I’ve spent the past 10 days in Berlin, ostensibly for a half marathon and an IT/politics conference… but as I’m sure anyone who reads this blog can tell, my mind works in strange ways and makes odd connections. So here’s a blog entry about German cycle culture.

In London I’m a determined cyclist, determined being the most important word – for it feels tough. Cycling in London has improved a lot over the years, but it feels like it needs considerable commitment. Lots of cyclists don’t cycle in their regular business clothes but instead keep spare clothes where they work, and shower upon arrival. Cyclists are in amongst the traffic and – even with the advent of cycle superhighways – it’s not something that just fits easily into life.

That’s the opposite of Berlin cycle culture. Walk out of the office, hop on a bike, into the relatively sparse traffic (or on pavements, but that’s not something I want to copy!) Few wear helmets, few wear yellow jackets and – importantly – the bikes themselves are different. Well designed city bikes with mudguards and hub dynamos. Luggage racks at the back equipped with sensible and yet smart panniers, OK to walk into a business meeting. Kids in seats on the back or in trailers.

In short German cycle culture is about efficient integration of the bike into your everyday life. It’s not as laid back as a Gazelle, or not as focussed on style as Copenhagen Cycle Chic or Bobbin Cycles. It’s epitome – in design terms – is VSF Fahrradmanufaktur.

London has a couple of dedicated Dutch cycle shops, but no dedicated German cycle shop as far as I can tell. About time to work out a way to open one? A shop that also has a decent website and good promotion via social media would be a handy addition as well.

14 Comments

  1. Brian Wilde

    where can i buy spares for my german cycles? got two kettler and need new front dynamo light

  2. Nigelrojo

    Jon, I couldn’t agree more about the contrast between British and German (more accurately, continental) cycling cultures. I have a VSF Fahrradmanufaktur TX-1000. I use it both for summer tours in Europe, and also for riding around town in the UK. It is vastly more practical than your average road or mountain bike, and on the roads as quick as a MTB. The Brits still seem to treat cycling as some sort of physical challenge, and not what it should be; ie practical, environmentally friendly transport. On all of my 1000+ km-long European tours, the worst and most stressful part was the 3-mile cycle across London. I think that we will not have a true cycling culture in the UK until we invest in much, much more cycling infrastructure. This must include segregated cycle lanes wherever possible, designated cycle lanes on ALL major routes, some cycle super-highways where possible (the Dutch ones are brilliant) and shared spaces in city/town centres which cyclists can use.

    Oddly enough the British attitude to cycling is paralleled in motorcycling (I am a keen motorcyclist as well). The Brits are very fond of fast, powerful (and generally really uncomfortable & impractical) sports bikes. IMHO, better to buy a bike like the BMW GS, which is not only very practical for doing the shopping etc, but could also take you around the world in comfort.

    I also noticed this summer that electric bikes are becoming very popular in Germany. I think this is the next stage in the development of a desirable cycling culture. Maybe we Brits will cotton on in about 30 years’ time…

  3. Nick Smithson

    I agree with the sentiments about “Cycling Culture”. German people have taken a proactive approach to cycling. In London, it is curiousy aggressive !

  4. Alice Jones

    Would you say the difference is in how cycling is seen – in the UK as a sport (hence the need for special jackets and showering after) whilst in Germany as a mode of transport? I wonder what it would take for the business culture in the UK to become more like Germany’s when it comes to cycling?
    Also, any evidence on the male-to-female ratio of cyclists in the UK? I think in Germany cycling is common for women as well as men, but in the UK I’m not so sure…

  5. Chris Lloyd

    If you want to see and ride the VSF Fahrrad bikes then try Chris’s Bikes in Cambridge. http://www.chrisbikes.co.uk
    These bikes are what he sells and his shop is full of them……from basic 8 speed models to 11 speed alfine and rohloff models plus of course the derailleur geared options. For the widest range of hub geared bikes available visit this shop.

  6. Bikefix in London is a VSF Fahrradmanufaktur dealer.

  7. matt michaud

    I find these comments all very interesting. A couple of years ago i set myself a goal to try to make cycling more accessible for City professionals. I developed a pair of individual panniers that can clip together to form an all-in-one travel back for short business trips. I’d welcome any feedback you might have. http://www.michaudapparel.com

    Thanks,

    Matt

  8. Martin Keegan

    Ah yes: identify a difference between the UK and some continental country, and propose its eradication, preferably undemocratically.

    Until I moved last week, my commute was to cycle from Fulham to Angel. The slog is part of the fun, and panniers, dyanmos and backpacks just get in the way and make you sweat more.

  9. Even after looking at VSF Fahrradmanufaktur, then my favourite bike brand still is Batavus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batavus) and favourite model: Cambridge. (Even if my dynamo did stop working after a matter of weeks…) I have two of them each in a different city. Was told in London when buying (in 2009) the last one that it’s a model developed for the Danish market.

    Even though I’ve always wanted to try one of these Danish bikes: http://www.pedersen-bike.dk/ made in Christiania after a description of the bike, which was invented by the Danish engineer Mikael Pedersen (1855 – 1929).

    Someone has one here in London, spotted it outside the Danish embassy a few weeks ago.

    Also popular in Copenhagen for transport of children are these: http://www.christianiabikes.dk/bornetransport.php but also in recent years these ones have become very popular: http://www.nihola.dk/

    There’s a comparison made by Danish TV in 2007 here: http://www.dr.dk/DR1/Rabatten/Indslag/2007/0911141457.htm

  10. I wouldn’t trust just a back wheel lock if I have a good attractive bike. You risk having your bike lifted from the street and on to a truck or a car, if you don’t also lock it to something.

    A couple of guys in Denmark invented these magnetic dynamos a few years back: http://www.reelight.com/

    They are now on most bikes in Copenhagen. Popular because they don’t use any energy to power them and are on all the time, so you don’t have to remember to switch them on.

    Not quite as good as a powerful hub dynamo (which also almost doesn’t , but a cheap and easy alternative. Also a definite improvement to not having any lights on at all, which seems to be the option favoured by quite a few people in London.

    I have been thinking a few years about exporting to other countries in Europe, so perhaps I could start in a German bike shop in London…(but until then you can buy them on their website)

  11. Re. Reelight – if you have a hub dynamo there’s no need… and a hub dynamo is a more elegant solution. I agree that for retro-fit Reelights are good, and I have seen some people with them in London.

    Batavus – not convinced yet…

    Pedersen – looks fun! I’m also yet to see a Swedish Skeppshult Z-Bike in London

  12. jon heatley

    I have been doing my home visits and travelling to work every day on a VSF Fahrradmanufaktur bicycle with the motto ‘bikes that move’ (tr) on the frame and can vouch for how sensible and practical they are. It amazes me too, just how unpractical are most of the bikes we brits purchase. In germany you rarely see mountain bikes in the streets and most are urban style with a comfortable sit up posture, hub gears and integral lights panniers and lock. this last is so convenient because it can never get lost and the key is locked into it when its not in use so that also does not get lost. the only tiny drawback here in the UK is that the lights are clever and stay on for 5 minutes on stopping (it uses a dynamo) and people always helpfully tell my I have left my lights on. Dr Jonathan Heatley GP

  13. Thanks for the comment!

    I use a French city bike in London just now, with a hub dynamo and ‘standlicht’ at the back, and I too get the same comment “Oh, you left your lights on”. Also try asking for spare dynamo parts at a London bike shop and they look at you like you’re from mars.

    I have an integrated lock too, although I have a regular D-lock as well – I don’t trust that London thieves would know a back wheel lock was actually locked!

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