There’s Romeo and Juliette, Brad and Angelina, Greenlanders and alcohol, New Zealanders and Marmite….and Danes and a bike.
The one common thread these “couples” share is that they just “go together”. There can’t be one without the other. They’re yin and yang, Sun and Moon, North and South.
Arrive in Copenhagen and the first thing you’ll notice is the love affair Danes have with their bikes. A passionate, never ending story, full of drama, surprises and the odd break up. Euan Ferguson once wrote ‘Copenhagen cyclists no more notice that someone else is on a bike than they notice that someone else is in possession of a head’. Yes, EVERYONE here cycles.
When I was 14 years old my parents moved house to be closer to our school. It was approximately 8 minutes by bike but we utterly REFUSED to bike that far. We hated biking so much in fact that we preferred walking the 20 minutes to school…and when I turned 15 and obtained my LEARNERS drivers licence I would frequently steal dads car and illegally drive it to school.
I never thought I’d say it but nine years later I’ve converted and I, like most Danes, are now having a love affair with my bike.
When I first arrived here I LOVED the idea of cycling. It was novel, it was different and you didn’t have to pay for parking. I even started to forget what it was like to drive a car. If I had to pop down the road to get some milk the thought never consciously occurred to me that I’d take the car. I just knew I’d take the bike…and having driven a car since I was 15 this was a HUGE change in my psyche.
Now that’s not to say I was an expert on the bike…actually far from it. Who knew there was an art to riding a bike? I’ve had many a fall…which has led to some friends saying ‘Copenhagen would be a safer place if I stayed off the roads’. How rude. Yet slightly true. Here’s an example of one of my earliest falls.
Come hell or high water
Then winter came. I thought surely now’s the time Danes put their bikes away and take advantage of the bus and train systems. Not so. Come hell or high water, the Danes cycle. I actually think if a hurricane was to strike Copenhagen, the Danes would cycle through it.
So here I am thinking ‘when in Rome’ and I also decide to “press on” and bike throughout the winter. One winter evening whilst biking over ice in a blizzard at minus 12 in high heels…I came across a bus where people were getting off (the system here is that people getting off the bus have to cross over the cycle lanes and therefore the cyclists must stop for them). Thinking surely these people won’t expect me to brake on this type of ice and snow I keep going. Seems as if I was the only one having that thought though, and there I go slamming on my brakes and inevitably crashing right off.
And hour later and this time I’m biking with 3 friends across the ice on Rådhuspladsen. Without noticing I took one slight wrong angle with my front wheel on the cobblestones and bamb I’m on my back with a rip in my skirt and three people laughing. This continued twice more that night…due to my determination to ‘do as the Danes do’. But by the end of that night the love affair with my bike was over and we broke up for a whole 2 months.
They’re crazy about it
It seems the love of all things with two wheels began after World War One. There was a housing shortage in the city centre so people were forced to bike in from the suburbs. Adding to that, after World War Two petrol was rationed considerably and a ban was put on importing cars for many years. Hence the ‘rise of the bike’.
Now did you know that 8 out every 10 people in Copenhagen cycle regularly and 50% use the bike to get to commute to work or school. And why wouldn’t you when there’s 350km of marked cycle lanes.
The question was then posed to Copenhageners: Why do you bike?
5% – I prefer it/it’s comfortable
13% -cheap transport
22%- good exercise
57% – easiest and quickest way to get places.
More than just a mode of transportation
Marie Kastrup writes ‘in Denmark, the bicycle is a form of mass culture which differentiates from North America, Britain and France where its primary function is as a fitness hobby or symbol of an alternative counter-culture. The colloquial Danish bicycle culture is an appropriate symbol for Danish democracy, as it is a modest everyday object’.
So if the bike is a ‘symbol’ of Denmark so to speak then these symbols come in a variety of ways. I’d like to explain a few of the most obvious ones you’ll see on Copenhagen streets.
The cyclist who thinks ‘because have a sport bike I now consider myself a Tour de France competitor’:
These are the cyclists who really don’t care what they look like as long as they cut the ETA (estimated arrival time) by half. These are the guys and girls who consider it okay to wear spandex to the office, and have their right-side trouser leg tucked into their sock…or tied up with a reflector strip. These cyclists are the ones you don’t want to bike near to, for fear of being knocked over/yelled at for being too slow (even though you’re travelling at normal speed). One such rider actually pushed my pregnant friend off her bike whilst she was waiting at a set of lights because he was so frustrated with her slow speed. True story. These cyclists are also the ones with RSI in their left thumbs as they continuously ring their ‘get the f*** out of my way bell’. Who knew such an innocent sound could bring such fear?.
The ‘I hope this bike matches my shoes’ rider:
These are the girls who consciously match their outfit to the style and colour of their bike. When buying a pair of shoes they’ll briefly pop out of the store to check if they complement the look of the bike. Now these girls ride such bikes that you’ll remember from such times as the early nineteenth century. They ride as if they have a cucumber up their backside- and they act like it too. These cyclists aren’t as much of a pain in the backside as the sport cyclists but they do have a mighty big ego that seems to take up the whole width of the bike lane at times. I thought about being one of these girls for a while- my bike is black which seems to go with most outfits…then my basket got a little rusty and I thought no “rust will never be the new black”.
The ‘I’m too cheap to buy a car even though I have four kids so I’ll just cycle them around in a cargo trailer’ cyclist:
One word. Why?. Why put your kids through it. And why is it that you only see the ‘stay at home dads’ driving these? When their kids grow up and look back on their childhood they won’t be reminiscing on ‘all those car fights in the back seat and the time they stained the seats with tomato sauce’, no! They be remembering those times that ‘Dad (looking a little metro-sexual) cycled them down the street at minus 3 kilometres an hour, taking up the whole bike lane, to Freriksberg Gardens…whilst on the way having to having their three siblings sitting on top of them, and enduring a wooden seat’ Not exactly the stuff memories are made of. Yes you do reduce your ‘carbon footprint’ but due to your speed your fellow cyclists are wanting to put a footprint of other sorts into you!
The ‘I have a Christiania bike and that therefore gives me the right to make my own road rules’ rider:
I like these bikes. A lot. Mainly due to the fact that if I’m in need of a lift and have forgotten my own bike then I just get in the huge metal frame at the front of one of these bikes and get driven along. Illegal: Yes. Do the riders of these bikes care? No. These bikes are characteristically quirky and in a sea of boring ‘get me from A to B bikes’, they look great. Now you don’t own one of these babies unless you actually live in Christiania or are bordering on that lifestyle…which means you won’t get any agro from these guys on the road. In fact, they’ll probably end up offering you a lift. They “enjoy” their bikes and it reflects in the way they “enjoy” the journey. (Just a note, if you do hitch a ride with one of these riders, they may be “on” something else other than just their bike so be aware).
Could this culture fly in other lands?
My Mum recently came to visit Copenhagen and like a native I made her bike everywhere. Now she was so taken with the cycling culture here that she’s decided she wants to set up an import business. It would import these Copenhagen bikes back to New Zealand. And while I don’t doubt people would buy the bikes I do doubt that a culture would begin…..which I’ll explain as follows.
There are three reasons you’d ride a bike in New Zealand:
One: You’re one of those greenies trying to save the planet.
Two: You can’t afford a car.
Three: You can afford a car but lost your licence due to drunk driving (more common than you think).
If you turn up on a bike somewhere they first question you’ll get is simply. “Why?”
You see, unlike New Zealand, the biking culture here is a part of the national psyche and as Kastrup says “a symbol of Danish democracy”. Your bike becomes something you love, like a pet I guess but without the personality. It keeps you fit, you never worry about parking places, it’s actually quicker to get places on it and it’s 100 times cheaper than a car.
This is a culture is unique to Denmark…and perhaps a few other cities in Europe. I would just like to say for the record though that my home town of Christchurch in New Zealand was once the only city in the world to outnumber Copenhagen in terms of cyclists. But that was back in the 1950’s and while the kiwis chose to move onto automobiles, the Danes chose to stick with the two wheels.
This contradicts what Euan Ferguson once wrote in the Observer, “I’ve seen the future, and it bikes”. I would tend to agree with that. And although my love affair with my bike is tenuous at times, it’s a solid one. Oh and I’m thinking of trying out ‘bike polo’ inNørrebroPark…it really seems the future really does bike.