Danish Lessons in How to Ride a Bike

An old bike & garden in Copenhagen

I’ve never been a fan of cycling. The last time I actually owned a bike I was aged about 13, and it sat in the garden growing rusty while I argued with my mum about how embarrassing it was going to be for me to wear a helmet if I attempted to cycle to school.

Travelling often throws bikes your way, though, and over the years I’ve tried to embrace the joys of cycling abroad. So I flipped headfirst over my handlebars during a cycling tour of Krakow in Poland, and busted the front wheel of a bike in Thailand. Both events reinforced my belief that bikes were simply not for me – and when it came to cycling down Death Road in Bolivia, I point blank refused. Bikes, heights, and the strong chance of death? No thank you very much.

It’s been easy to dismiss bikes as a normal form of transport in my life. I love walking, after all, and the feeling of successfully conquering a foreign public transit system is something I’ve made quite a habit of.

Yet, somehow, I bought a bike.

When I got back to London a few months ago, my then-boyfriend (who’s a lifelong cyclist) informed me that he simply doesn’t catch public transport around the city. If we wanted to spend time together, I’d “probably” (read: definitely) need to get myself a bike.

Talk about an ultimatum.

I’m never one to back down from a challenge, though – and suddenly being thrust into the claustrophobia-inducing crowds of London’s tubes and buses made a getting a bike all the more tempting.

“Of course I can be a cyclist!” I thought, watching the helmeted figures zip around the city’s streets with a renewed sense of curiosity. After all, you never forget how to ride a bike, right?

So I ignored the seeds of doubt sowing themselves in my mind and visited a few bike shops, wobbled unsteadily around a few side streets while balancing my weight on a saddle, and eventually shelled out the necessary cash on a bike of my own.

A new bike on a London train

My beautiful new bike on the London Underground – complete with helmet (high vis vest not visible).

Of course, this new pride in ‘officially’ being a cyclist was somewhat subdued when I came up against a few unexpected hurdles.

Firstly, I don’t actually know the rules of the road. Despite taking many driving lessons a few years ago and absorbing a large amount of knowledge, I also managed to spectacularly fail my driving test and promptly decided to forget all that knowledge.

The other factor that didn’t help is that my cyclist boyfriend and I broke up about three days after I actually bought my bike – and seeing as I was pinning all my cycling hopes on having him teach me, this made things a bit more tricky.

But whether I like it or not, I own a bike now. So my insufficient road knowledge and pure fear of dying on a London road are simply going to have to be faced up to.

Luckily, other forces are conspiring to make me bicycle ready. A few weeks ago I headed off to Copenhagen on the invitation of Visit Denmark and the rather awesome Generator Hostels chain. The weekend trip to Denmark’s capital was ostensibly to explore the city on a social-media-focused scavenger hunt, but I think I know better.

They wanted me to ride a Danish bike.

Re-learning to cycle (on the opposite side of the road…)

In case you didn’t know, Denmark is one of the most cycling obsessed countries in the world.

The Danes have managed to make bicycles an integral part of daily life, with everyone from the postman to Danish royalty preferring to cycle.

A Danish postman with his delivery bike

I’ve never wanted to be a postman more.

Bicycles throng the streets, whether briefly parked or being boarded by countless legs swinging over saddles. Everywhere you look are Scandinavian beauties nonchalantly pedaling their way around – all Danish children are brought up learning to ride almost as soon as they can walk.

And as for Frederik, the Crown Prince of Denmark? He takes his kids to school in one of these bicycle trailers.

Danish kids in their mum's bike

Imagine your mum carrying you around in this?!

Playing with wooden bikes

Kids really learn early in Denmark.

Looking at Copenhagen through the perspective of a bicycle is impossible to avoid – even if you’re not actually on one.

During my weekend in the city, I explored both on foot and on board a Segway (more on the joys of that later), and I constantly had my eyes peeled for rogue cyclists who weren’t sticking to the cycle lanes that thread alongside every main road, complete with their own bike traffic lights and foot rests.

A demo of the cycling footrest in Copenhagen

Note: these footrests aren’t usually for Segway riders.

But just because Copenhagen is so very bike friendly, it doesn’t mean I was automatically able to cycle there.

Remembering I’m scared of cycling

The day of our ‘CopenHunters’ scavenger hunt dawned, complete with a set of instructions for which areas in the city we needed to visit. I was flush with positivity about my future cycling explorations: paired up with a hired bike from the hostel, which I wheeled down the little ramp that ran down the concrete stairs to the road below.

As soon as I attempted to sit on the saddle, my first problem presented itself. The saddle was way too high – and how to make it lower? One hand covered in oil later and I’d managed to twist the seat down to a manageable level, swung my leg over and shuffled myself to the edge of the street. Shit. Which side do they even cycle on here?

I tried to pull the pedal back towards my foot in an effort to actually start cycling, and that’s where I realised I might be in real trouble. The pedals seemed to be locked – happy to go forwards but not backwards – and I didn’t feel secure at all.

Then it started to rain.

A combination of having no confidence, feeling worried that I had a broken bike and the all round bad weather suddenly overcame me. “Screw it,” I thought bitterly. “I can walk around Copenhagen, catch the Metro, it’ll be fine…” I hopped clumsily off the bike and wheeled it towards the bike racks a few steps away… But one more mournful look at the multiple figures gliding past down the cycle lane opposite, and I realised I simply didn’t have a choice.

I was going to spend the day cycling around Copenhagen if it killed me (disclaimer: not really).

A bicycle related revelation

Of course, once I’d successfully got into my stride, it felt amazing to be cycling. Despite the occasional wobble, the momentary swerving when I tried to hand-indicate my direction, and one rather nasty topple (thanks to attempting to mount a pavement which was much too high for me), the entire day went off without a hitch.

Moreover, cycling through Copenhagen instead of walking meant I got to experience the city like the locals do – and I ended up discovering so many places I never would have otherwise seen.

A bike parked at a vintage clothes stall

Clothes and bags for sale. Probably not the bike, though.

I stumbled upon a food market when trying to escape from the rain, and spent a delicious hour stealing every type of free sample imaginable. I cycled down cobbled alleyways peppered with impromptu market stalls selling vintage clothes and handbags.

I even found a stall set up on a bicycle!

A clothes stall on a Danish bike

Ever bought clothes from inside a bike?

I sat in a skate park for a while to catch my breath, and watched a crew of tiny kids practicing on their boards. Parents stood around, occasionally looking across to their respective children, but most of the time these boys were on their own.

And they were clearly loving it.

A skater kid in Copenhagen

The Danes: effortlessly cool from a ridiculously young age.

When I thought about it, I realised just how much confidence all the Danes seemed to have. Even without wearing bike helmets!

Seeing as I’ve already decided it’s an absolute necessity to wear both a helmet and a high vis vest when cycling in London, the idea is obviously terrifying to me – but in Copenhagen at least, it’s an awesome way to build up your cycling confidence.

Danish cycling: we have a winner!

I left Copenhagen safe in the knowledge that I’d beaten my worries about cycling, at least for now.

Because seriously – if I can cycle in a different country from my own, on the wrong side of the road and with a rebellious pedal system (that still gives me a slight shiver whenever I think about it), then I think I’m at least able to face a few of London’s backstreets.

But I’m definitely, definitely, wearing a helmet.

Dutch Lego people with their bikes

Unlike these Lego cyclists, who clearly aren’t practicing their road safety…

Have you ever been cycling when you travel? Does it terrify you as much as me? Any crazy bike-related stories? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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14 Responses to Danish Lessons in How to Ride a Bike

  1. Sharon October 9, 2014 at 12:24 am #

    I just loved this post. So funny! I don’t cycle much despite my best intentions and a few old bikes in the garage. I have cycled in Key West and Hilton Head and, you’re right, it’s a great way to see things. Now I believe I’ll give it another shot!

    • Flora October 18, 2014 at 11:14 am #

      If I’m managing to inspire other wobbly cyclists to crack out their bikes again then I’m happy, Sharon :p

  2. Beverley - Pack Your Passport October 9, 2014 at 9:04 am #

    I actually love cycling; I grew up next to a country park and bike rides with my Dad after dinner were the norm throughout summer. That said, when it came to riding a bike in Amsterdam I was a little bit nervous. After all, EVERYONE cycles there so surely there were some unwritten rules of the (cycle) road that I’d obviously get wrong, cause a massive bike pile up, and be sent swiftly back to London for failing to partake in the national form of transport properly.

    Of course, all those fears disappeared as soon as I found myself careering down a canal-side street in Amsterdam because I realised exactly how much fun it was. I thought it’d be scary cycling with cars around me and a million (estimated figure) other cyclists battling for side-of-the-road space but actually, it was fine, and I can’t wait to do it again!

    Cycling in London is a different story though. I’m using the excuse that I have nowhere in my flat to store a bike as an excuse to never have to contend with the amount of traffic and (clearly) death traps on the London roads.

    I’m determined to get myself to Copenhagen soon (I was meant to come on the trip but….obviously…passport stuff which you know..) because it looks so beautiful 🙂

    • Flora October 18, 2014 at 11:15 am #

      I reckon a trip to Copenhagen is definitely necessary to make up for the one you missed out on :p And now I really want to go back to Amsterdam as well!

  3. Paula October 9, 2014 at 9:13 am #

    It’s nice to read how other people experience this city for the first time. I’ve lived here for 3 years now so a lot of things have just become normal to me. But no worries, nothing was wrong with your bike, it’s just a backpedalling break 🙂

    • Flora October 18, 2014 at 11:18 am #

      AHA amazing – thanks for the clarification Paula! I thought I’d found myself the only dud bike in the whole hostel :p

  4. Amanda October 14, 2014 at 2:12 am #

    My boyfriend is somewhat of a cyclist, too (though we don’t live in a huge city like London), so I also have a brand new bike! Unlike you, however, I actually really like cycling (so long as it’s over mostly flat ground). And bike tours when I’m traveling? They are usually my favorite! It’s such a unique way to see a city.

    • Flora October 18, 2014 at 11:17 am #

      I think my major issue with riding hasn’t been an actual dislike but just a terror that I’m going to get knocked off.. Although I’m definitely more switched onto the cycling tour now after Copenhagen!

  5. Laura October 15, 2014 at 5:20 am #

    I a definitely NOT a confident cycler, I totally get you. I am such a wobbler and once walked my bike down a hill while mountain biking because the path was so narrow and I was not so sure I’d make it down in a straight line. Good for you for conquering your fears! Maybe I need to get o Copenhagen too!

    • Flora October 18, 2014 at 11:18 am #

      It does seem like a really good city to get back into the biking game Laura – particularly with all the cycle lanes and general awareness that there are bikes all over the place!

  6. Cherise December 1, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

    Florence taught me how to cycle again!! Aside from a couple of falls and running into a bin in front of a tour group, now I think I have significantly improved!! hahah

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

      Yep.. sounds just like me on a bike, Cherise!

  7. Sophie December 18, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    I went to Copenhagen back in October and I shamefully never went near a bike *blushes*. So I applaud your efforts to overcome your initial fear and ride there Flora! I’ve never cycled on a road in my life and haven’t got on a bike (except for stationary ones at the gym) in soooo long.

    Despite my general terror of cycling I did find myself wishing I could have a go when I was in Copenhagen though. I couldn’t believe the bikes, they are just stacked everywhere aren’t they!

    I think it was the right decision for me though: like you said the Danes are confident cyclists so having someone like me wobble around for the first time ever in a city was going to be dangerous for everyone. I think I will get some practice on some quieter streets (have to say it won’t be London, I have seen too many awful accidents) and then try it again another day.

    If only for a good excuse to return to Denmark!

    • Flora January 6, 2015 at 3:41 pm #

      Copenhagen is essentially cycling bliss but it’s still a terrifying thing to contemplate if you’ve never done it before, so don’t feel bad!

      I’m still very much of the opinion that until I feel confident and safe on a bike on London roads I shouldn’t be cycling on them, as it’s equally dangerous for the people around me. Parks and side streets for a while yet I think! (and maybe another trip to Denmark!)

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