Tour ends in Copenhagen! Observations of this cycling city.

*for an update on how my face is healing from my crash last week, go to the end of this post.

After several short, wet, nasty riding days, our tour arrived, triumphant if frazzled, in Copenhagen.  Here’s our route: it’s not exact, but it’s close.

Gmaps puts it at 999km, and I’m okay with that.  It doesn’t reflect how much we got lost, so the total actual kilometerage is probably closer to 14 trillion.

We’ve been here in Copenhagen for four nights, and I can therefore offer you some Copenhagen cycling observations in no particular order:

*No bicycle wayfinding signs of ANY kind.  None.  No “Centrum” signs, no pointers towards “ideal” bike routes, no “Nørrebro, 2km ->,” nothing (that I have seen).

*Almost no bicycle parking.  This is the most striking difference from Amsterdam.  Copenhagen has a small number of racks that clutch the front wheel of the bike.  I have seen zero racks that accommodate locking the frame to the rack.  Most blocks are bike rack free.  Many of the supermarkets have no bike racks or bike parking places, and the same is true of the major cultural sites.  People warned us about theft here, and then elaborated saying that what we needed were the rear wheel locks.  That is genuinely all that is used here, even at night.  They talk about a bike theft problem but no precautions are taken beyond those rear wheel locks.

*Feels like a big, car-oriented city.  The roads are exceptionally wide and the auto-traffic is not impeded in the same way that it was in Amsterdam.  There is a greater sense of stress on the road; the zen of the dance is not present in Copenhagen.  But I still feel safe enough, much safer than the US. Cars expect bikes and do not cross a cycle-track without yielding.

*The bikes are different.  There are a good number of Dutch bikes around, mostly from Batavus and a Danish brand called Kildemoes.  But there are a lot more sporty, road, or flat-bar commuter bikes.  The upright riding position is much less common here.  Bikes are also less likely to have racks and even fenders.  And as I mentioned, the bikes aren’t locked.  This is an American bike thief’s dream.  I have seen so many full carbon mountain bikes locked just to themselves with the kind of cable lock you can get at Hiron’s for $4.95.  But rumors that “all the bikes are nice” are inaccurate.  They are nicer and newer and higher-tech as a set than the collected Amsterdam fleet, but there are still plenty of clunkers, spray-painted bikes, etc.  All that said, I strongly desire to import one of these.  The fixed gear aesthetic is a much bigger deal here than in Amsterdam.

*Helmets are common.  This was a relief to me, actually, because I’ve been wearing my helmet since my accident and I was concerned I would look out of place.  I don’t.  It’s certainly not a majority of people but it’s probably 10% of people.  There are bike racing-style helmets, skate-style urban helmets, etc.  A similar mix to what you see in Eugene.  Males wearing helmets seem to be among the faster riders on the road.  I have not observed the same with females.

*Sidewalks are very narrow.  I’m trying to make this a list of observations rather than judgements, but I am tempted to call Copenhagen a bad city for pedestrians.  Blocks are long, roads are frighteningly wide (four car lanes, a bus lane and wide cycle tracks on each side is a common configuration) and the sidewalks are narrow even before shops put out signs and chairs and tables; with those, the sidewalks barely accommodate two people walking next to each other.  Bikes ignore pedestrian striping but cars seem to be pretty good about observing it.

*The cycle tracks are great.  They are wide, they are on just about every street, they are orderly (people follow the rules and clearly signal their intentions), and they keep things flowing well.  I quickly got used to the two point left turn and I like it pretty well.  I like how consistent the bike network is in Copenhagen.  The cycletrack is uniform on every street.  It’s the same color, the same pavement type (asphalt-yessssss), starts and stops in a consistent fashion at intersections, and is signalized with clear, uniform lights.  Germany had a mishmash of different pavers, shared-sidewalk, sudden dumps into the road, etc.  Even Amsterdam would put you on cobblestoned canal streets or make you learn to figure out new turning arrangements.  It just feels more clear here in Copenhagen.

*Signals.  Just before they go green, both the red and yellow spots light up to let you know it’s about to turn.  People use that signal to mount and start that first slow pedal stroke, so that by the time the light is green they are proceeding through the intersection.  This system seems to keep traffic flowing really nicely.  I also appreciate that there are absolutely NO bicycle or pedestrian demand buttons at intersections.  Nowhere do you have to declare your intention to cross in order to get a signal.  All the signals are automatic.  This simplifies things and helps me feel like a legitimate user of the road, not one who is always requesting exceptions with the use of special buttons.  Finally, these signals are much easier to read than those in Amsterdam.  There are usually about five places you can look in the intersection to see your signal; every signal light lights up on all sides, so you can look across the intersection to see your signal, you can look next to you (like in amsterdam), and you can even look at the master signal hanging above the very middle of the intersection.  The bike right-of-way corresponds with the car right of way in all but a few very clear cases, and so you have plenty of assurance about what your status is.

That’s probably good for now.  On to the Face Update. This part is a bit disgusting, so don’t read it if you aren’t into scabs, etc.

My face is healing nicely after my nasty crash last week.  My wounds have completely scabbed over, and the scabs have chipped away to the point where I have a nice, neat goatee-shaped scab on my chin and a nice, neat Hitler-stache shaped scab on my upper lip.  In fact, I can see people mistake the scabs for facial hair when they look at me.  It’s all in their face.  At first glance they’re like “oh, my, what a pleasant and orderly goatee this fine young American is sporting, a tasteful soulpatch if ever I saw one.”  And then their eyes narrow and then widen a bit and then narrow again and they are clearly like “oh wait, oh… oh no, that’s… that’s flesh.  What on Earth… no, no..”  It’s a fun silent exchange to have.  I’ve taken to calling the scab my meatbeard.  It’s okay, you don’t have to like it. Katy calls me Pangaea-face, because the scab is breaking apart and flaking off just like that bygone Paleozoic supercontinent.

That’s it for now. We are trying to mail or bikes back to the USA and guess how much fun that process is? We will leave Copenhagen either today or tomorrow.

VERY SPECIAL THANKS to the good folks at Ben Ben Cykler for helping me out with advice and with bike boxes for us to get rid of these bikes.  They build beautiful custom rigid mountain bikes.

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Tour Update #2: Face-Plants and Danish Ambulance Rides, or Don’t Read This Mom

WARNING: Blog post is pretty long and contains gory details of my bike crash yesterday.  You will be warned when they are coming on.  I recommend that you read them, though.  You can handle it.  And I know you’re curioussssss…

Katy and I have arrived in Denmark.  We cycled from Hamburg to Lübeck (which is quite beautiful) and the next day from Lübeck to Kiel.  Those two days of riding were absolutely gorgeous, a sunny roll through idyllic pastoral scenes of rolling hills, wheat fields, and flashes of lakes between trees.

Unfortunately, my rage at the incompetent German cycle wayfinding signs grew to a point where I missed some of the enjoyment of the rides.  I was busy composing letters in my head that I would send to the German Department of Pretending We’ve Got a Good Long DIstance Cycle Signage Network.  That’s unfair, but seriously, we continued to be pointed in the wrong direction repeatedly.  The signs stopped corresponding with my maps of German cycle routes (the expensive ones sold at all the Tourist Informations), so we basically winged it and got lost many times. I’m glad I have my compass.

We were headed to Kiel to catch the ferry we’d heard about from there to Denmark;  Upon arriving in Kiel, we learned that this ferry does not exist.  With a little more research online, we found that it ceased to exist eight years ago.  After grousing for a bit, we got on a train back to Lübeck and then another one out to Puttgarden, which does have a Ferry connection to Denmark.  Not only did we lose two days, but our arrival point in Denmark made it very inconvenient for us to access Aerø, the Danish island paradise that Rick Steves told us about.

We pedaled north from the creepily dead and uncharacteristically impoverished town of Rødby (our first night of camping in Denmark right off the Ferry, where Danish teens revved their motorbikes in the woods behind our tent, hooting and hollering such that I could only imagine a chainsaw-horror situation).  We had an absolutely gorgeous night of camping on Avnø fjord, where we shared some Danish camping shelters with two families of Danes. One of those families was on a bike tour from Copenhagen with their two tween and one toddler daughters.  The camping was free and right on the water, which meant an exceptional sunset view and a very large number of mosquitoes.

 WARNING Okay, here’s where it gets gory.  The next bit is not for the easily-nausiated.  Executive summary for those folks:  I’m totally fine, just a little scarier looking. Now for the insatiably curious…

Just as we entered the town of Naestved after leaving our wonderful camping spot, I suffered a pretty awful bicycle crash.  Here’s what happened: we were riding along the nice Danish cycle path when a strap that I had lashed down on top of my front rack got loose and found its way into my front wheel.  I heard a wrenching and popping, and the front of my bike stopped dead.  I realized immediately what had happened, and was just starting to curse myself for not attaching that friggen strap better as I was hurled forward and over the handlebars.

It was a face-plant.  I threw my hand out to halt the oncoming asphalt, but it was no use.  I landed, essentially, on my mouth, sliding a bit forward on my face like any good Wiley E. Coyote moment or failblog.org video.

It pays to have a wonderful partner who acts like a pro under pressure.  Katy was right there with the towel and the deep-breathing recommendations.  For my part, I sat cross legged on the ground spitting out blood and wailing.  I could move my toes and I clearly hadn’t broken any bones, so I was mostly worried about my facial injuries and, yes, my poor teeth.  Ma and pa paid so much to have those teeth perfected (ma always wished she had had braces) so I was concerned that I had wrecked a good investment with a little bit of Danish cyclepath face-loofah.

Now I know I have complained about mixing cycletracks with sidewalks, but you know what’s great about that?  People are right there if you faceplant on your bike. One man was there immediately helping us, but he did not speak any English.  Then our savior for the day showed up.  This woman spoke perfect english, called the ambulance for us, arranged to have the first man take our bikes to his nearby home and hold onto them for the day, and gave us all the information to get back in touch with her and him.  Like any good American conscious of his light coin-pouch and the awful dollar-kroner conversion, I wondered whether the ambulance was necessary, but Katy, chillingly, assured me that it was.

The ambulance showed up, and for the first time in my life I was loaded inside.  The attendant helped me staunch the flow of blood from my face and gave me an icepack to take the swelling down.  I told him I was worried about my teeth and he took a look and said “the teeth look OK.  They went right through.  You have a hole.”  Well.  A hole.  Glorious. “Well, good,” I said sheepishly, trying to act cooool.

The ambulance ride was about thirty minutes.  The attendant told me this was because Denmark is having to cut costs and close hospitals, relying on fewer spread further apart.  The topic of cost broached, I asked him about what the ambulance ride would cost me.  “Cost? Ambulance service is free in Denmark. Sometimes people call just when they are lonely.”

Well, it was really happening.  I was getting my first free, high-quality European medical care.  We rolled into the emergency room and a doctor surmised that I had no significant neck injury and probably no concussion.  He told me that one or two stitches would close up the hole that my teeth had gouged in my lower lip, “but I can’t stitch the top.  The substance is gone.”  Well.  Substance gone.  Glorious.

A Danish med student stitched my lip, carefully and fully explaining all the mistakes she was making and the difficulties she was having in that charming Euro-English (“oh no, I touched the table and I must get new gloves…”).

I was outta there in an hour, folks. Katy asked about payment and, I shit you not, got laughed at.  However,  I have to get the stitches out in five days.  When I told the doctor and nurses that I would be in Copenhagen then (godwillin….) they argued a bit and warned me that I would probably have to wait eight hours or more in a  public hospital for something as trivial as stitch-removal, and that I should probably look for a private practice and cough up the kroner to have it done fast.  So I may yet get to see both sides of the socialized medicine coin.

Was I wearing a helmet?  Yes.  We’ve had them on most of the time since our frustrating ride to Hamburg last week.  I’m not sure how much the helmet helped me in this crash.  My teeth and lips took the fall, but looking at the helmet later, it was clear that the forehead part was crushed in.  It’s not cracked, but I think I would at least have more facial abrasion if not a banged-up brain if it weren’t for that funny hat.  Will this experience make me an insufferable helmet advocate?  I am not sure.  I will say that every time I’ve fallen off my bike, I’ve been awfully glad to have one on.

The bandages are not flattering.  I look like a cross between a nutcracker and a bird with my awkward bandaid-beak.  While all the talk of holes and lost substance makes it sound pretty awful, as does Katy’s analysis that it looks like I got “cheesegrated,”  these wounds are going to heal up fine.  The hole is closed and already looks much better, and the upper lip gouge will probably just leave a badass facial scar.  My freaky mug has already terrified and enthralled many a Danish child on the street and in our hostel. While my front teeth initially had that loose, punched-in-the-face feeling, they have steadied and are really just fine minus some very small chips at the edge, incredible given that they broke my fall.

Better.

Here’s the silver lining of the whole situation: that woman who helped us out initially continued to completely save our asses.  When we got back to Naestved, she was at the station to pick us up.  She took us to the hostel and expedited our booking a room there, as she knew the hostess.  She took us to her home, where she had a glorious chicken dinner prepared.  We ate on her beautiful enclosed back porch with her husband, who had built the house himself and who barely spoke a word of English.  His wife brought out a big container of Heinz Ketchup and asked “all Americans need Ketchup, correct?”  I worked like a champ to politely shove chicken bits through my bandage hole.  After the meal,  she and her husband hitched up their trailer to their little Peugeot and we drove over to get our bikes from the man who had stored them.  After that they took us to the hostel.  Imagining the logistics of doing all of this without her help is scarier to me than another face-plant.  We are totally humbled by her kindness and generosity.

So, what does all of this mean for our bicycle tour (we had planned to arrive in Copenhagen today, Friday, before the fall) and our lengthy Euro-trip thereafter?  Very little.  We are taking a rest-day in Naestved, in this hostel that used to be a convent.  It is just as well, because it is pouring rain and we haven’t done laundry in about twelve days.  We will otherwise continue on as before, though I may do a few more Phantom of the Opera street performances than originally planned in order to make some dough.  Europe, especially Scandinavia, is quite a spendy place. My bike’s front fork is toasted, but I should be able to find one easily here in town.

Stay tuned for news of our triumphant ride, at last, into Copenhagen.  Good health to all those reading, and please, keep the fucking rubber side down.

Bike Tour Update #1: Problems with the German Cycle Network or The Ungrateful Bastard

Some thoughts about bicycling from my tour so far (this was written when we were in Hamburg last Sunday):

*Netherlands outside of Amsterdam: not as bike friendly as I was lead to believe.  In Hoorn and Harlingen, for example, we were very hard pressed to find the bike routes through town.  Harlingen seemed to have a few token bits of separated path through it’s center, but mostly shared roads that felt awfully car-oriented.  Still, people rode there.  Children alone, mothers with children, all of it.  But they weren’t there in the same numbers.  In Hoorn we got badly lost because the bikeway atop the dijk was closed. “turn around and follow the detour signs” was the instruction, and those detour signs were difficult to locate.  I learned later from one of my hosts that the dijk path in Hoorn had been closed for three years. A far cry from my experience cycling into Amsterdam from Schiphol, where a whole side of the freeway had been given over to bikes because the bike-specific tunnel was undergoing maintenance.  All that said, my second visit to Groningen left me much more pleased with the bicycling experience.  The core is very well served by bike lanes and bike streets fanning outwards.
*Saw a moped critical mass in Groningen.  Thirty mopeds, taking over the paths, riding slow, bleeting their awful little horns.  Among the worst things I have ever seen.  To be fair, I don’t think it was actually a politically motivated group, but the association was clear in my mind.
*”Bike touring” is relative and my trip is no big deal: Sure, Katy and I entertained the notion that just maybe we were sorta hot shit for riding our bikes from Amsterdam to Copenhagen.  Then, our very first night, we stayed with a family through warmshowers who had cycled from Amsterdam to Bangkok.  Our first night in Germany we stayed with a couple who had cycled for two years in South America and Central America.  Sheesh.  It is serious business.  We are now incredibly humble to the point of apologizing about our little pedal through the three most bike friendly countries in the world.  Except that…
*Northern Germany; bit of a let down cycling-wise.  The German cycling infrastructure is simple.  They turn part of the sidewalk a different color by using a different paver or different colored brick, and bikes are to travel along that path.  Intersections feature a variety of treatments; at least, they have a striped crossing slightly distinct from, and next to, the ped crossing.  Sometimes they are red thermoplastic.  Sometimes the red thermoplastic has a bike symbol.  The crossing lights sometimes have a bike underneath the ped symbol, probably about 50% of the time on bike routes I’ve been on in Hamburg, Oldenburg, and smaller towns I’ve passed through on the way.
*Dutch pastries and German beer are extremely agreeable, and good fuel for bicycle-operatin’.
*I mentioned hosts and warmshowers above.  We have received great hospitality so far on our ride, with people graciously having us into their homes, preparing delicious meals for us, giving us rooms to sleep in, staying up with us and feeding us beer and conversation until late, and having breakfast ready for us in the morning.  It has changed my understanding of hospitality and I am very grateful. Having the bike-tourist thing in common with folks is a great way to overcome the barriers of stranger-ness.
*Long distance bike wayfinding: awesome, until it’s not.  Both the Netherlands and Germany have very complete and commendable bike signage networks, including major long distance routes denoted by special signs and symbols in addition to the signs indicating the bike direction to the next town.  In the Netherlands, we occasionally lost the “LF” routes we were trying to following, usually in towns.  We suffered minor inconvenience locating them again.  In Germany, we followed the HH/HB from Bremen to Hamburg.  It’s a great, beautiful route and the signs are great… except for when they inexplicably became impossible to follow, contradictory, and then non-existent.  We got turned around, routed right onto freeway off-ramps, and pointed in bizarre directions several times.  I’m grousing, obviously, but I think the point is that it’s essential that long distance routes are done right.
*Reasons I’ve heard that the Dutch like to ride bikes: I’ve been asking everyone (finally getting my class interviews done, hey hey).  First reason given is always that the Netherlands are flat.  Second reason tends to be something about the practicality of cycling (it’s the fastest).  Third reason tends to be the observation that it’s very inconvenient to drive, especially if you also want to stop and park.  Fourth reason usually has to do with the Dutch cultural mindset (my favorite: my host in Groningen told me that the Dutch are stingy, and they will always save a euro or two by cycling, or having their children cycle rather than putting them on public transit.  I’ve also heard it attributed to the flat social hierarchy, the fact that everyone learned as a kid, and one curious observation that, according to the person who shared it with me is a common statement about the Dutch; they are a culture of “6”s, referring to mediocre-but-passing scores (6/10) on schoolwork and exams.  It is meant to imply that the Dutch are not strivers, and are happy to settle for “adequate”).
*Great things I’ve seen:  I was very impressed by the Afsluitdijk, the view from Groningen’s Martinitoren, Bremen’s main square as well as the Böttcherstraße (proof that we can choose to make all of our public space exceptional and unique if we want, no ifs ands or buts), and by the World Triathlon Championships we got to watch today in Hamburg.  Australia took it in a sprint finish.
*Got stung by a bee… in the armpit. Little jerk got through my jacket and my shirt.
*Finally put my helmet on on day 9 of the tour, when the HH/HB to Hamburg took us over some rough cobblestone descents and single track in the rain.  Felt bad about, it was starting to become a whole thing and I was imagining being able to say “yup, carried my helmet with me through three countries and never felt like I needed to put it on.”  Alas, Germany wouldn’t let me get away with it.  The harrowing last few kms into Hamburg would have made the difference if the cobblestones had not.