Charge of the Bike Brigade*

I’m back home (and so is my Brompton you’ll be pleased to hear) after my flying visit to Copenhagen and still wondering if it was all quite real. Obviously 36 hours, most of which were spent in meetings, is nothing like long enough to form anything but the most superficial impression of a place – and besides other, and more eloquent bloggers, have already written about it in great detail – but such considerations have never stopped me in the past. So, for what it’s worth, here is the Town Mouse Guide to Cycling in Copenhagen for the Spatially Challenged:

1. Follow the bikes. The easiest way to learn how to cycle Copenhagen-style is just to join the stream of traffic and get swept along. It’s not hard to find the bikes, because they’re everywhere, and once you get onto the main bike routes the stream becomes a tide and you become part of the flow. It’s better if you do this when you aren’t trying to get to anywhere in particular at first because once you’re in the flow, you’re going where they’re going whether you like it or not until you master lesson two…

2. Learn the signals. Once I’d got onto one of the busier commuting routes I realised I was more or less stuck on it because there were bikes in front of me and bikes behind me and bikes beside me and I was going to have to go where they were going until I found a way of telling them I was stopping or turning or I risked causing a massive pile up. So I just kept on pedalling and watching until I’d worked out the basic rules and then I found someone who was doing roughly what I wanted to do or going where I was going and copied them.** Big UK style hand signals, designed to be visible to Smidsy from the cab of his truck, aren’t going to cut it when you’re in a crowd of cyclists – turns are indicated with just a flick of the hand, and you let people know you’re stopping by putting one hand up – somewhere between waving at a friend and letting the teacher know you want to do a wee – before gliding out to the side of the track and coming to an elegant halt. Or frantically waving, apologising and then hopping up onto the pavement if you’re a hapless British visitor on a Brompton. Sorry again, people of Copenhagen. I was just trying to work out how to turn left…

3. Turn left by turning right. OK, I’d read all about the Copenhagen left and it all sounded very simple in theory – you cross the road you want to join, get onto the cycle track on the right hand side, and then cross the road you were following. But I kept overshooting and crossing right over and stopping and getting onto the pavement and then attempting to rejoin the queue of waiting cyclists as they started up again with the green light which meant I was taking about three cycles of the light to get across. In the end I managed to master it by following the other cyclists as they slipped out of the stream of bikes to the right, then swerved round to the head of the crowd of bikes waiting at the light, which felt uncomfortably like queue-barging the first few times. As a Brit, this was actually the most painful part of cycling in Copenhagen, and I speak as someone who’d left her warm gloves in Edinburgh and was going bare-fingered on a freezing February afternoon.

4. Stick to the main roads. All of the big roads – including some huge three-lane urban monstrosities – have cycle tracks and lights and cyclists are catered for at all the junctions. My UK-born instincts to duck down side roads and quiet streets proved counter-productive: not only was I having to negotiate with traffic but getting back into the flow of bikes proved quite difficult. It’s hard to get used to it, but you’re not a second-class citizen if you travel by bike in Copenhagen so take the direct route and don’t feel you have to weave your way through side streets. Even on the biggest roads, the cars and trucks might as well not be there, they’re completely separated from the bikes. In fact, it’s the bikes you have to worry about, which brings me to…

5. Stick to your lane. Those main cycle tracks are WIDE and it means there’s a fast lane and a slow lane on them and you’d better not pootle along on the left if you’re not prepared to make some progress; style over speed my foot. That said, there was also plenty of space for ME to pull out and pass a Copenhagen Supermum with her Christiana bike loaded with kids and then safely back in again before I was swept aside by a cool kid on a gently clanking 50s Raleigh. In fact, as the rush hour began to get going I realised what cycling in Copenhagen reminded me of: it was like trying to master using the London Underground by changing trains at Kings Cross at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon. With a wheely suitcase. I was trying hard not to be the hapless tourist standing on the wrong side of the escalator or stopping to read the map right in the middle of the corridor between two platforms, and I think I more or less managed it in the end. Or maybe the Danes are just way more polite than the average commuting Londoner and just quietly navigated round me without too much audible tutting.

And if all that sounds a little daunting then here’s my final lesson…

6. Don’t forget to enjoy it. There’s something almost dreamlike about being swept along in a living stream of bicycles, of all shapes and sizes, flowing magically through the city, silent except for the occasional rattle of a loose mudguard. Thinking back, it still barely seems real. Were there really that many bicycles, so many people getting about on two wheels? Or did I just make it up? I’m going to have to go back and find out for real.

*Thanks to John Gibson (in the comments) for finding the title of this post for me – I tried quite hard to come up with something clever for a title that wasn’t ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen’ and failed

** This may be why I ended up crossing the bridge with the famous bike counter several extra times as I attempted to navigate my way back to the hotel…

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9 Responses to Charge of the Bike Brigade*

  1. John Gibson says:

    Once I’d got onto one of the busier commuting routes I realised I was more or less stuck on it because there were bikes in front of me and bikes behind me and bikes beside me.

    Here is a title for you.
    The Charge of the Bike Brigade.
    Have a look at verse three.
    John

  2. Kim says:

    You are not the first to find that Copenhagen’s cyclists always seem to be in a hurry, those cycle chic photos don’t tell the whole story…

  3. [...] single file isn’t always the safest option; something we need to convince the CHP. Town Mouse goes biking in Copenhagen. Belgium’s one-day Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne classic is called on account of snow; weather has often [...]

  4. disgruntled says:

    John – ha, yes, brilliant, should have thought of that!
    Kim – indeed though perhaps a Sunday afternoon instead of a weekday rush hour might tell a different story

  5. bicycledutch says:

    This reminds me of a funny video equally shocked people from the Dutch Cyclists’ Union made on a visit to Copenhagen.
    The Dutch texts in the video go a bit like this:
    How to transform from a Dutch cyclist into a Copenhagen cyclist, in 5 easy steps:
    1. buy helmet
    2. make stop signs
    3. buy faster bike
    4. wear stylish green socks
    5. cycle like the devil is chasing you

  6. disgruntled says:

    hah! Nobody told me about the socks …

    I was told that the people who live in Copenhagen cycle slowly – it’s the out of towners who race along in the fast lane

  7. Lorenzo says:

    Saw your post on dg comments, so here I am. Loads of cycling links, excellent. Copenhagen sounds great. I’m a town mouse too, from the middle of zone 1 to the edge of nowhere (Sussex).

  8. disgruntled says:

    cheers – thanks for the visit (and the comment!)

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