I knew a little in advance that I wouldn’t be driving a car in Germany when I arrived, but since I would be living in a city with good transport links and had two perfectly usable feet, I wasn’t overly concerned about being four wheels down. The one thing I was absolutely certain of; was that I would not be riding a bike.
‘People who ride bikes are either super fit and wear a lot of lycra or children, and I am neither of these’ were my exact thoughts on the subject.
As a pedestrian I soon found out that I was the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of street users. You learn pretty quickly to stay out of the bike lane, which a lot of the time can be found sharing the footpath, you’ll also learn some choice insults anytime you get in a bike riders way. Important skills as a pedestrian include flattening yourself sufficiently against walls, parked cars and shrubbery to avoid getting whacked by a passing handlebar or elbow and staying ultra aware of those silent two wheeled speed machines.
Four weeks after I arrived, I was the proud new owner of a more colourful German vocabulary, a worn out pair of shoes (so much walking), a few bruises and was ready to be a little more open-minded about this whole cycling thing. What I hadn’t realised was that I’d landed in the city of bikes. Erlangen, Bavaria has repeatedly topped a poll run by ADFC – Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club e.V. (the German cyclists’ Federation) of the most bicycle friendly Mittelstadt (medium sized city) in Germany. It has to be up there as one of the best places to have a bike as your primary mode of transportation.
The saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike, probably true, but I was never a very accomplished cyclist. Passing my cycling proficiency test at age 11 on my Raleigh bluebell in a car park of the local college was my peak; I hadn’t even touched a bike in 15 years. Being pedestrian in a city ruled by bikes however, proved a fantastic motivator. I wanted up that hierarchy. I wanted to be the one ringing the bell, to enjoy the swoosh of passing cars stuck in traffic and get from A to B significantly quicker than my feet could carry me.
Biking in Germany is huge and you can see why in cities like Erlangen. Flat, university and commuter heavy but space poor, bikes are the perfect mode of transport. Add to that an infrastructure that favours bikes, a great form of exercise and environmentally friendly and you’ll understand why so many people choose to travel this way. One of the great things about living in an area full of cyclists is that second hand bikes are cheap, really cheap.
I’ve come a long way from the wobbling circles in an empty car park, there is zero chance you’ll see me in the tour de France, but I can get a weekly shop for two on my bike and safely home. I even managed to score a bike trailer from an expat family who were leaving, which makes getting a crate of beer home a much more pleasant experience. Thanks to excellent street clearing of snow, biking is a year round transport, definitely invest in some gloves though.
You will see everyone riding a bike, from pensioners to tiny tots. Little kids start off on Laufräder (balance bikes) and most forgo training wheels in favour of a proper two wheeler. Hands free, texting, eating and holding an umbrella while cycling are all common sights in Erlangen, I don’t think I’ll ever get that confident, my left turn signal still needs work. You also won’t see a lot of bike helmets in Erlangen, on children yes (and usually their parents) but on the rest of the cyclists, no. In Germany adults are free to make their own choice.
A few tips for new cyclists in Germany
- Get a basket or at least have somewhere that isn’t your handlebars to carry your shopping/handbag/laptop etc
- Invest in a good lock, the more expensive your bike the better your lock needs to be
- Carry a small plastic bag or seat cover, no one wants to walk around with a wet bum all day
- Obey the rules of the road, don’t jump red lights
- Drunk cycling is a crime, you stand to get fined and even have your licence taken away if you are arrested.
Beyond punctures and rain, the downsides of life on two wheels, even I’m a cycling convert and I’ve not worn lycra once.