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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.