Riding in Berlin

June 1, 2017 at 15:14 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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I recently had to go to Berlin on business, and managed to find a few hours to get away from work to explore the city. Which it did, of course, on a bicycle. There are bicycles for hire literally everywhere in Berlin; it seems every cafe, shop and kiosk in the city offers bicycles for 12 euros a day. There’s also a municipal public bike hire, sponsored by Aldi. I didn’t try this, but it seemed quite high-tech, with bikes having screens and taking payments individually, rather than via a docking station.

I duly explored all the sights; the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Tiergarten, the Victory Column, the Reichstag, Kaiser Wilhelm Church and the Holocaust Memorial. It’s a lovely city, with a great vibe and fascinating history.

The bike was set up with a single front brake and a coaster back brake. Given it was set up in ‘continental’ mode, this meant that the front brake lever was on the left, and there was no brake at all under my right hand – which is the one I do 99% of my braking with. The coaster brake got me out of trouble a few times as my fingers grasped vainly at thin air when I needed to stop!

Getting around by bike was easy. There weren’t heaps of riders, and not that much bike infrastructure, but the drivers were calm and gave plenty of space. The more I ride outside of Australia, the more I agree with the observations of many seasoned bike travellers that Australia, and specifically Sydney, is one of the worst places to ride a bike anywhere in the world.

Riding in Hannover

February 16, 2015 at 03:48 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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I had reason to go to Germany on business recently, which entailed staying in a hotel, and then going into the Hannover offices of the company I work for every day for a week or two.

bikehireBut how to get to the office? Well, the vast majority of my colleagues in the same situation would jump into a taxi, but I prefer to ride. It’s my daily commute that keeps me sane. Well, sort of. So I found a place to hire bikes form in Hannover, which was conveniently located near both the station and my hotel, and borrowed one. It was also a bike maintenance and parking garage, and it was a bustling place, with a steady steam of people bringing in and dropping off bikes.

stationbikesThe offices are not in Hannover itself, but about twenty kilometers away, so I mostly got the train to the nearest station and rode the rest of the way (which, at less than two kilometers, wasn’t really far enough…!). There are a lot of people riding bikes in Hannover, and it’s all setup for it very well. Bike lanes and shared footpaths abound, the the burgers of that city all zip around. Everywhere you look there are untidy piles of parked bikes. I’m not sure if Hannover has more cyclists than is average for Germany, but it was fantastic to see.

Also fantastic is the way motorists treat cyclists. As mentioned, there are quite a few bike lanes, but for the most part they are no Copenhagen-esque bike freeways. Often they are half the footpath, and sometimes weave back onto the road. But motorists are very aware of cyclists, invariably waiting well back from junctions to allow the bike traffic to cross before pulling up to the line, and giving cyclists plenty of room.

biketrainTaking the bike on the train was also a breeze, with a special carriage dedicated to bicycles. However, after taking the train for several days, I decided to ride the 20km back to Hannover one afternoon, to get a bit more exercise and see a bit more of the place. I checked the route, made plenty of notes and sketch maps and set off.

And got lost. The office is really in the middle of nowhere, in a rural area. So the route suggested by google was actually a lot of very small lanes, dirt tracks and forest pathways. This made it harder to navigate than expected, but as I rode along salvationbikecountry2 seemed to come in the form of cycling signposts. I followed the directions for Hannover, looking out for the small red bicycle route signs as I went, and for some time all seemed to be going well. I passed signs for Hannover saying 18km, 16km, 12km, 8km – this was going really well, and the route was fantastic. Not on roads at all, but following unsealed tracks across open land and alongside fields. There was barely another soul to be seen – just an occasional dog walker or jogger,

bikecountryAnd then the signs ran out. The path split three different ways, and there was no hint of which way to go. I had just passed under a main road, and could see a sign for Hannover on the road which headed to my left, so I took that direction.

It was around this time that the bike, a sturdy city bike with a seven speed hub, started to fall apart. Evidently bumping down unsealed tracks for fifteen kilometers was not what the hire place had in mind, as bits started to fall off it; the most important of which was the back brake blocks. Given that the brake levers were connected up the reverse way round to ‘usual’, this meant that when I wanted to slow down and instinctively pulled the right brake lever, absolutely nothing happened. I continued somewhat cautiously, by now realising I was very lost. And then it started getting dark. What to do?

Of course, in times gone by the answer would been to flag down a local, and attempt communication in my third-rate schoolboy German. Or perhaps get out a compass and map, and maybe a sextant to check the stars. However, in this day and age, I simply fired up Google maps on my phone (trying not to think about roaming data charges), found out where I was and navigated to a main road. Form there I was able to follow bike paths that ran along the broad footpaths, and made it back to the Hauptbahnhof without further mishap. A journey that should have taken an hour or had taken me about two and a half hours, and given that the temperature was around freezing, my toes and thumbs were starting to feel quite numb. However, I felt quite satisfied to have made it, and I felt I earned a grosse Bier vom Fass in the hotel bar that evening…

California commuting

October 5, 2013 at 21:15 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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california_bikeAll the leaves are brown / And the sky is grey / I went for a walk / On a winters day…

Only I didn’t; the leaves were mostly still green, the sky was blue and of course I wasn’t walking – I was riding a bike. Still, that song was still going around in my head as I pedalled around that bastion of the American Dream – Silicon Valley, California. I was there on business, and getting from the hotel to the office each day by taxi or hire car just didn’t appeal. It’s my commute to work that keeps me sane, and just because I was in another country didn’t mean I was going to give that up. So I hired a bike from a local dealer to get the five miles or so back and forward each day.

I hired a basic hybrid, which did the job admirably, although it wasn’t super comfortable – I think it was a tiny bit small. But the hire guy was super helpful, waiting for me at my hotel when I arrived (late) – so I pretty much dropped of my bags and set off finding my way to the office. I wasn’t due there until the next day, but I thought a ride would be a good way to stretch my legs after the flight and work off the jet-lag. I looked up the route on Google maps (yay for the cycling directions) and set off.

My inability to tell left from right, coupled with tiredness from the journey didn’t really stand me in good stead, as I went the wrong way at the very first intersection. Then, after finding my way back to the right road, again went wrong at the next intersection. Perhaps having to ride on the other side of the road was confusing me. Still, all this cruising up and down gave me more opportunity to experience Californian roads.

There are a lot of Californian roads. Lots and lots of them. And they are all very wide. The sheer amount of tarmac is extraordinary. What on the map are marked as minor roads have three or four lanes in each direction. I guess they need them, as everyone is driving. There are almost no pedestrians enjoying the wide, well-maintained footpaths, and very few cyclists. For sure, I was out in the burbs, not in a downtown area, but it was quite noticeable. The only time I saw people walking was when I rode through some residential complexes, where there were people walking their dogs.  Evidently this is the one activity that can’t be done in the car.north_st

In terms of cycling, it’s actually all very pleasant. Much of my route was on an off-road trail. When you do get on the roads there are bike lanes on many of them, and although they are the ‘painted on’ variety the width of the lanes means there’s plenty of room between you and the traffic. And that traffic is so well behaved. It really made me reflect on just how aggressive Australian drivers are. Drivers all gave me plenty of room, stopped well back from me at traffic lights and generally drove in much calmer way than in Sydney. Those wide, straight roads would be a invitation to a Sydney driver to floor the accelerator when the lights go green in the manner of a drag-strip driver. But the Californians just pootled along, observing the speed limits and pulling away very sedately.

Given all that, it’s astonishing that there aren’t more cyclists. The Caltrain (which runs along most of the cities in the San Francisco Bay area) even has a whole carriage dedicated to bikes, but I saw very few people riding – maybe two or three on each trip I made. When I got to the office, I asked where the bike parking was, and got a blank look, before being directed to a tiny bike rack with space for three bikes. Mine was the only bike locked up there for the whole week I was in town – and this is a large campus with over three thousand employees, on a road with a bike lane running all the way along it’s length. The weather is great, the terrain is basically flat – yet no-one rides. All very strange. Perhaps it was just the area I was in – I know San Francisco has a vibrant cycling scene, and reading about the area many of the cities proclaim they are ‘cycling friendly’. I wonder how the modal cycling share compares to Sydney?

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