Seeing Red

Denmark gets a lot of real estate in the media for the cycling thing, Copenhagen especially. And they always seem to use that same photo that shows row after row of bicycles lined up outside the main station. Actually, there are even more bikes on the opposite site of the station but most visitors aren’t aware of that unless they are looking for a cheap hotel (does this mean that journalists from the rags such as the New York Times and the Guardian only stay at the more upmarket ones?) Alternatively, maybe they didn’t take a snap back there since it smells really bad around the back, because, after sinking a few jars, locals will nip around there in the evening to relieve themselves before jumping on the train. That’s what happens when you charge 5 kroner to gain access to the genuine article.

There is no doubt there is a major cycling presence in Copenhagen, aided by the presence of cycling lanes on all the main roads in the city. These are physically separated from the pedestrians and cars, usually by a few centimetres in the vertical axis. However, what the article doesn’t point out is that a majority of the cycling is over short distances. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, but I came to the country expecting a cycle mad nation that uses their bikes to get everywhere. I think cycling aware would be more accurate. What generally happens is people will ride their bike to the nearest train station or bus stop. If they are taking the train, sometimes they will put the bike on board. Usually they park the bike and use public transportation to get them within walking distance of their destination. Like any other country, there is some kind of inverse relationship between commuting distance and fraction of population willing to ride. It’s just that in Denmark  it’s easier to put take your bike on the train (there are entire carriages dedicated to them) and they have more bike racks per capita than, for example, the UK.

In Copenhagen, cyclists obey the traffic lights. Coming from China, i found that quite strange at first, when I first arrived, no one obeyed traffic lights. It was only the arrival of CCTV that gave the government a way to bring things under control. Aside from fines, they also attempted to rein in miscreant motorists by publishing their CCTV images as they blew through a red light. I lived there long enough to sort of understand the shame thing, but I never really grasped it in relationship to running a red light, it seemed you could always bow a couple of times and claim the sun was in your eyes or you sneezed at an inopportune moment. Of course, sometimes an image of a senior party official would be published with a woman in the front seat who was young enough to be his granddaugther but who was quite something else. I imagine those situations tended to be a little more tricky to weasle out of.

Since bicycles are at the bottom of the pecking order, I continued to adopt a fairly relaxed attitude to traffic lights. Large roads with fast moving traffic commanded respect, but otherwise on a good evening I could roll through a complete sets of 8 lights as I freewheeled downhill on my way home in the evening. My passage through each red light would be announced by a brief light show as an array of flash bulbs were set off to record my crime. They must have captured close to a hundred shots of me every night. But i never made front page news.

But getting back to Denmark, if you read the cycling in Denmark article, you’ve probably also read the one about Denmark being the happiest country on the planet. Copenhageners are apparently brimming over with joy if we are to believe the stats. Perhaps that’s why they exhibit  such restraint when faced with a spot of red. Michael Rassmussen may have doped and lied about his whereabouts during the 2008 tour de France, but i get the impression he would never haved considered jumping a light when he was back home to visit his mum and dad . Bjarne Riis, I’m not so sure about.

Given such happiness and restraint, it makes it all the more striking to witness the aggressive, semi-suicidal riding style of the average rider in Copenhagen. I’ve raced in fast moving peletons in pouring rain that exhibited more restraint that the average Copenhagener riding in similar conditions. In the peloton it was hairy but at least you had some confidence knowing that your fellow riders were aware of the potential dangers. In Copenhagen, there appears to be a blissful ignorance of the possible risks associated with squeezing past another cyclist on a rain slicked path just wide enough for two hybrid bicycles if the handlebars are touching. Add to the mix the sharply edge stone kerbs separating bike and pedestrian on one side, fast moving traffic passing on the other and a high density of riders and it’s only a matter of time before something happens.

Riders are also happy to ride along with several bags shopping dangling from both handlebars. Younger people prefer to take it a step further, and throw in a set of headphones and a cigarette for good measure. Another popular pastime is texting while riding, preferably with both hands to improve words per minute, something that appears to be common to all age groups. I even witnessed one hip gent waiting at a light on a dull weekday afternoon with shopping on the handlebars, texting with one hand and a cigarette in the other. And he was wearing sunglasses and sandles.

A colleague at work showed up one morning looking like he been for a night out in Norwich. Apparently he had nipped round the corner on the bike to get some milk, his attention had lapsed, he clipped the kerb and down he went. He wasn’t wearing a helmet but it probably wouldn’t have helped since he hit the kerb with his cheekbone. By the time he got stitches and arrived home several hours later he realised the milk was laying somewhere on the bike path and the shops were all closed.


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One Response to “Seeing Red”

  1. janh1 Says:

    Jumping red traffic lights is bad for three reasons:

    1 – your nearest and dearest can’t claim your insurance if you get fatally flattened
    2 – if anyone else is injured they’re gonna sue your ass, successfully
    3 – you look a bit of a tit and give drivers – who increasingly jump red lights in the UK – good reason for whinging about irresponsible cyclists

    However, exceeding the speed limit on a bike is due cause for celebration 😉

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