For some reason or other (read long summer days and busy weekends), I kind of drifted away from the topic of bicycle culture. It was my intention to discuss the topic of bicycles and bicycle safety before wrapping up this subject so I thought now would be as good a time as any to return to it.
I have an acute awareness of my father buying me a bicycle when I was eight or nine. It was a perfectly sensible, classic bike with fixed gears and coaster (pedal) brakes. My father probably isn’t aware of it, but I still carry the emotional scars from his indiscretion. At the time, it was all about mountain bikes with multiple gears and hand brakes and it was mortifying to think that someone might actually see me riding a “girl’s bike”.
Fast-forward twenty years to current-day Copenhagen. While there are a wide variety of bicycles used around the city, the vast majority are…you guessed it, classic, upright bikes, forcing me to relive the horrors of my childhood.
Classic Bikes: The reason is simple. Cycling is a mode of transportation in Copenhagen, not a sport. The idea is to arrive at your destination with pink cheeks and fashionably dressed, not hot and sweaty in spandex. It is common for people to cycle in suit and tie or a skirt. There was a touch of incredulity here when it was reported that a Dutch woman was pulled over and threatened with a fine in New York City for wearing a skirt while cycling. While perhaps she was showing a bit more leg than necessary, that mentality goes a long way in describing why the bicycle culture is so much more advanced here than in North America.
Returning to the topic of utilitarian bicycles, most bikes are equipped with three to seven gears, enough to provide riders with some flexibility without overdoing it. Another thing that is quite unique compared to North American bikes is that gearing is usually internal. Although I don’t understand the exact mechanics behind it, from a practical standpoint it means that you have to STOP pedaling when changing gears, a big shift for those used to external gearing where you can’t change unless you are pedaling. Brakes can be either coaster (pedal) or hand brakes or, as is the case for my bike, a combination of both.
Fixed Gear Bikes: Purists don’t want to deal with gears or brakes so there are a number of cyclists who ride fixed gear bikes. The major problem with these bikes is that that the only way to stop is to slow down your pedaling, making it difficult to come to an abrupt stop at traffic lights or to avoid an accident.
Cargo Bikes: If you are a long-time reader of the blog, you have already seen a number of pictures of cargo bikes. These are to Copenhagen what the pick-up truck is to North America; used to carry kids, groceries, pets, furniture, just about anything that you can think of. Common brands include the famous Christiania bikes and the sleek Bullit. Don’t expect to pick one up on the cheap however, as a new one will set you back between 20,000-25,000DKK ($3,600-4,500).
Tires: If I have one criticism of Danes, it is that they drink too much and have a nasty habit of breaking beer bottles in close proximity to bicycle paths. As a result, anti-puncture tires are a must. If you don’t believe me, give it a few weeks until you’ve fixed your umpteenth
flat and you will soon change your opinion. Most tires are narrow slicks to reduce the amount of friction. After all, you are cycling in the city so an aggressive tread or even hybrid tires will only slow you down.
Costs: When you are using a bicycle as a primary mode of transportation, the quality of a bicycle and its components is an important consideration. As a result, don’t expect to find a $99.99 Walmart special here in Denmark. Most new bikes in bicycle shops range
between 3,000-6,000DKK ($545-1100). Even the equivalent of a Walmart special at
Fotex will run you 2,000DKK ($360) although the quality is also likely exponentially
better. In general, I think the price/quality ratio is quite reasonable but with limited options at the lower end of the budget range.
That being said, I must say that I am amazed at how old and decrepit many of the bicycles are given how much people use them (and quite a contrast to the sleek new cars people drive). One argument for this is because bicycle theft is so common, an old bicycle is less of a target than a newer one. As I happen to be riding a relatively new black one, I have taken the extra precaution of locking my bike with a rear tire lock (very common in Copenhagen) as well as with a traditional cable lock. I figure if someone is persistent enough to crack both locks, they deserve to have my bike. I’m sure after a couple of years of scratches and dirt, I will revert to using just one lock.
Given the extent of the cycling culture in Denmark, it is not surprising that the country has a comprehensive set of rules which cyclists must abide by. Hand signals must be used when turning or stopping and most cyclists stay to the right except when they are
overtaking another cyclist. All bikes are required to have a functioning bell to warn the idiot who hogs the bicycle path or unsuspecting tourists who think the bike path is the sidewalk. Before dawn and after dusk, all cyclists are required to have a white and red light on the front and rear of the bicycle, respectively. Many bikes come pre-installed with lights powered by a dynamo on the front or rear hub.
In general, I find motorists very accommodating to cyclists, in stark contrast to North American drivers. The reasons are simple. First, sheer numbers. While a motorist might be able to win a game of chicken with a solitary cyclist, you’re out of luck when you are competing against thousands of cyclists. Secondly, motorists are in deep trouble if they are
involved in an accident with a cyclist. Collectively, this persuades drivers to adopt a more patient approach and wait until the coast is clear.