It was already dark outside at 7pm, as I whipped through the streets of Copenhagen on an electric bike, rain pelleting towards my face. I don’t think this is entirely safe, I thought, but I kept going. This was my last night here and my final attempt to be a novice cyclist in this city. Earlier that day, my bike literally broke down like a car and left me stranded on Hans Christian Andersen Blvd. My inexperience in urban cycling came back to haunt me.
Copenhagen has one of the most efficient and sophisticated cycling systems in the world. While Amsterdam still takes the top spot, the bike culture here runs deep. Everybody bikes – no matter how hard it rains or snows – whether to work, get groceries or home from the bar. Parents even have their own “Christiania bike” named after the district it originated from, which fits children in a large front-facing basket for those school commutes. Because cycling acclimatizes them to the outdoors on a daily basis, it’s one reason why the Danes are some of the happiest people on the planet.
Their system should be the envy of all cyclists of North America – especially Toronto – where accidents involving vehicles continue to skyrocket. Every street in Copenhagen, whether it’s the main drag or a side street, has its own designated roadway for bikes, divided into two lanes with strictly coordinated stoplights at major intersections. This ensures that cyclists commute safely and efficiently to their destinations. As a result, they have more tact for fellow cyclists than anywhere else in the world.
But full disclosure, I am not an urban cyclist. I spent my childhood barreling down rocky hills along Lake Ontario’s waterfront or riding atop dunes through suburban construction zones. I was used to a different kind of danger. Here in Copenhagen, I figured that I, the nonchalant tourist, would knock a local off their bike. At the same time, I was nearing the end of my visit, and I wanted to fully immerse myself here, even for an hour. There was perhaps no better way than winding through the jungle of wheels and bells.
The hostel I stayed in offered bike rentals for a daily fee per day, a usual custom for accommodations in Copenhagen. I considered this until I discovered a line up of white, hybrid electric bicycles with GPS screens all waiting to be ridden. This rental system called Bycycklen was a bike-sharing website available 24/7 and super easy to use. You can either create an account online or on a bicycle tablet on location. Once you find a Bycycklen docking station, simply log on the tablet, set your destination and take off. When you dock upon arrival, it automatically finishes your trip and charges your card on file according to time traveled. Not only do these bikes let you “cheat” with a mini electric motor, but with a GPS you don’t have to awkwardly stop at each intersection and fumble with a map. Although several cities probably have this too, it was the first time I’ve seen it.
I started off small this time – only 1 km from City Hall Square to the National Museum during the post-rush hour- easy. I logged my destination and as I was ready to go, the bike unlocked from the station with a click. The motor made it heavy to walk, so any sharp turn of the handlebars or a gust of wind would knock it sideways into my shins. Copenhagen’s unpredictable weather certainly didn’t help. Shin bruises from walking a bike were not the most exciting injury story to tell.
Anxiously, I waited for a clear path. Hans Christian Andersen Blvd. was Copenhagen’s busiest street, but it was pretty straightforward. There was no way I would attempt this during peak times. I found my chance, mounted and let my feet find the pedals. For the first while, I wobbled back and forth, the tires forming s-shapes on the pavement. So far doing okay. As I straightened my path, I had to coordinate my brain to read directions while watching the road. Where do I get off? Red light. Do I turn here? Whoops, stay to the right. I was gradually gaining momentum, feeling rather overconfident that within only five minutes, I was a local. In the meantime, real Copenhageners sped past me on standard two-wheelers, while I wobbled about on a dinky hybrid-electric.
Suddenly, the whirring of the motor stopped, and the bike felt sluggish to ride, like pedaling through molasses. The GPS disappeared, and the screen went black. The battery had died, and here I was in the middle of Copenhagen without my training wheels. I couldn’t remember where to turn to find the museum, so I dejectedly dismounted and walked my dead bicycle as it bumped along my shins back down Hans Christian Andersen Blvd. I docked it back and strolled towards my destination, admitting to myself that I should just stick to dirt hills after all.
After my museum trip, I was still trying to shake off the frustration. So I hoped that a 3-hour “alternative tour” of the city would help. The “alt” walking tour took me through the city’s once grimy, now eclectic neighbourhoods filled with stories of drugs, pornography, and social and political activism of the 1960s and 70s. We started in Vesterbrø and continued southwest to Kødbyen, a former meatpacking district now hipster megalopolis, and finished outside the autonomous community of Christiania. But before crossing a bridge to take the subway to Christianshavn, I saw a pile of bikes stacked above one another, about fifty of them or more, forming a 10-foot-high mountain.
My tour guide explained that sometimes these “junkyards” pop up anywhere around Copenhagen. Revelers would attend a makeshift party on the streets of Kødbyen on a Friday night. As a result, inebriated cyclists would unknowingly ride the wrong bike home, only to surreptitiously discard their stolen property the following day.
This is when it hit me (a thought, not a bike). Bicycles have a life of their own, whether in motion or lying entangled in a heap of spokes and handlebars. Sometimes they’re brought back to life by a different person for different use. From this, they speak to the characteristics and personalities of their owners. It facilitates an interesting human/nonhuman relationship within a new setting. At that moment, I didn’t want to give up and had to try at least once more.
When the tour finished, I made my way back from Christianshavn heading west into the city centre. It started to rain heavily, so I huddled inside a store to wait it out and gather my bearings. In the meantime, I noticed another Bycycklen docking station around the corner. Now was my chance.
Ten minutes passed, and it was now lightly sprinkling. I zipped up my coat, put on my hat, and prepared for battle. I was determined not to let these cantankerous machines keep me from achieving local status for at least twenty minutes. As I kicked off, the motor purred and the GPS arrow followed my slow movement back to City Hall Square. The weather was my new challenge as the rain picked up again. Because I was wearing a coat that I, unknowingly thought was waterproof but was actually water repellent, my whole front side was already damp. The air was cooling down but still comfortable enough to enjoy a warm sensation of the wind. Despite the weather, I continued pedaling through the rain-soaked cobblestone streets.
Half an hour went by and no shutdowns and no dead batteries. Even with a GPS, I made wrong turns and circled around the side streets – partly out of confusion but also because of plain curiosity. I didn’t worry about the minutes adding up on my credit card. The adrenaline of it all was worth every coin. I felt like I finally picked up the pace and followed the rhythm of Copenhageners. It took me almost three days, but I did it all on my own. I successfully ended my trip where it all began and walked the rest of the way home.
I knew that cycling is a TripAdvisor “must-do” by many visitors of Copenhagen. But this was about much more than ticking it off the list. Something about experiencing the struggles and the curious sensations in an unfamiliar place is intriguing – at least to me. However, it’s also about the relationship between mobility and place, and the opportunity to observe and participate. My experience adds variability to this relationship, through my actions, thoughts, emotions, and recognition of myself as a tourist. It helps me understand who I am in a greater sense.
Bicycles are an essential part of this lively but laid-back urban climate. The myriad of ways in which they move, the places they go, the people they carry are the “kinetics” of Copenhagen and give it life.
In the meantime, I was still nursing the bruises on my shins. When I go back someday, I’m ditching the motor.
*A few extra stills taken by me of Copenhagen