• Nathan

My First Time in Copenhagen

A Cyclist in a Strange Land recently had the honor of being invited to be a guest on the Bike Karma Podcast and asked to tell the story of my first time riding a bike in Copenhagen.

Please listen to my story as well as a classic Eddy Merckx story and the story behind Abbey Bike Tools:

The text from my story and some photos from the experience have been included below. Skål!

By objective measures, the hotel’s rental bike was nothing special. It only had three gears, weighed 40 pounds, and the tires needed air. There were hints of oxidation on the fork, spokes, and handlebars and the original branding had been scraped off and replaced with words “Copenhagen Island.” In any other city, I would have turned around and demanded that the concierge provide me a full refund for the bike rental, but this city made everything different; in Copenhagen, these were the qualities that I was looking for in a rental bike.

Ironically, when my friends and I walked by those bikes the night before, they laughed at them, believing the basket on the front and panniers on the back made them “girls' bikes.” They just couldn’t see that they were looking at gems. The simple characteristics of the rental bikes made them wonderfully anonymous in the crowd of well-worn city and cargo bikes that fill the streets of Denmark’s capital. Normally, I'm haunted by the desire to ride a Specialized S-Works Venge or Stradalli Faenza, but in Copenhagen, I couldn't imagine a more perfect bike.

Copenhagen is the Mecca of cycling; their entire transportation infrastructure is built around raised platforms that serve as bike lanes. These fit perfectly with the Danish megalopolis' flat terrain and its hearty resident's love of the outdoors. And, although Denmark has one of the world's highest income taxes, Copenhagen's strategic location on the edge of the North and Baltic Seas and its government's aggressive social policies has made it a magnet for young talent and innovators across Europe. How could I help not being drawn to this city?

We've all read the magazine articles and blog posts; every city that's building up its cycling infrastructure has their eyes on becoming the next Copenhagen. In my past, when I’ve helped with cycling advocacy, it seemed like every pro-cycling politician had visited Copenhagen for “research” and peppered their speeches with references to the cycling haven. And even though these references are part of tactics pulled straight from Political Science 101, I always bought them hook, line, and sinker. After all, I dream of moving from the suburbs to the more bike-friendly regions of my Twin Cities home, like Uptown or downtown Minneapolis. I’ve always wanted to purchase a high-end city bike with a Gates Carbon Drive and roam the urban bike lanes on my way to work, to museums, and to the farmers market to pick-up urban-grown produce. If a politician wants to get reelected by making their city more like Copenhagen (without the high taxes, of course), I'm all for it!

In a sense, Copenhagen is my Avalon. It represents the idealized lifestyle that I yearn for; a life centered around bicycles, fitness, and clean living. I've spent so much time in meditative suffering along the Midwest’s foothills trying to improve my body and soul; trying to change myself from a sedentary member of Generation Y into a man with direction and purpose.

A surprise opportunity to visit Copenhagen for a few days was something I couldn't pass up. I couldn't wait to get a glimpse of my dream! Unfortunately, while I was enveloped in the culture, sights, and sounds of the ancient city, it wasn't until my last morning in the Copenhagen that I had an opportunity to mount a rental bike and explore Copenhagen the way it was meant to be explored.

It was 8 o'clock on a Friday morning when I left the hotel for my first bike ride through Copenhagen. With rush hour still in full swing, the city was clogged with thousands of commuters on lopsided aluminum and steel frames. The bike lanes that seemed so wide and spacious the night before shrunk in the chaos as riders jockeyed for position on their way to work. I hesitantly merged with the masses flowing through H. C. Andersens Boulevard. Suddenly, I felt insignificant, a minnow among the 20,000 cyclists filling the city's main commuter artery. The neutral-colored clothing and the furrowed Scandinavian brow of the man next to me made me doubt that I belonged on the path. I began to remember my friends telling me that I might not have the skill to cut it on Copenhagen's mean streets. Thankfully though, after a few blocks, the fog of fear began to lift.

I was surprised and relieved by how sensible and efficient the traffic patterns were. None of the chaotic anarchy that I had expected. The people were serious while still being courteous. In fact, for the first time during that trip, I was finally beginning to think that I was with my people, real cyclists. People who I understood, people who understood me.

Finally, at peace, I silently glided over the clean roads. The cool sea air blew me through the city, past historic Viking docks and next to school yards where happy children played while their parents and teachers looked on. Past countless bike shops selling niche brands I'd never heard of. Moving alongside young men in suits and ladies in flowered dresses on their way to start their day. I couldn't help but grin when I spotted the facade of a building painted with a large, cartoonish image of two cyclists racing through the countryside; a universal homage to sufferfests everywhere.

Although my ride would have to end soon, I was determined to find one more memory from this pilgrimage. I turned my bike down a pine-lined path leading to a meticulously manicured cemetery. Unlike the vacant fields used as cemeteries in the United States, this Danish cemetery are filled with university students studying their assignments, widowers mourning their loved ones, and retired couples walking their small dogs. It was a community garden as much as it was a cemetery, and it had an unfamiliar mix of youthful joy and somber silence. On my bike, I was lost somewhere in between that mix of emotions.

Later that day, in the Copenhagen airport, waiting to return home, my taxed friends bemoaned my happy mood. Their late night of watching Top Gear and raiding the mini-bar had left them groggy and soured on the day. I found myself in a dichotomy. While I had been discovering a new world and experiencing a level of enlightenment known only to us two-wheeled journeymen, my friends' presuppositions and aversion to adventure kept them from experiencing the world available to them beyond what was offered in their living rooms on a Saturday night. I was stuck in thought, wondering when in my life I'd chosen a similar state of stagnation and familiarity over risk and adventure. I began to remember all the times that I'd decided to sit on my couch instead of exploring my potential and making my dreams a reality. I’m sorry to admit that even my bike ride through Copenhagen nearly didn’t happen because of my fear’s powerful distrust of the new.

Perhaps I will return to Copenhagen again for a second bike ride. I want to see Tivoli in the summer time, The Little Mermaid on the coast, and the Danish royal guards manning their posts. I want to get lost again in the city's winding streets and admire those distinctive yellow buildings while drinking cappuccino next to one of the many canals. Yet, it may be appropriate to never ride those elevated paths again. Maybe this ride was a glimpse into a world and a life that I don’t quite have, and never will. Or, maybe it was the inspiration for the life that I’ll create for myself and my family here in the Minneapolis, the Copenhagen of America. I guess that only time will tell.


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