Friday, 17 February 2012

Adventures in the spin trade

Berlin is tremendous for cycling. Being a keen cyclist, this makes me glad. Not only do I save billions of money on public transport fees, I get to appreciate a lot more of the city and simply feel a whole lot better about this 'living' caper.

Ernest Hemingway agrees with me, so you'd better toe the line. Would you argue with Ernest Hemingway? No, 'cause he'd punch you in the mouth and then write about it and the rest of the world would know that you were the arsehole of the story. Get on your bikes!

However, it's not all breadbaskets and roses. The unaware may run into some pitfalls (even literally). So, I will share some tips with you, both graphical and lexical, so that you, too, may appreciate the fabulous joy that is riding in Berlin. 

Ever since we arrived in Berlin, I have been hankering for a bicycle. Unfortunately, with no money and loads of debt, my options were limited. Sure, there are many Sunday markets selling bicycles at bargain prices but the general consensus in Berlin is that most market bikes are stolen. I've heard that if your bike gets stolen, you simply have to go to the markets that weekend and buy it back. Ah, commerce!

Instead, I bought a secondhand bike from a secondhand bike store. Now that I have ridden it a few times, I feel ripped off, but at least I sleep easy in the knowledge that I'm not riding somebody else's bike without their consent. There is no infidelity in my cycling.

I am now the proud owner of a slightly rusty, three-speed internal gear, back-pedal braking wonder machine.
My not-so-trusty steed, 'Bessy'
ain't she a beast?
Admittedly, sometimes I turn the handlebars and the wheels don't respond in kind, or I try to jump curbs and succeed only in bending the handlebars backward, or the light-generator stops spinning on the back wheel, creating a godawful screeching sound and extra resistance - but I am nearly deliriously happy as I strain up the slight hill back home after work. I'm leaving work, I'm heading home, and I can take whichever route I bloody well want to, not follow the train lines of "the man", man. I see many awesome things.

It's also remarkably safe. I am often riding in the dark, never knowing if my light generator is about to cut out (I work on the principle that, when it does, others will at least be able to hear me coming), in unfamiliar streets, where cars drive on the wrong side of the road, in the snow, without a helmet, and yet I still feel safer than I do riding in Perth, where sunlight is plentiful and I know my way around easily.

The difference? The city genuinely encourages cycling and has invested a lot of money into their cycling infrastructure. There are separate bike lines all over the place, even with their own traffic lights. Being lower to the ground, these are also occasionally wonderfully vandalised: I have stopped at red hearts and taken off on green apples.

the amber light underneath is a sun, by the by
Also, Berlin drivers are not dicks. Cars give way to you everywhere. A few times I have slowed down out of habit when a car is indicating (amazing on its own!!) to turn in front of me. The drivers stop completely and look at me as if I'm riding a pig or something. They are utterly bamboozled by my caution. Drivers even wait at green traffic arrows when they see me coming from many metres away. Nowadays, I mostly whizz across sidestreets with nary a second thought. It's splendid.

Even in the section of my commute where the bike line disappears completely and it's just me, my wits, my unresponsive bike and my exposed noggin against peak-hour traffic, I have minimal fears.

So what's the downside? When it's -17 degrees and you dress warmly, you'll arrive at work steaming, sweating your heat-liquified insides out of your pores, with only painful, frostbitey stumps for limbs. 

I also do not recommend sticking your mitten-coated mitts in your gob while riding your bike. Sure, your fingers may be so cold that they burn and your hot breath provides a welcome, if temporary, relief. However, there are dangerous consequences. The water-vapour in your breath (read: spit) will get on your glove, causing it to stick fast to the metal brake lever on your handlebars, such that you have to stop and forcibly peel it off to regain use of your hand.

Ice represents another hazard. If it is icey out (the snow has melted and then re-frozen) you cannot turn even slightly to the left or right without your wheels slipping out from under you. (I landed on my bottom, luckily, where my receipt-filled wallet cushioned the fall a little.)
Clearly, this poses a challenge if your commute is not a straight line.  

As keen-eyed viewers may have noticed, you'll also need to invest in a good quality plastic bag to pop over your saddle. Failure to abide by this guideline will result in you needing to scrape the ice off your seat in the morning, and you'll get very chilly buttocks on your ride.

And finally, if you store your bike on the street (I don't), you'll have to make sure you ride or move it regularly. Due to the abundance of bikes locked up about the place, Berliners often assume (and often probably correctly) that unmoved bikes have been abandoned, and they'll pilfer whatever bits aren't secured. 

It's also probably not wise to leave your bike on a slippery street corner:

Not only was this bike mangled, either by a skidding car or the incredible hulk, somebody wasted no time in liberating its back wheel.

In conclusion, because I'm sick of typing, bike riding in Berlin is incredibly safe, a little bit dangerous, and totally awesome. Awesome to the max.

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