is! But: Beware of speeding and drunk drivers who can come from any direction at any speed.
Medium Traffic: Distance between you and cars and cars and cars
  1. Ride in the middle of the road when possible. Don’t leave space for cars to decide for you whether they can overtake you without cutting you off or clipping your front wheel as they go past.
  2. Leave about a cars’ width between yourself and the car in front. Enough to brake in time if they emergency brake and enough to discourage the car behind you from overtaking.
  3. Keep an eye on the distance between yourself and the car behind you. Don’t trust the car behind you to correctly judge whether they can overtake you.
  4. Always be prepared for quick braking or exiting the road unexpectedlywhen the car behind you misjudges their overtaking of you.

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High Traffic: Watch out for doors, wing mirrors, swervy drivers
  1. Don’t weave between cars. Go down one side of the road. Don’t be cocky.
  2. Slow motion accidents are even more common than fast impact accidents. Drivers will not see you. They will almost crush you. Don’t be afraid to knock politely on their car to notify them of your presence if they are slowly driving you off the road despite you being eye level with their window.
  3. Watch out for erratic drivers trying their luck driving up the ditch or the shoulder of the road. Stay out of their way. They will not look out for you.

Cycling on the weekend

Nairobi is a city where you live for the weekend as there is so much to do and having your new love of cycling will only add to the activities available at your fingertips.

Top places to go cycling:

Karura Forest – you can rent trail bikes from the main entrance for 500kes  for 2 hours or bring your own to enjoy miles and miles of well sign posted routes for cyclists of all abilities. Entrance fee applies with or without own bike: 100 for nationals/200 for residents/600 for non residents.

UN Avenue – a city planner a few years had the good sense to install a long beautiful bike lane running along the length of UN Avenue and today its still very well maintained. The road will take you from Gigiri up into Runda where you can explore the leafy suburbs from the comfort of your own bike. No entry cost.

Limuru Tea Fields – Africa Outdoor Safaris have started organising day trips up to this stunning area about an hour outside of Nairobi so that you can cycling through the tea and have a tour at the same time. Absolutely stunning. My favourite place in Nairobi.

Note: You don’t have to go with a guide or company, the area is very safe and easy to navigate but best to ask owners permission before cycling through tea farms if access is restricted

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Although from the outset Nairobi may not seem like a cycle friendly city, it is very much possible once you learn the ropes. It just takes guts and the right gear but once you’ve mastered the logistics and found the perfect route, it’s another lovely way to enjoy this dynamic and ever changing capital city.

As always if you have tips or a favourite route you want to share, please get in touch or add it in the comment section below. Please note this post is written from our personal experience and recommendation, we do not endorse any reckless or dangerous behaviour

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