No one prepared me for this: I would lose my cycling identity in Copenhagen, that badge of irritating marginality to drivers. It was akin to dropping my self-consciousness of growing up Asian-Canadian, a visible minority in small German-based Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario during the 1960-1970’s. When I moved to Toronto and now, Vancouver, I merged anonymously with masses of other Asian faces. In Copenhagen, a cyclist was swallowed up in a forest of fellow spinners.
No Longer a Cycling Rebel
On bike in Copenhagen, you really aren’t noticed as an exception nor a rebel. Over 36% of people in Copenhagen, cycle to work or school for transportation. Overall, 60% of Copenhageners use their bike daily (2009). At home, 3.8% of Vancouverites cycle for transportation (2008) which is better than most Canadian cities.
I thanked myself for bringing my lycra black skort, a skirt-short combo. I wore the skort more often than expected, in other European cycling-dominant cities before we reached Copenhagen during our trip: Freiburg and Karlsruhe in Germany as well as in Strasbourg, France. I wanted to blend in seamlessly with many other cyclists whirring along in streaming cotton jackets, slacks, skirts and walking shorts.
Contrary to many European female cyclists, and contrary to a growing trend in some North American cities for cycling in streetwear, I still wore my cycling jerseys, sans team logos, and other cycling apparel for comfort.
Ironically for the first ten years after I returned to cycling mid-life, I wore T-shirts while cycling everywhere. A garment that dismayed lycra –clad cyclists who avoided the drag of any loose apparel flapping in the wind. But I had memory of smelly polyester tops as a 1970’s teenager. I also did not want to be mistaken for a cycling fitness poseur, for doing anything remotely athletic. Odd since I was becoming more fit from cycling than ever before in my life.
But now, I wanted to protect my carefully chosen business wardrobe from cycling stains and early tear. I had spent precious dollars and shopping hours tracking down clothing to fit.
Still A Tad Alien-Cyclist
Nevertheless, I still appeared as a North American hyper-cyclist with a helmet poking out among Copenhagen cycling masses. I wore my helmet because I learned my lesson after falling off my bike on black ice twice during winter. I also learned my lesson when I worked for three years at a rehabilitation hospital for spinal cord injured adults in Toronto. A few kilometers away, there was an acute care hospital with a trauma unit. They treated head injuries.
It is not all bad to lose a lot of North American frenetic cycling identity. When you shed it, you may drop hyper-focused athleticism that can look fit, but intimidating to emulate by the easy-going couch surfers.
While in Prague, I saw our own North American cyclist as near-alien creature, reflected back on us by watching the odd Prague cyclist zipping here and there on bike. The cyclists in downtown Prague were rare and nearly inconsequential. When we were in Prague a few days before Copenhagen, we noticed the paucity of cyclists. With a local cycling mode share of optimistically up to only 2%, Prague is like many North American cities: lacking extensive cycling infrastructure and much lower cycling rates for transportation.
Such a contrast to even Freiburg, Germany a city 25% smaller than Prague, with also a cobblestoned core like Prague. By contrast, Freiburg was thronging with cyclists in streetwear.
Cycling during the first two hours or so in Copenhagen, was liberating and fun with many cyclists around. However the elation of cycling in a flowing crowd, became muted. I had to focus. Even though cycling in Copenhagen is on flat terrain in separated bike lanes, I had to adjust my riding style. I had to merge with many
more cyclists nearby, passing either on my left or right — the latter, I have always found irritating. Very few Copenhageners used their bike bells. They didn’t bother to say anything as a warning, if they wanted to pass you on a crowded or narrow path.
Perhaps with many cyclists, a ringing bike bell or more might confuse not just one, but several other cyclists around me: who was ringing that bell?
Letting Go of North American Cycling Exclusivity
To become a cycling city, means many North American regular cyclists must adopt a far more inclusive mindset to embrace wobbly, slower cyclists, cyclists
who chat side by side in separated bike lanes and cyclists who are not model Copenhagen chic nor fitness oriented. Inclusion also meant a group of eight casually attired teenage girls chatting happily away with one another while they cycled slowly along.
One by one, each cycling girl peeled off from the cycling gaggle, on her bike with a wave and onward to her destination. I marvelled at this ordinary Copenhagen social cycling activity. Not often does one see in many North American cities, groups of casually dressed teenage girls cycling in the city for transportation and to socialize.
It was striking there was a critical mass of women cycling all the time in Copenhagen. Over 55% of cyclists there, were female. There were short time spurts, when I saw more women cycling than men. Many of the cycling women I saw were cycling solo, strangers to one another and focused on getting to their destinations.
Copenhagen by Bike Special Museum Exhibit
I wandered over to Copenhagen’s city museum to browse its special exhibit on its historic love affair with the bike, ‘Copenhagen by Bike”. The exhibit was
timed deliberately to coincide with the flood of 1,000 international attendees for the Velo-city Global 2010 Conference on cycling infrastructure planning, programming and trends. Earlier this past spring, was the UN Summit on Climate Change which brought thousands of marchers into this city.
When I arrived, I was advised by museum staff to start from the cycling exhibit and go ‘backwards’ in time to view the historic artifacts from bicycles to medieval.
Bikes of various vintages were crammed in the main chandeliered exhibit room, from floor to ceiling. Next to children’s bikes, there were adult tricycles with rear-end, hard case storage case, military bike and bikes used in circuses and entertainment performances. Wedged here and there, were photos, original paintings and other artifacts. Even during the World War II, the Danish royal family cycled abit as a solidarity gesture. To me, the museum
exhibit was cleverly executed in tight space. Different bike shapes overlapped one another and became hanging visual abstracts of bike lines and swirls. It was like a carefully designed bike garden that offered different views at every turn, every few steps ahead.
Outside the museum, a postman mounted his postal transport bike with his full mail panniers and basket after his delivery at the museum. Like several German cities we visited, Copenhagen postal workers also cycled around and delivered mail from door to door on yellow mail bikes. Such a sensible way to avoid back and shoulder pain for those heavy loads.
What prevented me from losing my cycling identity in Copenhagen, was wearing my bike helmet and my narrow mountain bike shoes for more pedal power leverage. Not that Copenhagen had hills like Vancouver. It pains my feet just to pump flat pedals with thin beach flip flops. Nor do I wish to cycle and scuff up dress shoes. Not in Copenhagen or even later back, in Vancouver.
But I could gladly live in Vancouver one day with: daily streams of nonchalant cyclists in every age group, patient drivers that do not sit on the car horn at a red light, shops that sell kiddie bikes with real bike racks and more healthier residents.
Becker, HJEH. “Cycling in Prague”. Jun. 26, 2010. In Third Wave Cycling Blog.
City of Vancouver. Engineering Services. 2008 Annual Bicycle Plan Update. Administrative Report. Supports Item No.1. Presented to Standing Committee on Transportation and Traffic, Jul. 22, 2008. See pgs. 3-4 for update to 2006 Statistics Canada data on city’s cycling mode share.
Ekerson, Clarence. “Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes.” Includes video by Streetsfilm. In Streetsblog, Jul. 15, 2010.
Torslov, Niels. Bicycle City Copenhagen. Presented at National Cycling Congress, Berlin May 9, 2009. Published by: City of Copenhagen, The Technical and Environmental Administration. Copenhagen aims to reach 50% cycling mode share by 2015.