City Bikes

I’ve never used a Boris bike, but I did sit on one once while it was still locked into position at one of the stations. It looked like it might be fun to ride around the city, but I was in a bit of a hurry and wasn’t sufficiently confident of my navigational skills around Central London, nor the location of the docking station nearest to my destination, so I used the underground. I have similarly eyed up the city bikes in Oslo, but when you live there and already own five bikes it seems fairly redundant to sign up for access to any more. So, I was resigned to the fact that there probably wasn’t a city bike anywhere in my immediate future.

And then I went to Heidelberg for a meeting. Heidelberg has a bike program. What made the difference was I was staying in the city centre, while the meeting was being held at a research park some distance outside the city. There was a shuttle bus being laid on to take us to and from the city centre, but if there is one thing I hate, it is being treated like I was back at school. Also, if a session turns out to be intolerably dull, I want to have the option to escape and find something more exciting to pass the time.

So, the bike seemed the obvious option. I downloaded the app, I registered a form of payment and, no sooner had I checked into hotel and dropped off my bag, I was straight back out the door and in search of the nearest bike station. This wasn’t just the overenthusiastic child in me, but a consequence of me taking a later flight to avoid getting up too early and arriving at my hotel one hour before the meeting was due to kick off.

It wasn’t too far to the bike station, but it was on the other side of a large roundabout and at every crossing there was a light. And at every light there was a group of calm and unhurried Germans who patiently waited for the green man to be displayed. As these lights weren’t subject to any kind of coordination, it took me 10 minutes to get to the opposite side and I was down to 50 minutes.

I still wasn’t too concerned, it was only 5km, and even losing an additional 5 minutes trying to figure out how to use the app and work out which bike I had just released from the docking bay I still felt I had time.

But there were two things I hadn’t accounted for. The first was Google Maps. I don’t expect the app to be perfect – I’m still impressed that I can get something like that for free and I can live with getting sent up a dead end street once in a while. However, this time, within 500m, Google sent me into a graveyard. After circling the graves for several minutes I finally figured it was trying to send me up a flight of stairs and out through a gate that was held shut with a heavy duty chain and padlock. I found an alternative exit through another gate at the top of a narrow but shorter flight of stairs at the other side of the graveyard, carefully manoeuvred the bike through the gap and resumed my journey.


Heidelberg Panzer Cycle

Stairs seemed a key feature of the chosen route. I carried the bike up another short flight that linked a footpath to a small side road, and there was third flight that disappeared out of sight around a distant corner to which I gave the “fuck that” treatment. Undeterred, Google directed me to the next left turn, which appeared to end in someone’s front garden. I finally chose option five which sent me the wrong way up a one way street.

And that was the other problem. It never occurred to me to check the terrain, after all, the centre of Heidelberg is quite flat. But if I’d taken the trouble to investigate, I would have realised that the river on which the city was built is at the bottom of a very steep valley. This really only dawned on me when one way street kicked off with a 10% incline, and it only got worse after that. Moreover, the proclivity of Google to take routes avoiding traffic at all costs meant that when it wasn’t trying to send me up flights of stairs, it was guiding me up footpaths that were even steeper that road that was winding it’s way up the side of the hill. At one point it reached 25% (I took a photo and worked out the incline later). I was passed by a gent on a mountain bike who was zigzagging from side to side to smooth out the incline. It was a valiant effort but he blew up before the top and I crawled back past him after he pulled over to the side of the road with head down on the handlebars.

But Google’s masterstroke was saved for the very end when I was back on the road and was boldly instructed to take a right up into the forest. I stopped to check the map, but there were no other routes in sight. I had two reasons to be suspicious, the first was the path looked more like the route of a river that had dried up over the summer months, the second was the sign saying “no bicycles”. As I pondered over this, the bloke on the 29er came back past albeit at a more reasonable pace and, gradually clicking down through the multitude of gears available slowly disappeared up the trail and around a bend. I decided to give it ago but, as I was already on the lowest of the seven available gears and riding a bike that was designed for city use, I didn’t hold out much hope of success. Sure enough, I managed to get 10m up the trail before spinning out on a large rock in the middle of the former riverbed and pushed the bike up the remaining km until I could see my final destination through a gap in the trees. And the only thing I had to do was to carry the bike up the flight of stairs at the end of the trail.

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Some stairs


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